Two Kinds of Pluralism

A funny thing happened on the way to the dictionary.  Words which once meant one thing now denote something quite different.  One example of this is the word “pluralism” as used in the phrase “religious pluralism.”  I have noticed that there are two ways the word is now used and we need to be careful to distinguish which meaning we intend.  On the one hand, there are those who say, “I am a religious pluralist” and intend to communicate that they believe that all religions, when boiled down sufficiently, are, at root, the same.  In this view of religious pluralism, all roads lead to God and one might just as well be a faithful Muslim as a faithful Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.  Because, they say, religions are nothing more than human attempts to provide a framework for human meaning and to explain the ineffable.

The other use of the phrase “religious pluralism” is the understanding that the world is filled with a wide array of religious particularity.  There are definable movements which are designated with names like Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism or Christianity.  Each of these movements has their own message, their own sacred texts, their own practices and beliefs, etc.

I have been deeply involved with inter-religious dialogue for almost thirty years.  I have engaged in public dialogues with dozens of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.  I have a few favorite memories.  One was a dialogue in Connecticut which had been planned for over a year (including the theme) but took place just one month after the attack on the World Trade towers.  The theme which brought me together with these Muslim friends was, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”  Needless to say, we had a packed house that night!

I remember another night when I was enlisted by Gordon College (a Christian college in Massachusetts) to have an open debate with a Hare Krishna Hindu on the nature of God.  I arrived and discovered (to my amazement) that the auditorium was packed to the rafters with Gordon college students.  They were so many students there that they had to sit on the floor of the aisles to fit them all in.  I had a fleeting moment of self-gratification that all these college students had come out to hear me debate a Hindu on the nature of God when the President of Gordon College told me that it was the end of the semester and so many students were on probation for skipping chapel that he had declared to the whole student body that if they attended this one debate it would count for an entire week of missed chapels!

I have dozens and dozens of wonderful memories of inter-religious dialogues all across the country.  But what made them truly excellent was when the person who showed up to dialogue was an authentic representation of their respective faith.  I fully expect (and so did the audience) that the Muslim who stood before the audience believed in the authority of the Qur’an, embraced and practiced the five pillars of Islam and believed with all of his heart that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah, sent to rescue the world from unbelief and eternal judgment.  Likewise, everyone there expected me to faithfully represent historic Christian claims.  They assumed that I would affirm the authority of the Bible, the central and cosmic significance of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and so forth.  To me, this is the greatest expression of religious pluralism.  I am free to pray for and labor for the salvation of every person on the planet.  I want everyone to fall on their knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  I do not believe that there is salvation in Hinduism or Islam.  However, I fully expect that my Muslim friend desperately wants me to come to see the beautiful revelation of the Qu’ran, and to accept the prophethood of Muhammad and the power of keeping the five pillars, etc.  He believes my Bible is filled with errors.

This is the kind of pluralism which faced the early church.  We can make great progress in this kind of context.  We are free to proclaim the gospel, even as we defend the “dignity of unbelief” and protect with our lives the free speech of other religious groups.  As Richard John Neuhaus so beautifully admonished us, “a truly pluralistic public square is far better than a naked public square.”

What is heart-breaking is when I arrive at an inter-religious dialogue event and meet these full-orbed Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all beautifully representing their faith and the millions of followers who stand in these traditions, and then the Christian stands up and blathers on endless nonsense about how we are all really the same and how all religions lead to God and we are all really saying the same thing.  In my view, that is not religious pluralism.  That is religious relativism.  It is time that we recall the difference between the two.

Responsible Grace

Randy Maddox is the Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Duke University and is widely regarded as one of the leading Wesleyan scholars in the world. His book, Responsible Grace was one of his books which helped to establish him as a leading thinker. Maddox’s contribution to my own thinking has been helping me to understand more fully what makes Wesleyan soteriology distinctive. There are many facets of this, ranging from Wesley’s views on prevenient grace, to sanctification, to the “means of grace” to holy love, etc. However, the book title Responsible Grace probably sums up one of the greatest distinctives of all; namely, that God’s grace does not descend untethered into our lives like a deus ex machina. Rather, God’s grace is always united with a summons to join with him in His redemptive work in the world. We are “elected” to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are “healed” that we might become instruments of healing. We are “forgiven” that we might go forth to forgive! We are never mere passive recipients of grace, but we are called to become co-participants with God in redeeming the world.

