Pluralism and the Witness of an Open Community: Take 2

My last post was too academic and not clear enough. I’m trying to do a blog which boils academic conversation down for the work of missional/emerging church. And the last post didn’t quite cut it. Jerry said it gave him a headache. So here is Take 2. It is less complete. But it’s more to the point. Thanks Jerry!

Most evangelical Christians have considered pluralism a bad thing. For them, pluralism has been a problem that needs to be overcome, defended against and even defeated as part of our evangelism strategy. For evangelicals, the existence of other religions is a threat. Ironically John Howard Yoder thinks pluralism is the opposite. Pluralism is a good thing. It is a necessary thing that God has given us in order that we might better be the living church of Christ in the world.

I contend our evangelical strategies towards engaging pluralism have been defined by what I shall call Political Liberalism (PL). This is the doctrine that says our country shall be governed by only stuff we can all agree on. PL will not allow, for instance, content from specific religions to determine public policy. For PL, religious knowledge is private – science and reason are public. I contend that this founding ideology of democracy influences the way we evangelicals engage other religious as Christians. For like the good Americans that we are, we either engage other religions through rational arguments based in neutral forms of reason, or we are tolerant and encouraging in allowing (implicitly) all religions to find their way. It is either a competitive argument, or a therapeutic conversation to find “your higher power.”

Now, admitting that the discussion of the merits of PC is much deeper than this, and acknowledging that PC has been critiqued by and developed much further by people like Stout, Habermas, Taylor, Rorty, McIntyre, Coles and even Derrida, I wish to contend that John Howard Yoder shows us all the way forward as how to be missional in the tsunami of pluralism we find ourselves in. Yoder tells us we should not seek first one on one arguments based upon a common reason with folk of other religions (especially if they are coercive), neither should we seek tolerant conversation where we encourage the pursuit of each one’s own spirituality (especially if said spiritualities are demonic), rather we seek to be open non-violent, hospitable and humble communities which seek to engage “the other” vulnerably in order to both learn from them and display the gospel before them all the while entrusting the world’s salvation to the Sovereign Lord.

What makes possible such an open community? For Yoder, it is that God has chosen pluralism as the instrument for God to work for His truth in the world. In Yoder’s “Meaning After Babel” (Journal of Religious Ethics 24, no.1 (Spring 1996):125-39) he argues that Babel (Genesis 11) was divinely ordained of God. Instead of a curse brought on by sin, the pluralism that resulted was divinely intended as “a providential occasion for clarification of the gospel.” And so in a stunning way, Yoder tells us that pluralism is not a bad thing for the church. No, in fact pluralism is a good thing for the gospel that we simply cannot do without. For Yoder sees that Babel was the means God ordained to prevent people from taking God’s will into their own hands. Instead God ordained that it would be through vulnerable interaction with other religions and other people that God would reveal His truth to us furthering the gospel in us, through us and in the world. Through the loss of one singular language at Babel, God enabled that we would be able to see something about the gospel that was not visible before. It made us an open community dependent upon each other to learn in submission to His Lordship in mutual vulnerability. Imagine I say! Pluralism is the condition for God to work out His truth in us over time in relation to other religions.

Now you may think that this means Yoder was a raging inclusivist thinking God works in all religions to bring us to Christ. You may think even worse of Yoder, that he is a religious pluralist believing God is bringing all people in all religions to their own god. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. For Yoder actually shows how believing “Jesus is Lord” creates the condition for a non-coercive, faithful witness of the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. For who needs to worry when Jesus is in control. All we need to be at this point is faithful.

Yoder’s writings on pluralism brilliantly combine several themes. He combines a.) what he calls “the epistemological preference of the poor” and vulnerable (THIS IS GENIUS!), b.) the proclamation that THERE IS NO OTHER GOD, c.) the noncoercive witness of the good news and d.) the weak, vulnerable, welcoming, open community living within the contingencies of history, to fashion a marvelous picture of a witnessing community that is vulnerable, hospital yet confident in its own history. It is this open community of Christ that is perfectly situated to bring the good news to the poor and the lost souls of pluralism.

I commend this approach to pluralism. As opposed to hand to hand combat with other religions where we seek to win on the turf of a mystical neutral rationality, as opposed to the ever tolerant conversations that assume everyone is going to the same god eventually, I propose we missional Christians engage in being open communities of Christ, interested and learning about other religions on their own terms so as to learn from them and minister to them in their moments of greatest need. We can do this because we know “Jesus is Lord” sovereign over all things, working for his truth in the very encounters we are vulnerable to. I propose we live boldly the salvation we have been given in Christ through love, justice, prayer, the saving of the innocent. Yet we never engage coercively for we believe all salvation comes at the initiation and work of the Holy Spirit, we are just to be faithful. We never engage in violence, excessive persuasive technique, or trounce on the weak for we believe truth requires no coercion, violence or undue defensiveness. It is in fact our vulnerability which reveals how grounded in truth we are as a community. It makes it safe and attractive for those seeking truth to come. We are called to be witnesses not prosecuting attorneys. This is just some of what I would call an open community of Christ amidst the pluralism of our day.

Hauerwas sums up this approach with some good words. Notice the non-coercion here. The rejection of extraneous judgments towards other religions we cannot possibly know enough to judge. Notice the ground of engagement is the life witnessed by and in the open community.

The command to be a witness does not entail apiori judgments about the beliefs and life of others – e.g. what is right or wrong with Hinduism or Islam – though such judgments after time may be appropriate, but rather witness derives from no other source than that which invites us to “look what manner of life has been made possible among us by the power of the cross and the resurrection of Christ.” The invitation to join such a life is made not on the assumption that there is something wrong with the others’ beliefs, but it is made because we are all sinners and through participation in this community we have the possibility of finding redemption. (Community of Character p. 105)

Sometimes I fear that the work emerging writers have been doing in this area argues too much or seeks to assuage arguments from a neutral plane of reason. Brian McLaren’s Last Word, and Spencer Burke’s Heretic’s Guide help us understand and think through some doctrines we may need to think through. But in order to become the kind of witnesses that effect a society, that bring Christ’s redemption, I believe Yoder is the next place we need to go. In the face of the dominant pluralisms of our day, we need to know how to nurture and lead communities that embody the life Christ has given us to share, the community, the fellowship, the justice, the servanthood, the nurturing and care of children, the reality of God, all He has done in Christ through the Spirit in worship, the hospitality and the invitation to those who are lost to find their way to the Triune God … For Yoder says it is in the presence of this open community in and among the pluralities of religions that all will be invited to look and see “what manner of life has been made possible among us by the power of the cross and the resurrection of Christ.”

When I think of “open communities” I think of some churches I know in Baghdad whose sharing of the peace and love of Christ in the face of constant threats has won many souls in Christ’s Kingdom. I think of some peaceful communities planted in impoverished gang infested territories of cities. I think of safe places planted amidst Mormon towns in Utah. I think in some ways all missional comunities must become open communities in the territories of post-Christendom most of us find ourselves in. We try to do book clubs, theology pubs to make safe third spaces for these kind of conversations.

What do you think about Yoder’s open community approach to pluralism versus other approaches you’ve encountered?

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