APOLOGETICS – Pluralism and Post-Modernism
There is a fascinating video on the internet highlighting the incredible extent to which post-modernism and pluralism have influenced modern values. The video shows Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, interviewing students at the University of Washington, and asking them a range of questions regarding identity. He starts by asking how they would respond to him if he said he was a woman. All the students he interviewed indicated that if he really believed he was a woman, they would accept his claim as valid and would support him in his view. He then asked further questions: What would they say if he said he was Chinese? What would they say if he said he was 6’5” tall? What would they say if he told them he was 7 years old? Despite the fact that Joseph Backholm is a 5’9” Caucasian male in his late 30s, most students indicated that if he really believed that he was a 6’5” Chinese girl, aged 7, they would validate his right to believe that! The video then finishes with Joseph saying to the camera, “It shouldn’t be difficult to tell a 5’9” white guy that he isn’t a 6’5” Chinese woman. But clearly it is! Why? What does that say about our culture? And what does that say about our ability to answer the questions that really are difficult?” (An excerpt of this video is included in the PowerPoint presentation in the Resource section at the bottom of this page).
Post-modernism is the rejection of past traditions, the discarding of past allegiances and, most significantly, the denial of absolutes. In our post-modern society, there is no such thing as absolute truth, particularly when it comes to morals and beliefs. Relativism reigns supreme. My truth is not your truth, and your truth is not mine. I cannot insist that my truth is any better than yours, nor must I attempt to dissuade you from your truth.
This post-modern denial of absolutes leads, inevitably, to pluralism; the view that all beliefs and values are equally valid. No religion can claim to have a monopoly on the truth. All religions are equally valid; it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as it works for you. A corollary of pluralism is the currently distorted emphasis on tolerance. I say “distorted” because our post-modern world has significantly altered its definition of the word. According to the new, post-modern definition, tolerance now means that I must accept that mutually contradictory views are equally true. Tolerance now means that I must not insist that my view is the only correct view. And, most disturbingly, tolerance now means that I must not attempt to change another person’s views. Apparently, I am now not allowed to point out to a 5’9” man that he is not 6’5”!
This is not tolerance; this is lunacy on a grand scale! Yet our society has embraced this philosophy enthusiastically. Why? What has led us to this point? Surely, at least in part, it arises from our desire to discard the traditional moral constraints of Christianity and give ourselves permission to live in whatever way that pleases us. This post-modern cry for “tolerance” is, essentially, a declaration that “no one can tell me what to do!”
The true definition of tolerance, however, is significantly different to this. Tolerance means treating others with dignity and respect, even though I hold a different viewpoint. Tolerance means that I respect another person’s right to believe an alternative viewpoint, but it does not cancel my right to disagree with them. Tolerance DOES NOT mean giving up my right to believe in absolute truth. Nor does it mean being forced to believe that mutually contradictory beliefs are equally valid. True tolerance grants me the right to disagree with someone, and even enter into dialogue and debate, as long as I do so respectfully. (At this point, it must be stated that fundamentalist Christians who abuse and insult homosexuals are guilty of gross intolerance, not because their Christian morals are incorrect, but because of the hateful, disrespectful manner in which they express those views.)
There is a great irony in the current push for the redefined, post-modern tolerance. On the one hand, society is demanding that everyone’s point of view be heard and valued. On the other hand, the traditional Christian viewpoint is increasingly treated with ridicule and scorn. A couple of years ago, the Australia ABC TV program, “Q & A”, hosted a panel discussion on the topic of same sex marriage. The show’s producers invited Katy Faust onto the panel. Katy was raised by two lesbian mothers but, later in life, became a Christian, and now campaigns AGAINST same sex marriage. The other five guests on the panel were strongly in favour of same sex marriage (a classic case of stacking the numbers!). Whenever one of the other panellists was speaking everyone was polite and respectful. But each time Katy spoke, the other panel members interjected constantly, insulted her, ridiculed her and treated her with complete contempt. The studio audience of 50 or 60 people also joined in, booing and heckling her. It was a disgusting display of intolerance. Ironically, on several occasions the other panellists accused Katy of intolerance, despite the fact that she was consistently polite and respectful. Why? Simply because she had a different opinion to them! Once again, a distorted definition of tolerance was being used. According to the panellists on that show, anyone who dared to articulate an opinion different to their own was guilty of intolerance.
