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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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I agree with McLaren’s assertion that truth is not objective or absolute. He is what many call a relativist. I don’t have the impression that he holds that all paths lead to the same God. That would be an unlikely assertion for someone who believes truth is not objective. I don’t think he advocates universalism, because that would be incompatible with the expression that truth is not objective.

    I agree with McLaren that one need not believe truth is objective to be religious, even Christian. At the same time, it certainly changes one’s Christianity. I think that regarding truth as nonobjective strains evangelical theology because of the centrality of scripture and Jesus to evangelicalism, even the centrality of the belief that God is a being.

    Ultimately, the modern or postmodern the expression that truth is not objective comes from holding a naturalist perspective, such as that held by Darwin. When one combines naturalism and theology, as I do, it is more likely to work itself out as pantheism than as any form of evangelicalism. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to be evangelical in piety while holding in one’s mind that truth is not objective. Piety is pragmatic. For that reason, I don’t think having a naturalist or postmodern perspective in itself causes conflict in evangelicalism, even among conservatives. I think McLaren gets in trouble mainly because he pokes his finger in the eyes of conservatives within evangelicalism, which is the world in which he moves. This scrappiness is not representative of postmodernism. One does not see it, for example, in the kind-hearted pragmatism of Richard Rorty.

    November 28, 2011
    • Which assertion(s) of McLaren’s are you referring to?

      November 28, 2011
      • Ken #

        I don’t understand your question. Not sure how to answer.

        November 28, 2011
      • I agree with McLaren’s assertion that truth is not objective or absolute.

        I just wasn’t sure which of his works you were referring to here.

        November 29, 2011
  2. Ken #

    I see. I did not mean to refer to any particular work. I inferred that this is what you or your group had in mind from the questions that your group has been discussing and from Gil’s discussion of pluralism.

    Let me rephrase the first sentence in my comment. Like McLaren, I use expressions that say or imply that truth is not objective or absolute.

    My sense is that your way is that of a critical realist, where McLaren’s way, and mine, is not. My sense is that McLaren, like me, works with a different paradigm, something closer to that of Rorty or Lyotard. At the same time, I think that McLaren is somewhat vague in his writing, perhaps, in part, to diffuse theological conflict among his followers over things he considers not as important to him as politics. I don’t think he seeks to win support for a postmodern paradigm that doubts the ultimate objectivity of truth. He seeks, instead, as Tony Campolo does, for example, to redirect the politics of evangelicals from right to left, or to provide apologetics for those who have already made that move.

    November 29, 2011
    • Yes, I suppose I would fall into the “critical realist” camp. I’m not sure how I would characterize McLaren—his writing can, as you say, be vague, at times. I think that assertions that there is no such thing as objective truth run into coherence issues (the familiar, “do you think that the statement ‘there is no objective truth’ is objectively true?”). As Gil points out in the post, the view that truth is relative is itself a totalizing view of the world, just like the ones that it often seeks to discredit.

      November 29, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: “I think that assertions that there is no such thing as objective truth run into coherence issues (the familiar, “do you think that the statement ‘there is no objective truth’ is objectively true?”).”

      Yes, they do. I think postmodern writers typically try to avoid such expressions, other than to acknowledge the break they are trying to make with traditional philosophical ideas. They avoid such expressions to avoid speaking from a position that they don’t hold. Rorty writes about this problem in a 1996 essay. It is the introductory essay in his collection, “Philosophy and Social Hope.” The essay is titled, “Relativism: Finding and Making.”

      As Rorty describes the problem in that essay, “Pragmatists hope to break with the picture, which in Wittgenstein’s words, “holds us captive” – the Cartesian-Lockean picture of a mind seeking to get in touch with a reality outside itself. So they start with a Darwinian account of human beings as animals doing their best to cope with the environment – doing their best to develop tools which will enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain. Words are among the tools which these clever animals have developed.”

      It is a beautiful, sensitive essay, in a beautiful, sensitive book. It is Darwinian, and naturalist.

      Faith and hope and love can yet be found in a Darwinian, naturalist account of things. I think it is best to let the postmodern’s off the hook, so to speak.

      November 29, 2011
      • I’ve not read the essay you speak of, although it sounds fascinating. It seems to me, though, that no one is immune from the “problem” of minds seeking to get in touch with a reality outside of themselves. This task is inevitable, and irreducibly human. Much as we might prefer to recast ourselves as organisms adapting to our environment and nothing more, we seem unable to resist the temptation (imperative?) to seek what is true. Even if we prefer the Darwinian narrative, we are recasting ourselves in this story because we believe it to be the one that describes the world as it really is (a conclusion about a reality outside ourselves that our minds have led us to).

        As Gil says above, “the stubborn question of what is actually the case about reality will not go away.”

        November 29, 2011
      • Ken #

        I don’t know. I think it goes away. But until it does, it is unthinkable that it would.

        November 29, 2011
      • Or, perhaps the question remains, but we just get more inventive in our attempts to ignore/reframe/downplay it.

        November 29, 2011
  3. Tyler #

    “I’ve not read the essay you speak of, although it sounds fascinating. It seems to me, though, that no one is immune from the “problem” of minds seeking to get in touch with a reality outside of themselves.”

    Unless it not viewed as a problem. It just is. I’d tend to agree with Sartre that we are essentially nothing and we seek being outside because we have to. It is what gives us our freedom. Therefore, this problem, is the foundation of freedom.

    December 3, 2011
    • I don’t consider it a “problem” either (hence the quotation marks). I only referred to it in that way in response to Ken’s reference to Rorty.

      I’m not sure how Sartre helps, though. “Because we have to” will seem unsatisfying to many (myself among them). And If positing a mind-independent objective reality is just a necessary component of freedom, then the next question becomes, “why might freedom require that?”

      December 3, 2011
      • Ken #

        The problem to which I meant to refer, the one Rorty disusses, was not this, but the implicit contradiction in the statement that truth is not objective.

        December 3, 2011

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