The Church's Mission in a Pluralistic Society
Is there anything new under the sun? In one sense, no, human nature is the same as it has been since the Fall and human behaviour follows the same well-worn paths of sinful conduct both in the individual and social realms. Patterns of history tend to repeat themselves.
But in another sense, yes, new things are constantly appearing. As well as the amazing scientific discoveries and inventions of the last 150 years, the world of thought and philosophy has changed dramatically in recent years. After almost 300 years of post-Enlightenment modernism and its belief in the capacity of human reason to provide an overarching explanation for everything and to solve all problems, what has come to be known as postmodernism is gaining the upper hand. This way of thinking, which began in academic circles, is rapidly spreading not only through higher education but also through the popular media. In the same way that our forebears responded to and overcame to some extent the effects of the Enlightenment, we today must grapple with postmodernism and learn how to witness to those affected by it.
Another reason why things can never be the same is the fact that we cannot undo history. What this means is that what happened in the past continues to affect us today, and so we are constantly being faced with new situations which have no exact parallels in history. Thus we Christians cannot ignore, for example, the effect of the Crusades on relations with Muslims, the effect of the Holocaust on relations with Jews, the effect of the slave trade on relations between the West and Africa. The revival and continuing vitality and expansion of the ancient major religions and the presence of their adherents in our own society in numbers mean that we must engage with them as never before. The emergence of new systems of belief and life style, such as New Age and various cults, poses another fresh challenge for the church.
The existence of these diverse and often conflicting belief systems in our society highlights the fact that one of the most significant phenomena the church faces today is pluralism. Now it may be argued that there is nothing particularly new about that. Was not the society of the first century of the Christian era a pluralistic one? Has not the church in countries like India had to live and witness in pluralistic societies for a long time? While that is true, what is new is that throughout the Western world philosophical and religious pluralism is becoming the dominant worldview. Christianity is no longer seen as the natural background belief on which our society bases its moral and ethical standards. Christendom no longer exists.
What I propose to do is, first of all, to define pluralism and look at its roots, then to offer some criticisms of it and finally to suggest how the church might fulfil her mission in this situation. I acknowledge my debt to the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, Don Carson, Alister McGrath and others for their helpful insights.
The word pluralism is used in several senses. First of all it refers simply to the fact that there exists a plurality of cultures, religions, ethnic groups and life styles in our society. This may be termed factual or empirical pluralism and makes no judgement as to whether this state of affairs is good or bad. It simply describes a reality which we have to accept.
Essential to the existence of this pluralism is religious toleration. Where there is no toleration, as in certain Muslim countries, there can be no pluralism. Toleration was introduced by Protestant Christians through the Act of Toleration of 1689 in England. They believed that the truth of the Bible was sufficient to defend Protestant Christianity from other belief systems, which were by definition erroneous. In the following century the First Amendment of the Constitution of the USA guaranteed freedom of religion as a fundamental human right, without establishing any one denomination. This was based on the transcendent truth of man's nature as created by God. Now the basis for toleration is exactly the opposite — the conviction that there is no such thing as absolute truth. All is relative and thus each belief system is valid for its adherents.
Many Christians have not fully come to terms with this change. They persist in thinking that we still live in a basically Christian country, and are shocked when they see and hear evidence to the contrary. Some try to ignore what is going on and attempt to retreat into the comfort of a Christian ghetto. Others protest strongly against what they see as a betrayal of our Christian heritage, yet without understanding the enormity of the problem and without communicating meaningfully with those they seek to influence.
The second use of the term is to refer to what Don Carson calls "cherished pluralism". This celebrates the reality of empirical pluralism for the reason that it increases choice for the individual and reinforces the basic human right to believe what one chooses. Cherishing and encouraging this kind of pluralism is seen as leading to more tolerance and less conflict between differing groups. What this outlook does not tolerate is a claim to have universal truth. All elements in the mix of cultures and religious beliefs are equally valid for their adherents, but none can claim to have absolute truth which demands the assent of all. Thus attempts at proselytising and conversion are frowned on. While this may prevent some minorities from feeling threatened, it definitely discriminates against groups such as evangelical Christians who believe, on the basis of their Holy Scriptures, that they have a message for the whole world.
Thirdly we look at philosophical pluralism. This is by far the most serious development as it claims to provide a sound theoretical basis for cultural and religious pluralism. This term covers a variety of views, but they are united by their denial that any particular religious or ideological view is superior to others, or can claim to be absolute truth. The philosophical basis for this has become known as postmodernism and it is worthwhile trying to understand this movement.
