Only a few decades ago, well past the Second World War and into the early
Sixties, American culture was almost universally regarded as based upon
Christianity. Most leaders, as well as people generally, not only accepted this
basis as a fact, but also more-or-less firmly agreed that that is how things ought
This was especially true of educational institutions. Speeches by the
Presidents of even the state schools, such as the University of California at
Berkeley, often could have passed for Christian sermons. And even as late as
1965, when I came on the faculty of the University of Southern California, the
prayers which the Chaplain delivered on public occasions were noticeably
Christian prayers by a clearly Christian person. While that was viewed by some
individuals with scepticism, boredom, or even resentment, the cultural
prerogative that Christianity enjoyed was generally conceded a certain
Now the university Chaplain, here or at other secular schools where there
still is such an office, would never mention the name of Jesus as a basis of
public prayer, but will with great care work in a little Taoism, some Vedanta or
Islam, or even words that can be construed as invoking "The Goddess."
And the university President may be a member of some Christian denomination. But
Christian ideas and motivations will no longer be appealed to in whatever
directions or appeals he or she may publicly express.
Anyone who now uses distinctively Christian language in the general
university setting will at best be treated as giving voice to just one
cultural bias among others. More likely, they will be treated as especially
benighted or obnoxious precisely because of the exclusive role assumed
for Christianity in past American culture.
Today the Christian is often regarded as the big, bad bully who has been
humbled and must be punished for past misdeeds. One must accept as a fact that
university life is now immersed in an irrational, but historically powerful
swing against Christianity. Nothing can be done about this in the short run
except recognize it and prepare to stand in the midst of it.
As followers of Jesus, it will be helpful to keep a number of things in mind:
First, pluralism is not a bad arrangement. It is a good thing. It is, in
fact, a social expression of the kind of respect and care for the individual
that is dictated by trust in God and love of neighbor. Therefore the Christian
does not oppose pluralism as a social principle. Pluralism simply means that
social or political force is not to be used to suppress the freedom of
thought and expression of any citizen, or even the practice that flows from it,
insofar as that practice is not morally wrong.
Pluralism does not mean that everyone is equally right in what they
think and do. It does not mean that we must agree with the views or adopt the
practices of those of other persuasions. It does not mean that we must like
those views or practices. It does not mean that we will not appropriately
express our disagreement or dislike for other viewpoints.
Pluralism also does not mean that we will not try, in respectful ways, to
change the views or practices of others, by all appropriate means of persuasion,
where we believe them to be mistaken. In fact, pluralism should, precisely,
secure a social context in which full and free interchange of different views on
life and reality can be conducted to the greatest advantage of all. Thin-skinned
and narrow-minded people may not particularly enjoy a pluralistic society, but
their discomfort is vastly outweighed by the benefits to all of open and free
interchange of information and ideas. The Christian, perhaps more than anyone
else, has reason to favor such interchange and be confident about its outcome.
Second, the Christian gospel does not require cultural privilege or even
social recognition in order to flourish. God's work is not disadvantaged by
persecution, even to death, and much less then by mere pluralism. As Christians
we stand now in the Kingdom of the Heavens, and it is always true that they who
are for us are more than they that be against us. (I Kings 6:16) It is always
true that the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. (I
On the other hand, there can be little doubt that if the teachings and
example of Jesus were generally followed in a given society, that society would
be remarkably better off than any which followed another way. The constant
drumbeat of moral failure and incompetence now heard from American
institutions--from the universities and scientific or artistic communities to
business corporations, the Church and sports--simply would not exist if Jesus
were trusted and obeyed. There would be no sexual harassment, no gutted savings
and loans, no homelessness or gang violence in a society that substantially
accepted Christian principles of life. It is not the Christian who loses when
social prejudice goes against Christ, but the society itself.
Third, pluralism in American society means that the Christian has just as
much right to be explicitly a follower of Jesus, or a practitioner of
traditional Christian culture, as any non-Christian or anti-Christian has to be
explicitly what they are.
