Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 8, 2010

Confronting Pluralism while Maintaining Openness

I have just started reading a collection of essays by David James Duncan titled, God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right. The purpose of these essays is to confront some of the excesses of the fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Duncan’s own experiences growing up in the Seventh Day Adventist church, along with his current frustrations with the way Christianity has been falsely appropriated by American civil religion, inform his essays.

I have a lot of respect for Duncan. His fictional work, The Brothers K, has become one of my all time favorite novels. So when I found this current collection of non-fiction essays I was compelled to read it.

Duncan offers some refreshing insights into the relationship between faith and culture. As someone writing from outside of the Christian bubble, Duncan writes with a radical honesty that is not censored by church politics. Sometimes those outside of the church get what we on the inside overlook. This is certainly the case in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. The pagan Samaritan ends up understanding more about the gospel than the religious elite, when he goes out of his way to care for the man in distress.

However, I am not able to buy completely into Duncan’s theological orientation. As I expected, Duncan appeals to a vague type of pluralism – the idea that all truths are equally valid. For example, he writes, “The world’s major faiths are not identical, but they are alike enough in ultimate aim” (xvii). Duncan critiques the major faiths for holding too tightly to their “One Book,” and “One God,” while excluding others.

I agree with Duncan that we should find areas of agreement between the various faith systems. Commonalities are a great starting point towards dialogue. However, I am not convinced that pluralism is the way forward. Those who appeal to pluralism do so with good intentions I think. Often proposals for a pluralistic view of religion is supported by a concern for tolerance and human unity. However, there is some flawed logic to pluralism that actually works against the formation of human unity.

Lesslie Newbign articulates these concerns well in his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. He argues, “if ultimate reality is such that he, she, or it behaves in mutually incoherent ways, what possible hope is there for human unity?” What Newbigin is saying is that the goals of pluralism ends up collapsing. If we affirm that all worldviews are equally valid then we end up affirming things that contradict each other. This leads us to incoherence rather then commonality. As Newbign says elsewhere, “The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about ‘what is true for me’ is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death.”

While I tend to agree with Newbigin’s critique of pluralism, I do not think we should resort to dogmatism or intolerance. One of the things that Newbigin points out in his book is that Jesus balances his conviction with humility and servanthood. At times Jesus speaks challenging words. He talks about eternal judgment and he claims that his is the only way to salvation (John 3:16-18, 14:6). Yet, he also cares for those outside the religious establishment, creates room for dialogue with unbelievers, and backs up his words with a profound love for people.

As Christ followers, I think we need to find ways to recover this balance. On the one hand we should not give up our pursuit of truth and settle for a vague or incoherent pluralism. Yet we must balance our pursuit of truth with humility, openness towards others, and an authentic love for humanity.


  1. Sometimes discussions about the blog happen on facebook instead of on this blog website, so I thought I would update a couple of thoughts that came from my facebook discussion.

    A friend of mine rightly commented that those who tend toward pluralism are often concerned with finding common ground regarding morality and living. In light of this he suggested that Newbigin’s critique of pluralism is incomplete.

    I think that this is an important point. I am not advocating that we avoid opportunities to find common ground with other religions. I think we need to create room for a plurality of ideas to co-exist. I’m just not convinced that this requires us to argue that we’re all saying the same thing.

    Duncan seems to suggest that there are two options – pluralism and fundamentalism. I think there is a middle ground. We can find common ground with other worldviews, pursue truth with humility and honesty, and still avoid the logical pitfalls of outright religious pluralism.

  2. hmm, The Gate, The Way, is narrow indeed. Pluralism not the way. We can lead by finding common earthly ground with another individual, i.e. we both have 3 kids, or we both play golf, music etc. but our theology better not enter philosophy, that’s a whole another ball of wax!
    Can I borrow the Brothers K.

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