My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.


12 thoughts on “My problem with pluralism

  1. I don’t know if it is pluralism or what but I personally get angry when someone tries to proselytize me without even asking what I know.

    I came to Christ on my own (though I know my mother pushed to do so by making sure that I went to Sunday School and church every week – that alone didn’t do it but it gave me the information that I needed to make the decisions that I would make).

    And because I came to Christ myself, I don’t really appreciate when someone tells me that was the wrong way.

    Would I seek to evangelize/proselytize individuals of other faiths? The problem in this is two-fold – first, do I have an understanding of what they believe and the outcomes of that belief? If we say that the only way to Heaven is through Christ, we ignore the basic tenets of Judaism and Islam, which give a path to Heaven.

    On the other hand, some one may say they are a follower of something or someone but really say that out of convenience. There are a lot of individuals who say that they are Christian simply because is politically correct but their actions belie what they say they believe.
    Same for other faiths – if you say you are something, then you had better have a plan of action.
    Those are the individuals who need the information that I can give them about Christ and what Christ means. Do I force them to believe what I am telling them? No, simply because Christ Himself told us to just give the information, show the results, and if they don’t buy it, go onto the next town.
    I would expect other faiths and denominations to do that (though it is not always so easy to get them to do so).

    1. Thanks for the response, Tony. My concerns are much more about basic attitudes and assumptions than about tactics or approaches. Of course, people should not do things that are counter-productive to being heard, but I do not understand the message — implicit or explicit — that it is improper to desire that non-believers be invited to become disciples.

  2. John, thanks for expressing your concerns with religious pluralism in our culture today. I agree with all your points but think that your definition of pluralism isn’t properly defined. I am an evangelical conservative who believes in the deity of Christ, the infallibility of Scriptures, the exclusivity of Jesus and the gospel, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, the eternality of Heaven and Hell, and I would argue that pluralism properly defined is a good thing. I think there is widespread confusion today that pluralism equates to religious syncretism. Syncretism is defined as, “the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs, into a new accepted belief system.” Of course this limits the exclusivity of Christianity and is therefore unbiblical. Pluralism, on the other hand, is a cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions, in that dialogue often involves promoting understanding between different religions or beliefs to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesize new beliefs. What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree?

    1. I’m all for dialogue and understanding. My concern is with the often implicit or explicit message that it is wrong to desire that non-believers become disciples. What we do is create sub-categories of non-believers, some of whom it is okay to invite into discipleship and some of whom it is not. But I do not see any reason for drawing those lines.

      If we think Muslims and Jews should not be invited to become disciples, why do we think the pagan down the street should be? His paganism works for him. Or so he thinks.

      1. I agree with you John. Friendship evangelism is a good thing, but whatever happened to just simply sharing the gospel and having someone make a decision for Christ right then and there. There is a pressure today not to be confrontational or to “build a relationship” before you lead someone to Christ. Of course there is wisdom in sharing the gospel, and we don’t want to coerce people into the kingdom of God, but we should be inviting them into discipleship everyday! Thanks again for the article.

  3. If there is no objective truth, then pluralism is the way to go. If there is objective truth, it’s our duty to find it, live it and tell it.

  4. Pluralism (as recently discussed in First Things) may be described as “taking difference seriously.” On this basis, Christian scholars argue that Christian witness should be heard in the public square and not confined to private precincts. The argument, as I understand it, is that Christian witness is just as rational as testimony on behalf of quantum physics or economics or the ancient Hittites. Therefore, go for it.

  5. I commend you for attending afternoon prayers. Sorry you didn’t seem to learn much beyond one negative encounter. I hear you and your frustration with living with faith in a secular nation. I would simply suggest you have missed the best part of pluralism: collaboration to solve problems. We can only work with others to get things done IF we listen and learn by sharing our stories and lives and living better. Interfaith relations is not simply about whose God is bigger and better. If you’re going to preach, fine. But most of the world will not be listening. Too busy with the hard work beyond the words.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Chris. If I somehow implied that I only got one thing from the visit our found the encounter negative, forgive my poor writing. I rather enjoyed being evangelized even if I was not converted. I admire the man whose faith was important enough to him to share it.

  6. Muslims worship another God? Jews have issues with Jesus as well but we don’t say they worship another God.

    1. By other gods, I was thinking first and foremost of all the idols Americans substitute for God. I would say, however, that if we claim to be Trinitarians it is hard to ignore that Jews and Muslims deny that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God.

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