People of Faith and the Presumption of Pluralism

I’ve been delighted by the amount and quality of the responses from so many people to these blog posts. Frankly, I am quite amazed. I come away from these comments realizing that people want to engage. People want to be thoughtful about their lives and about the shape of the world. People want to influence the culture in which we live, and that requires thinking things through.

And so I say thank you for challenging me, for opening up my blind spots, for filling in the vacant spaces in the things I am trying to think through too. This conversation is helpful. It is encouraging and challenging.

Because of the comments over the weeks, I want to try to clarify some things. I wrote last week about my growing frustrations that the Christian voice is being marginalized more than ever in the secular culture in which we live. I tried to say that I believe there is serious danger ahead if we succeed in silencing the voice of people of faith in the public square. While I want to do so winsomely, effectively, and respectfully, I believe engaging the culture is necessary and right.

In his important work on the dramatic cultural shift from a “background” of belief to a “background” of choice about belief, the philosopher and historian Charles Taylor portrays this as nothing less than “a titanic change in our Western civilization.” The shift has been breathtaking. In his recent book A Secular Age, Taylor notes that we have moved “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” Such a culture is called a pluralist culture.

But “the presumption of unbelief” has “achieved hegemony,” says Taylor, in so many of the influential parts of our society: the university, the world of entertainment, the press, and so many parts of our government. When it comes to talking together about things that really matter, the presumption has grown that people of faith are really not up to the challenge. To make a claim on the truth somehow disqualifies you as an able and willing partner in discourse about the things that matter in the world.

A deeper problem occurs when we begin to regard positions of belief as “a sign of cognitive and moral infirmity,” to use the language of the inimitable intellectual Stanley Fish. And that has surely happened as well.

Is this a good thing? That’s the question I’m trying to ask.

I think it is critical to think through what it means to be a Christian in a genuinely pluralist culture. We live now with a presumption of pluralism. Pluralism assumes there are various points of view on what is true and good and beautiful, and we should all be at the table of discussion and deliberation. We should all be given the chance to aim our society in directions that are good.

For me this is where the Christian perspective has so much to offer. Our faith proposes from the beginning a vision for human flourishing. Our vision for human flourishing is about building new lives and new communities out of broken ones. It is about entering the picture when people are not flourishing. It is about bringing help and hope into the world. Surely the Christian voice should not be silenced and marginalized when the stakes are so high for our world.

The scary question is what our world will be like if we no longer have the voice of people of faith at the table, in the mix. That’s the issue I am trying to get at. That’s what I find myself worrying about. That’s why I think engaging the culture is so important. Well, let’s think this through carefully, because it does matter. Thank you for caring with me and sharing your thoughts.

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Categories: Change, Culture, Faith

5 replies

  1. “We live now with a presumption of pluralism. Pluralism assumes there are various points of view on what is true and good and beautiful, and we should all be at the table of discussion and deliberation. We should all be given the chance to aim our society in directions that are good.”

    This is true, but unfortunately there is another subtle presumption within pluralism in our culture that states “all are welcome, unless you’re Christian, then sit down and keep quiet”. My parents are both teachers and testify that this is the case as they are welcome to incorporate diversity through teaching/singing songs from different faith traditions, unless it has Christ- as a prefix of presumption. Then in the name of separation of church and state, it cannot be done without some parents blowing the whistle.

    So a question is, how do we let our valuable insights come to the table when we are often refused an invitation?

  2. First I would like to state that I agree with the main suggestions in the post. I agree that writing off a religious (or more specifically, Christian) person from true consideration in such culturally important things as government affairs is definitely a mistake. I’ve suggested before that simply because a person holds a specific conviction doesn’t mean that that conviction completely dominates how he or she conducts him or herself in all domains. If someone holds some view that is unintelligible to me I may definitely be left with a consequential impression. However, the entirety of that person’s character or credibility cannot be confined to such a particular aspect. For example, I would not trust my health in the beliefs and practices of a new age medicinalist… but it would be ludicrous to suspect that their judgment couldn’t be trusted on anything else. Painting people with such a wide brush would be supremely ill-fitting. The same sort of social standard must be upheld between secular and religious voices. The idea that positions of belief can somehow be equated with “cognitive and moral infirmity” is indeed disturbing. One should not generalize one part of a person that they don’t agree with to encapsulate all other qualities. In short, I wholeheartedly agree that such an end cannot be permissible.

    Regarding the latter portion of the post, I can agree with the majority; however, I would like to add a short comment. In a pluralist society the Christian perspective definitely does offer plentiful positive priorities such as helping those in need locally, spreading resources to less fortunate regions, and generally safeguarding and progressing the well-being of society. This should be celebrated! Positive actions should not be minimized because of those who perform them in such cases. However, I would like to submit that the strength of this sort of positive voice in the world is only being hurt be identifying it with a Christian body. Even if social justice and prosperity is largely backed by a belief group, I do not see that actively crediting that group as beneficial in the long run. It would be ideal to universalize social activism beyond religious groups (Christian groups, in this discussion) so that the secular citizens making their contribution are indiscernible from the religious citizens making their contribution. All would actively engage the culture in a myriad of ways and no group could boast of a monopoly on positive influence. So, while good acts and those who perform them should and can be celebrated, the fact that they CAN be attributed to specific groups is less call for rapture. On the contrary, these lines between who is doing good and who is not should be rigorously erased.

    This brings me to the following question: What would our world be like if we no longer had the voice of people of faith at the table, in the mix? I (maybe naively) hope that the absence would not remove a vision for flourish, empowering activism, or other good things that faiths may bring to the world. Aren’t ALL people equally capable of and have the same capacity for such things? Such a capacity may not be taken advantage of as often as we would like by the less religious, true, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the same potential or cannot be acted upon as strongly or stronger than by the religious. In current times I must resign myself to say that losing the endeavors of the religious in our culture would damage the amount of good will that is acted upon, but it surely would not damage the amount of good will. Now all that is needed is to get the REST of the untapped good will out there to become active. Then society would be more homogeneous in its humanitarian approaches and we’d never have a need to celebrate anyone religious having ambitious world impact that the non-religious may not. Each would be impactful and satisfying their own equal needs to improve the world.

  3. The whole concept of “good will” in western culture is derived from historical adherence to the Judeo-Christian worldview based on the teachings of the Bible. The fact that secularists share these values is but the cultural residue of our society’s previous worldview paradigm. Given that secularism is currently the dominant paradigm, I suspect we will continue to see a diminishing amount of “good will” in our society as more and more people embrace their “animal instincts”, and live according to the precepts of naturalistic evolution – “the survival of the fittest”.

  4. I appreciate the concise thoughts that Susan expressed. Unfortunately, our good works over the centuries are accompanied by abhorent deeds, which will always get more attention. (I reference the movie “The Mission” as an general example). But, because we claim to hold the Truth, we must be held accountable when the church has stood on the side of injustice as well as take the credit when we feel we have prevailed in seeing justice done. Where were The Southern Baptists and other relgious organizations during slavery? Some were quoting scripture to justify this ungodly institution; others were busy being active abolitionists. A little publicized item as appartheid ended in South Africa was a public apology from a white bishop of the Reform Church for their part in the perpetuation of that horrendous system. Perhaps we should publicly come to grips with some of these issues since we are so concerned about our faith being publicly accepted. Perhaps we should fight injustice, seek the comon welfare, serve the poor, because our Lord told us to, not because we want our Christian Institutions to be recognized.

  5. It often seems to me that this is a more pluralistic society. But other times it seems pluralistic, but shame on you if you are a Christian.

    It’s time for us to stand strong and support each other and teach the scripture in these tough times.

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