Modernism was characterised by the rationalistic worldview that followed the Enlightenment with its belief that there is such a thing as objective truth and the human mind can discover it and also provide a morality by which to live. This view was very successful in science and technology, but squeezed God out of the picture. There was a dichotomy between the world of facts and values. The world of facts was amenable to scientific investigation and verification in the public realm, while the world of values was relegated to the private and individual realm and could not be verified.
While this worldview delivered much in the way of technological advance, it also led to the horrors of twentieth-century war and the atrocities of the totalitarian systems of Nazism and Communism. Despite the benefits it brought through modern science and technology in living conditions, medicine, travel, communication and leisure, modernism has been discovered to be dehumanising and alienating. The modernist claim that the human mind could discover an overarching explanation for everything (a "metanarrative") came to be seen as arrogant and incapable of being fulfilled.
The postmodernist denies that there can be such a thing as a metanarrative — a "big story" which can give an overarching explanation of the world as we know it. Instead each of us constructs his or her own narrative, or reality. We have been used to thinking in terms of two competing metanarratives: the Christian one, which consists of the revelation of God in the Scriptures and the humanistic, rationalistic one of Science, Evolution and Progress. The Christian metanarrative has been discounted by the world for a long time. But it is only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the humanistic one has been rejected.
How has this come about? Part of the reason was a disillusionment with some of the fruits of science and technology: the horror of the dangers of nuclear power, the ecological crisis, and the abuse of political and military power by tyrants of the right or the left who claimed to have all the answers. Also the discovery of the Theory of Relativity was wrongly assumed to prove that there is no such thing as absolute truth, everything is relative. This led to an assumption that one belief system is as valid as another. This relativism came to full flower in postmodernism, which has a fixed aversion to claims of absolute truth and insists on relativism as a basic principle. This position is open to the simple objection that, if there are no absolutes, how can the relativist make the absolutist statement that there are no absolutes?
Postmodernism as a term first arose in architecture in the 1970s, but what is most significant for our purposes is the hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, associated with it. Basic to this is a view of language that sees it as whimsical and capricious and incapable of disclosing meaning in itself. Language is a kind of game that we play by certain rules to accomplish a certain function. Language is no longer seen as necessarily relating to realities in the external world. Language consists of signs which have no necessary relationship with the thing signified. What is important is the human signifier — the interpreter. It is impossible to discern the author's intention and meaning from reading a text. The interpreter brings her own meaning to it. All interpretations are equally valid or meaningless (depending on your perspective).
There is no hope of discovering any objective meaning. There is no absolute truth. We construct our own reality, our own values, indeed our own stories or narratives. The postmodernist's view of language seems to be the opposite of Humpty Dumpty's in Alice in Wonderland. He said, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." The postmodernist seems to be saying, "When you use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean". Or at least, "When I read a text, it means just what I choose it to mean." One would think that this interpretive principle would result in the complete breakdown of communication.
Fourthly we look at religious pluralism, which may be seen as a particular expression of the general outlook of pluralism and relativism. In discussing religious pluralism we have to be aware that it is not easy to decide what the category "religion" refers to. It is typical post-Enlightenment thinking to separate religion from culture and relegate it to the realm of private belief and practice. However, some religions such as Hinduism and Islam and the so-called primal religions cannot be divorced from culture. They have a distinct world view and apply it to the whole of life, not just a religious segment of it. The church has all too often fallen in with this superficial view of Christianity as a religion, so that it has allowed Christian faith and practice to be separated from everyday life and from the wider realms of culture such as science, politics, the arts and education. Religions have to be studied and assessed in their totality, not just their outward rites and ceremonies, which seem to be the focus of religious education in schools these days, but also their belief systems and practical outworking in the lives and societies of their adherents.
The aim of rationalistic humanism has been the formation of the secular society. It was widely assumed that religion would wither away in the face of the advance of education and science. Despite our society becoming more and more secularised, the innate human desire for some knowledge and experience of the transcendent has ensured that religion has continued to flourish in various forms alongside a growing interest in the paranormal and the occult. As postmodernism becomes more influential this will only increase. This new interest in what many broadly call "spirituality" opens a window of opportunity for the Church. How sad it is that people do not readily see the Church as a group in which there is a meaningful and genuine spirituality!
The attitude of Christians to other religions has undergone great changes in recent years. Traditionally the view of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches was that there was no salvation outside of Christ and that unless people heard and believed the gospel, they were lost. This position, known as exclusivism, is still the majority view among evangelicals, based as it is on the revelation we have in Scripture. Some however, appealing to the sovereignty and mercy of God, have sought to open the door for the possibility of salvation for some who have never had an opportunity to respond to the gospel.
