Criswell Theological Review 7.1 (1993) 99-117

                [Copyright © 1993 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

          digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]

 

 

      THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM

                       TO THE PREACHING

                           OF THE GOSPEL*

 

                                                  D. A. CARSON

                                 Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

                                               Deerfield, IL 60015

 

During the past several years I have tried to read a great deal of the

literature on pluralism, and to think it through from an avowedly evan-

gelical stance. At the same time, my continuing interest in evangelism

and in evangelistic preaching have ensured that the two topics--plural-

ism and the preaching of the gospel--would butt against each other.

Perhaps I should confess right away that what I am presenting to

you is a small part of a much longer work.1 There are two entailments.

First, I shall set aside the bulkiest documentation, reserving it for the

fuller work. Second, I shall avoid in these lectures a host of topics that

concern the student of contemporary pluralism. These topics have pro-

found bearings on what we mean by "the gospel,” and on how we are to

preach it. For example, there is a complex array of hermeneutical issues,

largely packaged under the terms "postmodernity" and "deconstruction,”

that I shall barely introduce here. Moreover, the sheer empirical diver-

sity in America at the end of this millennium raises a host of questions

about the prospects of the American experiment in democracy, if the in-

herited cultural baggage continues to fragment and dissipate, leaving

behind nothing more than individualism and pragmatism. These ques-

tions touch our school systems, the judiciary, our legislative bodies, the

relations between church and state--and thus they impinge both on our

 

* This is the first of two lectures presented at the Criswell College for the annual

Criswell Theological Lecture series.

1 See D. A Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming).

 

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100                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

understanding of the faith, and on our attitude toward the Constitution.

Moreover, the subject of pluralism must be probed not only as

it describes the sheer diversity of the culture at large, but also as it

pertains to the multiplying diversity within the confessional church.

Self-confessed evangelicals now entertain, and defend, a wider range of

opinions on a host of critical topics than at any time this century: the

fate of the unevangelized, conditional immortality as opposed to a self-

conscious experience of an eternal hell, even fundamental disputes over

the nature of justification.

But though I shall allude to many of these topics, and more besides,

my focus in these two lectures is narrower. I want to evaluate with you

the kinds of impact the various forms of pluralism are making in this

country, and consider some lessons we should learn from this evaluation.

 

The Impact of Pluralism

 

"Pluralism" is a surprisingly tricky word in modern discussion.

Some use it in combination with various spheres: cultural pluralism,

ideological pluralism, intellectual pluralism, religious pluralism, and so

forth. For our purposes, it will be useful to consider, not the spheres in

which pluralism is found, but three kinds of phenomena to which the

word commonly refers:

 

1. Empirical Pluralism

 

This is what D. Tracy would prefer to call "plurality." "Plurality,” he

writes, "is a fact. Pluralism is one of the many possible evaluations of

that fact."2 But although a few scholars have followed him in this usage,

most still use "pluralism,” in one of its uses, to refer to the sheer diver-

sity of race, value systems, heritage, language, culture, and religion in

America--indeed, not only in America, but in many Western nations.

The United States is the largest Jewish, Irish, and Swedish nation in the

world; it is the second largest black nation, and soon it will become the

third largest Hispanic nation.

It is possible to overstate this diversity. J. Butler vigorously demon-

strates how diverse American life and culture were in the eighteenth

and nineteenth centuries, and correspondingly depreciates the degree

of diversity reflected in the nation today.3 But although his work is a use-

ful foil for those who exaggerate modern empirical pluralism, it must

be insisted that the range of contemporary diversity is, on any scale,

 

2 "Christianity in the Wider Context: Demands and Transformation," Worldviews

and Warrants: Plurality and Authority in Theology, ed. W. Schweiker and P. M. Anderson

(New York: University Press of America, 1987) 2.

3 J. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cam-

bridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

 

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D. A Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM   101

 

vastly greater than has ever been experienced in the Republic before.

Religiously, Roman Catholicism is increasing in numbers, owing in part

to the influx of Hispanics. The best estimates of the number of Muslims

in the US range around 1.4 million. Numerous studies document the rise

of new age religions and the revitalization of various forms of neo-

paganism. Most demographers insist that if present trends continue,

WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) will be in a minority (about

47%) by the year A.D. 2000.4 None of this was foreseen by the Founding

Fathers; little of it was foreseen forty years ago.

