Dick Keyes presents our dilemma by raising two crucial questions: (1) How can the Christian be so arrogant as to claim to know ultimate truth, meaning that other truth claims are false when different from the Christian’s, and (2) Why do Christians insist on the uniqueness of Christ for salvation from sin and death? (Dick Keyes, Chameleon Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), p. 71).
Superficially, functional definitions are helpful. (1) Pluralism is simply a social fact; (2) Relativism is a philosophical metanarrative. It offers one among a plethora of alternative possible interpretations of Pluralism. All Post Modern efforts to escape Relativism fall at the blade of rationality. How are we to understand a cafeteria of mutually exclusive claims? Are all claims true? Are no claims true? Are some claims more true than others? Are the claims true only when the alternatives are syncretistically fused? The answers to these questions are not self-evident.
Relativism makes both a positive and negative claim. On the negative side it claims that no single religion or philosophy can know absolute truth because it is beyond human grasp. This is not just the claim that exhaustive knowledge of ultimate things is impossible for human beings--a claim that would startle no one! Rather it is the idea that true statements about the existence and character of God and of moral right and wrong, are simply beyond the scope of human understanding and language. The relativist claims that we cannot know if our statements correspond to reality; for example, we cannot know if what we say about God relates to who God is even if God exists. No cross-cultural standard exists by which religion can be judged for their “truthfulness.” (See my paper, “From Syncretism to Relativism to Multiculturalism: Beyond Mere Diversity.”)
Positively, Relativism says that the claims that people do make about absolute truth are in fact only true “relative to” the local cultural and psychological factors that produce them. The content of the beliefs is not important, because it is just the by-product of the culture and situation in which they arose. It is ridiculous to use truth and falsehood as measures of religion. The only politically incorrect “wrong” that we are likely to commit is to be judgmental of the beliefs of others. The implications of this ideology for missions/evangelism are self-evident! The cutting edge of the relativists’ critique of religion is to say that all ultimate religious beliefs are properly understood not as possible sources of accurate knowledge about God and ourselves, but only as products of a cultural groping to name what cannot be named. At the same time, however, relativism claims for its unique immunity from its own critique.
We are meant to have faith that relativism alone escapes the effect of relativizing factors in our own post modern, Western academic tenure-seeking culture. This position is nothing but an unmodifiable presupposition of epistemological immaculate perception. Nothing can count against the truth of absolute relativism except Wittgensteinian language games, which is an ultimate claim which post modern relativists deny is politically correct in our divergent, multicultural, tolerant syndrome! The “overbite” of relativism in its assumed humility is that only relativists have honestly taken human fallibility into critical account.
This approach supposedly illustrates a fair-minded, non-judgemental and enlightened approach to the plurality of divergent religions, but in reality it is deceptive. This approach is actually a paradigm, metanarrative that plans to interpret all religions and how they relate to each other. This “one lens” worldview is anything but relativistic. Instead, it is an absolute claim to know about all absolute claims to truth.
Where does such an architect stand who tells us of this picture? This “vision” has no perspective from which to judge the whole scene. These finite gurus claim an ultimate perspective while remaining a finite, fallible human being. What happens to the plurality of religions? They disappear as worldviews are no longer understood in terms of their distinctive ideas and practices. Relativism allows plurality only at the level of private or community opinion, which has no public factual status. Relativism regards its own view of ultimate truth, which does have public, factual status. Relativism is really closet absolutism, although it scorns absolutism as naive, arrogant and ethnocentric.
The classical Christian position affirms non exhaustive but real knowledge of ultimate truths of God is possible. The Christian view of the unity of all truth is grounded in personal religion of God in historical events and in human language. Only a transcendent God has perspective on divergent pluralism. If pluralism is true, conversion is the most natural thing in the world. Biblical revelation is God’s map to reality from which to judge all mistaken maps. In fact, persuasion is the way we deal with differing views of all other areas of knowledge, such as the issue of affirmative actions, the best way to deal with the national debt, or the origins of the universe, the scientific, French, or Russian Revolutions. No metanarrative that cannot explain its own origin and justification must certainly be dismissed as shear nonsense. To be authentic is to be originating! Any position that cannot account for its own “narrative displacements” is not a candidate for widespread acceptance.
