February 3, 2007 / David Fitch

Pluralism and the Witness of an Open Community


I teach this class at Northern on Christianity and Pluralism. In this class we examine one of dominant issues of our day for those of us seeking to be missional in the N. American context. How do we declare the uniqueness of Christ, the supremacy of His Lordship in a society based in tolerance and the pursuit of individual spiritualities?

We go through a.) the political history as to how we got here, b.) the shift in the way we understand truth and religious knowledge that happened from the Enlightment to post-the linguistic turn of Wittgenstein, Derrida etc., c.) the various approaches to political theory which underwrite how we relate to other religions. And then d.) we go into the theological understandings as understood down through the history of the church, as well as Scripture concerning the uniqueness of Christ and salvation. Hopefully we all come away with a sense of location and confidence for mission when we’re done. if anyone would like to see the syllabus hit here, find the class in the schedule and then hit the title for the syllabus.

The ideology of pluralism that most of us are familiar with is born out of the political liberalism (PL) that came to flourish in the US post WW 2. It has its roots of course in John Lock, John Stuart Mill, the other founders. But John Rawls articulated it best in his Theory of Justice and later his Political Liberalism. Basically Rawls said we can expect no one to compromise in the public arena if their reasons for advocating something are based in their beliefs in/about God. We must therefore bracket out any such reasoning based upon such “comprehensive doctrines with transcendental elements” lest we bring back the never-ending conflicts of the Thirty Years Religious Wars of Europe. We must be tolerant. And we must bracket out all cultural and particular reasons when we come together in the public arena (“The original position”). These two basic ideas enforced a split between public/private, fact/value, religious/scientific that lingers to this day. This provides the foundation for the “reasonable pluralism” we all swim in today. This is the pluralism where we can all get along and of course honor the individual’s right to pursue his or her own happiness.

Many of us know that Rawls and his PL has been beaten up pretty badly in the past twenty years. Postmoderns decry its enforcement of a sameness and a loss of all difference. They suggest this kind of democracy is the European white man’s totalizing discourse. McIntyre has decried PL as a rhetoric which conceals the depth of our disagreements like a bad dysfunctional family who never talk about the deep angers that seethes beneath. Jeffrey Stout and others have seen PC’s glaring weakness and sought to improve upon it by making democracy itself a viable tradition.

In the midst of it all comes John Howard Yoder. In his “Meaning After Babel” (Journal of Religious Ethics 24, no.1 (Spring 1996):125-39) where he is reviewing one of Stout’s earlier works, he argues that Babel 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 actually tells us that pluralism is a good thing for the gospel that we simply cannot do without. Through vulnerable interaction with other religions and other people, he says, we are able to see something about the gospel that was not visible before. Babel therefore was the means to prevent people taking God’s will into their own hands. 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.

You may think that all this means Yoder was a raving inclusivist or worse yet a religious pluralist. Far from it. In a brilliant convergence of his many themes, Yoder actually shows how “Jesus is Lord” is the condition for a non-coercive, faithful witness of the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. He combines a.) what he calls “the epistemological preference of the poor” and vulnerable (this is a repeated theme of Yoder’s that is absolute geniuss for our day!), b.) the proclamation that THERE IS NO OTHER GOD, c.) the noncoercive witness of the good news and d.) the weak, vulnerable, welcoming – the 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 that it brings the good news to the poor and the lost.

In Hauerwas’ words, “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)

This approach to pluralism is at home in the postmodern realities we face today. It is not dependent upon an Rawlsian individualism wherein we must either a.) contend for Christ coercively based upon publicly reasonable arguments that bracket historical claims of Christ, or b.) we encourage everyone to pursue their spirituality in hopes they will find the truth. It is an approach to pluralism that makes ultimate sense for the missional church effort many of us are involved in today.

Sometimes I fear that the work emerging writers have been doing in this area of pluralism have been too indebted to latent Rawlsian logic. Surely 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. They may give us some good insights which I too confess have many times agreed with, at least in regard to a lot of their insights. But in order to become the kind of witnesses that effect a society, that bring Christ’s redemption, I believe Yoder is the one to follow here. We might need to parse our doctrines more carefully concerning hell, the destination of those who have never heard, and the intent of God to save the whole world. But in the face of the dominant pluralisms of our day, I believe we also need to think through the practice of becoming “open communities that witness the good news.” 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 in all He has done in Christ through the Spirit in worship, the hospitality and the invitation to those who are lost … 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.”

What do you think about Yoder’s open community approach to pluralism versus Burke’s, McLaren’s, others? Are they different? What promise do they hold for the missional communities of the future?