Q & R: The Pluralism Question

One of the most important questions raised in my most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, is the pluralism question. A reader writes …

In short, many of your books have given me the freedom and courage to be honest about the doubts I held inside growing up as a pastor’s son and in a family lineage of pastors in a conservative evangelical denomination. I now wear a Saint Joseph pendant, the patron saint of doubt, on a necklace as a symbol of my comfort with questioning my beliefs and sorting out what is really based on truth and what is not. Thanks.
I read this from a recent interview with you in The Other Journal:

“But I think we need a third option, an “above the line” option, so to speak. That option is a strong Christian identity that says something like this: “Because I follow Jesus, I see you as my neighbor and I love you, as I love myself, whatever your religion. Because I follow Jesus, I believe God loves you and accepts you just as you are. Because I follow Jesus, I believe that the Holy Spirit is active throughout the world and that the light of Christ has already shined on you and is at work in and around you. Because I follow Jesus, I believe that God has a special concern for the marginalized and the weak, and so I refuse to use a position of privilege, especially as a member of the world’s largest, richest, and most heavily armed religion, to harm you. In fact, I want to be your servant, your friend, and your neighbor—to love you as God in Christ has loved me.” That, to me, is a very strong identity; it gives me a good reason to be a Christian, and it promises blessing to others, not a threat.”

About two years ago I was in a conversation with a Jewish woman on her blog saying much the same thing as you express here. As I was feeling good about myself being so gracious and respectful of her religion (I had come from a rather black and white I’m “in” and most others are “out” framework), she nailed me to wall saying that this perspective still makes it all about my religion, still all about Jesus, which still diminishes her faith in the end and leaves her feeling like I’ve just found a way to let her sit with me at the table. It opened my eyes a bit, and I understood how she could still feel discredited and shamed even with me feeling I had offered so much grace. It was still all about my faith being superior.
I’m curious what your thoughts are on this? I have kind of adopted the view that we are all climbing the same mountain but just on different routes towards the same summit and that maybe God has related to different cultures and different peoples differently. That puts us all on the same playing field heading toward the same goal, and while I realize it may dilute the importance of my own faith and walk awfully close to an “all religions are OK with me” attitude, I’m not sure I see the fallacy in that. Christ being the way to God doesn’t have to mean that all have to know Christ by name. I’ll stop there and hope you have time to consider this among the millions of emails that I’m sure you get. Thanks for your time.

First, this really is a huge question, and people too quickly retreat to two polar opposites in response to it, both of which I find unacceptable:
1. A strong Christian identity that is superior, elite, insider-versus-outsider/us-versus-them, and so on …
2. A weak Christian identity that is benevolent, respectful, and neighborly.
What we need (I believe) is a strong human identity in Christ that is benevolent, respectful, and neighborly. As you said, if I hold a black and white, in/out perspective while trying to “feel good about myself being so gracious and respectful of” another’s religion, that deeper perspective will shine through and sour all our relationships. That’s why I think the earlier questions in my most recent book are so important in setting the stage for the pluralism question – Do we have a strong biblical narrative that truly makes as much room for “the other” as for “us?” Do we have a strong view of God that begins with love for all people rather than condemnation of all people? Do we have a strong understanding of Jesus as a gift to everyone rather than a proprietary product exclusively franchised to Christians? And so on …
One big problem with a weak benevolent religious identity is that it in some ways requires others to tone down their religious identity … which often ends up becoming a kind of tolerant secularism that only allows a least-common-denominator of civil religion into public life. Another big problem is that it is a good predictor of the end of a religious tradition … which would mean, over time, that benevolent religions would die off, leaving only combative ones!
The kind of strong identity in Christ I am talking about might say something like this:
If I wasn’t seeing from an “in Christ” perspective, I might see you as my religious competitor, or my economic oppressor or pawn, or my political enemy and antagonist, or a stranger to be avoided, or a potential sexual conquest or threat, and so on. But since I am in Christ, I see you as God’s creation, a person of inestimable dignity and value, and no barrier – racial, cultural, political, religious, sexual, or economic – can stand before my commitment to be your neighbor, loving you as I love myself.”