The problem of Christian pluralism

Coming to Duke was a weird experience.

I was coming from a quite conservative Protestant background and, not to mention thinking practiced homosexuality was sin, thought even ordaining women was problematic. Funny thing for me to end up at Duke then – a place where both acts receive varying amounts of approval (and disapproval, to be sure). I knew this would be the case however, and came because I was tired of the standard conservative discussions of the Bible I was privy to, discussions which I thought read Jesus into every passage and made conclusions based on doctrine rather than what was present in the text at hand.

Duke has been a change from that. I appreciate the close reading and thoughtful discussions encouraged here. However, being here has taught me that my former “opponents”, “the liberals”, actually do care about and read the Bible (much to the chagrin of conservatives who would say they do not).

This presented a problem: if the people here are trying to take the Bible seriously, why do they come to so many different conclusions? Is there not “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, to cite Paul? Why is there the plurality of belief and practice?

There are at least two (perhaps a plurality of) perspectives on this question’s answer. One, God somehow inspired the many voices making up the Bible, and loves and guides the various expressions — of diverse peoples, languages, backgrounds, politics, etc. — of the Church (while graciously allowing some errors, explaining discrepancies in doctrine/praxis). Another perspective, there is no god, only clever people trying to patch together a system of belief, which thus explains the inconsistencies within the Bible and within the religion Christianity.

The second perspective appealed more to me after initial consideration though I am currently undecided.

Christians, the plurality within Christianity seems microcosmic of the plurality of world religions – if true, does this complicate claims about the unique truth of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life”? How do you reconcile this plurality with the singularity of truth that you claim?

Non-/Post-Christians, there seems to be a surprising unity within the Bible considering its drawn-out time and myriad places of composition. What case can be made for the Bible’s origins being solely human?

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2 thoughts on “The problem of Christian pluralism

  1. Jimmy

    Well, I’ll try to respond to your question to Christians (although you might be on the verge of being tired of hearing from me).

    The best expression of my views at this point which I have found is in de Lubac’s book Catholicism:

    http://www.amazon.com/Catholicism-Christ-Common-Destiny-Man/dp/0898702038/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389791021&sr=8-1&keywords=de+lubac+catholicism

    If I understand de Lubac rightly, for Christians anything which is truly human also ultimately finds its source in Christ. Included among the truly human are the various expressions of Christianity as well as the rest of the spectrum of human religious experiences and expressions. As a Christian, I don’t feel that those who belong to different denominations or different religions are going to hell, nor do I think that they have no access to Christ, even if they don’t confess Christ by name. I take the following verses as my “manifesto,” so to speak:

    Acts 10:34-35, “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

    Acts 17:22-24, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

    I take it that God accepts all those who sincerely seek the truth, and this includes those who don’t believe in God at all, those who follow the “religions” of modern atheism or agnosticism. But I also believe that the sincere seeking of each of these persons is leading them towards Christ, whether they know it or not and whether they meet him in this life or the next. Hence, Christians still have an obligation to dialogue with other religions and worldviews, under the conviction that Christ fulfills the the implicit trajectory of these religions and worldviews, just as Christ fulfilled the religion of the ancient Israelites. But for me, this gets rid of the pressure of “evangelism.” I’m free to dialogue and seek truth together with others, rather than feeling compelled to convince them that they must believe as I do or risk eternal damnation.

    The problem of “Christian pluralism,” though, is a bit different than the problem of religious pluralism. I’m not Catholic yet, but I’m inclined to think the elevation of scripture to an independent source of authority causes problems in this regard. It’s as if someone decided they were going to be a “sola constitution” American citizen, basing their behavior on their own individual interpretation of the constitution, throwing out the laws and precedents which have subsequently developed to interpret and amplify the constitution (naturally thinking all such “traditions” to be nothing more than corrupt accretions). In a modern state, this simply would not work, and I don’t think it works in the Church either. What ends up happening in the Church is that people congregate around particular sets of interpretations of scripture, which usually have some particular leader or tradition as their emblem, pretending all the while that they have found a group which adheres to “the” right interpretation. Others condescend to associate with a particular group, quietly thinking to themselves, however, that no one else really gets what the whole thing is about (this is the particular vice of those who study theology in graduate school).

