To start off with, there are two models that people have basically proposed for why and how to be pluralistic:
The Simpsons Model
The American religious landscape has changed greatly. No longer is it safe to assume that each person that we meet is Mainline Protestant Christian, but instead it is a very real possibility that our neighbors, our teachers, or our coworkers follow a much different spiritual path than our own. Pluralism, that ability to know and respect other traditions, becomes a necessary technique for survival as a good citizen in the United States. Diana Eck wrote the seminal book, Pluralism in America, about just this topic. But if you want a more entertaining model to see how pluralism works in the United States today look no further than the television show The Simpsons. One of the major themes of the show is how religious differences can lead to conflict and how eventually understanding leads to a stronger community. Springfield is a typical American town and pluralism has become a very typical American question.
The Apocalyptic Model
There is another urgent model for the necessity of pluralism. Many point to the nuclear age that we live in as justification enough for needing to understand each other. The potential for violence and the ability to destroy all human life is at humanity’s fingertips. Preventing total destruction is a relatively new responsibility for mankind. Since religion has become a major justification for violence, people tend to get nervous over religious conflict.
This is the approach that Brian McLaren starts with. He says:
We all woke up again today in a world where Christians, Muslims, and Jews (along with adherents of many other religions) are either killing one another or planning new ways to kill one another, and many believe that in doing so they are obeying and even pleasing and honoring God.
McLaren shows here how religion sometimes can be used to justify this killing. This model for pluralism does not set out so much how we should relate to each other, but instead emphasizes why we need to figure this out. And we had better do it fast.
However, the brilliance of McLaren’s approach to pluralism is that while he frames the necessity for understanding each other in the global sense, he approaches the problem on a deeply personal level. He doesn’t map out responses for Christianity on at a state or international level, but instead focuses on three steps any individual Christian can take to becoming more Pluralistic:
1) Repent of crimes done in the name of Christianity
2) Deprogram knee-jerk, trained responses to the idea of accepting other traditions.
3) Find a new, Christian model for dealing with the Other.
Repentance: Educate Yourself
To repent, you need to educate yourself. Christians have forgotten our history of encountering other religions, and by encounter I mean for the most part abusing, enslaving, or murdering those of other traditions. However, those we have harmed in the past do remember this history. “They remember,” McLaren says repeatedly. To be able to enter into religious dialogue, we need to be aware of this history of violence so that we can apologize for it and overcome it.
Deprogram: John 14:6 doesn’t mean what you think it means
One of the struggles Christians have with pluralism is the idea of superiority in both terms of having the most evolved spiritual tradition and having an afterlife paradise for just us Christians. McLaren tackles John 14:6, the verse that is often used as Jesus reserving God just for those who follow in Jesus's footsteps. Instead of looking at this verse as a worldwide declaration for Christian exclusivism, McLaren does a thoughtful exegesis of the verse IN CONTEXT with the rest of the passage. Instead McLaren points to how this is a message of comfort and hope to his disciples, NOT a prescription for kicking everyone else out of heaven.
McLaren suggests that the reason that we think of this verse when asked about pluralism is because we have adopted an “us/them” model from the Greco-Roman culture. This us/them then is not a genuine part of Christianity, but instead an unfortunate cultural artifact from a dominant group wanting to maintain their secure place at the top of society despite adopting this radical new spiritual movement. Therefore being good Christians does not require this exclusivist outlook on other traditions, but instead could actively encourage ways to love our neighbor including their religious outlook.
New Model: Love One Another.
McLaren stresses that the new model also needs to be rooted in Christian choices, images and perfection. He explains:
[Christians] also feel uncomfortable with the win-lose, “it’s either us or them’ mind-set they have inherited, because they know this mind-set too easily descends into prejudice, dehumanization, and violence toward the other. But they also feel uncomfortable with the “Whatever you believe is fine, as long as you’re sincere” approach. Just as the former fuels fear resentment, and even hatred toward “them,” the latter undermines commitment and identity among “us.” I share this ambivalence, because I think both dangers are real.Relativism, the reduction of everything to equally the same, creates a problem for Christians who intend to be a pluralist. Pluralists need to walk a fine line between respecting other traditions and yet still finding value rooted and caused by our own particular spiritual path.
McLaren’s solution to this problem is to not be a relativist, but instead be a Christian Pluralist. He points to several scripture passages, including Paul insisting that God treats all equally (Romans 5:12-21), the tradition of the religious outsider doing God's will in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus stating "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" (John 13:34). These examples provides a model for the way we can interact with the religious other and do so within a framework compatible with Christian teachings. Christian love of the neighbor really can expand to include the whole world.
Critique of McLaren’s Model
The problem with this model for pluralism is that McLaren tends to use religious groups interchangeably. This subtly recreates the us/them dynamic that he was trying so hard to eliminate. Although I recognize that McLaren is focusing on the way that Christians should act with the religious other, it still strikes me as deeply problematic to think that Hindus and Atheists and Jews could be interchangeable. Not only do Christians need to change our own behavior, we also need to understand the distinctions between these very diverse and separate groups. Although I recognize that it is incredibly difficult to do that in this small of a chapter, undoing the us/them distinctions really does need to start with breaking it down even when these conversations are most cramped.
McLaren suggestions do give us a model of behavior that will start good conversations with the religious other. How those conversations will progress will not be the same, because what is of utmost concern to an atheist will not be the same thing that drives a Jew to keep kosher. However, acting out in deep neighborly love will lead to rich discussions. Christians need to start and take part in these dialogues, especially if we are going to be good neighbors and effective world leaders. McLaren’s model teaches us as Christians how to listen and that will put us in a very strong starting place for how to find our voice in a world that needs Pluralism and a thoughtful Christianity.
(This post is a classroom wide series of posts about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.)