Christianity and Religious Diversity Part 4: The Problem with Pluralism

11 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

In previous posts, we looked at the collision of worldviews following the whole Brit Hume fiasco. Brit Hume embraces the Christian faith and is an exclusivist. His objectors embrace the validity of all religions and are therefore pluralists.

Specifically, prescriptive pluralism argues that pluralism must be embraced by everyone. This is largely the dominant view in today’s present culture.

But how do we intelligently answer the charge of religious pluralism? This post is devoted to an intelligent critique of pluralism, seeking to expose the faulty reasoning associated with this line of thinking.

PLURALISM IS EXCLUSIVE

Pluralists are fond of accusing Christians of arrogantly asserting their views are the only correct one.

But this accusation cuts both ways: are not pluralists saying that their view is the only correct one? Ultimately pluralists are saying that “our view of religious pluralism is superior to all other views of religious pluralism.”

Further, it is often assumed that Christians (or anyone devoted to a specific religious faith) are in some way biased, as if to suggest that pluralists are by nature unbiased.

Remember the elephant analogy? Pluralists argue that religions are like blind men describing the nature of an elephant – one likening its tail to a rope, the other likening its trunk to a snake and the third likening its legs to a tree.

But what is this analogy really saying? In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigin writes:

“In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant…the real point of view of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes the claims of the religions.”

What Newbigin is saying is that the pluralist claim to absolute objectivity is just equally biased and rife with arrogance:

“There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to [others]…We have to ask: ‘What is the [absolute] vantage ground from which you claim to be able to relativize all the absolute claims these different scriptures make?”

Pluralists cannot reasonably claim to have an impartial, unbiased perspective, but rather their statements are couched in the resolute belief that their way is the only way.

PLURALISM IS ETHNOCENTRIC

Another claim, commonly heard in these discussions, is that religious views are culturally based. Alvin Plantinga, a noted philosopher from Notre Dame commented on this when it was suggested to him that his religious views might be quite different had he been born in Morocco:

“Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the puralist….If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that…his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?” (Plantinga, quoted in Tim Keller, The Reason for God)

In other words, pluralism may be just as much a product of culture as any religious belief.

Further, while pluralists argue for the validity of all religious views, one can hardly argue that this view is shared among the rest of the world. Are we therefore suggesting that other cultures adopt our “enlightened” view of religious diversity? Pluralists are not immune to cultural influence, and therefore run the considerable risk of demeaning other cultural views.

PLURALISM DENIES, RATHER THAN AFFIRMS CULTURAL DIVERSITY

One of the central appeals of pluralism is its emphasis on diversity.

In order to view the validity of all religions, pluralists focus on the commonalities between them and minimize the differences.

But if we are forced to actively ignore the beliefs of other religions, are we really embracing diversity? Certainly the omission of basic tenants of other religions is an active denial of cultural diversity for the sole purpose of presenting them on an even keel. George Lindbeck accuses pluralists as attempting to “homogenize” the beliefs of the world’s religions.

Kathryn Tanner of Yale University writes:

“Pluralist generalizations about what all religions have in common conflict with genuine dialogue, in that they prejudge its results. Commonalities, which should be established in and through a process of dialogue, are constructed ahead of time by pluralists to serve as presuppositions of dialogue. Pluralists therefore close themselves to what people of other religions might have to say about their account of these commonalities. Moreover…a pluralist focus on the commonalities slights differences among the religions around the world. The pluralists’ insistence on commonalities as a condition of dialogue shows an unwillingness to recognize the depth and degree of diversity among religions, or the positive importance of them.”

Pluralism cannot simultaneously argue the validity of all religious views and argue the benefits of cultural diversity. One must take seriously the exclusive claims of other faiths in order to appreciate cultural diversity.

PLURALISM LIMITS RATHER THAN PROMOTES FREEDOM

Pluralism seeks to affirm religious views and the freedom of expression. But this reads like the rules at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm. “We affirm religious freedom, as long as you agree with us.

Men like Hume are expected to check their faith at the door when going to work. What’s more, Hume is expected to adopt a pluralistic attitude when at work rather than rocking the boat on national television. What’s so disturbing about this is not that people are denying Hume’s worldview, but imposing their own worldview on him.

This could hardly be construed as an affirmation of religious freedom and tolerance. Pluralism minimizes the freedom of religious expression by presupposing what may and may not be expressed.

PLURALISTS SEEK CONVERTS

Finally, those like Hume are widely castigated for attempting to “proselytize” others and convert them to their faith.

But ironically pluralists are equally guilty. The resounding message found in recent articles and their respective comments is this: “think like us, or else.” In the wake of the Hume scandal, I have seen far more people arguing for pluralism than Christianity.

A PANDEMIC OF CONFORMITY

I am so thoroughly disturbed by the fact that so few see this attitude as a heavy blow to the capacity for reason. Instead we are saddled with the expectation that we must embrace this robotic, soulless way of thinking. The end result is a pandemic of conformity, publicly extolling the virtues of a philisophical system that is anti-reason, limits freedom and can only lead to cultural sterility.

Yet there must be a means of addressing religious pluralism other than dividing ourselves into an adversarial, “us-versus-them” scenario.

The next post (or so) will deal with a Christian response to religious diversity.

11 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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