A Pluralist Lost In Christian Pluralism

I often have a difficult time expressing my thoughts about the myriad strands of Christian belief without saying things that are prone to be misunderstood. I doubt this attempt will be any different. But I’ve had a variety of thoughts swirling around my head lately and it’s time to reduce at least some of them to the written word.

It’s hard to understand what is meant by the label ‘Christian‘ today. On the one hand, modern Christianity seems to be almost as diverse and varied as the many paths we lump together under the label ‘Hinduism‘. However, on the other hand, modern Christians for the most part assert that within their pluralism they somehow remain ‘one faith‘ even as they make assertions about God, man, and the nature of reality that utterly contradict each other. Even in Hinduism, the various paths generally share some common basic assumptions about the nature of reality. That is not always the case in modern Christian pluralism.

I have a theory that many people are raised and shaped primarily within one perspective on the nature of reality. It might be some sort of an essentially materialistic perspective or Hinduism or Buddhism or a particular flavor of Christianity. Though they might change that perspective at some point over the course of their lives, they tend to take the assertions of the paths they adopt more or less at face value. Since it is common today for the myriad Protestant paths to claim that the various Christian paths are essentially the same faith, it seems to me that there is a shared assumption among Christians and non-Christians alike that the claim accurately reflects reality.

I was not raised within any one perspective, however. Throughout my childhood, my mother was actively searching and exploring a wide variety of things. While I sometimes label my default perspective relativistic pluralism, that’s really more of a non-label. As a result, when I found myself drawn almost inexorably toward some sort of faith in Jesus of Nazareth fifteen years ago, I did so as someone who had wandered through many beliefs and practices through the first three decades of my life. If I was anything, I was a pluralist in the truest sense of the word.

It’s difficult to describe life without an overarching narrative (or with one that shifts fairly easily) to those who have never experienced it. It does mean that I don’t usually try (or at least try for long) to fit things into a predetermined framework. Rather, I more or less experience different perspectives as they are described. Some perspectives I try on lightly. Others I’ve held more tightly. But I don’t generally try to make any perspective fit into some mold. I just let it be what it is.

So at first, I accepted the assertion that Christianity is a single faith which is essentially the same across all its denominations, sects, and schisms. However, that assertion only holds up if you don’t look too closely at the different paths within Christian pluralism. They are actually very different from each other in the most basic elements. They do not say the same thing about the nature and being of God. They do not say the same thing about the nature of man. And thus they do not say the same thing about the nature of reality. Even when they use the same words (as they often do), when you look through the lens of particular paths, you find they don’t actually mean the same thing when they use those words.

What’s a poor pluralist to do in the midst of that confusion? What do you do when people say they believe the same thing when they obviously don’t?

For a while I tried to treat Christian pluralism the same way I approached Hinduism as I explored and practiced some of the different paths within it. That “worked” on some levels for a while. But the more I learned about the Christian faith and its different modern paths, the more dissonance that created. As diverse as it is, Hinduism does share some common sense of transcendent reality in Brahman, both the substance of all that is and more, but in an impersonal way. There is some basic, shared sense of karma, the transmigration of souls, and other common elements that provide some coherence within the pluralism of Hinduism. I found no such commonality within Christian pluralism.

A few years ago, a friend loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. My friend was curious how someone with my background and formation would react to the book. On one level I liked it. (And I’ll point out that I generally enjoy the things Brian says. I haven’t read a great many of his books because I don’t think he’s primarily speaking to people like me. But I have read some and I do follow his blog.) I naturally try to appreciate the positive within various spiritual paths as I try to inhabit them to a greater or lesser extent. However, I found the book … incomplete. Brian never seemed to fully inhabit the various perspectives explored in the book and, as a result, while he does lift some positive aspects from each, the book never reveals the deep dissonances between the perspectives.

Instead of trying to somehow reconcile the different Christian perspectives or pick the aspects from each that I liked in a sort of Christian syncretism, I began to try to simply look through the lens of some of the different paths within Christian pluralism (nobody could ever inhabit them all) and decide for myself if the path described a God I could not just worship, but love. For it was the love of Jesus and a love for Jesus (and for the ways that Jesus formed and changed people in perplexing ways) that had drawn me into Christianity. It’s that same love that keeps me within it, almost as if I’ve passed the event horizon of a black hole, though the center of this gravity well is purest light.

As I did that, I discovered that a lot of the different paths described a fundamentally unlovely God. They described a God I didn’t even much like, much less love. And I’m not interested in worshiping a God I don’t like and can’t love. And so in discussions, I began saying things like, “Calvin describes a God I would never willingly worship, much less love.” Of course, people read such statements and interpret them to mean that I don’t believe that, for instance, Calvinists are Christians. I don’t know how to avoid such interpretations, but I don’t have any ability to judge who is or is not a Christian, and would never assert anything along those lines. I don’t even know how to judge if I am or am not Christian. I’m not even sure what that means. The only thing I can say is whether or not a given perspective describes a God I could or would ever worship. I’m not making a statement about others. I’m making a statement about myself.

I tend to use Calvinism in my illustrations because in its purest form (which I know most people don’t actually hold) that perspective is simultaneously widely considered somehow “orthodox” while at the same time is utterly repellent to me and antithetical to everything I see in Jesus and believe about God. I don’t even particularly care what arguments people can construct about its rightness because I don’t care if it’s right or not. If Calvin was right, then I’m not Christian, will never be Christian, and utterly reject that God. Calvin described an evil God. Obviously, I don’t believe he was correct or I would not still be pursuing Christian faith.

