Christian Witness in a Pluralistic Age


Jim Leffel

Not long ago, I saw the movie "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." Shot on site in the Amazon rain forest, it's a film with a familiar theme: Christian missionaries destroying the pristine innocence of primal cultures. The defining scene of the movie is an exchange between a zealous, if naive young missionary and a cynical, displaced Native Amazonian. The latter confronts the missionary, saying, "If the Lord made Indians the way they are, who are you people to make them different?"

You don't have to go to the Brazilian jungle to get this message. It is also the ethic at most secular universities. Attempting to convert someone is considered intolerant and arrogant because it implies standing in judgment over their unique experience and culture. Christianity is not a live option for a growing majority of the emerging generation, but for reasons that are rather unique to our day. It's not that Christianity has been refuted by scientific fact or historical scrutiny. Rather, it's considered implausible because it claims to be universally and objectively true--that is, true for everybody. Put simply, the Christian message violates today's carefully cultivated incredulity toward all absolutes, especially religious ones.

Christian exclusivism, the position that Christianity is the final word on matters of ultimate truth, is not "politically correct." Sometimes professing faith in Christ in higher education is tantamount to admitting that you're a racist or sexist. Most of the time though it's met with the mantra-like refrain, "I'm glad you've found something that works for you, but don't impose your beliefs on me."

I suggest that the primary barrier to getting a hearing for the gospel on the vast majority of campuses today is ideologically driven pluralism. Pluralism takes the fact of the world's rich cultural diversity and makes an "ism" out of it. It doesn't merely extol the virtue of understanding and appreciating cultural differences; virtually everyone is for that. Pluralism holds that distinct cultural beliefs are true for that culture--but not for cultures that operate out of a different "paradigm." Pluralists say that truth is a "social construction." It is created through social consensus and tradition, not discovered in reality that exists independently of our beliefs. Truth is subjective interpretation, not correspondence between our beliefs and reality.

Since pluralists consider truth to be a cultural construct, it is the height of arrogance to try to convert someone from their paradigm (especially if it's non-western) to Christianity. That's what most people mean when they say that Christianity is intolerant. But should we accept the pluralistic definition of "tolerance"?

Social intolerance used to mean attacking someone or discriminating against them because of who they are or what they believe. Biblically minded Christians should oppose this form of intolerance because it is bigotry and prejudice. We must also accept the fact that Christians have acted intolerantly in this sense. Indeed, the name of Christ has been attached to some of history's greatest outrages. While Christians have often been at the forefront of social reform, we must come to terms with a legacy of hypocrisy in areas like slavery, savagery toward Native Americans and other human rights abuses.

Having made these observations, it must be emphasized that such hypocrisy is unbiblical. That is, while Christians have treated vulnerable peoples unjustly, biblical Christianity itself is not intolerant. The Bible gives us a genuine basis to recognize hypocrisy and confront it for what it is. Because the Bible upholds the dignity of all persons as image-bearers of God, we have a basis for a genuinely diverse culture. When faithful to the scripture, Christianity is tolerant in the appropriate sense of the term.

But as many define tolerance today, Christianity is intolerant. When tolerance means that we are to accept all beliefs as equally true and valid, Christians must respectfully object. The notion that truth is a social construct is both unbiblical and dangerous. Truth matters. It's no mere philosophical abstraction. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Our commission is to spread the good news to all the peoples of the earth. To make effective inroads in today's multi-ethnic, culturally diverse university, we must do the hard work of engaging the thinking behind pluralism and the demands of this new meaning of tolerance.

Understanding Pluralistic Postmodernism

The pluralistic view of tolerance is rooted in a broader intellectual and cultural movement called postmodernism. For postmodern thinkers, who now dominate the arts, humanities and social sciences of many universities, everything is a social construct. All claims to truth are rooted in cultural bias, so there is no objective truth. Ethical values are the product of unique cultural traditions, so there are no moral absolutes. Human personhood is the product of socialization, so there is no universal human essence.

