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