But relativism is offended when people take differences so seriously that they leave one faith to adopt another. According to the relativist, the convert has misunderstood, assuming that the differences are real and substantial when in fact they are not. The relativist denies that differences are important; in fact, that can be no objective criteria for judging them, important or unimportant. Relativism’s message is much more comforting because since nobody can be wrong in any way that matters. It is then perfectly safe to ignore God, etc.
Pluralism carries the dangerous possibility that since religions are different and often contradictory (even this requires metanarrative critique), some ideas could be right and others wrong. Perhaps there is true truth and we could be accountable. Relativism teaches that all metanarratives’ ultimate questions are out of reach, so why worry about them? All that matters is to be happy and sincere and not to offend others. C.S. Lewis brilliantly expresses this stance. He writes, “I was soon [in the famous words] altering “I believe” to “one does feel...” And oh the relief of it. . . . From the tyrannous noon of revelation I passed into the cool evening twilight of Higher Thought, where there is nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was comforting or exciting.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1955), p. 60)
Relativism is not an honest debate, but rather a source of intellectual and cultural confusion. Honest pluralism could courageously and humbly speak about our deepest differences. Divergence is a fact, but with no metanarrative to mediate radical, often contradictory alternatives where our deepest differences--presuppositions, paradigms, legitimization structures, etc., are too often unacknowledged in post modern, multicultural debate!!
Any constructive encounter will move from diagnosis to dialogue! (See my paper “Chameleons in The Temple of Tolerance”) Tolerance is not relativism, nor does it have any necessary relationship to it. A serious misconception is that if we challenge relativism, we must be intolerant and against democracy. It is crystal clear then that relativism is basically intolerant. Tolerance does not entail that we never try to persuade someone to the truth of an important idea. It does mean that we can have respect for another person’s ideas despite areas of disagreement. After we have diagnosed the fundamental assumptions of alternative positions a conversion between positions that hold differing absolutes can proceed to the second issue. How does Christ’s unique role make sense? Why should there be only one way to God, if there is?
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12) This inclusion starts with the biblical doctrine of God of creation (Genesis 1.1). Isaiah continues the claim to exclusive loyalty. “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I am the Lord and besides me there is no savior (Isaiah 43.10-11). Jesus continues this theme as expressed in John 8.58, “. . . before Abraham was I am.” From the resurrection and Pentecost, the Church continued this exclusive claim in its preaching witnessing. Jesus’ claim to uniqueness is fiercely challenged by John Hicks, who was once an Anglican minister who repudiated his faith and turned to Eastern pantheism. In his book, Beyond Theology, he relates his turning point in ideas: (1) “I previously published three theological books. . . . In various ways. . . I have attempted a synthesis between traditional Christianity and the unique mysticism of Hinduism and Buddhism. . . . (2) Any attempt to marry the Vedanta to Christianity must take full account of the fact that Christianity is a contentious faith which requires an all or nothing commitment to Jesus as the one and only incarnation of the Son of God. . . .” Hick develops two important dimensions of our discussion: (1) His abandonment of a comfortable relativism under the sheer pressure of the plurality of incompatible teachings. He expresses an irreconcilable difference between religious claims and the dishonesty of trying to homogenize them. (2) His awareness of the most important places of incompatibility. He is aware that Christianity is incompatible of three basic teachings: A. Creation/Creator distinction; B. The spirit of total malignant cosmic evil; and C. The uniqueness of Christ. The divide between Creator and creature excludes the idea that we live in a random world in which we are accidents of a mindless, impersonal process that began with one choice event and will end with another. Within all of creation, human beings are distinct in our value and significance. Our lives find meaning through our relationship to God. (See especially the journal, Origins and Design--access Research Network Interdisciplinary Journal)
Goodness is rooted in the character of God Himself; He is the source of the moral order in the universe. In opposition to this, evil is real and is a major force in this world. In biblical terms, evil is focused in the person of Satan and his influence on earth. This view of evil separates the Christian from many other religions and worldviews. C.S. Lewis critiques William Blake’s poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in his The Great Divorce, by arguing that good and evil are finally separated, never having been married. The biblical view of evil is completely at variance with Marxian and Freudian (et.al.) analysis of the origin of nature and recover from evil as psychological, socio-economico-politico sources of alienation and recovery through the work of the sciences, technology and education.
The Biblical diagnosis of the human condition unequivocally claims that man is incapable of saving himself from sin and death. The solution is totally grounded in God’s nature. The heart of the controversy of the biblical diagnosis is--“Why is Christ the Only Way?” Man’s faith in Christ as the only way is an indispensable condition for receiving God’s saving grace. The biblical diagnosis is totally opposed to Freudian reduction of faith to neurosis and existential fideism, i.e., faith is its own justification. The postmodern claim that the “community” creates faith also falls under the biblical blade.