These assumptions have enormous implications. Postmodern psychologist and social critic Kenneth Gergen notes in his book The Saturated Self,

With the spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the demise of personal definition, reason, authority. . . All intrinsic properties of the human being, along with moral worth and personal commitment, are lost from view. . .1

The self stands under "erasure" for postmodern pluralists, meaning the denial of all transcendent categories, including human personhood. This raises not only important questions about human rights, but directly relates to the question of objective truth and reason. Though not a postmodernist, Peter Berger's work in the sociology of knowledge provides the basis for postmodern "constructivism" and its implications. Berger writes,

A thought of any kind is grounded in society. . .The individual, then, derives his worldview socially in very much the same way that he derives his roles and his identity. In other words, his emotions and his self-interpretation like his actions are predefined for him by society, and so is his cognitive approach to the universe that surrounds him.2

Berger's observation, true in part, is driven to a radical conclusion by postmodernists. They reject the possibility of discovering objective truth all together, since each culture approaches reality differently, depending on its particular needs and historical conditions. To claim knowledge of objective truth presumes the possibility of transcending the social construction of knowledge, which is, on postmodern pluralistic assumptions, impossible.

In the place of objective truth and what postmodernists call "metanarratives" (comprehensive world views), we find "local narratives," or stories about reality that "work" for particular communities--but have no validity beyond that community. Indeed, postmodernists reject the whole language of truth and reality in favor of literary terms like narrative and story. It's all about interpretation, not about what's real or true.

Postmodern pluralists hold that the pretense of objective truth always does violence by excluding other voices (regarding other world views to be invalid), and marginalizing the vulnerable by scripting them out of the story. Truth claims, we are told, are merely tools to legitimate power. Michel Foucault writes, "We cannot exercise power except through the production of truth."3 For postmodernists, truth claims reduce to mere propaganda, the pernicious "will to power." That's why with postmodern pluralism, the person to be feared is the one who believes that we can actually discover ultimate truth. The dogmatist, the totalizer, the absolutist is both naive and dangerous.

Consequently, rather than dominating others with our "version of reality," we should accept all beliefs as equally valid. Openness without the restraint of reason, and tolerance without moral appraisal are the new pluralistic mandates. That's what makes evangelism so unfashionable on campuses today.

Ironically, in an age of anti-dogmatism, postmodern radical subjectivity leads to the dangerous inference that no one can ever be wrong about what they believe. If we are free from the constraints of rationality, nothing separates truth from self-delusion. Gergen's words are both candid and chilling:

. . . evaluation can only take place from within a perspective. To favor one of these perspectives because it is 'objectively true' presupposes that I have a perspective in which 'objectively true' is an intelligible criterion of evaluation. If in my view 'objective truth' is a misleading term, I can scarcely condemn a theory because it is objectively false.4

Postmodern anti-dogmatism ends up being anti-intellectual. If we can't reject a theory because it is objectively false, then the pursuit of truth is meaningless. This explains why truth has been replaced, especially among many academics, for politically empowering narrative. This kind of thinking is often found in revisionist history, feminist critical method, and many pluralistic formulations of multiculturalism.

Christians need to be respectful of what others believe and of the traditions and experiences that form those beliefs. Scripture upholds the value of cultural diversity by tells us to "respect what is right in the sight of all people" (Romans 14) and "be all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9). But the postmodern demand to uncritically accept all beliefs as true (at least for the person who believes them) is fanatical.

Beliefs formed in the pluralistic climate of openness and tolerance create a firewall against genuine and substantive dialogue about spiritual truth and human rights. For example, "political correctness" advocates like Stanley Fish have argued that since all speech is a political power-play, ideas must be monitored and managed, not rationally and constructively engaged.5 This has given rise to the accusation, even among liberal academics like Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, that a new McCarthyism pervades intellectual life today.6 History offers sobering testimony to the high price such anti-rational dogmatism exacts.

Contrary to the inviting rhetoric of openness and inclusion, postmodern pluralism threatens those who are marginalized the most. If truth is really a political power-play, the dominant culture is probably going to be the winner. And if human nature is a mere cultural construct, the rights of those who don't fit the arbitrary "norm" are at risk. As our culture continues down the path of fragmentation and alienation, Christians who make an informed and compelling case for the gospel and intrinsic human dignity have a powerful message for a pluralistic age.