Others have developed a view known as inclusivism, which holds that sincere followers of other faiths, if they live up to the light they have received, will be saved by Christ whether they consciously believe on him or not. This, of course, is very patronising and will not impress the sincere followers of other religions. A further refinement of this view is to believe that Christ is present in a saving way in these other religions under a different guise from his appearance as Jesus of Nazareth — the cosmic Christ, or Christ principle. This leads on to a type of pluralism, though it still tries to give a central place to Christ.
Pluralists go a step further and say that all religions are equally valid and have their own salvific value. The focus shifts from Christ to God, who makes himself known in different ways, not exclusively in Christ.
Probably the best-known advocate of radical religious pluralism is John Hick. He sees each religion as a valid system which has developed its own myths and symbols, beliefs and practices, liturgies and lifestyles. Each has its own salvific process which results in transformation from self-centredness to reality-centredness. Each can learn from the other religions. Notice that he terms God "The Real", thus denying that God is personal. The only religion Hick is prepared to evaluate critically is evangelical Christianity with its claim to the uniqueness of Christ and salvation only in him. Such a view of religious pluralism does justice to no religious system at all, far less Christianity. It attempts to make radically different belief systems say the same thing. How can professedly atheistic systems really be saying the same thing as Christianity?
Lesslie Newbigin uses the ancient story of a king asking some blind men to examine an elephant and describe is to show the arrogance of the pluralist. The first blind man was led to the elephant's leg and he concluded the elephant was like a pillar. The second was made to feel the elephant's side and he thought it was like a wall. The one who held the tail thought the elephant was like a rope, the one who held the ear thought it was like a fan, the one who held the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who held the tusk thought that the elephant was like a spear. The pluralist uses this as an illustration of different religions groping after God and each having something to contribute to the understanding of God, who is too great to be grasped in totality by any one of them. Newbigin points out that the real lesson of the story is that it is told from the point of view of the king and only he knew the real description of the elephant. The pluralist claims to be in that position and arrogates to himself the right to tell the followers of the various religions what they are really seeking. We must point out to the pluralist that we are all blind beggars and God has graciously revealed himself to us in Christ.
The pluralist claims that each religion can contribute insights not only into the divine, but also into ethical standards. Thus they stress the things that various religions have in common. They end up with the rather trite and patronising view that they are all saying the same thing and support a liberal Western agenda of individual freedom, the preservation of human rights, the emancipation of women, social justice and the elimination of war. This view is extremely naive and fails to come to grips with the reality of the various world religions and how they affect the lives of their adherents. How then are we to respond to the challenge of the pluralistic society in a Biblical way?
The Church's Mission
The Church's mission in a pluralistic society is to fulfil the God-given mandate to witness to his saving acts in Jesus Christ, to make disciples of all nations and teach them to observe all his commandments. This involves not only evangelism but also Christian living and witnessing in the public life of our multi-faith society. I would like, first of all, to make some comments on the church's role in contributing to public debate and then make some suggestions as to how we may evangelise more effectively.
Witness in the Public Domain
Pluralism gives rise to several areas of concern for the church. The first of these is the relationship between church and state and the place of the Christian religion in the life of the nation in the area of legislation on ethical issues. In England, the Church of England enjoys special status as the established church and its bishops sit in the House of Lords. This situation is coming under attack as never before and may change with reform of the House of Lords. It was good to see some Bishops speaking against the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals. The protests from the homosexual lobby were predictable and point up for us the difficulty we will increasingly face in achieving a moral consensus in a pluralistic society.
In Scotland the Church of Scotland had a historic role in the life of the nation. With the establishing of the Scottish Parliament, we again have an opportunity to bring the claims of Christ to bear upon the public life of our nation. It was encouraging to hear the Lord High Commissioner to the 1998 General Assembly state that the Queen is committed to maintaining the historic place of Presbyterianism in Scotland. With our understanding of the Establishment principle, it is incumbent on us to work out practical ways of applying this in a new pluralistic situation. It will be of no avail simply to repeat our position in time-honoured formulae which are incomprehensible to those we seek to influence. Nor should we appear to be merely a pressure group intent on protecting our own privileges. We should show that we have the benefit of the whole nation at heart.
Many evangelicals, especially those of a non-conformist and independent background, openly reject any connection between church and state. They regard any special status for the church as Constantinianism, which, they allege, did great harm to the church. In the USA, of course, with its constitutional separation of church and state, evangelicals fully endorse this separation. However many have realised that we have a duty to influence the life of our nations, especially when the old vaguely Christian consensus on moral issues is fast breaking down.
