False Religion Worthless, 1-29

Pluralism and its impact

D.A Carson, in The Gagging of God, has some helpful things to say about pluralism and its impact.  Among the different forms that pluralism takes, the following are to be distinguished:-

1. Empirical Pluralism. This refers to the sheer and actual diversity of race, value systems, heritage, language, culture, and religion in many Western and some other nations. Although it gives rise to particular challenges and opportunities, it is neither intrinsically good nor bad.

2. Cherished Pluralism. This adds the ingredient of approval to empirical pluralism. Diversity is seen as a Good Thing, something to be celebrated.

3. Philosophical or Hermeneutical Pluralism. The stance is ‘that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong.’ Within a postmodern culture, the supremacy of rationality, and that of objective truth, have been dethroned.

Pluralism has correlatives, or counterparts.  Carson identifies these as follows:-

1. Secularisation. This refers not to the abolition, but to the marginalisation, of religion. The spiritual element becomes confined to the private part of life. Many still assent to the basis tenets of Christian faith, ‘but these beliefs appear to be stranded on the beaches of private relevance’ (David Wells). Guinness has coined the phrase, ‘privately engaging, publically irrelevant.’

‘A century and a half ago it was impossible to engage for long in political or historical study without bringing up the subject of providence. It was important for thinking people to try to understand what God himself was saying in history, whether he was speaking the language of blessing or of judgement. Today, there is not a history department in the land that would approve a Ph.D dissertation that tried to infer anything at all about providence.’

‘The national discourse is taken up with economics, politics, entertainment figures, sports, disasters, occasionally international affairs, and crime – but nothing about God, very little about religion (except to snicker at its most painfully embarrassing hypocrites and failures), not even very much about such concepts as truth, courtesy, civility, honour, duty, moral courage – all of which sound vaguely quaint and old-fashioned in our ears. And when a religious topic, such as conversion, is treated at the academic level, the treatment is likely to be entirely constrained by social science categories committed to philosophical naturalism and utterly averse to “mysticism”. The question of God’s existence or reality in conversion is carefully bracketed out, prompting the reviewer of one recent book along these lines to complain rather ruefully, “What difference would it make to social science if…the origin of the sense of god was God.?” The powers of secularisation stalk the land.

2. New Age Theosophy. ‘The aim is not to be reconciled to a transcendent God, who has made us and against whom we have rebelled, but to grow in self-awareness and self-fulfillment, to become more self-actualised, to grow to our full potential, until we are rather more at one with the god/universe than we otherwise would be.’ The person who is largely biblically illiterate but has absorbed substantial does of New Age theosophy will hear the Christian evangelist speak of God, Spirit, new birth, power, joy, peace, love, faith, and so on, but they will be re-interpreted within a New Age framework. Moreover, many professing Christians have picked up the surrounding chatter and, being poorly grounded in Scripture and theology, have incorporated incompatible elements (of spirituality, for example) into their thinking.

3. Rising Biblical Illiteracy. Even basic knowledge – such as the fact that the Bible has two testaments – cannot now be taken for granted even amongst educated people. The most elementary biblical narratives are unknown to many, because the Bible is excluded from our schools, not systematically taught in most churches, and further sidelined with the demise of family devotions.

4. Vague But Emphatic Appeals to the Cosmic Christ. This is the notion, espoused by Joseph Sittler, Panikkar, Kung, Rahner and others, that ‘Christ’ is found not only in the historical Jesus, but throughout human history and experience, and especially in other religions. Of course, the content of such a ‘Christ’ is almost limitless, and therefore almost meaningless.

5. The Sheer Pragmatism of the Baby Busters. These are people born between about 1960 and 1975, as opposed to the “baby boomers”, born between 1945 and 1960. They want to be entertained, not lecturered. Many of them have not learned to think in a linear fashion. They can live with all sorts of logical inconsistencies and yet be totally unaware of them. They are not idealistic, but cynical. They deny the existence of absolutes: that is their one absolute. They have been brought up without a coherent value system, and have embraced pragmatism with a vengeance. They are angry with the previous generation for its materialism, yet are no less materialistic themselves. They do tend to be interested in ‘spirituality’, hazily defined, and regard themselves as fairly high up in the spiritual pecking order.