The Pluralist Objection to Christian Exclusivism

Dispite the clear and intractable problems with postmodern pluralism, it remains a powerful force both in academics and in popular culture. But nowhere is this more evident than in religion. Religious pluralism is an emerging, measurable consensus of our postmodern age.7 Oddly enough, some of the most ardent defenders of religious pluralism and virulent critics of Christian exclusivism are theologians and philosophers who profess faith in Christ. Distinguished philosopher of religion John Hick concludes,

I believe that anyone who is either born or "born again" into the conservative-evangelical thought world, and who has a questioning mind, will find that he has to face challenges to the belief system within which his Christian faith was first made available to him, and that he will almost certainly be led by rational or moral considerations to modify or discard many of its elements.8

So what are the "rational and moral considerations" for giving up exclusivism? Reflecting on the diversity of the world's religions, Hick says,

[I]n the light of our accumulated knowledge of the other great world faiths [Christian exclusivism] has become unacceptable to all except a minority of dogmatic diehards. For it conflicts with our concept of God, which we have received from Jesus, as the loving heavenly Father of all mankind; could such a Being have restricted the possibility of salvation to those who happen to have been born in certain countries in certain periods of history?9

Hick rightly points out that religious intolerance is usually born out of ignorance. Once we become aware of the rich traditions that form the world's religions, it is much more complicated to maintain the exclusivist view. But for Hick, Christian exclusivism is untenable because it violates the moral character of God. He wonders how an all loving God could condemn the vast majority to eternal hell simply because they happen to have been born in the wrong place or at the wrong time? And isn't it arrogant to think that sincere and well intentioned people will be damned just because they happen to have encountered and accepted a different religion? Hick thinks that only the salvation of all humanity through various religious traditions is morally acceptable and rationally compelling. This facet of pluralism is called universalism.

Unfortunately, Hick and other pluralists don't accurately represent Christian exclusivism. The Bible doesn't teach that God's judgment is based on where or when a person is born. Also, religious sincerity is certainly no measure of truth. Yet Hick raises a troubling point. I really can't think of anything that bothers me more than the doctrine of judgment. I don't like thinking about the possibility that people I love and respect might be eternally separated from God. I'm troubled by Jesus' observation that "narrow is the path that leads to salvation." Christians will make few inroads into our pluralistic culture without providing a sensitive and coherent response to this rhetorically powerful and emotionally charged objection. To that end, I encourage you to read the excellent texts on this subject listed in the endnotes.10

For the purposes of this essay, I'd like to make a couple of observations about Hick's alternative to Christian exclusivism. Does pluralistic universalism avoid the moral and rational problems Hick and others see in Christian exclusivism?

Hick supposes that if God is truly loving, he will be revealed in all the great religious traditions of the world. But let's note that accepting religious pluralism does not entail universalism. On the contrary, all of the monotheistic religions Hick believes to be valid teach divine judgment. And the eastern religions--Hinduism and Buddhism in particular--certainly don't teach universal salvation or moksha (release from the cycle of life). So simply asserting that all religions are legitimate paths to God, as pluralists do, doesn't result in universal salvation. Indeed, it seems that if universalism is true, then it really doesn't matter what a person believes or what they do with their life. Universalism actually has nothing to do with the pluralistic view of religion. Consequently, pluralism does not overcome Hick's moral objection to Christian exclusivism.

More importantly, universalism trivializes the meaning of divine love. This is so because if there is no ultimate accountability for our lives, no judgment, then the choices we make in life are of no final consequence. Without judgment, there is no way to distinguish between heaven and hell. After all, how would you characterize eternity with an unrepentant Hitler? In what sense could this be heaven? Further, how would six million Jews think about the love of God if it didn't make any ultimate difference to him what Hitler and the Nazis did? Universalism does not uniquely allow for the love of God as pluralists suppose. It makes God indifferent to cruelty and trivializes the significance of human freedom by dislodging choices from their consequences. Any meaningful definition of God's love must also affirm his justice. Once we grasp the necessity of justice in divine love, the uniqueness of the Christian message strikes a powerful chord. By God's grace, he has poured out his judgment on Christ so that we who deserve judgment may receive eternal life.