For those who are interested in preaching the gospel, the result,

often unrecognized, is that the kind of preparation undertaken to address

the gospel to some parts of the culture may be woefully inadequate to

address some other parts. The person steeped in, say, Southern, white,

Baptist culture may have some difficulty relating to Catholic Hispanics

(even if that person successfully leaps the language hurdle). I am not

referring only to matters of personal taste. Very few of those who are lis-

tening to me today, I suspect, have spent much time thinking through the

best way to share their faith with devout Roman Catholics, Hispanic or

otherwise. So the cultural barrier has a bearing on the preaching of the

gospel. Consider another example. A graduate of a few years ago from

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to plant a

church. Precisely how and why he was led to plant a church in a city of

800 churches, "the buckle on the Bible belt,” I am not sure. In any case,

he says he spent an entire year in Tulsa before he met a single person

who denied being a Christian. It took him quite a while before he

thought through what kinds of questions he had to ask to get by the pre-

liminary barrier, and discover whether or not there was real, vital faith

in the people with whom he talked, or not.

But these are still easy examples. Try witnessing to someone who

does not believe that objective truth in the religious arena is possible; to

someone who "hears" all your religious vocabulary in a new age matrix;

to someone who is automatically repulsed by every instance of "prose-

lytism." Add in local Orthodox Jews, local Muslims, local Buddhists, local

Mormons, and so forth. Recall that witnessing in the New England states,

or in the Pacific Northwest, is going to prove vastly different from par-

ticipating in the outreach program of a Southern Baptist Church in Dixie,

and some of the dimensions of the challenge begin to surge into view.

 

2. Cherished Pluralism

 

By "cherished pluralism" I mean to add an additional ingredient to

empirical pluralism. While some writers and thinkers (though certainly

 

4 For some useful statistical data, see G. Gallup, Jr., and J. Castelli, The People's

Religion: American Faith in the 90s (New York: Macmillan, 1989).

 

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102                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

not all) on the New Right view empirical pluralism as a threat to sta-

bility, order, good government, and perhaps also to biblical Christianity,

it is important to remember that although many ordinary Americans do

not want to know a lot of people very different from themselves, they

want America as a whole to retain its diversity. In other words, for them

empirical pluralism is not only a raw datum, it is a good thing. In the

words of L. Newbigin, "It has become a commonplace to say that we live

in a pluralist society--not merely a society which is in fact plural in the

variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but

pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be

approved and cherished."5

A catena of attitudes is borne along by this outlook. The more this

diversity is praised, the more one is inclined to look askance on some-

one who appears to threaten it by "proselytizing" other citizens. But the

issue is in reality much deeper. It is perhaps best understood by linking

together the first two points. It may be helpful to stake out some terri-

tory by means of a quotation from McGrath. Referring to earlier peri-

ods in the history of the church, he writes:6

 

The Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in

competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions. The emer-

gence of the gospel within the matrix of Judaism, the expansion of the gos-

pel in a Hellenistic milieu, the early Christian expansion in pagan Rome,

the establishment of the Mar Thoma church in southeastern India--all of

these are examples of situations in which Christian apologists and theolo-

gians, not to mention ordinary Christian believers, have been aware that

there are alternatives to Christianity on offer. Equally, it is perfectly obvi-

ous that cultural pluralism exists. Yet this poses no decisive difficulties for

Christianity, in theory or in practice. The ability of the gospel to transcend

cultural barriers is one of its chief glories.

 

But a couple of centuries of cultural dominance by Protestants have

changed that perception. We still expect to be in the driver's seat, and

thus we overlook that throughout much of the church's history, inmost

parts of the world, the gospel has had to make its way against alien

perspectives, and frequently a plurality of them. McGrath continues:7

It is quite possible that his insight may have been lost to English and

American writers of the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. For

such writers pluralism might have meant little more than a variety of

forms of Protestantism, while "different religions" would probably have

been understood to refer simply to the age-old tension between Protestant-

 

5 The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 1.

6 A. E. McGrath, "The Challenge of Pluralism for the Contemporary Christian

Church," JETS 35 (1992) 361.

7 McGrath, 360-61.

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 103

 

ism and Roman Catholicism. Pluralism was situated and contained within

a Christian context. . . .