The fundamental issue in our postmodern discussion is, what is the nature and origin of the human condition? Francis Schaeffer’s claim that community functions as the “final apologetic” reduces to a tribal community. His thesis is that faith is justified by the fact of believing.
The community is not a God substitute. A second feature is that Christian community is not a “lifestyle enclave.” Sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleague use this term in their book, Habits of The Heart, to describe what often counterfeits community in postmodern America. Lifestyle enclaves are groupings of people who spend time together around some aspect of their lifestyle, such as playing bridge, poker, or golf, tasting wine, stock-car races, collecting art, or watching professional sports on television.
The lifestyle enclave is restricted in two senses--(1) It has to do with private life or leisure time, to public life and it is restricted to those who share some aspect of one’s lifestyle. In Bellah’s words, it “celebrates the narcissism of similarity.” (Bellah, et.al., p. 72ff)
The paradigm of the tribe is a club. It entails very little of a worldview, legitimizing the structure, narrative, etc. Too often the small groups in a congregation are limited to a club or lifestyle enclave. The larger the congregation, the greater the risk. Christian community shares a worldview and sense of ultimate loyalty to Christ. They have in common basic ideas about the sort of world we live in. They should share notions of how we came into existence, who we are as human beings, what are our deepest problems and ultimate solutions and which hopes are worth pursuing.
Christian community is an unnatural unity, unlike a lifestyle enclave in which a shared interest brings people together. The New Testament Church was anything but a homogeneous group. It was made up of Jews and Gentiles, young and old, slaves and slave owners, male and female. It had a host of characters from ex prostitutes, ex priests and ex practitioners of magic to fishermen, zealots (the terrorists of the first century) and tax collectors, collaborators with the Roman establishment!
There was a far greater ethnic, economic, political and social diversity than we have in America today. Their resultant behavior caused the Romans to call them “The Third Race.” Their life gave credibility to their faith and the truth of their message (I John 4.20). The Church as community also provides a living statement of God’s truth to the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1970), p. 15) warned of the danger of living in a dream world of naive ideas about community. He suggests 4 characteristics of community: (1) God’s Church is a community of grace. Our hope will not be in our own achievements or moral character but in the mercy of God to us.
(2) Character of community is that love reaches into the whole of life and crosses natural boundaries between people of different race, culture, economic class, sex and age (e.g. Acts 2, The Day of Pentecost).
(3) A distinctive feature of the Church as a community is a commitment to its place of geographical location. A Christian community should be very concerned with its own local community. It should encourage people to be responsible outside the walls of the Church building. But it must not become a political pressure group!
(4) A Christian community must be committed to reconciliation. This does entail burying grievances beneath long term resentment or splitting up in order to escape the conflict.
The Scriptures give us at least three tools for reconciliation: (1) Confession, (2) Forgiveness and (3) Reproof. Each is important for building true community (see esp. Acts 4.42ff; II Tim. 3.16).
How then, is community built? Perhaps the suggestion of M. Scott Peck might be helpful. He developed four stages toward community. (1) Stage one was “pseudo-community.” This is the time of etiquette and good manners. This stage is clearly most often artificial. (2) Moving toward community is “chaos.” “Pseudo community” soon wears thin if people spend much time together (see my list of all the “together” and “one another” passages in the New Testament). (3) A stage of emptiness. “Peck declares that this is not a stage of Buddhist spirituality but rather a time people relinquish the need to control, convert or heal each other. They empty themselves of their prejudices, preconceptions and the need to fix each other. Christian emptying is confrontation with a person’s sins and selfishness, a collective realization of brokenness and failure. (4) Finally, there is community that evolves listening to each other with empathy and understanding. In Christian community these four features are an ongoing process, not an artificial setting. Peck’s four steps can be a description of the struggles we face in realizing a community of grace, love and reconciliation.