The pronounced "victimization" structure of contemporary moral
thinking obscures this. Non-Christian perspectives see themselves as victims of
past Christian domination of the social order. This often translates into an
atmosphere where the non-Christian group is permitted to be assertive in ways
that Christians or Christian groups are not. A kind of "redress" is
thought to be in order, with the effect that the Christian becomes "fair
game" for attacks and abuse that would quickly be branded as discriminatory
if directed at anyone else.
From within our faith, of course, we should expect to be attacked, and even
attacked "unfairly." So we are not thrown off course or even
particularly surprised when it occurs. But we should also understand that that
is not a part of what it means to be a good citizen in a pluralistic society. In
appropriately Christlike ways we should point out to those involved that they
are discriminating against us on the basis of our religion, and remind them that
there is legal recourse available to us in such matters. This is especially
needed in the university setting, as a shock to its internal authority system.
It might provide the university with an occasion for re-evaluating its current
anti-Christian biases, which are badly in need of review.
Fourth, we must keep in mind that truth and reality are not in themselves
pluralistic. If your gas tank is empty, social acceptance of your right to
believe that it is full will not help you get your car to run. Everything is
just exactly what it is, and you can develop cultural traditions, vote, wish, or
whatever you please, and that will not change a thing.
Truth and reality do not adapt to us. It is up to us to adapt to them. A four
thousand year old tradition does not become truer as the years go by. If it is
false or wrong, it simply continues to be a long-standing error. If it is
popular, it is widespread. If adopted by the powerful, it is authoritative. But
it is still wrong. Acceptance of its right to exist in a pluralistic society
does not make it any more correct, and will be of no help to those following it
when they finally run into reality.
Some of my intellectual friends say that this is true in the domain of
"fact," but that religion is the realm of "faith." They are
victims of the unfortunate delusion of current culture that "fact" is
limited to what is sense-perceptible. Hence they say that whether past or
current living species where created by God or not, for example, is a matter of
"faith." The implication is that for faith things are, somehow, as you
think them to be. Much of what is now written in support of pluralism or "inclusivism"
in religion assumes that there is no "way things are" with God, or at
least that we cannot know how they are. Hence all views of God are said to be
equally true because all are equally in the dark--an astonishingly fallacious
Now we must keep in mind that all of this really has nothing to do with
pluralism as a social principle. We have already pointed out that pluralism, the
rejection of social force to suppress divergent opinions or practices, does not
mean that we concede all views to be equally right. Nor does it mean that they
are all equally wrong, and therefore have an equal right to exist.
"Inclusivism" stabs at the heart of Christian faith, which claims
that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. This claim is either true
or it is not, just as God either created life on earth or not. And it matters a
great deal what the truth is here and whether or not we believe it. As
Christians we cannot just say: "Anything goes." And we most certainly
are not saying that when we stand up for the right of all groups to be free of
social suppression of their beliefs.
Finally, Christians in a pluralistic society, where there is no presumption
in favor of their beliefs or practices, but perhaps a strong bias against, are
in the very best position to show the true excellence of the Way of Christ. When
Elijah called the prophets of Baal to the contest on Mount Carmel, he gave them
every advantage that could be given. And when it came his turn to call for fire
from heaven to consume his sacrifice, he had his altar and sacrifice flooded
three times over with water before he prayed. The "disadvantage" of
the water proved to be no problem for Jehovah, who answered by fire to consume
Things have not much changed. Our Mount Carmel may be our university, or our
business or profession, and the floods of social discrimination may flow against
us. This is only to make all the more obvious, to those with eyes to see, that
God is with us, and that the life of His resurrected Son is effectual in every
dimension of our existence. We welcome our life in a pluralistic society as the
very condition most favorable to our own sure knowledge of God, as our
aspirations and our accomplishments testify that He is the one at work in us to
will as well as to do the good things He desires for His world.