On the airplane to Seattle this week, I sat next to a woman reading a very interesting book. The title of the book was, Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianity. The interesting thing about the title of the book is that it is a clear reflection on one of the trends taking place in our culture. The functional theology that drives our culture is the ideology of pluralism. Pluralism flows from the cultural force that many call Postmodernism. The philosophies and ideas being written in books and discussed on college campuses can be complex. I don’t want to get into these, rather, my point in this blog post is to share how I believe the basic premise of pluralism has infiltrated the practical beliefs of most in the culture, and for the most part, most in the church.
The philosophical and theological idea behind pluralism is that all thoughts and ideas about God are basically opinion. There are thousands of opinions about God and truth in the world, and each person approaches the vast subjects of life from their own perspective. If you put five people in a room, and they talk about the big questions in life, you usually end up with eight or ten opinions. And who are we to tell a person that they are wrong. Since they come from their perspective, it is true or right for them. Pluralism teaches that each person’s experience of God is different, and that their way of packaging the beliefs is individual. Since God cannot be touched, seen, tasted, or experienced by the senses, there is no way to know for sure what he is like. Furthermore, attempts to experience God through reason have ended with an unbelievable diversity in opinion. On top of all this, there is a significant amount of skepticism about organized religion preaching exclusive truth claims, because those who have said they know the truth have used that position to do great evil. This includes radical Islam for sure, but much of the movement of Christianity is tainted with violence, racism, and oppression in the name of truth.
For these, and a multiple of other reasons, absolute truth is rejected, leaving people to develop their own opinions about God, spirituality, the holy books, the afterlife, and other spiritual issues. And there is a rejection of any attempts made to embrace absolute truth and to say that the opinions of others are wrong. In Eureka, and for most of America, pluralism is embraced for a multitude of reasons. Here’s a few. First, people are looking for religion, but they cannot reconcile their experience in church with the search for a mysterious God. So they find other avenues for that search. They look into Eastern religions, yoga, mantras, nature experiences, and all sorts of spiritual experiences. Second, the highest value in our culture is tolerance. The culture has abandoned any belief in absolute truth. In other words, the only thing that is true in the culture is that there is no truth. If there is no truth, then nobody is right or wrong, and you are fine, as long as you don’t tell anyone they are wrong (figure that out). This works, because it is so compelling to people’s heart language. We want to feel good toward others, to have compassion. But the definition of compassion and love has changed. Love used to mean that a person strongly desires the best for another person, and is willing to do anything to provide the best for him or her. This is what Jesus did. He loved us so much, and knew that leaving us as we are was not the best thing. Rather, he gave his life to provide salvation and transformation. This is no longer the definition of love and compassion. The new definition of love is to affirm someone for their beliefs, life choices, and behaviors. It is unloving to question moral behaviors, to call things sin, and even to proclaim the good news of Jesus. The growing diversity of religious views in our nation is another reason for the influence of pluralistic spirituality. Everyone knows people from other cultures holding completely different religious beliefs. Since it is unloving to call those beliefs into question, the better thing, according to pluralism, is to affirm those beliefs as valid and equal to your own.
Well, that is enough about the reasons this is such an issue. Now, I would like to share a few ways that this belief tends to creep into the belief systems of those in our churches, and explain how pluralism mixed with Christianity will end up distorting the Gospel. First, pluralism leads to a salad bar approach to spirituality. Think about a good salad bar, with lots of options, several lettuce varieties, tons of veggies, some good meats, a plethora of salad dressing choices, and multiple options for toppings (crutons, bacon). Each person goes down the line with their plate, picking and choosing the things that are right for their appetite, adding the items that appeal to their taste and needs. The vast majority of people in our culture are approaching spirituality in the same way. They want to walk down the aisle of spiritual beliefs, picking and choosing different ideas and doctrines, filling their plates with the things that appeal to them. This is why a book that integrates reincarnation with Christianity can sell, and sell millions of copies. Never mind that there are no historically valid reasons for believing anything in the book, the idea of a mystic Jesus who promoted karma who can become a guru for diversity appeals. Many people attending churches, even in our city, will sit in the pew, listen to the pastor, take what they like and add it to the mix. But they put no more credence in his words or the Bible than they do to Oprah, Ghandi, Deepak Choprah, or Shirley MacLaine. This runs congruently to the Gospel and the claims to exclusivity by Jesus himself. A Gospel that gets mixed in with several religious views will be no gospel at all. Yet, there is pressure to adjust our teaching and preaching to embrace the salad bar spirituality.
