Our world is changing from a traditionally Christian society to one in which Christianity is a minority. Where once Christian morality was the norm, we now find Christianity fending for itself against secularism that, with a certain air of objectivity, goes about marginalizing Christianity one subtle step after another. Some even think that Christians are being persecuted. Christians seem to only now be waking up to the fact that we are living in a pluralistic society, a society in which there is a plurality (i.e., a manifold of religions, opinions, world views, cults and philosophies).
Christians seem to be ill-prepared to speak to their non-Christian neighbor; they don’t know how to handle ambiguity or a situation in which their voice is just one among many others. But here’s the truth: failing to learn how to live in a pluralistic world, is failing in being faithful witnesses to Christ. In other words, learning to live in a pluralistic world is not only important for our survival it is essential for our identity as disciples of Christ.
How do we deal with this? As Christians, we are not used to sharing the microphone with others. We believe the public square should only sound the song of the Christian worldview for only it is the truth. This attitude is a self-destructive one. Christians need to learn to open up—precicisely for the world out there.
Here are a few suggestions on how to live as a Christian in a pluralistic world.
1. Hold your truth in humility.
The first Christians were humble. 2000 years later, we only have more reason to be so. Christianity has been in power for many centuries in one form or another, whether it was the Roman Catholic Church that sought political dominance in Europe, the Christianized culture of the medieval period, the Inquisition that persecuted heretics, or the modern nation state of Europe that went to spread Christianized culture to its colonies. Christianity has wreaked so much havoc. By seeking power and wielding it, the Church has denied Christ.
The fact of the matter is the truth we hold, speak about, and proclaim is ultimately not in our possession. The truth of Christianity is not a statement but a Person. Christ said: I am the truth, the way, and the life. As the truth, the person of Christ is not reducible to a statement and as our Lord, he cannot be brought under our control. There is nothing quite as ugly as human know-it-alls.
2. Establishing the Kingdom Is God’s Business.
Many Christians have the unstoppable urge to establish God’s kingdom on earth. They want to establish a theocracy (much like Israel in the Old Testament or certain muslim countries in existence today). This is not possible because, we live in a democracy. To use the democratic process to establish a theocracy is undermining democracy itself. Besides, no theocracy was ever established by human hands and whenever it was it was always a human work sustained by human fallibility, injustice, error, and oppression. Christ was clear about the ambiguous nature of the kingdom as a condition of the human heart and a reality that was present among those that follow Christ. Christ did not call us to establish an empire but to live out the kingdom. The first Christians certainly got this; they were noted for their different character and behavior.
3. Absolute Truth Is God’s Business.
We need to refrain from claiming the exclusive right to absolute truth. Some Christians make themselves quite odious by making the mistake to think that being in possession of the Bible, God’s Word, is tantamount to having the only truth there is in hand. This is dangerous and ridiculous. The Bible as God’s Word to humanity testifies to what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Christ for humanity and the world. It doesn’t mean that the Bible contains all truth exhaustively. If that were the case, no magi would have ended up in Bethlehem, Jesus would have never mastered the skill of carpentry, and no one would be able to read the Scriptures.
In the pluralistic city of Athens the apostle Paul did not shy away to make use of the Greek poets to get his message across. Truth is found among non-Christians. A pluralistic society provides a unique opportunity to learn from other religions and ethnic groups. Truth is everywhere: scientific truth, philosophical and folk wisdom, truth in non-Christian religions. Truth abounds.
4. Actions Speak Louder Than Words.
In a pluralistic world, the emphasis should be on deeds rather than words. If you only come with words, you proclaim your truth amidst a multitude of voices, opinions, and alternative truths. A well-meaning Christian will say: “But Jesus is the truth, the absolute truth; the Bible teaches that salvation is only in and through him and that he is the sole mediator between humanity and God!” But if we actually do listen to the words of this savior, we find that he taught that one can recognize the tree only by its fruits. In other words, the truth, too, will only be recognizable by what it produces.
In a monolithic culture, where all noses point into the same direction, words are often sufficient to convince somebody of the reigning truth (everybody already believes it anyways). But in a pluralistic culture, there is only one way to convince people of the truth: fruits, i.e. deeds that prove the words to be faithful to reality and faithful to the words uttered. Without the fruits, the truth of Christianity sounds as hollow as any other so-called truth. Apologetic arguments can in fact come across as disingenuous and insincere. And even if the speaker appears to be honest, there are hundreds of other voices around the corner that with equal sincerity proclaim this or that truth. Jesus’ words about fruit-bearing are words that are pertinent to a pluralistic culture.
Let’s not forget that for all its adherence to the truth, Christianity doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to fruits. Christians have done terrible things in Jesus’ name, and pursued political power and wealth in the name of their religion. Christianity has a bad track record with its trumping of its truth: so much of it was accompanied by injustice (inquisition, colonialism) or outright nonsense (the prosperity gospel comes to mind).
5. Learning to Listen.
Listening is a great problem among Christians today. In their haste to evangelize and proclaim their own version of the truth, Christians have plugged their ears and go around shouting from bull-horns that they got it right and everybody should listen to them and do things the way they do it. Sometimes, we only listen to make converts. Such a posture makes communication in a pluralistic world almost impossible. It doesn’t show respect and won’t generate respect. Adherents of other word views and religions have stories to tell too. They possess wisdom and experience, they may have knowledge of paths to treasuries of knowledge we as Christians didn’t even know existed.
This closed-off mentality among many Christians is actually the opposite of the proper Christian attitude. Christianity is a faith that leads from amazement to amazement, from confrontation to confrontation, from wonder to wonder. Those who know everything already have made it impossible for themselves to be amazing, brought to wonder, to experience subversion. Any genuine encounter with Jesus will upset and up-end your life. Just as we need to be open to the subverting and transforming encounter with Christ we must be open to the encounter with others around us, especially those outside of our protective bubble. Being less narrow-minded may help us to experience of the broad-heartedness of Christ.
Living in a non-Christian world, a pluralistic society, is a challenge but also an invitation. It draws us out of our comfort zone, forces us to rethink our own faith, and invites us to an authentic faith that consistently examines itself in search of evidence of Christ in the things we consider beyond ourselves.