    Although I find this legal analogy helpful, I would also add that I don’t think the American legal system quite fits how the Bible works (and perhaps American law has shaped how we imagine the Bible in problematic ways). I think the Bible should be thought of more like English common law than American statutory law. I find the following quotations on common law helpful in thinking about the Bible:

    “Justice Holmes cautioned that ‘the proper derivation of general principals in both common and constitutional law … arise gradually, in the emergence of a consensus from a multitude of particularized prior decisions.’ Justice Cardozo noted the ‘common law does not work from pre-established truths of universal and inflexible validity to conclusions derived from them deductively,’ but ‘[i]ts method is inductive, and it draws its generalizations from particulars'” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_law#The_common_law_evolves_to_meet_changing_social_needs_and_improved_understanding).

    This is how I think about the Bible. Just like common law, I think the Bible is “the emergence of a consensus from a multitude of particularized prior decisions.” The Bible “does not work from pre-established truths of universal and inflexible validity to conclusions derived from them deductively…[i]ts method is inductive, and it draws its generalizations from particulars.” This means there is room for flexibility and change, for adaptation to new circumstances, even though we should be extremely cautious when making such changes given the weight of previous precedent. This also means that when we speak of “inspiration,” we are not thinking of God whispering through an angel into the ear of Jeremiah or Luke or Paul. Instead, we’re thinking of the spirit of God working through the natural processes of a community, which not only involves particular individuals who compose texts, but others who edit and arrange them, others who decide which texts are eventually included in the canon, and others who then interpret them and apply them to later circumstances. If I were to try to formulate a doctrine of inspiration, I would consider it incomplete without including all of these elements, and perhaps others too.

    This means that the doctrine of scripture should ultimately be subsumed under the doctrine of the Church (which in turn has to be informed substantially by our doctrine of the Holy Spirit), just like legal theory must be subsumed under politics. The Church is the precondition for the existence of the Bible, not the other way round. Just like there need to be bodies which have the authority to define what counts as authoritative precedent in politics, there needs to be an interpretive authority structure in the Church. Of course, if this is right, it’s hard to avoid Catholicism, although it might also be possible to make a similar argument in an Orthodox or Anglican context as well.

    So, my answer to Christian pluralism is that it is in part the result of an incoherent way of thinking about how Christianity works in relation to the Bible. In an ideal world, all the diversity of Christian belief and practice would take place within a single framework, established in the Church by precedent, which would have the breadth and complexity to accommodate all of them. This ideal world obviously does not exist, which is the other source of the Christian pluralism we all observe. But I think it is part of the task of theology to work towards making this unifying framework more possible than it is now, and to exercise the virtue of hope in the eschatological realization of the Church in all its fullness.

    Reply
    1. devilatdivschool Post author

      Ha! No, I’m not tired of hearing from you at all! You have had some thoughtful counters/complications to ideas I have posed.

      Responding to your stated position on eschatology, I wonder why bother trying to convince me about Christianity at all? In your view, could we not leave people to their devices and God accept them in the end (laying heavy emphasis on line two of Pope’s “A little learning is a dangerous thing/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”)? Perhaps my apostasy – rejecting the absolute truth of Jesus (though to be sure not denying it either) – puts me in a different, an “iffier”, category: a category of drinking from knowledge but not deeply enough. Whatever the case, you encourage me to check that indeed I am seeking truth and not merely deceiving myself that I am. Hauerwas warns it is one of our most cherished illusions “that we really want to know the truth about ourselves”.

      In the course of responding to your thoughts on why we have Christian pluralism and possible ways of moving forward, I found myself tying my tongue in knots.

      If I find time I might press the purported answer of Catholic Church hierarchy; I’m not convinced hierarchy solves more problems than it creates or that it was ever in fact intended by Jesus (the Didache might suggest not). I also might question the seemingly irreconcilable diversities calling themselves “Catholic” (Roman Catholics vs. independent Catholics vs. Liberal Catholics, etc.).

      I must confess I am inclined to think not that “no one else really gets what the whole thing is about” but that no one at all really gets, or can get, what the whole thing is about. Hence — and because of — my skepticism.

      But for now let me say you have some good points: your summary paragraph captures your nuanced position nicely.

      Thanks.

      Reply

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