Read an Excerpt
The Gagging of GodChristianity Confronts Pluralism
By D. A. Carson
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 D. A. Carson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Challenges of Contemporary Pluralism
A. Defining Pluralism
"Pluralism" is a surprisingly tricky word in modern discussion. For some, it has only positive connotations; for others, only negative. Some use it in combination with various spheres: cultural pluralism, ideological pluralism, intellectual pluralism, religious pluralism, and so forth. For our purposes it will be useful to consider not the spheres in which pluralism is found, but three kinds of phenomena to which the word commonly refers: empirical pluralism, cherished pluralism, and philosophical or hermeneutical pluralism.
1. Empirical Pluralism
Empirical pluralism sums up the growing diversity in our culture. Observable and largely measurable, it is what David Tracy prefers to call "plurality." "Plurality," he writes, "is a fact."
"Pluralism is one of the many possible evaluations of that fact." But although a few scholars have followed him in this usage, most still use "pluralism," in one of its uses, to refer to the sheer diversity of race, value systems, heritage, language, culture, and religion in many Western and some other nations. Paul Martinson prefers the rubric "factual pluralism"; in any case, the rubric is less important than the phenomenon.
Consider, for example, the remarkable ethnic diversity in America. The United States is the largest Jewish, Irish, and Swedish nation in the world; it is the second largest black nation, and soon it will become the third largest Hispanic nation. Moreover, these large proportions reveal nothing about the enormous diversity generated by countless smaller ethnic and racial communities. Compiling equally remarkable statistics in almost every other plane of American culture is an easy matter.
It is possible to overstate the novelty of this diversity. Jon Butler vigorously argues, for his own ideological purposes, that American life and culture were extraordinarily diverse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and correspondingly depreciates the degree of diversity reflected in the nation today. Richard Pointer's recent study of colonial New York reinforces the trend among modern historians to find substantial pluralism in this country at its birth. But although such work is a useful foil for those who picture colonial America as culturally monolithic, or who exaggerate modern empirical pluralism, it must be insisted that the range of contemporary diversity is, on any scale, vastly greater than has ever been experienced in the Republic before.
In the religious arena, the statistics are fascinating and sometimes differ from poll to poll. Statistics for the larger denominations have floated a little, but not much. Protestants declined from about 67 percent to 57 percent between the years 1952 and 1987. Roman Catholicism is now increasing in numbers, owing in part to the influx of Hispanics, but the number of Roman Catholic clergy is declining disastrously, which at least suggests that both the internal strength of Catholicism in this country and its influence on the nation are on the wane. Most demographers insist that if present trends continue, WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) will be in a minority (about 47 percent) by the year A.D. 2000.
But such statistics do not tell the whole story. They have to be augmented by other observations. Frequently large-scale studies on what America believes focus little attention on the small but multiplying and growing movements on the fringes. There are substantial numbers of Hindus and Buddhists who have emigrated to the West, and who are now slowly winning converts. The familiar cults are holding their own; some of them, like the Mormons, are growing fairly rapidly. Numerous studies document the rise of New Age religions and the revitalization of various forms of neo-paganism. Not long ago witches' covens were virtually unknown; now they advertise in the newspapers. Current immigration patterns are bringing in more and more people with little heritage in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and this fact doubles the impact of the number of people within the country who for various reasons have lost or abandoned the tradition. None of this was foreseen by the Founding Fathers; little of it was foreseen forty years ago.
Even when the standard polls provide useful and interesting data, a depth dimension is often missing. One of the best-known devices, the Princeton Religious Index, used by the Gallup organization, serves as a benchmark based on seven religious beliefs and practices: belief in God, religious preference, attendance at worship, confidence in the church, confidence in the clergy, the importance of religion, and religion's ability to answer current problems. In 1994, this index for the U.S. stands at 656 (on a scale with a maximum of 1000)—a little higher than the late 1980s, considerably lower than 1960. The percentage of those who say they attend worship services at least once a month has been remarkably stable for the last century. But such figures do not make sufficient allowance for several other factors. Some studies have suggested that the percentage of those who say they attend worship once a week or once a month may be double the percentage of those who do what they say. More importantly, the pressures of secularization ensure that formal religious observance may happily coexist with the marginalization of religion.
