Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 1

Posted: June 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther wrote an interesting post about an exchange between Tim Challies and Ann Voskamp. If you haven’t read it, take a moment to do so. Especially as I read the comments that followed, I realized there seemed to be a pretty significant gap between the way I perceive and interact with the world around me and the way that others perceived the same. That’s not exactly a new experience for me, especially within a Christian context, but I still struggle to understand why. I’ve been mulling it in my mind and I think it goes back in part to basic cultural formation.

First, I hope everyone reading this post recognizes that whatever we term “religion” or its “non-religious” materialist (or, I suppose, possibly even non-religious and non-materialist) counterpart is not merely some private little thing informing a few edge beliefs and behaviors here and there within the life of a human being. Rather, those understandings, often operating well below any level of conscious thought, inform and shape our fundamental perception of reality and the ways we interact with the world around us.

Elsewhere, I have used pluralistic to describe my childhood cultural formation. It occurs to me, though, that people may not really understand what I mean. I also don’t reject the idea of relativism in at least some sense, but probably not as it seems to be commonly understood. As a starting point, I don’t accept and do not believe that every way of perceiving reality is a path on the same mountain, a piece of the same patchwork quilt, or any of the similar metaphors that are commonly used. That’s simply another overarching framework imposed on others as a way of forcing them to fit into your perception of reality.

Ultimately, the story it attempts to force on others is a pretty arrogant and coercive one. The story asserts that others only see a piece or a shadow of reality. They aren’t wrong, exactly, but if they could only see the whole tapestry or the whole mountain instead of just their little piece, they would be so much more enlightened. (I’ve never heard anyone present this perspective who did not seem to believe they were one of the enlightened ones who could perceive at least the existence of the mountain, if not actually see the whole mountain and all the paths upon it.) It’s simply a different way to tell other people — the ones who can’t see the whole tapestry or who do not even acknowledge the existence of such a tapestry — that they are wrong.

No, when I use the phrase pluralistic, I mean something much more straightforward. I look at those around me and I acknowledge that they have different ways of perceiving and interacting with reality. And those perspectives are actually different from each other.

Full stop.

I don’t attempt to force every perspective into a common framework of any sort or understand an individual perspective through the lens of an overarching narrative. I take every perspective on its own terms to the extent that I am able to do so. That does not mean I do not have my own perspective on this fundamental question about the nature of reality. I do. Over the course of my life, in fact, I’ve held a number of different ones. And I don’t take it for granted that the one I now hold is the one I will hold for the rest of my life. I believe I am getting at least a little closer to better understanding reality and don’t anticipate another drastic shift, but incremental change is almost certain.

In practice, that means that when I’ve explored, written about, or discussed different perspectives, I’ve done the best I could to first understand how that perspective described reality. When I’ve been exploring different beliefs, I’ve tried to spend some time living and acting as though those beliefs and everything they imply about the reality we inhabit were true. When I’ve simply been discussing other perspectives, I’ve tried to honestly and accurately compare them to the way I see things. I’m sure my success at those efforts has varied, but that’s my general goal.

I’ve read that incredulity toward metanarratives is a postmodern thing, so I suppose this perspective fits easily within the postmodern context of my overall cultural formation. Without any overarching framework, I simply take each view as it presents itself and allow it to have its own independent framework. Now that does not then imply that I believe every individual framework is somehow “right,” whatever that would mean in any particular context. In fact, since different narratives about reality are often radically different from each other, that whole idea strikes me as a really silly proposal. Is there even any common ground at all between a Hindu’s and a materialist’s perception of reality? If there is, it’s a pretty narrow strand. No, this simply means that I approach each perspective largely on its own terms and not on mine.

When I reached the point in my adult life when I acknowledged that as a result of some pretty negative experiences, I had simply discounted Christianity and never afforded it any true examination, I began slowly to attempt to do the same with it. (And that was always a struggle for me. I held a deep antipathy toward Christianity.)  It’s been almost two decades since that point now and the process is still ongoing. Christianity in our modern world is a truly confusing thing. It’s presented as a single religion, but when you approach it in the manner I describe above and simply allow the different groups to describe the God they worship in their own terms, there’s very little true cohesion or natural similarity. Different groups who present themselves as Christian (whatever that means to them) say different — and often radically different — things about God, Jesus, mankind, the nature of reality,  the purpose and effect of the Cross, and virtually everything else of any meaningful significance.

So what’s a poor pluralist to do?

I’ll explore that in the next post in this series.

 


Sola Scriptura 3 – Authority

Posted: August 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Authority is a difficult and complex concept and I recognize I can’t begin to plumb its depths in today’s short post. But this feeds an important stream in the deconstruction of the philosophical idea of sola scriptura. So I can’t simply ignore it in the context of this series.

My own cultural shaping has been labeled “postmodern” in some contexts. To the extent that is used to describe a shaping that is sensitive to and suspicious of the assertion or application of power and describes a lens which is incredulous toward metanarratives, I accept the label. None of us are ever free from the exercise of power and influence by others. Or at least rarely does one become free. I have read descriptions and stories of monastics and martyrs who reach the point of submission to Christ that they appear truly free from all other powers — even their own passions. That is not true for most of us.

Although many people assert that they rely on Scripture alone for their authority, that is not typically the case. If you listen to them speak, in most cases they have readily discernible sources for their interpretation of Scripture. It is those people who actually exercise authority over people, not Scripture itself. Comparatively few people actually read Scripture and wholly interpret it for themselves. Rather they place their trust in the interpretation of other individuals or communities within a common context.

I do read somewhat widely and always have. And some interpretations hold more weight or feel more accurate to me. But I’m far too postmodern to actually place my confidence in the interpretation of any single human being or even a group of people situated in the same time and cultural context. And I’m far too postmodern to trust my own interpretation as authoritative. That requires a particular sort of arrogance I might like to have, but cannot develop. I’m all too aware how well and thoroughly and even unintentionally I can deceive myself.

Where then do I place my confidence? When it comes to an understanding of Scripture, I have more confidence in an interpretation when I see it held and taught in every age by a broad number of people. Both are important. If we believe our faith is rooted in a God who became one of us so that we might commune or become one with him, if we believe that that God is love (not as attribute or in part or in action or in feeling but in essence), then having become one with us he would work to help sustain our proper understanding of him. And he would do so in the only way possible, in and through his people across time and space and culture.

So I don’t trust my own interpretation of Scripture where I can find no confirmation for what I think I see. I hold it loosely. I don’t trust the interpretation of any individual. I don’t trust the interpretation of a group when the interpretation and the group are largely confined to a particular period of time or culture. One of those sources seems to be where everyone who holds to some idea of sola scriptura places their trust. And I can’t do that.

I think fewer and fewer people can.