Some, such as Os Guinness, a fierce critic of philosophical and religious pluralism, have worked out a position known as principled pluralism or chartered pluralism. Briefly, this holds that we should argue for a social compact incorporating
the right to believe and practise any religion or none,
the responsibility to guard this right for everyone, especially those with whom we disagree, and
respect for everyone, again especially for those with whom we disagree.
This is based theologically on human beings as God's image bearers and God's long-suffering and common grace, allowing sinners to persist in rebellion without immediately bringing in the inevitable final judgement, while allowing them to enjoy the benefits which come from his goodness. This will require civility, principled participation and principled persuasion.
Is this a valid position? It appears to be acceptable, provided we insist on the absolute truth claims of Christianity. The problem with this in a post-modern world is that we are immediately accused of intolerance and it is not easy to get a consensus as to the principles by which such public debate can be carried on. Despite our belief that Christian values are the only true guarantee of freedom and tolerance, postmodernism will not allow any claim to absolute truth. This is the great weakness of postmodernism, because it insists that all views, however bizarre or potentially harmful, are legitimate and should not be criticised. This would lead to the complete breakdown of public debate and paralyse public policy-making.
What has in fact happened is that various well-organised pressure groups, such as the homosexual lobby, succeed in imposing their views. The result is a rigid application of political correctness, which is really the enemy of free speech and rational debate. We should support the free expression of views, but also insist on the right and the need to judge truth claims according to the Scriptures, as other groups will do according to their standards. In this way, people can be persuaded by the best arguments.
While single-issue campaigns, such as the pro-life movement, have their place, it is important that we should give a lead over a wider area of public policy. If we speak out only on moral issues such as sexuality and the sanctity of life and neglect social care and justice, we can hardly expect to gain a hearing. We should encourage individuals with special interests and expertise to be involved in political parties in order to influence policy. And we should support them in every way possible, rather than criticise them for their failings. We should be prepared to join with others likeminded in grappling with these matters, even though we may not agree on every theological issue.
At the same time, we ought to support those who work in the social sphere to mitigate the effects of the terrible problems in our society, such as drug and alcohol addiction, broken homes and delinquency. We should also bear in mind that, important as God-honouring legislation is, law by itself cannot change the human heart. The gospel and the Christian worldview and ethic that issue from its acceptance is the only power that can bring radical change for the better.
Another area of intense interest to the church is education. While increasing secularisation has meant that Christianity has been squeezed out of the mainstream of education in our schools, pluralism has meant that religious education is now a form of comparative religious study. Any moral element in education, such as in personal and social education (PSE), has to be taught in a non-judgmental and uncommitted way. Thus issues about sexuality, gender roles and the sanctity of life are presented in a purportedly neutral manner and the children, who lack the criteria by which to judge what is right and wrong, are even more confused and pick up their values from their peers and the media. As parents of covenant children we must make our voice heard in these matters.
How can the church, as a minority institution, influence state education or is it time to abandon it as a lost cause and set up Christian schools? We should make full use of all the opportunities we already have, such as through Church representatives on education Committees, parents' representatives on School Boards, school chaplaincies and direct access to our MPs and local councillors. There is a great public debate about education at the present time. There is a greater recognition now of the need for parent involvement in the education of their children.
Parent partnership has become one of the buzz-words. Parents should be encouraged to be more involved in their local schools. They must be given every help in counteracting the effects of the secularist, pluralist agenda of state education on their children. This will require study of all the latest research and policy documents and making some input into the process of policy making. We should encourage more of our young people to become teachers of RE as well as of other subjects.
Much can be said in favour of Christian schools: for instance the opportunity to create a real Christian ethos and discipline, the opportunity for indirect evangelism, as non-Christians realise how good the school is, the opportunity for applying Biblical teaching to all areas of thought and life. The problems are also obvious: the expense, the problem of reaching agreement within any group of Christians, the danger of take-over by extremists with their own particular hobby horses, the taking away of Christian teachers from the state system, to name but a few. I believe the time has not yet come for a complete withdrawal from the state system. It may be that, as Muslims press for their children to receive an Islamic education courtesy of the state, we might have to insist on a parallel, though not separate, opportunity to pass on our culture and values to our children within the state system. At present Muslims run after-school and Saturday classes to teach Islamic culture and the Koran in Arabic. Are our Sunday Schools and home teaching succeeding in imparting to our children a competent knowledge of Scripture and applying it to everyday life?
What is needed most is informed, level-headed debate of all the issues involved, recognising that pluralism will not go away and that we have to think up new strategies of preparing our children for a very different world from the one we grew up in.
For many years it has been obvious that our greatest mission field is on our own doorstep. People who don't go to church can no longer be expected to think or behave in ways influenced by Christianity. Ignorance of the Bible is profound.