The moral objection to Christian exclusivism based on God's judgment is simply not compelling. But what about the religious pluralists' claim that it's arrogant and naive to say that Christianity alone is true? Is pluralism a more reasonable position as Hick purports?

Hick follows several lines of argument in support of religious pluralism. Here we consider the two that most influence popular pluralistic views.

First, Hick says that the universe is "religiously neutral." By this he means that none of the arguments for any particular world view are uniquely compelling. Even trying to say which arguments are the most plausible is out, since knowledge of the universe is so limited. A range of alternatives that include atheism and all the great world religions must be kept open.

It seems, then, that the universe maintains its inscrutable ambiguity. In some aspects it invites whilst in other it repels a religious response. It permits both a religious and a naturalistic faith, but haunted in each case by a contrary possibility that can never be exorcised. Any realistic analysis of religious belief and experience, and any realistic defense of the rationality of religious conviction, must therefore start from this situation of systematic ambiguity.11

To the extent that it is possible to be objective, the universe fails to come to the aid of any particular world view. That's what Hick means by systematic ambiguity.

On the one hand, Hick's position makes good sense. When theology is naively wed to prevailing scientific theories, it can lead to the corruption of both religion and science. This is the lesson of the medieval marriage of Ptolemaic astronomy and Catholic doctrine. Theology suppressed the growth of scientific inquiry, and the Copernican revolution created the unnecessary conflict between science and religion.

On the other hand, to say that the data of science and history is of no value in discerning religious truth goes too far. That the universe is finite, for example, is a well established fact. This is consistent with the Bible, but inconsistent with eastern religious teaching and suggests that the world is not, in Hick's words, "religiously neutral." The data of science lends plausibility to some religious doctrines, while falsifying others. Similarly, were factual statements made in the Bible shown to be historically false, this would count as positive evidence against Christianity. Clearly, science and history have implications for religious truth claims. Religious propositions are subject to falsification just as any other truth claim.

Second, pluralists think of religious truth as human experience within a cultural paradigm. Hick isn't interested in the data of science or history, since they maintain their "inscrutable ambiguity" on matters of ultimate reality. He adopts an essentially constructivist view of truth. Following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Hick says that we must distinguish between reality as it is (noumena) and reality as we perceive it (phenomena). The idea is that we don't have direct access to reality as it is in itself. We think through "interpretative filters" that shape our perceptions of reality. For example, we see colors and hear sounds because that's the way our perceptual organs are set up to interpret light and sound waves. We have no way of knowing what, if any, color the world actually is since we can't escape perceiving the world the way we do. Reality as it is in itself is beyond our grasp. We can be sure of our ideas of reality, but not of their correspondence to the world as it actually is. Philosophers have called this the egocentric dilemma.

Hick applies this noumena/phenomena distinction to religion. Since human perception, governed by cultural conditioning, shapes our religious beliefs, Hick concludes that God, or the Real in itself, is beyond all human concepts.12 Some religions conceive God as personal, others as impersonal. Some view God as transcendent, others as imminent. But once we recognize the basic distinction between reality as perceived and reality in itself, all of these differences based in human perception loose their significance. Hick states,

The distinction between the Real as it is in itself and as it is thought and experienced through our human religious concepts entails. . .that we cannot apply to the Real in itself the characteristics encountered in its [religious representations]. Thus it cannot be said to be one or many, person or thing, conscious or unconscious, purposive or non-purposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating. None of the descriptive terms that apply within the realm of human experience can apply literally to the unexperiencable reality that underlies that realm.13

On this view, no religion truly reflects the Real in itself. That's what is thought to follow from the noumena/phenomena distinction. Yet, Hick makes it clear that the major world religions are valid within their cultural context.

[Yahweh] is, according to my hypothesis, the divine persona in relation to the Jewish people. And as such he represents a genuine, authentic, valid human perception of the Eternal One from within a particular human culture and strand of history. But he is a different divine persona from, say, Shiva or from Krishna, who are divine personae in relation respectively to the Shaivite and the Vaishnavite communities of India.14

Notice the dilemma in Hick's proposal. He wants to say that all major religions are "genuine, authentic, valid human perceptions," and at the same time, "[the Real] cannot be said to be one or many, conscious or unconscious, purposive or non-purposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating." In other words, it's valid for Christians to believe that God is "good, purposive and conscious," yet those beliefs aren't actually true about God as he actually exists. Our experience of God is somehow valid even though it doesn't correspond to the the way God is.