One hundred years ago, the New York Times had the sermons of Spurgeon telegraphed across the Atlantic so they could be printed in the Monday morning edition. Today the New York Times is more interested in chronicling the devices some neighborhoods are using to keep churches out or at least small—petitions, manipulated zoning laws, even litigation (March 24, 1994). Moreover, if the studies of Wuthnow are correct, individualism and personal choice in religion have largely displaced loyalty to denominational structures and to inherited doctrinal bastions. This makes it easier for individuals to be syncretistic, or, worse, confusedly pluralistic—i.e., people without strong doctrinal commitments may take on highly diverse and even incompatible ideas and fuse them in some way (syncretism), or they may take on highly diverse and even contradictory ideas without fusing them, simply letting them stand, unaware that the elementary demands of consistency are being violated.
In short, the rise in empirical pluralism can scarcely be denied. Experts may debate the significance of this or that component, but the trends are so unmistakable that they should not be ignored.
Moreover, although most of the statistics just provided, along with many of the arguments in this book, have the United States in view, empirical pluralism is characteristic of most countries in the Western world. In Canada, regular attendance at public worship is only a fraction of what it is in the U.S., but the percentage of Canadians who say they hold religious, and specifically Christian, beliefs is not too far out of step with figures south of the 49th parallel: 67 percent of Canadians believe Jesus rose from the dead, 78 percent claim some sort of affiliation with a Christian denomination, 53 percent of adults reject the theory of evolution, 9 percent say God is "just an old superstition." But again, the real advances in empirical pluralism in Canada are detected as much in other measurements as in the religion statistics: substantial immigration (from Haiti, the Indian subcontinent, the Pacific Rim, especially Hong Kong), changing levels of tolerance, rising biblical illiteracy, changing tolerances in the moral arena, the presence of minarets and Buddhist temples. Like Canadians, Australians score fairly high on personal belief in God, and very low in any ability to articulate the gospel or to become actively involved with a local church. It, too, has witnessed a flood of immigrants.
Many European countries are experiencing their own forms of empirical pluralism, forms that are sometimes much like those of their American counterparts, and sometimes very different (e.g., "guest workers" in France and Germany). A major study (nicely summarized in the Christian Science Monitor of November 22, 1991) demonstrates, not unexpectedly, the American bias both toward liberal individualism and toward some form of religious expression, over against a number of European countries.
In many countries, the growing empirical diversity of religions and ideologies is tied in part to fresh immigration patterns (often from their former colonies), and to a general decline in the hold of Judeo-Christian biases in outlook and values. As usual, the significance of almost every datum is disputed. For example, in his recent book Robin Gill argues that the perception in England that the churches are empty is not to be laid at the door of "secularization" and other cultural factors. The blame, rather, lies with church leaders who ignored the declining numbers at the turn of the century, and continued to build more buildings than were needed. But even if he has uncovered some remarkable ecclesiastical bumbling, most observers think his analysis extraordinarily reductionistic, and his proposals for reversing the decline—essentially variations of good management techniques—extraordinarily optimistic. The pluralisms that now characterize England go far deeper than how many church buildings are empty, and turn on more than the mosque in Regents Park or the prevalence of Urdu in Leicester or the fact that the Cockney lilt is now less common in Metropolitan London than the West Indian lilt, though all of these realities are important indices. What is gaining is diversity; what is declining is relative cultural homogeneity. In short, in almost all Western nations (and some others), there is a marked rise in empirical pluralism.