It was a particularly ugly episode that revealed two disturbing trends. Firstly, it demonstrated how marginalised the Christian viewpoint has become; how intolerant society now is of conservative Christian morality. Secondly, it revealed a deeply disturbing push towards an almost Orwellian uniformity on certain moral issues. Anyone who dares to voice a contradictory opinion is now persecuted, as part of what seems to be a developing censorial state.
It appears, then, that pluralism in a post-modern society has its limits. All viewpoints are valid and are to be treated with respect, except for traditional Christian beliefs and morals, which must not be tolerated and which may be ridiculed if anyone dares to voice them!
One of the great challenges facing Christianity in our post-modern world is that the exclusive claims of Christ have become particularly unpalatable. Society maintains that there is no absolute truth; that all views are valid and no one has the right to claim a monopoly on the truth or to critique another person’s beliefs. In stark contrast to this, Christ stated categorically, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). There is no “politically correct” way of interpreting Christ’s words here. He is claiming that he is the ONLY way to God and that there are NO OTHER ways to God apart from him.
This exclusive claim of Christ, and, therefore, of his followers, is particularly offensive to our pluralistic modern society. In fact, society voices three distinct criticisms of Christian exclusivism:
- Christian exclusivism is arrogant
- Christian exclusivism is intolerant
- Christian exclusivism denies the worth of other religions
IS CHRISTIAN EXCLUSIVISM ARROGANT?
Firstly, let’s be clear in defining arrogance. Arrogance is believing myself to be better or more superior, and treating others with disdain. Choosing to believe one religion and disbelieve another, however, is not arrogance, it is an act of discernment. I may be right or I may be wrong in that belief, but it is, essentially, an act of discernment. Articulating my exclusivism is not necessarily arrogant either. It may be, of course, depending upon my attitude, but the act of articulating my exclusive belief in Christ is not inherently arrogant. One Christian might articulate their exclusivism rudely and arrogantly, while another might express the same view gently and respectfully. It is the attitude that can be arrogant, not the view itself. In the same way, if I was a Math teacher and a student had written 1 + 1 = 3, I could point out their error either gently and lovingly, or arrogantly. Hopefully, I would do it lovingly. But even if I came across as arrogant, it doesn’t change the fact that 1 + 1 = 2 and not 3. Arrogance is not a particular belief; it is an attitude.
IS CHRISTIAN EXCLUSIVISM INTOLERANT?
Similar to the issue of arrogance, tolerance or intolerance is an attitude; it does not refer to holding one particular viewpoint in preference to others. Intolerance means treating others disrespectfully because they hold a different view to me. Tolerance, on the other hand, means treating people respectfully, despite the fact that they hold very different views from me. It is entirely possible for two people to have diametrically opposed viewpoints, and for each to consider the other completely and utterly wrong, yet speak and act tolerantly towards each other. I express tolerance towards my Buddhist or Muslim neighbours by living in peace and harmony with them, and by treating them with respect, while still maintaining the right to disagree with their beliefs.
DOES CHRISTIAN EXCLUSIVISM DENY THE WORTH OF OTHER RELIGIONS?
Of course not! Most of the world’s major religions have some praiseworthy elements. Many religions uphold the value of the family and the importance of love, peace, charity, civic responsibility and a host of other noble ethics and morals. There is good in almost every religion.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that all religions can’t be equally true, because, in terms of their major beliefs, they all contradict each other! If we compare the doctrines of the major religions regarding the concept of God, the afterlife, the process of salvation, and the essential nature of humanity, the world’s religions are in complete disagreement with each other. (See the PowerPoint presentation in the Resources section, below, for more details). If we analyse the vast theological gulf that separates many of these disparate views, we are faced with only two logical possibilities: either all of these religions are wrong, or, at best, one is correct and the rest are wrong. But they can’t all be equally valid, because they contradict each other at every major point of doctrine.
For a person to choose to believe one religion and disbelieve all the others is a far more sensible position to hold than the person who tries to maintain that they are all equally valid. The act of choosing one religion over all the others does not deny the noble elements within other religions, but simply acknowledges the logical impossibility of trying to believe all religions at once.
Instructions For Downloading PowerPoint Presentations: Click the PowerPoint link, then click the “Open” drop down box at the top right of the screen and select “Open in PowerPoint Online” or “Open In PowerPoint”. When the presentation is opened, click the “Notes” tab at the bottom right of screen. This will open the Presenter Notes, which provide a detailed explanation of each slide. Some slides also have embedded video content, which can be viewed via the standard “play” button or by clicking the image.