The Potential of Pluralism

© 2015 Robert Osburn

I not only read World magazine, but I sometimes gift subscriptions to it.  It fearlessly exposes the occasional evangelical impostor and our sometimes-frivolous tendencies to hucksterism (e.g., Mark Driscoll’s attempt to purchase New York Times bestseller status).  Because I read the magazine, several Christian academics suspect of me troglodyte (a sobriquet denoting that I am an antiquated conservative) tendencies. 

On one issue however, I part ways from World---not mildly, but strongly.  The issue is pluralism, and to put my difference as clearly as possible: Columnist Janie Cheaney and World’s founder Joel Belz believe pluralism is an ideology floating under the banner of tolerance, whereas I think that the term more often describes a social reality where religious and philosophical differences can genuinely cohabit and thrive without compromising the passion for truth. (Belz' views on pluralism are mixed, but he seems to focus primarily on pluralism as an ideology).

In her October 2014 article, Cheaney rightly identifies nihilism, the worldview that nothing has meaning and that morality is merely a human construct with no transcendent reference point, in American life as a reason that some have enrolled as Islamic foreign fighters.  I have written likewise.  But, then she makes a semantic leap and blames this nihilism on “pluralism, our highest communal value, (which) requires no one to believe anything that would render anyone else’s beliefs invalid.”

Wrong.  The problem is not pluralism, it’s nihilism.  More than half a century ago, Christian ficitionalist Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Nihilism is the very air we breathe.”  Nihilism is the philosophical problem that we ought to fight, along with its jaded compatriot, relativism.  Let’s not pick a fight with a pluralism that Christian theology bequeathed to a fallen world too prone to fight and too petrified to love.

But, why offer a paean to pluralism?  While the term pluralism may refer to an ideology that eliminates differences in favor of the weak soup of relativism (Cheaney says we have “chased truth from public life”), most of those using the term (e.g., James Skillen, Stephen Monsma, Os Guinness, and Alec Hill) are referring to tolerance for opposing ideas (principled pluralism) or the multiple ways humans organize themselves (social pluralism, which I will leave to another day).   

Christians have three strong reasons to favor principled pluralism.  First, the call to love our neighbors as ourselves obligates us to seek their good, even when they are our enemies.  Seeking their good means that we honor their right to embrace other worldviews, political philosophies, and membership in the campus atheist organization, just as we expect them to honor our right to embrace Jesus over all competitors, to embrace political philosophies that don’t sell well in most faculty lounges, and membership in the local InterVarsity chapter.  Their right to freedom of conscience is an obligation of Christian love even as it is also a natural concomitant of their creation as God’s flawed image-bearers.

Secondly, because we believe in original sin we realize that our judgments about reality may be fallible.  It turns out that other fallible people, including those who embrace rival worldviews, can sometimes help us see things about reality that we would not see by ourselves (just as we can also help them).  In other words, the pluralist gratefully learns from his opponent because he knows that sin’s noetic effects blind him in ways that only an opponent can help him recognize.  In no way does this epistemic humility demand that we water down the truth.

Finally, our Trinitarian theology augurs for pluralist practice.   Troubled by the swarming maelstrom of a diverse humanity, the monist insists that human diversity is a threat to unity, and so withdraws from the messy world of politics into a life of pure meditation with the hope of merging into ultimate Openness, or Brahman. The monist’s foil, of course, is the dualist, whose embrace of diversity immediately raises the threat of anarchy.  The dualist, terrified of the chaos brought on by the diversity he otherwise welcomes, seeks unity through coercion.  This is the route of most dictators, whose tolerance for diversity ends as soon as trouble breaks out.

The Trinitarian, however, embraces unity and diversity simultaneously.  God is both One essence and three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  The pluralist mirrors the Trinitarian shape of reality by recognizing that unity and diversity are not a threat to each other, but that both owe their highest allegiance to the God who made them for eternity.  The great philosophical problem of the one and the many finds its resolution in the Trinity.  Politically, one neither withdraws from politics, as does the monist, nor coerces neighbors, as does the dualist (in case you are wondering, Islamic terrorism fits the dualist mode to a tee); rather, the Trinitarian finds much in common with his neighbor who otherwise holds diverse opinions about reality.   And, if he is an evangelical, he will, of course, tell his neighbor the Good News because he believes every word of it. 

Is this model of principled pluralism easy?  Hardly, for it demands a listening ear, a thinking mind, and an open heart.  But, it has the enormous virtue of being theologically attuned while also cultivating enthusiasm for engaging---as evangelical Christians---neighbors who embrace Mother Earth or Lord Buddha.  It is, in short, the recipe for religious freedom. By contrast, Cheaney generates unnecessary fear when she confuses the genuine evil of nihilism (that fills our education, pop culture, and media) with the bogeyman of an ideological pluralism that fails to appreciate the vitality of the better known principled version.

On theological principle, I embrace principled pluralism, but, in practice, I also believe it offers the most room for Christians to challenge both the radical Islam  that terrifies our world and the oftentimes equally radical secularism that shuts down the marketplace of ideas in our universities.

Now back to my latest issue of World…

 

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