This is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. Those who prefer that culture be variegated, racially mixed, religiously pluriform, and culturally diverse, will judge these developments good. The developments themselves may achieve some real good if they serve to break down cultural prejudice, racial arrogance, and religious bigotry. Christians may find the diversity an ideal setting for thoughtful articulation of the faith and for renewed evangelism. Alternatively, those who prefer the stability of recognized cultural norms may find the new pluralities not only discomfiting but vaguely threatening. And it would be naive to fail to acknowledge that these new realities may actually serve to fan the flames of hostility and tribalism. In order to maintain stability, governments may be tempted to arrogate more and more authority to themselves (since there are fewer and fewer shared values and norms). The end of this is hard to foresee, but it probably augurs little good. Christians may be tempted so to bemoan the dilution of centuries of Western culture that they perceive only threat and no opportunity.
But however the rise of empirical pluralism is perceived, the brute reality cannot seriously be doubted. This is empirical pluralism.
2. Cherished Pluralism
By "cherished pluralism" I mean to add an additional ingredient to empirical pluralism—approval. While some writers and thinkers (though certainly not all) on the New Right view empirical pluralism as a threat to stability, order, good government, and perhaps also to biblical Christianity, it is important to remember that many citizens want to retain the diversity. In other words, for them empirical pluralism is not only a raw datum, it is a good thing. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, "It has become a commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society—not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished."
[This pluralism] holds that variety and diversity are a positive good, and the denial of variety and diversity is bad. In its extreme form, pluralism opposes syncretism, i.e., the combining of various traditions. Rather, it so affirms the integrity of a given approach to life that any attempt to change it is considered a moral violation.
Os Guinness defines pluralization as "the process by which the number of options in the private sphere of modern society rapidly multiplies at all levels, especially at the level of world view, faiths, and ideologies." This state of affairs can be so widely accepted as normal that it is saluted and approved. He comments:
We have reached the stage in pluralization where choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life.
In other words, the reality, empirical pluralism, has become "a value in itself, even a priority": it is cherished.
That this is not a universally held value is precisely what generates "culture wars," to use Hunter's expression. Even if he sometimes exaggerates the differences that divide groups in our culture, and too easily deploys purple prose, Hunter is right to point out that in the face of diversity some groups circle the wagons and fight off every other group. The battles are not just religious, of course. Yet Hunter rightly says that the culture wars are profoundly religious: they concern fundamentally opposing conceptions of authority, morality, truth, the good, revelation, and so forth.
By and large, the media and the intellectuals of the West cherish pluralism. On the long haul, this has its effects both in society and in the church—effects to be explored in later chapters.
3. Philosophical or Hermeneutical Pluralism
This is, by far, the most serious development. Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior.
This state of affairs is not the fruit of sophomoric relativism, or of the urgent need to redefine one's morals to justify one's sleeping arrangements. It is tied to some of the most complex intellectual developments in Western thought in the last twenty-five years. In particular it is bound up with the new hermeneutic and with its stepchild, deconstruction. The outlook that it spawns is often labeled postmodernism. I shall probe all three in the next two chapters. At the moment, a few clarifying explanations will suffice.
At one time "hermeneutics" was understood to be the art and science of biblical interpretation. The term was gradually extended to almost all kinds of interpretive acts, regardless of the object. At the same time, developments in Western intellectual thought kept emphasizing just how subjective all interpretation is. Eventually the expression "new hermeneutic" was coined to emphasize the break from the older approach; this label has in turn been displaced by "radical hermeneutics." Old-fashioned hermeneutics belongs to the "modern" era in which science, scholarship, and serious study were thought capable of resolving most problems, of answering most questions, of understanding all of reality. Radical hermeneutics, by contrast, recognizes the subjectivity of interpretation, and how much of it is shaped by the cultures and subcultures to which the interpreter belongs.
But if old-fashioned hermeneutics belongs to the "modern" era, and we have now passed to radical hermeneutics, then we must be in the "postmodern" era. The roots of modernity lie in the Renaissance, and in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The world was understood to be a rational place; truth was there to be discovered. As naturalism took hold, God was either marginalized (in the deist understanding) or abandoned (the atheist perspective). Progress was seen to be almost inevitable; entire worldviews, including both Marxism and capitalism, were judged to be historically verifiable and believed to be developing according to a sort of natural law.
Excerpted from The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson Copyright © 2011 by D. A. Carson. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.