Christianity and Pluralism (2): Coercion and Corruption of the Christian Message

Yesterday, I suggested that while a pluralistic attitude toward religion (i.e. saying that all religions are equally in the dark about ultimate things) is admirably humble, it is also deeply flawed. It turns out that while the pluralist says, “No single religion or worldview can get to the whole truth. So we should all just reject authoritative dogma and accept each others’ positions,” they are, at the same time, contradicting all those religions (like Christianity, Islam, various forms of Buddhism, etc.) that do make claims to ultimate truth. In fact, what the pluralist is doing is exactly what they tell others not to do–they are saying that their worldview encompasses and explains all other worldviews.

So why make this mistake? Why pretend to be inclusive and intellectually humble when we are actually exalting our worldview above all of the world’s great religions?

It seems that one very valid reason is fear. People who claim to know the truth about ultimate things have been abusing that claim for their own benefit since time began. We saw it in the Crusades (for which Christians still have to apologize). We saw it in Stalin’s Russia. We see it in fear-mongering and name-calling American politics today. To many of us, it seems that “Truth” is tangled up in “Power” and we don’t want any part of it. Contemporary pluralists think Nietzsche was right after all: religion (especially Christianity) is just a way to conquer people through ideology. It is absolutely right that they want no part of that.

Lesslie Newbigin‘s first response to the pluralistic culture is simply to pay attention to that fact. He says:

“Part of the reason for the rejection of dogma [Truth] is that it has for so long been entangled with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom–freedom of thought and of conscience” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 10).

But he doesn’t stop there. Christians, above everyone else, should be ashamed of using these kinds of tactics. Why? Because the Christian message rejects these power-driven strategies, and because the good news we have to share can only be accepted in freedom.

“When coercion of any kind is used in the interests of the Christian message, the message itself is corrupted. The truth is that it is the dogma rightly understood, namely the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, which alone can establish and sustain freedom of thought and of conscience. We must affirm the gospel [the good news of the Christian message] as truth, universal truth, truth for all peoples and for all times, the truth which creates the possibility of freedom; but we negate the gospel if we deny the freedom in which alone it can be truly believed” (GPS, 10)

In other words, a forced conversion is no conversion. Why? Because the good news of the Christian message is that God has given you unspeakable freedom in Christ, if you will accept it.

But what does Newbigin mean when he says that the gospel is the truth “which creates the possibility of freedom.” Remember Nietzsche? He said that Christianity’s claim to Truth is all about power, that Christians use it to stifle people and enslave them to their system, and he’s probably right….if the God of the Christians doesn’t exist. But if he does, and if he has offered us freedom from guilt, shame, hatred, and the dark side of our souls in Jesus Christ, then Christianity is about a power of a different kind. It’s about the powerful exercising their strength on behalf of the weak, just like Jesus, the Son of God:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)

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2 Responses to Christianity and Pluralism (2): Coercion and Corruption of the Christian Message

  1. Michael Leugs says:

    Interesting post! But you took a mis-step when you said that pluralists are “contradicting all those religions that do make claims to ultimate truth” and “exalting our worldview above all of the world’s great religions”.

    Firstly, this argument poses a dilemma: that a pluralist must ether affirm or contradict every religion. Dilemmas break down when a third option is identified, like in this case, exhibiting tolerance, assuming a transcendant or mystical position, or simply not caring. (I personally prefer the mystical approach, which assumes that actual religious Truths are sublime, aka easy to miss.)

    Secondly, while it sounds terrifically arrogant to “exalt our worldview above all of the world’s religions”, it is really much less arrogant to “exalt our worldview above all the world’s religions EXCEPT ONE”? A pluralist would observe that all faith systems over-reach at some point in their theology. None adhere solely and truly to “fundamentals” that can be proven as true for all people, coming from all perspectives, in all times and places. To assume that a single religion (one’s own dogma) is correct on all points, for all people, and that all competing religions are wrong on all points of conflict — that position would seem more arrogant than stating that transcendent truths are simply unknowable, or too subtle to codify.

    • kbrooksy says:

      Hi Mike! Thanks so much for taking the time to probe deeper on this topic with me. Although the first post in this series deals a bit more directly with your concerns, I recognize that the brief format and personal restrictions I have for the posts leave some feeling like I haven’t done the topic justice. So let me take this opportunity to clarify and expand.