I could use Mormonism in my illustrations since I find its description of God and reality completely uninteresting also, though not quite as repellent as Calvin’s. However, most Christians don’t consider that sect Christian, so the illustration would not have the same impact. (I’ll point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints actually agrees with other Christian traditions that they teach something entirely different. They just disagree over who is correct, not over whether or not it is different.)

That reminds me of a joke I heard recently. It was a takeoff on the Four Spiritual Laws, that begin “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (I had to look them up, but the joke was funny even without knowing what they are.) These were the two spiritual laws of Calvinism.

  1. God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life.
  2. There’s nothing you can do about it.

It was funny to me anyway.

There are several general things I feel I can now say about Christian perspectives. If your perspective does not describe a God who is unfailingly good, I’m not interested. I may struggle to truly believe that God is good at times, but I’m not interested in trying to have faith in any personal God who is not good. If your God is not love, a good God who loves mankind, then I’m not interested. If your God is one who has a problem with forgiveness and who must have all debts paid by someone, I’m not interested. Like Jonah, I see a God who overflows with mercy and forgiveness, even when that mercy irritates me. For in truth, if God does not overflow with mercy, on what basis can I pray, “Lord have mercy” and expect to be heard? I look at Jesus and I don’t believe that God has any problem with love, any problem with forgiveness, or any great concern about his “honor.” The question is never if God loves us or if God forgives us or if God is doing everything he can (without coercion) to “save” us. The question is on us. Do we want his love? Do we want to assume our proper place in creation or do we want something else? How will we choose to experience the fire of God’s love? As warmth and comfort? Or as a “consuming fire”? God has shown us who he is in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not the question. The question is who and what do we choose to be?

So many modern Christians seem consumed with trying to prove that they are right that few seem to pause and ask if the God they describe is worth loving.

However, I don’t presume that I have any ability to judge individual people, whatever perspective they say they hold. I had an aunt who was a lifelong Presbyterian (though I had no idea for much of her life that that perspective was “Calvinistic” or even what that meant) and who was probably a better Christian than I’ll ever be. I have a friend who claims to lean toward a “Calvinistic” perspective (though I’m not sure how to reconcile that with what he actually says and does) but who is again a more faithful follower of Jesus than I’ll probably ever be. Knowing what I think I know about Jesus, I would also be shocked if he were not working to “save” those within Buddhism, Hinduism, or other perspectives, even if they never overtly claim a faith in him. I don’t set boundaries on the work of the Spirit. But I think there is a lot within modern Christian pluralism that makes that work more rather than less difficult.

I’ve written the above without even touching on my long-standing interest in history, how Christianity is fundamentally a historic faith (in that we claim that God acted within the context of history in Jesus of Nazareth), nor of the historical disconnect within most of modern Christian pluralism. If I ever decide to explore it, that’s a separate post. Hopefully, in this one I’ve made it a little clearer how I approach faith within Christian pluralism.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    How was it that McLaren put it about those charming Calvinists? Something along the lines of how he admires people who can try so hard to love a God like that … it struck me as boiling down to “A for effort”. 😉

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / LF

  2. Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Funny! I have to confess I don’t recall much about his take on any specific tradition. Mostly it’s just a general impression that I recall. I did read his book that served as the introduction to The Ancient Practices Series published by Thomas Nelson more recently and really liked it.

    And thanks for the comment. It’s been an extremely busy week trying to cram everything I wanted to accomplish at work before the end of the year into this one week, but I sometimes wonder what people think of the thoughts which I choose to publish, especially when they are like this one.

    I re-read it after your comment and I certainly used a lot of parentheticals! It’s almost like I felt the need to “unsay” everything even as I “said” it. Curious. And how apophatic of me. 😉

  3. Posted December 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Well, you wouldn’t be a true pluralist if you couldn’t say and unsay things at the same time, could you? 😉

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / LF

  4. Posted December 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I came across your blog and this post through The Saturday Evening Post activity. Since I cannot read all the submissions, I decided to read every numbered entry that is a multiple of 5. No special reason, but if I need one, I guess I could say Saturday was the 5th of November.

    Anyway, I love what you wrote here. I’ve had a lifelong interest in matters of faith. Your perspective is unique. I spend the vast majority of my time living within the Christian tradition in which I was raised. But, I have familiarized myself with some of the others a little bit.

    What resonated most with me were your statement concerning wanting a loving and forgiving God. Amen to that!

  5. Posted December 6, 2009 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ruth Ann. I’m glad that when your multiple of 5 approach sent you here, you found it worth reading. It’s just a guess, but I think sometimes that people forget that as Christians, one of the things we say is that the fullness of the revelation of God is found in Jesus of Nazareth. And instead they form a concept of God apart from that revelation. We interpret everything (Scripture, the nature of reality, the nature of man, the eschaton, etc.) through the lens of Christ.

    Now, that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. For instance, when we say that God is (for example) “just”, that’s a true statement. But we don’t actually understand what it means to be “just”. Many of our ideas are tied up in punishment and retribution. Yet we can only begin to comprehend the revelation of God’s justice when we look at Jesus on the Cross as he prays for mercy toward those unjustly killing and mocking him “for they don’t know what they do”. As he makes himself the least of all in order to free all mankind and redeem creation.

    But it seems to me that a powerful, personal God who is not like Jesus is ultimately a God I don’t care to worship. I would rather worship an impersonal god or the spirits of the created world.

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