In The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, author D. A. Carson describes three categories of pluralism: empirical, cherished, and philosophical or hermeneutical. [i] The first deals with diversity in America and the multiplicity of beliefs. The second, cherished pluralism, describes the approval of diversity as an unquestioned virtue. Finally, philosophical pluralism, under which religious pluralism falls, posits that no religion has the right to pronounce itself true and right. In other words, no religion can advance “truth claims” that are superior to any other.
Carson states that postmodernism is the outlook that birthed philosophical pluralism. [ii] While I agree that pluralism is an important subject that benefits from the kind of attention given to it in the book, I believe the length of the book and the comprehensive nature of the material presented can make it difficult to follow at times. Furthermore, on several occasions the author seemed to move to the wider margins of the topic. However, as the implications of pluralism are pertinent and its integration with postmodernism significant, the information was extremely beneficial.
The Christian must recognize empirical pluralism, tolerate cherished pluralism, but reject philosophical pluralism. We must recognize the diversity that exists in modern culture as Christians have throughout history. While pluralism poses new challenges in the current day, Christians have always had to stand up for the truth of Christian believe against other religions. Scripture was both inspired and written in a pluralistic context. However, even in the Old Testament God insisted that his people turn from the worship of other gods and other religions.
For example, in Joshua 24:15, Joshua gave the children of Israel a choice to either serve God or Baal. The prophet Elijah would later give Israel the same choice in 1 Kings 18:21. Throughout history, God’s people have been reminded to be faithful to God as they were constantly surrounded by foreign gods and other religions. The same phenomenon applied during New Testament times. Christians resided in cities like Rome, Corinth and Antioch, Corinth, which were centers of diversity and multicultural exchange.
They were surrounded by other world views, yet were constantly reminded that Jesus was the only way. This created a clash between Christians and other world views that would come to a head with the persecution of Christians. The Apostle Paul argued in the book of Acts that the true and living God superseded all other gods and preached Christianity against the backdrop of pluralism. There has been a need for Christians to do so ever since. Yet, while we reject philosophical and religious pluralism, in some cases, Christians are willing to cherish pluralism. In todays society, we cherish ethnic diversity.
We welcome new members into our churches that come from various backgrounds even as God welcomes worshippers from every nation, tribe, people and language. Carson states his purpose for writing, to equip Christians for fidelity to the gospel and encouraging unbelievers to find Jesus as Lord: “If anything in the following pages equips some Christians to intelligent, culturally sensitive, and passionate fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ, or if it encourages some thoughtful unbelievers to examine the foundations again and so to find that Jesus is Lord, I shall be profoundly grateful. [iii] In the book, Carson gives a comprehensive examination of pluralism. He takes the time to communicate with great detail on his positions and provides details that demonstrate his understanding of the subject. Throughout, Carson intimates the tension between the opposing perspectives of the pluralist and the Christian. From the perspective of the pluralist, the Christian appears to be a religious bigot unless they are willing to redefine Christianity without connecting it with Scripture.
Likewise, from the perspective of the Christian, The pluralist is a misguided idolater no matter how sincere they may be. [iv] The book is divided into four sections, which tackle the major issues affected by the three types of pluralism. In the first section, the author describes the influence of hermeneutics and how texts are invariably interpreted against the backdrop of the interpreter’s social “home” and the historical conditioning of the language itself. During this process, the interpreter takes bits of the text and “deconstructs” it to fit them into their own framework, which generates fresh insight.
While this section also critiques postmodernism, Carson warns against giving the impression that modernism was a correct way of analyzing either the text or the world we live in. The second section deals with the philosophies of Derrida and Foucault that form the basis for postmodern thought, which is at odds with the Christian faith. While Carson opposes the idea of postmodernism, and criticizes the work of Foucault and Derrida, theologians such as James K. A. Smith, say that
Carson has misinterpreted their ideas and posits that they actually have an affinity with the central claims of Christianity. [v] The late German theologian, Karl Rahner recommended in his writings that dialogue should be used as the method by means of which plural theologies should strive for an understanding of each other. [vi] However, Carson intimates that the Christian needs to affirm that all interpretations are not equally valid because: God has revealed Himself and spoken clearly; and God has unfolded His plan of salvation and recorded it in Scripture.
The third section of the book attempts to assist Christians living in a pluralistic culture by giving an understanding of assumptions made in the public sphere and replacing those assumptions with biblical truth. As we live in a world where public morality has seemingly collapsed, religion seems to be based on feeling and not on truth. Carson says that ethical divisions are made pragmatically, making proper Christian thought necessary in making sense of the pluralistic world that we live in. vii] The final section of the book says that the answer to philosophical tolerance is the reiteration of Christian doctrine concerning the Second Coming and the nature of heaven and hell. Christians must have confidence in spreading this message in a compassionate way. However, it must be done with a sense of urgency, as the evangelism of our communities is paramount. Christians must have a deep conviction of the infallibility of Scripture and hold that it is inerrant and sufficient in order to both live a victorious life in a pluralistic society and to increase confidence in Christian doctrine. ———————- [i] Carson, D. A. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002, 13 [ii] Ibid, 19 [iii] Ibid, 10 [iv] Ibid, 238 [v] Smith, James, K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? : Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture). Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic. 2006, 28 [vi] Fay, William Vendley. Pluralism and the theological methods of Karl Rahner: A critical assessment. January 1, 1983. ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8802369 [vii] Carson, D. A. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002, 404