6. The Hegemony of Pop Culture. This is not to succumb to an elitist distinction between popular and high culture. Nor is it to dismiss television out of hand, although a great deal of what appears on television is rubbish, and, deployed in an undisciplined way can can take over families, squash conversation, fertilise couch potatoes, discourage serious reading and thought, and pamper the desire to be entertained. Moreover, ‘much that evangelicalism has attempted to do on television is theologically (not to say aesthetically) pathetic, and that a culture addicted to the visual presentation of data presents peculiar challenges to the proclamation of a God who is not only invisible, but who insists that the desire for visual security and certainty is one of the hallmarks of idolatry.’

‘The sad fact is that unless families have a tremendously strong moral base, they will not perceive the dangers in the popular culture; or, if they perceive them, they will not have the stamina to oppose them. There is little point in preachers disgorging all the sad statistics about how many hours of television the average American watches per week, or how many murders a child has witnessed on television by the age of six, or how a teenager has failed to think linearly because of the twenty thousand hours of flickering images he or she has watched, unless the preacher, by the grace of God, is establishing a radically different lifestyle, and serving as a vehible of grace to enable the people in his congregation to pursue it with determination, joy, and a sense of adventurous, God-pleasing freedom.’

7. Rugged Individualism Veering Toward Narcissism. Much of Western society espouses individualism, whereas the Bible makes more of corporate values. Although individualism can breed courage, entrepreneurial spirit, individual heroism, self-denial, deferred gratification, and thrift, it can too readily reinforce narcissism, self-indulgence, instant gratification, self-promotion, and greed. A privatised spirituality is produced, in which God ‘is less the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ than a Christianised species of the genie in Aladdin’s lamp.’

‘Phillip Hammond goes so far as to argue that the emphasis on personal autonomy during the past two decades has brought about the “third disestablishment” of religion in America. The first disestablishment was legal, embodied in the First Amendment, but although it had profound influence, it scarecely diminished the enormous influence of organised religion on the public sector. The second disestablishment…had occurred by the end of World War I, in a progressive erosion of direct Christian influence, such that until about 1960 the relationship fo Christian churches to the cultural core was more custodial than directorial. The third disestablishment…springs from the emphasis on personal autonomy and its effect on the religious sphere. Personal autonomy has become an ideology that is suspicious of ecclesiastical loyalty and doctrine alike. The new generation does not readily think in terms of service to the church or to God, but in terms of what it can get out of it; they shop around for churches until they find a product they like. The churches themselves feel the pressure to respond to the “consumers” by taking polls to find out what they want.’

8. Freudian Fraud. Freud’s influence has fostered our therapeutic culture, ‘in which the substitution of medical and quasi-scientific terminology for moral, ethical, and religious categories, has bulldozed moral responsibility into the nearest landfill, and invented new “ailment du jour” [Charles Sykes’ phrase]. The therapeutic culture has so invaded the church that some seminaries have more students enrolling on counselling courses than are training to be preachers of the gospel. Few pastors have both the training and the courage to deal with genuine problems in biblical categories that challenge the therapeutic culture. Such self-absorption is a long way from the requirements of the two great commandments, and from the sins thereby implied. It is a long way from him who insisted that those who seek their own life will lose it, while those who take up their cross daily and follow him will find life (Mt 16:21-28; Mk 8:31-9:1; Lk 9:22-27).

Carson, The Gagging of God, 13-52

Derek Williams (The Bible Application Handbook) reminds us that no country is a theocracy, as Israel was.  Therefore, in welcoming people from other lands and cultures to our own, we cannot insist that they give up their own religions.  Jeremiah’s message is, accordingly, applicable to the church, rather than to the nation.  In addition, we should recognise that other religions may agree with our own in certain important ways (respect for life, for example), or may even emphasise things that have been lost in the process of modernisation (the essential corporateness of human life, for example).