These tensions appear quite strongly in both modern and postmodern social structures (see esp. Peck, The Different Drum (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988) pp. 88-106). Our post modern social structure presents three specific points of contact which must be evaluated: (1) First is Homogeneity: The advertisers and Church Growth gurus target the audience in terms of age, sex, income and education. This advertising dynamic has penetrated churches of all sizes via The Fuller School of Church Growth, Cho’s Small Group Concept in his Korean Church and George Barna’s Church Demographic Studies. But it is a serious mistake to assume that our Lord’s Church should be driven by postmodern pragmatism in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. What works in marketing may actually destroy the Church and turn it into a lifestyle enclave. Seeking for people who are all alike implies that Paul was totally mistaken when he affirmed that the Church’s strength is in its internal diversity (I Cor. 12.12-31).
This new social history is not positive. It means that young people are isolated from the very people who could be guides, mentors, models and friends. This pattern deprives youth culture of positive identification with the adult world. Too much of the Church has embraced this postmodern social theory. This phenomena is expressed by team structures which are fine tuned for college groups, graduate student groups, married and single groups, divorced groups, et al. This does not imply that it is wrong to meet specific needs. (2) Second point of resistance to modernity concerns the issue of Mobility.
In postmodern culture, the economic system gets the first choice of one’s gifts, abilities and careers. If Christians are part of the Frontier-Individualistic American dream they are likely to be enslaved to this system. This radical social mobility for the sake of economic gain, i.e., job acquisition, it often generates negative results for marriages, family life, schools and churches. (3) The third factor calls for resistance in Professionalism (CEO) in Christian leadership, business managers on staff to keep the Church’s books, personal persons for every category of the Church’s life (see esp. Oz Guiness, The Call for recovery of the priesthood of believers in the church’s life. Of course he is not the origin of this emphasis, neither was Luther or Carl Ketcherside, but Paul. This view of ministry is adequate to evangelize our Global Village of five billion plus, as we plummet into the 21st century.) Post modern images of ministry is seen in terms of techniques of communication, administration, demography, fund raising and the ability to project the CEO/Therapist image. Post modern “spin masters” and social science specialists have often replaced Christian community.
Is the postmodern church too often repeating Abraham’s syncretistic error when he gave his wife Sarah to the king to marry to save his own life? As then, now once more we pray that God will intervene in our Chameleon response to cultural dynamics. Is it possible that too many churches are making the same mistakes to make the Gospel acceptable to our postmodern audiences? We must so live as to neither be naive about sin and evil, but on the other hand, not standing in a condescending place of supposed moral superiority.
In 1970 Francis Schaeffer wrote the book, The Church At The End of The 20th Century (London, 1970), p. 46). He spoke of the Church’s response to culture as “co-belligerents” with the world without being allies with it (Schaeffer, p. 46). He told us then, as Ravi Zacharias tells us in the 1990’s, “you can’t live without God.” If we try, we will fail an opportunity for love and service. Only a Christian worldview can address every question raised by secularism. Another crucial aim in postmodern debate centers on the place of women in God’s plan. Some have thrown away the authority of the scriptures, via applying the most recent hermeneutical ploy to the classical position in order to adapt as a chameleon to feminist theories. Others have followed the tribal musk ox and are threatened by the very word “feminism.” (see esp. The Book of Judges, e.g. Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Romans 16.7) What does post modern feminism have to do with Christian community and witness in a watching world.? Women make up ca. one half of the churches. If it were not for women the human race would die.
C.S. Lewis, thirty years after his death, is perhaps the most effective communicator of the Gospel. He keeps himself free from all the typically religious words, terms and idioms. Through this process the Gospel was not presented in archaic language but always fresh and in modern/post modern idioms. If only Christians will honor God by life style within the community of faith. As Paul said to the Church at Corinth, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts to be known and read by all.” (II Cor. 3.2). Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead to create the community of faith! (See my article, “C.S. Lewis, Apostle to Post Moderns”
Our English word authentic comes from a Greek word that means that which is originating. Anything authentic is that which is the origin of ideas, movements, causes, etc. Without an original ten dollar bill there could be no counterfeit bill. Without an authentic Jesus there could be no counterfeit; without an authentic Church there could be no counterfeit, i.e., faith systems.
There is an unhappy polarization in our evangelical crisis of identity. If there is no authentic evangelism there can be no counterfeits. What are the foundations that originated evangelism? We would need to trace narrative displacement from Christ’s Church to the pluralistic cafeteria of religion in our postmodern culture!
