Best kept secret (4)

Chapter 2 of John Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission is called ‘The many and the one: the challenge of pluralism’

Dickson clears some ground in this short chapter addressing a necessary question that if answered in the affirmative, would take the ground from under Christian mission. Don’t all religions lead to God? And if they do this proves a ‘monumental defeater’ of Christian mission.

You may recall that in our interview, Scot McKnight identified universalism as the big issue facing evangelicals in the years ahead.

More sophisticated pluralists like Marcus Borg propose that religions mediate spiritual reality by connecting people to the ‘sacred’– in this sense they are ‘sacramental’. They point to ultimate reality but are not ultimate reality themselves. In his own words (not in Dickson’s book)

“I don’t want to deny the uniqueness of Christianity. I want to speak of the uniqueness of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. They are all unique in the sense that they are not exactly alike. But what I’m affirming is that beneath their differences is this common path of transformation. For me, seeing that all the major enduring religions know this path of transformation gives Christianity much more credibility than if it were to claim to know something that no other religion had ever known.”

Pluralism seems tolerant (all views are validated); it ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of God’s judgement; it avoids the impoliteness and intolerance of evangelism and mission; it deals with the reality that (for example) vast numbers of people are born into religions other than Christianity; it is therefore psychologically satisfying.

Dickson points out the weaknesses:

– Views like Borg’s that all religions point to ultimate reality but none are true is simply asserted. Does Borg have some special revelation no-one else has?

– Pluralism is fantastically presumptuous: it claims to have access to a bigger ‘truer truth’ than all religions. In effect it is saying all religions are ‘true’ in a way that none of those religions would affirm or recognise.

– Pluralism seeks to avoid the unbearableness of God’s judgement, but  it consigns pretty well all the world’s religions to wholesale delusion and error.

– Therefore pluralism promises more than it delivers

Dickson argues for taking religions seriously and for a robust tolerance that engages with people of different faiths with kindness, respect and humility.

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3 thoughts on “Best kept secret (4)

  1. Very helpful Patrick. A related issue is that of how Christians promote respect for and tolerance of other religion’s while affirming faith in the uniqueness of Jesus and his gospel. A common stance is to see the gospel as something we must “protect and defend.” This stance rarely produces the humility and respect Dickson speaks of. An alternative stance of saying little or nothing about the uniqueness of Jesus and his gospel may be lauded as tolerant but does not do Jesus or the gospel justice. It seems to me that it is only by constantly interacting with the gospel in our own lives, allowing it to reshape and refine our attitudes and actions, that we are set free to be clear and vocal about the uniqueness (we need a better word than that) of both Jesus and Gospel and yet always humble and never co-ercive. This living tension is a gospel gift that can never achieved by the righteous zeal of either pluralistic or religious certainty.

  2. Thanks Sean. Seems to me that it would have made no sense to the first Christians to ‘protect and defend’ the good news – it was a message to be shared and lived out whatever the cost to themselves. And for many Christians around the world in often hostile minority situations the same is the case. It is us Westerners living in the shadow of Christendom that tend to assume it is somehow normal or natural that Christian values can & should be protected and defended politically. And this too easily comes off as self-interest, self-protection and a power ploy. And we’re only beginning to grapple with life in a plural society and what that means for how we can best ‘promote the gospel’ to quote John Dickson. He has some good stuff on this to come in later chapters …

  3. This is one of the most concise break downs of pluralism I’ve heard.

    As to defending our faith, I’ve always maintained that if God needs me to defend Him we are all in trouble. The irony is that throughout Scripture the prophets of God and Jesus cried out for God to be merciful to those in sin while sharing the need for repentance with humanity.

    Perhaps if learned to grieve for those who do not know this amazing God our approach would be flavored with kindness and compassion.

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