Nevertheless, we cannot adopt the view that all religions are equally true and valid, that they are merely alternative paths to God.  Christianity follows the Judaism of Jeremiah’s day in insisting that there is only one God.  Idolatry is therefore ruled out of court.  Idols are variously to be regarded as non-existent (nothing more than the lumps of wood or stone that represent them) or as supernatural beings who are angels (who hate to be worshiped, Col 2:18; Rev 22:8f) or demons (1 Cor 10:19-21).

The distinction that Jeremiah is making is not like that between two Christian denominations, but rather like that between Christianity and voodoo.

The mixture of true and false religion is not merely a matter of intellectual assent and personal piety.  Jeremiah consistently links spiritual decline with social injustice, Jer 7:6,10.

Christians should look for opportunities to develop good relationships with all fairminded people, whatever their religious views and practices (see Col 4:5).  There may be some issues of mutual concern on which we can make common cause (Williams mentions jointly seeking legislation to protect families or working together to clean up neighbourhoods).  But while we celebrate truth and goodness wherever they are found, we are not at liberty to treat all truth-claims and all behavioural mandates are equally valid.  Nor can we import their religious beliefs and practices into our own without denying the one God whom we claim to serve and love.

Jer 7:1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:

Jer 7:2 “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD.

Jer 7:3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place.

‘The substance of the sermon is contained in vs 3-11. Jeremiah calls the people to repent, showing that they are in grave danger but that they can still avert it (3). He mocks the empty words of contemporary ritual (4) and shows that true religion consists in act as well as religious performance (5-6). The basis for right action is the well-known laws of God, given in the covenant; a number of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2-17) are alluded to in v 9, bringing together religious (following other gods) and social sins. Because of the lives which the people of Judah are living, their confidence as they stand before God has very poor foundations.’ (NBC)

Jer 7:4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”

Jer 7:5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly,

Jer 7:6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm,

Jer 7:7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.

Jer 7:8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Jer 7:9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known,

Jer 7:10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”–safe to do all these detestable things?

Jer 7:11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

Jer 7:12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel.

Shiloh = Judg 21:19n

‘A large part of the problem is the false trust which the mere possession of the temple and its rituals inspires. Borrowing from Canaanite ideas, the people had persuaded themselves that this amounted to a kind of guarantee of God’s presence and protection. Jeremiah shows the folly of this by pointing to an uncomfortable precedent (12-15). The shrine at Shiloh, which had been the central sanctuary for all Israel long before Jerusalem, was now no more, the victim, we suppose, of the Philistine wars. If Shiloh could fall, why not Jerusalem? In our day too there is no bastion of church establishment which may consider itself sacrosanct; all are called to a living faithfulness.’ (NBC)

Jer 7:13 While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer.

Jer 7:14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers.

Jer 7:15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim.’

Jer 7:16 “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.

Jer 7:17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?

Jer 7:18 The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger.

Jer 7:19 But am I the one they are provoking? declares the LORD. Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?

Jer 7:20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.

Jer 7:21 “‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!

Jer 7:22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,

22f “I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices…” – ‘We know that from the beginning God desired spiritual worship, and that he has not changed his nature. Today he approves nothing but spiritual worship, for he is Spirit. But equally under the law, he wished to be worshiped with a sincere heart. . . . That is why the prophets speak harshly of sacrifice. This clear statement removes all ambiguity: God sets obedience against sacrifice (even though sacrifice was a part of obedience).’ (Calvin)

Jer 7:23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.

Jer 7:24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward.

Jer 7:25 From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.

Jer 7:26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their forefathers.’

Jer 7:27 “When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer.

Jer 7:28 Therefore say to them, ‘This is the nation that has not obeyed the LORD its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips.

Jer 7:29 Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the LORD has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.

The Valley of Slaughter, 30-8:3

Jer 7:30 “‘The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it.

Jer 7:31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire–something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

Jer 7:32 So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.

Jer 7:33 Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.

Jer 7:34 I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.