post-Christendom (9) a realistically positive attitude to pluralism

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: here is the third:

A realistically positive attitude to pluralism

The Civil Partnership Bill is an attempt by the Irish Government to legislate for the reality of that co-habiting couples are the fastest growing family type in Ireland. There were over 120,000 co-habiting couples recorded in the 2006 census representing 11.6% of the population. In 2008, 33% of all births in the state were to unmarried parents (either single or living together). One fifth of households in Dublin are traditional families of married parents with children. The number of same sex cohabiting couples recorded in the 2006 census was 2,090 compared with 1,300 in 2002. Two thirds of these were male couples.

The legislation does not redefine the Irish Constitution’s definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, to do so would require a constitutional referendum. EAI clearly took the view that, on balance, the CPB was a reasonable attempt to deal fairly with these facts.

The Government is seeking to legislate for greater justice and fairness for co-habiting couples, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As Christians we should support that stance. Co-habiting couples are a reality – this legislation seeks to deal with that reality from a legal perspective.

In other words, the statement is willing not only to live with difference but to support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Commenting informally (and positively) on the EAI statement, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes wrote

‘we have demanded too often that the law be brought into accord with our moral intuitions, without exception or reserve. Evangelicals have probably been worse at this than most.’ Yet, he continues, ‘The intuition … that it is the moral duty of government to maintain a studied neutrality on certain matters, and to offer space and protection for its people to live in the way that they might choose, is a natively evangelical one.’

Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes. For example homosexuality, heterosexual adultery; greed, anger, selfishness and so on should not be legislated against in the courts.

As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that the ‘rights’ that they seek for themselves they also seek for others.

Tolerance works both ways.

Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centered and self-interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue.

However, let me be clear that this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. This distinction was missed by several critics of the EAI statement who wrongly interpreted it as supporting homosexual partnerships.

Living with difference within a fallen sinful world is quite distinct from affirming that difference.

And living in such a plural society is a much better place to be for evangelicals and other minorities than during full-blown Catholic Christendom.

I ask my students in a class on ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’, which Ireland would you like to have lived in? De Valera’s or today’s? 100% say today.

In other words, Irish Christians not only should have, they already do have, a positive attitude to pluralism.

Comments, as ever, welcome


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