“Coexist,” the bumper sticker reads. At face value, such a message is a very positive one – despite the fundamental differences between religious faiths, they can nonetheless exist together without threat of violence.
Problems come in when the message of “coexist” becomes predicated on a lack of difference among religious groups, and the implied command toward the privatization of religious beliefs.
We are speaking, of course, of “pluralism,” the state wherein a diverse group of religious belief are given freedom to express these differences, so long as these expressions do not threaten the safety of others. But, as author Leslie Newbigin points out, pluralism can be descriptive (i.e., merely describing the diversity of culture) as well as prescriptive (insisting that we celebrate all religions as being equal). In the latter case, “tolerance” means more than “putting up with” the differences of others – it means to celebrate all differences as having equal validity.
And so it comes as no surprise that a recent ruling declared the National Day of Prayer “unconstitutional.” Among the many reasons cited is the “Establishment Clause,” which – thankfully – prevents the nationalization of any particular religion.
Yes, while Franklin Graham’s earlier comments regarding Muslims received much attention, the faith he represents is considered quite equally objectionable. The Huffington Post makes clear that “Even if Graham had never uttered a single disparaging word against the religion of Islam, his invitation would still have been in violation of several Department of Defense regulations.” The article goes on to cite precedent for disallowing “preferential treatment” of any religious entity.
But where the rubber and road fully meet is on two key issues that are highly representative of our culture: (1) Pluralism and (2) Privatization (and from here on, I will be using the term “pluralism” in its prescriptive sense for the sake of simplicity).
1. Pluralism: All religions are the same.
A column in USA Today drives home this point, referring to the “The National Day of Prayer (to-Jesus-or-get-your-own-show) Task Force.” The views of the Christian leaders organizing this event are criticized for not making “room under this salvation umbrella for Muslims, Jews, and other non-Christians — including those wearing the uniform for the USA.”
Please note the language used here: it is not that other faiths have an equal right to representation (which would fall under descriptive pluralism) but that they have an equal claim to salvation (prescriptive pluralism).
2. Privatization: Religion is entirely private.
When the court made the ruling regarding the National Day of Prayer, it cited the (assumed) personal nature of faith. Judge Crabb was reported as saying that the “sole purpose [of the National Day of Prayer] is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that services no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to the individual conscience.”
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gayor are co-presidents of a watchdog group, who make their views quite clear: “Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely precious and personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience.”
PLURALISM: ARE THEY ALL THE SAME?
The problem with this claim is simple: superficial similarities between religions often mask fundamental differences. While many religions share similar moral values, they differ quite radically on issues such as the nature of God, the basis for morality, man’s purpose, destiny, the problem of suffering and the means of salvation.
Therefore, you cannot simultaneously affirm the value of “diversity” and claim that all religions are equally valid, for in doing so you minimize the very differences that create diversity in the first place. Pluralism – in its prescriptive form – provides the illusory comfort of the moral high ground, all the while concealing the Stalinizing tendency to homogenize conviction and minimize conversation.
This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th- century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.
I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.
When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.
The popular American Express slogan warns us: “Don’t leave home without it.” But with regards to faith, privatization exclaims just the opposite: leave your faith at home, for it has no place in the public workplace. For further evidence, you have only to look at a current law in Virgina banning police officers from mentioning “Jesus” in public prayers (from an article sent to me by a good friend). Note that prayer is allowed, but it must be a prayer that does not exclude anyone. Not only does this fall into the danger of pluralism, but it forces officers to privatize the distinctives of their beliefs.
But as Christians, we know that faith can never be private. We have the resurrection to thank for that. The claim that Jesus literally, historically rose from the dead cannot be dismissed as a merely “personal” or “religious” question. It is a claim that must be carefully examined by all responsible students of history.
In his recent book, Knowing Christ Today, Dallas Willard writes:
Can we know that Christ arose from the dead? Yes, if we will but “do the math.” That he arose is the only plausible explanation for what happened after his death and what still exists today as a consequence. The established mental habit of many people today is to say with no thought, no hesitation, that he did not arise. For one thing, to many people this is a “religious” question, and therefore it automatically falls outside the domain of facts and knowledge. …Many such people are simply bored with a question they take to be irrelevant to real life anyway and don’t want to be bothered with it. Also, allowing that it might be known that Christ arose is to concede that it actually happened, and that puts an entirely different light on individual life and human destiny….Suddenly reality is no longer safely secular. The apostle Paul’s statement to the Athenians – that God “has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31) – would then be frighteningly plausible….It looks as of we are all going to be held responsible to God for what we do and who we have become.
The resurrection prevents us from dismissing faith as being based on “private” or “sentimental” reasons.
SO SHOULD WE PRAY?
In answering this question, let’s first affirm the fact that we live in a diverse world of many differing spiritualities. Let’s not make the pluralistic error of homogenizing them, but let’s also not make the error of demonizing differing faiths. The Christian proclamation, I would argue, is of such attractive character that it need not be spread through coercive means, nor would such means harmonize with the very character of the message itself. To that end, we may rightly tolerate those of other faiths, and though we certainly cannot celebrate their beliefs we may find common ground on which to build a bridge to the risen Savior.
And let’s also recognize the culture we live in, where both pluralism and privatization have – quite apparently – become socially accepted. Let’s not be indifferent to these trends, but let’s not be alarmed or embittered by them either.
Jim Daly of Focus on the Family offers such wisdom on this in a recent article in Newsweek:
“Judge Crabb’s ruling is now rightly under appeal. I am optimistic. But for perspective regarding the way forward, believers might look to a wonderful lesson in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. There, in Chapter 4, we read of two men, Peter and John, who were arrested and imprisoned for talking openly about Jesus. They were later released. When they returned to their people and explained their plight, their group did a curious and counter-cultural thing. They didn’t gripe or grumble; they prayed for their captives and asked for courage to keep the faith and stay on message…Now is the time for believers to be bold but humble, courageous but compassionate.”
Wisely said. I don’t know that the trends I’ve mentioned will be reversed in my lifetime, but I can certainly affirm the Christian duty to wisely and courageously navigate this culture. Dallas Willard writes:
[T]he world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and religious leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low. (Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines)
The loss of a “National Day of Prayer” should certainly not dissuade us from lovingly and courageously proclaiming God’s truth in love (many are choosing to observe the day anyway), nor can they prevent Christians from taking the time for prayer. The Christian faith needs no representation from the State to be effective – in Church history the times of greatest persecution also became the times of greatest growth.
Our greatest prayer, then, should be for open doors for the gospel (Colossians 4:3) so that the love of Christ can be shared in our communities. Despite the two trends we’ve addressed, our culture is more open to spiritual conversations than ever before. Let’s make sure we pray for the chance to have them.
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