This creates a strange tension within the pluralists' position. Either the major world religions are authentic, valid manifestations of the Real, or they are not. If they are valid, then the Real must be both personal and impersonal, purposive and non-purposive and so on. But this impossible, for it can not be the case that the Real possesses a contradictory nature. It violates the law of identity. In affirming two mutually exclusive things about God, the pluralistic view ends up being rationally incoherent. God could be personal or impersonal, but not both personal and impersonal. But if God is either personal or impersonal, then the pluralistic hypothesis fails because various religions disagree on this very important point.

In reality, Hick is not committed to the pluralistic hypothesis that each religion is true in its own way. He is actually advocating agnosticism--the idea that no one can know God or say anything true about him (her or it). Indeed, Hick seems to be disguising a rather well-trod agnosticism in the inviting rhetoric of religious pluralism.

Coming to Terms with Pluralistic Tolerance

What does this analysis of pluralism mean for the Christian witness to secular culture? Here are a few principles to apply.

First, Most people's thoughts about the world's religions are shaped more by their cultural and political legacy than the propositional or doctrinal content. With this in mind, Christians should not try to defend the indefensible. The only association many primal cultures have with Christianity has been when it has been used as a tool of exploitation and domination. Even when that has not been the personal experience of non-Christians on campus, it's usually the main thing they are taught about Christianity. Western imperialism and Christianity, they learn, go hand in hand. We should lament and decry this legacy of injustice just as loudly as anyone else. But just as emphatically, we should demonstrate that the cynical use of religion to justify economic and political ambition is anti-Christian. We need to distinguish between what the Christian message is and how it has been abused. There are also important examples of the biblical foundation for many important civil rights movements such as the abolition of slavery and child labor.

Second, the rise of pluralism requires us to be more sensitive to the role culture plays in personal identity and forming spiritual beliefs. Becoming a Christian is not the same thing as living and thinking like the conservative white middle class. Yet, that's the image most non-Christians have in their minds-- which is why Christ is not a live option for many of them.

We must be careful to minimize the intrusion of non-essential cultural baggage into our Christian witness. That means looking for opportunities to meet people in places where they are comfortable even if we aren't. Subverting the expectations non-Christians have of Christians is an increasingly important part of being effective ambassadors for Christ today. We must be willing to move as far toward the culture as we need to, so long as it does not involve compromising biblical morality or truth. In short, it means adopting principles of cross-cultural missions in domestic evangelism.

Third, we must be aware of the fact that the vast majority of people have been well indoctrinated into the pluralistic tolerance ethic. To "give an account of the hope that is within us" as scripture commands, we should be familiar with pluralistic arguments like the ones considered in this paper. By carefully and sensitively stripping away the attractive veneer of postmodern pluralism, exposing it for what it is, we can eliminate a key barrier to communicating the gospel. One thing stands out in my mind more than anything else as I reflect on the Christian witness in our day: we must be far more sophisticated in our thinking and flexible in our methods than perhaps ever before.


1. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 228,9.

2. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1963), 117.

3. Micheal Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 132.

4. Gergen, The Saturated Self, 229.

5. See Stanley Fish, "There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, And It's A Good Thing, Too!," Boston Review, (February, 1992), 3.

6. Alan Dershowitz, "Harvard Witch Hunt Burns the Incorrect at the Stake," Los Angeles Times, Washington edition (22 April 1992), A11.

7. George Barna's research has found, for example that, "about four out of every ten adults strongly concurred that when Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others pray to gheir god, all of those individuals are actually praying to the same god, but simply use different names for that deity. Only one out of every six adults strongly disagreed with this view." George Barna, What Americans Believe: An Annual Survey of Values and Religious Views in the United States (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991), 275.

8. John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982),16.

9. Hick, God Has Many Names, 27

10. Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991)

11. John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 124

12. Hick states: "Religion is different responses to one divine Reality, embodying different perceptions which have been formed in different historical and cultural circumstances." An Interpretation of Religion, 294

13. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 194.

14. Hick, God Has Many Names