Another danger comes from the tendency to replace truth with opinion as the driving force. Christianity rises and falls on the reality that it is a revealed religion. Honestly, Christianity agrees with pluralism in this, people cannot know God on their own. We are left groping in darkness, left to our own spirituality and opinions, IF GOD DOES NOT ACT. But He did. God spoke and revealed Himself (Hebrews 1:1-4). Not only did God speak, he came to earth in the person of Jesus to show the reality of God. Jesus said, “If you knew me, you would know my Father (John 8:19).” We are not left to opinions and human ideas about God, we have God himself in the flesh who walked and lived among us, and showed us the character and purposes of God. But too often, the revelation of God in the Bible is not taken seriously. Rather than deep study of the Bible with a goal of greater understanding, most Bible study in the church is an opinion session. A teacher reads a few verses, and then goes around the room asking everyone their opinion. And no one opinion is better than any other. At Genesis, we structure our Community Group discussions around questions and answers. But these question times seek to apply the Scriptures as taught on Sunday morning. We are not seeking to provide a place for people to express their opinions about the Bible, rather, we hope that they will hear the revelation of God, and understand Jesus better, and then spend time with other people talking about ways to live that out.
O.K. One more. When pluralism strongly influences a church, it will move a people toward a human-centering rather than a God-centering. Pluralism gets its grip because we don’t want to offend, and we do not want to make others feel judged. In fact, the most popular Bible verse in our culture is “Judge not, so you won’t be judged.” The result too often is that pastors and Christians work so hard to be loving and compassionate (in the new definition), that they ultimately offend God. I know that this is strong language, but this is exactly what Paul warned about in Titus 1 when he said “Rebuke them sharply so that they may be sound in the faith.” The only thing that can change people’s lives is the glory of the only true God through the Gospel of Jesus. When a church focuses on compassion at the expense of God’s revelation, it will lose the most important single thing it has, the blessing of God.
In closing, a few thoughts about how our church, or any church might live the Gospel as the answer to pluralism. First, we have to have an unwavering and passionate love for God, and a consistent message that Jesus is the only possible answer to the questions of life. Pluralism will push back on that message, but we cannot waver. This does not mean that we promote and proclaim that message in ways that are offensive, pushy, rude, or combative. The opposite is true, the proclamation of the message of the Gospel must be done with compassion, gentleness, respect, and love. But we must not waver on the truth of the message. Second, the value of story has great appeal to pluralistic thought. Know your spiritual story. Know how to share with others how God has touched you. On top of this, learn to share the story of the Gospel as story, not as a set of propositions. One reason pluralism is skeptical of Christian faith is because they have heard the good news of Jesus presented as a set of propositions to believe. The Gospel is the story of God, with the themes of creation, fall, redemption, restoration weaved throughout the story. Finally, we do need to hear some of the criticism our culture has toward Christianity. Part of the reason people have a hard time receiving Christian faith as a revealed religion is because they have seen the inconsistencies in those who claim to be the followers of Jesus. In our past, we have episodes like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the slave trade on our record. In the present, Christian have been guilty of violence and hate toward homosexuals, abortionists, and others who do not agree with their faith. Add to that, many have had encounters with so-called followers of Jesus who told them there were “going to hell” if they didn’t believe certain things, and ridiculed them or someone they knew because they did not promote Christian ideals. It is no wonder people are skeptical. The answer to pluralism will be found in the lives of people who are humble and gentle incarnations of the grace of God.
Well, I hope this series of blogs have made you think. My hope was to show the primary belief systems that I believe we will need to monitor in our church because they have such a strong influence in the culture of Eureka. You may have things to add to the discussion. Feel free to point out other false Gospels that may push on the beliefs of our church, and to which we need to find ways to preach the Gospel clearly. God bless.