What we need is a new strategy of preparing our own members to reach out to others at home, at work and at recreation. While door-to-door visitation is important as a means of reaching the unchurched, it usually does not yield so much fruit as good personal witness to people we know. Because churchgoing is so foreign to most people, we must be prepared to meet with them in other ways and places. Friendship evangelism, hospitality evangelism, evangelistic home Bible studies are just some of the means we should explore. Yet we should always aim at bringing people to church to hear the gospel preached and to partake in worship, an experience foreign to most people nowadays. This will demand that our preaching be relevant in content and language and that our worship be an opportunity for experiencing the holy, awesome, beautiful presence of the living God.
I believe also that dialogue with those of other faiths is vital, in the same way that Paul reasoned with those to whom he preached. Because the concept of dialogue has been hijacked by oecumenicals and pluralists it is looked on with suspicion by evangelicals. I believe this is regrettable and due to a misunderstanding about what acceptable dialogue consists of.
Dialogue on the pluralist model proceeds on the superficial and patronising assumptions that 'we are all saying the same thing' and 'we will all arrive at the same place in the end'. Thus fundamental and distinctive Christian doctrines such as the trinity and the incarnation are jettisoned in an attempt to find common ground with those of other faiths. Dialogue for the pluralist is experience-centred. The tendency is to major on experience and identify points in common, so as to establish a 'core-experience' common to all religions, without having a convincing interpretive framework. This is based on the unverifiable hypothesis that there is in fact such a common core experience of the transcendent, which may be expressed in different ways in different cultures.
True dialogue is entered into with a strong conviction of the truth revealed in Scripture, while at the same time being prepared to listen to others with respect and humility. Thus we can enter into the other's worldview and probe his presuppositions and expose their weaknesses. These weaknesses consist of inconsistencies — either in the failure of the presuppositions to conform to reality or in the failure of the person to be wholly consistent with his presuppositions. Such exposure can lead to a realisation of the internal inconsistencies of his position and prepare for a coming to faith. At the same time for the Christian it can lead to a new understanding of her own faith and a clearer definition and declaration of doctrine.
This is what Alister McGrath terms 'a person centred apologetic'. An apologetic, if it is to be useful at all, must aim at the conversion of the unbeliever, not merely at bolstering the shaky faith of the believer. It must be biblically and intellectually sound, but must also be practised in a spirit of love for people and not in a detached cerebral fashion. It is all too easy to score debating points, but much more difficult to persuade people of the truth. The power of the Biblical narrative must not be underestimated. We have God's promise that his word will not return to him empty but will fulfil his purpose. Despite postmodernism's denial of the possibility of a metanarrative and its insistence on the individual's ability to construct her own reality or narrative, we must persist in showing how the Biblical metanarrative both fits reality and meets our deepest need. We must resist the siren call of the so-called post-evangelical to go with the flow and encourage each seeker to find her own story, her own reality in a quasi-mystical way.
Prominent in all our evangelism must be the person and saving work of Jesus Christ, because it is his narrative which gives meaning to ours. The old, old story still has the power to waken people out of their self-centred relativistic world and to face reality in Christ.
The way we live as Christians is crucial for the witness of the church. If we are no different from people outside the church, what does that say about our Christianity? Time and again Paul reminds those to whom he is writing that their lives must be an expression of the truth he has delivered to them. We have tended to major on the individual aspect of this, but there is a strong Biblical emphasis on the communal aspect of Christian living. The local congregation is crucial to this. Our local congregations ought to be the nurturing family for all our people as well as the welcoming and serving representatives of Christ for our local community.
I have briefly surveyed the effects of pluralism in its various forms and its associated challenges for the church. I have also tried to point to some ways in which the church can rise to these challenges. Over the coming academic session, together with the students, I hope to fill in more detail on the rather broad canvas I have painted. Pluralism is here to stay. It will become ever more intrusive and insistent in its agenda. Unless we respond with deep Christian conviction, courage and compassion, we will be sidelined as an irrelevant and outdated minority.
I was fascinated to see on TV recently a London Bishop commenting on the plans for the Millennium Dome to have a religious section. Originally this was to reflect the plurality of religions in Britain. But the Bishop said that while meeting with representatives of other faiths, they expressed surprise that Christians were so reticent about celebrating the Millennium. They had said to him; "It's your festival to mark 2,000 years of your religion. Go for it!" They expect us to be upfront in the observance of our religion as they are of theirs.
A wishy-washy pluralistic Christianity will gain no respect. But a committed, consistent, caring Church will not only win a hearing for the gospel, but will also be its best apologetic in commending Christ to a lost world.