The Reality and Opportunity of Pluralism Michael Wear

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In our recent report, Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States: Insights from Christian Leaders, Amy Black and I describe the kind of pluralism we are interested in as, “the presence of meaningful social or political diversity in society.” Pluralism, in our view, encompasses many kinds of diversity, including differences of race, political views, and religion—both the presence of non-Christian faiths as well as different expressions of Christianity—from Catholicism to Protestantism, Quakers to Greek Orthodox, and the Historically Black Church to Korean Presbyterians. American Christians and others should first approach Pluralism as a reality—an undeniable statement of fact concerning America as she is today. Once we recognize the pluralistic nature of the communities and country in which we live, we are led to ask “what should we do about it, how should we approach a pluralistic public?”

I believe the Christian faith offers tremendous resources for living faithfully in a pluralistic society, and doing so in a way that profoundly benefits that society. This can be seen in the history of the early Church as conveyed to us in Acts, all the way through to the positive contributions of religious people and religious institutions in modern American history. For Christians, healthy civic pluralism entails, in part, approaching the public with the public’s good in mind, rather than pursuing narrow self-interest.

Civic pluralism does not require a relativistic or syncretistic view when it comes to religion. Indeed, this would not be pluralistic at all! Pluralism, remember, is a recognition of the presence of difference, and a healthy civic pluralism requires the space for distinct communities to form, inculcate values, and for members of those distinct communities to participate in public life as they are.

As Dallas Willard wrote, “Clearly spiritualities are different, and often are different in very fundamental ways. Whatever ‘pluralism’ is to mean, it cannot simply mean that ‘they’re all the same’—at least not if one is to have a clear intellectual conscience…If they were the same we would not have a problem to which pluralism is supposed to be an answer.” Pluralism does not just require something from the parts, but from the whole. Laws are important, but ultimately, a healthy pluralism relies on our disposition toward one another—a cultural expectation of mutual consideration, that recognizes the reality of our differing views about ultimate reality. This mutual consideration need not be grounded in a lack of confidence in our God, but it can be supported by a view that He is God and we are not. This idea alone would be a powerful contribution to our public life today.

—Michael Wear


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