      I would like to take your second argument first. I want to be clear that when I use words like “exalt” in this case I use them ironically. In other words, I am trying show how they attach to pluralism in the same way that pluralists often attach them to other religions. In reality, I don’t think pluralism is arrogant at all. Neither do I think Christianity is arrogant, or Islam, or Judaism, or Sikhism, etc. I think that each of these aforementioned systems (including pluralism) make claims about metaphysical realities, anthropological realities, and epistemological realities that are not empirically verifiable, not provable, and not demonstrable beyond a shadow of a doubt. That, in my opinion, is not because all these people are power mongering, intellectually unsophisticated jerks (no doubt some are). Rather, it has to do with something much more deeply built into the human cognitive structure and the nature of reality.

      This leads me back to your first point, which is actually multiple distinct points, as I see it.

      First, I don’t think that the pluralist (or any other person for that matter) is in the dilemma you describe as a genuine dilemma. (When I talk about ‘accepting everyone elses’ positions,’ I am not writing in my own voice.) I don’t accept the dilemma because, for one thing, I think the first option is impossible. One cannot rationally affirm every religion when every single religion has a myriad of competing truth claims with all the others (that’s, in part, what makes them distinct). For example, religiously Jewish folks might say that Jesus was, at best, a really good prophet who did miracles. Many Muslims would agree with that description, and absolutely no more. Christians think he is God’s own Son, the second member of the Trinity, and King of the Universe. I cannot hold the Christian view and affirm no more than the Jewish/Muslim view (and vice versa). If I try really hard to affirm both views, what I am really doing is not giving my assent to them, but just saying that is really nice for those people that they believe that. In other words, this type of “affirmation” is not the same type at all as the Christian gives to her views. Her affirmation includes more than a positive feeling about the people who hold those views. It includes intellectual assent to the beliefs in question. And such genuine assent rules out assent to mutually contradictory claims. It turns out (I think) that ‘tolerance’ is more like this positive feeling toward people from other faith traditions (a feeling I personally have because of my faith).

      The option of not caring is also more of an attitude or disposition than an intellectual position or belief system. “Okay,” someone says,”then let’s talk about agnosticism instead of not caring.” That it turns out, is a whole lot like certain versions of pluralism that actually DO make claims about metaphysical, anthropological, and epistemological reality. Namely, the universe and humans and their cognitive structures are such that humans cannot know anything (or much of anything) about ultimate reality. Well, that’s certainly a claim one can give intellectual assent to, but then it can also be debated. It is not self-evident. In fact, I believe at the end of the day it is epistemologically self-stultifying (Although I can’t work that all out in this context).

      A claim like “religious Truths are sublime, aka easy to miss” sounds at least like a metaphysical and epistemological claim. And that claim (or at least what I think that claim means) is not as self-evident as it might seem to some. Typically, people who are philosophically versed root it in the metaphysics of Immanuel Kant and his view of the difference between the noumena and phenomena. Others have accepted Kant’s worldview without knowing it. In either case, the first two chapters of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief should be interesting and helpful. Unfortunately, my talent in this area is far too meager to deconstruct Kant in a comment reply.

      I’m assuming that you’re putting forward the mystical approach as neither affirming nor contradicting other major religions. I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say “a transcendent or mystical position,” but I’m guessing it is similar to John Hick’s view of a God with only formal and negative properties. If that’s the case, Plantinga’s second chapter should be exceptionally helpful. All I can say here is that, by way of one example, the Christian faith has as an essential part of its belief system a God is more than simply transcendent and mystical. He is a person with traits who can reveal himself to human beings in a way that human beings can understand. Whatever is, in fact, the case, such a mystical view would be a tenet of that kind of pluralism that undercuts core tenets that are essential to the Christian faith. I wholeheartedly agree that such is not an affirmation of Christianity (or the other major Western religions that hold this view), but if it’s not a contradiction of Christianity it would be exceedingly difficult to see what could actually constitute a contradiction of Christianity.

      Finally, to give you a preview of coming attractions, one of Newbigin’s points that I will address later in the week is that Christians cannot pretend to know everything or have it altogether. Indeed, that’s a very traditional Christian perspective. However, the reason for the intellectual humility is not a methodological skepticism about the deliverances of the faith. Instead it is the core belief that God in his very nature is incomprehensible to human minds. That is, we can’t wrap our minds around him. However, just because we can’t comprehend (know him fully) him does not mean we can’t apprehend him (know him somewhat). And Christians believe that we only apprehend as much of God as he has revealed to us of himself in his Word and his world.

      I’m fully aware that with such a long reply I should have done much better in responding to you. Please forgive me for what I neglected to discuss. And truly, thanks again for stimulating conversation.

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