The same is true of the nature of science. An answer to this question must trace the history of the narrative displacement of the scientific enterprise at least from the Greeks to chaos/non-linear physics! There must be “something” that makes scientific truth claims distinct from all other systems of truth claims! Otherwise we are engulfed in solipsistic narcissism. Historically, there have been at least three suggested solutions to our apparent impasse. Lamin Sanneh suggests three such responses: (1) Accommodation (cf. a form of Syncretism); (2) Quarantine, (3) Prophetic Reform, the position “in which critical selectiveness determines the attitudes toward the world” (Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 48) In the third suggestion Christian truth is neither compromised nor confined, thus it is possible to transform individuals and cultural structures. Here the real identity of Christ’s Church is visible in the public square. God’s Word must be preached, heard and studied. It is a “two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4.12; Revelation 1.16; 2.12, the entire pericope of Revelation 2 and 3). God’s sword cuts into the Church and the receiving culture. Jesus always confronted His people who retreated into a Chameleon or Musk Ox syndrome.
God’s sword strikes at all the sacred cows and traditions. It is not enough to be experts in the early church, Medieval Roman Catholicism, The Reformation, the Puritans, the Enlightenment, Modern fundamentalism, evangelism, post modern context. Christians need to confront all the idols of destruction in our own global village. God’s word must always strike both the receiving culture and God’s resurgent aliens! Christian witness necessitates that we go beyond the sacred walls.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that he observed the history of the Church “at least five times the Faith has gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog who died.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (NY: Doubleday, 1962), p. 245) What Chesterton observed was that throughout its history The Church of Christ has shown a moral and spiritual resiliency. At times it has sunk to terrible defeat, corruption and scandal. But the Church has been given The Holy Spirit and The Word of God. Where there has been humility and openness to self-criticism there has been repentance and reform, thus regaining its public witness power. The Churches that were most severely rebuked, Sardis and Laodicea, exist only in ruins (Revelation 2.3; see Ramsey’s classic study on the seven churches of Asia).
Has God given up on His promise and cosmic purpose? Only Churches that live and believe, like salt and light, express the prophetic reform and most never look to the world for ultimate security. The Word of God cuts both the “outside world” and within the Christian community. The postmodern church must recover the “awe” of God in worship context (Isaiah 6 and esp. II Cor. 10.3-5). No purely human activities have ever built Christian communities. Francis Schaeffer brilliantly emphasizes both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of Christian community. “And only after the vertical relationship--first the individual and then as a group--is established are we ready to have horizontal relationships and a proper Christian community. It is a long way to come. But there is no other way to achieve authenticity.” (F.A. Schaeffer, The Church At The End of the Twentieth Century (London: Norfolk Press, 1970), pp. 70-71)
Gamaliel’s words are presently so appropriate, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, because if this plan or this understanding is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them, in that case you may even be fighting against God.” (Acts 5.38,39) Before Gamaliel spoke, The Sanhedrin thinking had been dominated by purely practical and political concerns. The group was interested only in national security. The community that claims to honor God must allow Him his rightful position.
Only Christian hope grounded in The Resurrection of our Lord can empower us to escape from the polarization between the Chameleon and the Musk Ox. Do we ever expect anything to be different? God’s Spirit makes His people restless between rigidity and conformity. John Stott has brilliantly caught this spirit. “Life is a pilgrimage of learning, a voyage of discovery, in which our mistaken views are corrected, our distorted notions adjusted, our shallow opinions deepened and some of our vast ignorance diminished.” (quoted in F. Schaeffer’s, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, p. 46)
The Church is always in a crisis of authority and identify but the Church’s Lord is always the risen Christ. Christian community is a lifeline of His unfolding kingdom. “Let everyone who has an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to The Churches” (Revelation 3.22).
For further study, see especially F.A. Schaeffer Institute Seminary, 12330 Conway Rd., St. Louis, MO 63141 (314/434-4044; Allen Diogenes “Christianity and The Creed of Post Modernism,” Christian Scholars Review 23/2 (1993): 117-126 (see esp. Ihab A. Hassan, Paracritics (1975 which lists 32 features of modernism with their post modern counterparts) Theology Today 52/53, Oct. 1995, 313-399; Walter Brueggemann, “Preaching as Reimagination,” F.B. Burnham, Post Modern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1989). Essays by Diogenes Lubbeck, Robert Bellah, et al. “The Fundamental characteristic of new post modern era is epistemological relativism.” p. x. Too often throughout post modern literature post modernist assumptions are absolutized. “Christians may well find the personal metaphors of Christological Tradition; Mark Noll, “Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge.” Christian Scholars Review, 19/4 June 1990): 388-406.
Lincoln Christian Seminary
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