The Challenge of Pluralism (Gil Dueck)
Over the last few months, one of our adult classes at church has been reading through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. We’ve had some very interesting conversations, a few of which have revolved around the issue of what the Christian approach to pluralism ought to be. Is McLaren endorsing universalism? Relativism? Do all paths somehow lead to the same God? Is he advocating the abandoning of religious particularity in favour of a kind of fuzzy quasi-Christian humanism? These questions and others have animated some lively discussions about how we ought to live and think in our pluralistic context.
They also spurred me to dig out another guest post by Gil Dueck who had this to say about the challenge of pluralism a while back.
A fairly important distinction concerns some of the different ways the word “pluralism” is understood. A significant shift here has been that the word has gone from describing a fact (there are many different options), to expressing a preference (it’s a good thing there are many different options) to prescribing an evaluation (it is wrong to discriminate between different options). The word is currently used primarily with one of the last two meanings in mind.
The basic motivation for advocates of pluralism is avoiding particularism—the uncomfortable idea that “the truth” could be expressed primarily within one particular tradition or one particular way. We don’t like to think that lots of sincere, morally decent and otherwise pleasant people could be at least partially wrong regarding their basic beliefs. So pluralism is put forward as an alternative. For many, it seems better to evacuate all perspectives of their exclusive claims to truth and affirm their therapeutic value instead.
So whatever devout religious adherents think they are doing, what they are really doing is expressing their own partial and limited understanding of an ultimate reality is beyond any one perspective. The problem is that most religious perspectives make real claims about ‘the way things are’ and most seem fairly resistant to paternalistic reminders that those truth claims are simply partial attempts at explaining a reality that is beyond them (a reality that, interestingly, only the pluralist sees).
The irony is that the pluralist has argued that of all the perspectives on the table, the “true believer” is the one who is wrong. I, for example, may happen to think that Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of the character of God but in reality that is just my particular way of approaching things. I am basically wrong about what is going on in the religious realm and my view is clarified in light of what the pluralist argues is really happening. The same could be said for any other religious perspective that claimed to tell the truth about the way things are.
So the circle is complete. The pluralist, motivated by the desire to avoid telling people that they are wrong, has told most people that they are wrong. Motivated by a distaste for totalizing worldviews, he has offered a total view of “the truth” that relativizes all particular perspectives that do not fit within one particular scheme.
All this to say that, while there is a certain attraction to the idea that each religious (or irreligious) perspective is right in its own way, the stubborn question of what is actually the case about reality will not go away. The pluralist perspective, for all its apparent generosity and tolerance, is still offering a vision of what is true and this vision, while it appears to accommodate all others, actually serves to trivialize them to the point of irrelevance.
This is not to say that there is not a needed rebuke here. Christians have long been guilty of an over-confident approach that smugly assumes the corner on truth while remaining ignorant of the social and cultural factors that have influenced their beliefs. So the reminder of the “partial” nature of all human knowledge is a good and necessary one but it does not absolve us of the task of seeking to discover what is actually the case. The fact that our knowledge is incomplete is not evidence the truth is inaccessible.