Maddox’s phrase “responsible grace” manages to capture in a single phrase the perfect balance between Augustinian pessimism and Pelagian optimism. Because the Holy Spirit is so very fast, we can never beat him to the place of healing and hope. Every pastor knows about this. You receive that dreaded phone call at night. You jump in the car and rush to the hospital and to the bedside only to find that the Holy Spirit is already there ministering his grace. That’s monergism—God sovereignly acting in grace. But, then, there you are, standing by the bedside, offering words of grace and encouragement. You have mysteriously “rolled up your sleeves” and joined the Holy Spirit in His work. That’s synergism. If prevenient grace is our testimony to monergism, then our freed wills is a testimony to synergism. This beautiful truth is captured in Randy Maddox’s phrase, “responsible grace.” It is still God’s undeserved grace. But it comes with a summons to us to respond responsibly.

Today you will have the opportunity to make some real decisions. You will decide to pray or not; to visit someone, or not; to give that word of encouragement, or not; to serve in the soup kitchen, or not. Life is filled with countless opportunities to respond to God’s grace. May today be a day of Responsible Grace.

Life After Death, Take Two: Moving Beyond Renewal

I am going to re-write my last blog and try to approach this theme in a fresh way. It is clear that mainline Protestantism is in serious trouble. David Olson’s book, The American Church in Crisis is just the latest of a series of books which have documented this decline.

All of the mainline churches contain dedicated men and women who love the Lord and who have invested decades in bringing renewal. There are thousands of orthodox lay persons who have remained faithful to the gospel and loyal to their church, even when their own pastor may not have been loyal to historic Christian faith. There are hundreds of pastors who have remained faithful to the gospel and who have fought valiantly for renewal even when they felt the denominational leaders were leading the wrong direction. The United Methodist Church is typical of a mainline denomination in crisis. The UMC has been in decline every year since the 1968 merger. The Houston or Memphis declaration did not usher in renewal. For decades, Good News has published hundreds of articles detailing every aspect of a church in crisis. The alarm bells have been rung for almost half a century. Nothing has changed the overall trajectory of decline. Let’s face it: renewal has not worked. Our crisis is as deep today as it is has ever been.

The point is this: Despite great commitment to renewal, the church has continued to decline and millions of members have left the church, or the faith, or both. I am now at the place where I believe that we must ask God for something “beyond renewal.” We need something more transformative than the renewal of the existing structures. We need something which is beyond any legislative solution at a General Conference or a line or two of the Discipline. We need something more profound than just the proverbial “re-arranging chairs on the Titanic.”

The current mainline church is built and organized around a 19th and 20th century model which is bureaucratic, program oriented, and still trying to gain the approval of the wider culture. In short, it is a “Christendom” model. In my view, it is ludicrous for conservative Christians to reduce “renewal” to a “win” on the issue of homosexuality. Even if that issue were to evaporate tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the crisis we are in. We need big, fundamental, radical changes in the church, not minor tweaking.

We need to dismantle the entire bureaucratic structure and unleash a leaner, flatter movement. We need to focus on growing people, not just growing churches. This means a deep commitment to catechesis and biblical faithfulness. We need a radical commitment to the poor and disenfranchised in our society. We need a recovery of New Testament supernaturalism. We need a return to the great truths of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to completely re-birth the Wesleyan movement in North America. Whether it is a separate movement or we are given a new name within the United Methodist Church, we must be set free to do serious evangelism, church planting, re-missionizing and catechesis. I remain convinced that we can renew the Wesleyan movement in North America in 25 years if we are just given the opportunity to do so. Even our best pastors can quickly be lost in the ecclesiastical fog. Unless the current structures die like a phoenix, no new movement can rise from the ashes. We have to be willing to accept the death of certain things we cherish in order to unleash the new movement which awaits us. It will be a church for post-Christendom. It will be a church for the 21st century.