Thriving in America’s Difficult Religious Climate

Back in the 80’s, British theologian Lesslie Newbigin wrote a book in which he described the religious climate of the United Kingdom as “pluralistic.” Newbigin’s description of the U.K. could have easily been made of the United States today:

Religious pluralism… is the belief that differences between religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious belief as true or false is inadmissible. Religious belief is a private matter. Each of us is entitled to have—as we say—a faith of our own. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 14)

In other words, religious pluralism doesn’t leave room for absolute religious truth. Sure, your religion might work for you, but since (under this idea) no religion can claim to be superior to another, or “truer” than another belief, you mustn’t try to push your religious dogma onto anyone else.

Setting aside some of the glaring problems with the assumption of religious pluralism (for one, the argument that no religion can lay claim to the truth is itself an absolute claim), it’s important to realize that a disdain for the idea of an exclusive belief isn’t anything new. In fact, in the days of Jesus and his apostles, religious pluralism was also quite popular. The Greco-Roman world, like our society, didn’t have a problem with religion per se, but with religious exclusivity (one religion is true over others).

The society in which the apostles lived was extremely religious, and most people worshipped any number of gods, both familial deities, and gods that were venerated by the larger society. Christianity would not have been a problem to the ancients if it taught that one could add a new, crucified deity to the already long list of gods to be venerated. Christianity was problematic because it called its followers to abandon all other gods and worship the one true God.

Larry Hurtado, Emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, writes,

Among the particular features that distinguished Christianity from traditional ‘pagan’ religious practice and from the many other new religious movements of the time was the firm insistence that there is only one ‘true and living god,’ and the demand that its adherents had to drop all worship of any other deity. Arguably, early Christianity represented not simply belief in one particular deity among many but, actually, in some respects a different kind of religion. (Destroyer of the gods, 37-38)

Christianity was unique in so far as it didn’t allow itself to be defined as a belief to add to your smorgasbord of spirituality. The Christian God says, in essence, “leave behind your other gods, and follow me.” For the Greco-Roman world, those gods were familial and cultural deities, Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Mars, Zeus, Hera, Athena, etc. The Western gods may be named something else—Greed, Pleasure, Power—but they no less need to be abandoned according to the Christian faith. The big question becomes: How does Christianity thrive in a world where we’d rather keep our panoply of gods? The answer might surprise you!

Believe it or not, the Christian community is one of the ways God is convincing people of the exclusive Christian message. Newbigin wrote,

I confess that I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation… I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 227)

According to Newbigin, the life of the Christian church provides the world with a glimpse of what the gospel can do. The love and sacrifice exhibited in the church community attest to the reality of the gospel message. This is very close to what Jesus said to his disciples in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And in John 17, when Jesus prayed for church unity, “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v.21).

How do we convince a pluralistic society that the one true God exists, and loves them? It starts with exhibiting that love to each other and being a community that doesn’t fit the narrative of society. We bless when cursed, pray for those who persecute us, love when reviled. Why? Because the God we cursed and reviled didn’t abandon us, but blessed, prayed for, and loved us. When the world experiences the love of the church, she sees the love of the One God exhibited (1 Jn. 4:12); and as the old saying goes, seeing is believing.

This, of course, does not mean that we substitute the life of the church for the preaching of the church. But if the life of the Christian community betrays the gospel proclaimed in it, the Word preached seems powerless to the outside world. Pluralistic societies need to hear the objective truth of the gospel, and experience the subjective power of the gospel, at work in the Christian community. This combo shook the pluralistic paganism of the Greco-Roman world, and it can do the same in our world today.

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