 

This perspective can lead Christian preachers to feel on the outside

of things, and decidedly defensive, when they have no right to: they

should expect opposition, confrontation, diverse perspectives. Of

course, the popular cherishing of empirical pluralism is partly a self-

conscious rebellion against the heritage of the Christian West, partly

an ill-thought-out declaration of freedom, partly the fruit of rugged in-

dividualism that wants to determine "spirituality" on its own terms.

Certainly it is a novel development in the experience of Western Prot-

estants of the last two centuries or so. But in a large historical and geo-

graphical framework, the pressures of pluralism should not catch us by

surprise.

This set of values makes its impact both within the church and

without. Within the church, there are many Christians who, while

retaining orthodox beliefs at a theoretical level, are very uncomfortable

with any sermon that excludes anybody or any view, except what they

judge to be the most peripheral. Careful treatments of hell are rare,

because they are felt to be embarrassing. People are often invited to

come, but less often told what they must leave behind. Thus, the pres-

sures of pluralism have the effect of surreptitiously encouraging us to

change the shape of the gospel. The gospel is no longer good news for

those who are rebels and alienated from God, telling them about the one

way by which they may be reconciled to the living God. Far from it,

without ever overly and candidly denying that there is only one way, the

gospel is repackaged to become the good news that a domesticated deity

is available on demand to give hurting people the abundant life. Thus

the gospel is transmuted into something unrecognizable, while millions

are unaware that it has changed at all.

Outside the church, the impact of cherished pluralism tends to

make the more conservative of us circle the wagons; it tends to make the

less conservative of us withdraw from evangelism (which is understood,

in this framework, to be nothing more than inexcusable proselytism).

Neither development fosters great gospel preaching.

 

3. Philosophical and Hermeneutical Pluralism

 

This is, by far, the most serious development. Philosophical plu-

ralism has developed many approaches in support of one stance: viz.,

any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically

superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the

creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right

or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively

inferior.

 

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The dominant means by which this stance has been supported are

four: (a) In the epistemological arena, all forms of positivism, in the

West, are declared dead. The subjectivism of the "new hermeneutic,"

for all its proper place, has largely triumphed; (b) The entailment is

not only a philosophical pluralism, but a hermeneutical pluralism. Not

only is the existence of objective truth called into question, but the

sheer diversity of "readings" of texts is encouraged, with very little

check from close study of the text itself; (c) This hermeneutical pot-

pourri has sometimes depended on certain kinds of literary theory; and

(d) At the same time, the social sciences have expanded their bounds

to offer not only phenomenological data, but naturalistic explanations

of everything that takes place--including religious conversions or pow-

erful revivals.

It would be inappropriate here to trace out the intellectual heritage

of deconstruction, and to introduce its major players. It will be sufficient

to remind you that J. Derrida, viewed by many as the father of decon-

struction, is a brilliant master of paradox and whimsy. To deconstruct a

text is to analyze it for all sorts of individual semantic components

which are then rearranged and fitted into other grids, producing

unpredictable and unforeseen semantic assemblages. The text (a word

that can refer to paintings or sculptures as easily as it can refer to words

on a page) is of relatively little independent importance; the reader is

everything. Foucault stresses the inherent ambiguity of texts; the name

of S. Fish is associated with the dictum that all "knowledge" is a social

construct, belonging, as it does, to a body of cultural presuppositions

that might well be challenged in another culture. P. Ricoeur adopts

much the same stance, but works out the theory much more closely in

the field of literature.

Of the many distinctions that have been attempted between mod-

ernism and postmodernism, perhaps this is the most common: modern-

ism still believed in the objectivity of knowledge, and, in its most

optimistic form, held that ultimately knowledge would revolutionize

the world, squeeze God to the periphery or perhaps abandon him to his

own devices, and build an edifice of glorious knowledge to the great God

Science. But this stance has largely been abandoned in the postmodern-

ism that characterizes most Western universities. Deconstructionists

have been most vociferous in denouncing the modernism vision. They

hold that language is a social construct. Its meaning is inherent neither

in reality nor in texts per se. Texts will invariably be interpreted against

the backdrop of the interpreter's social "home."

The new hermeneutic and deconstruction are complex and

difficult subjects. It is tempting to think that at least some of their chal-

lenge owes not a little to a certain kind of intellectual arrogance that

wants to keep the masses at bay, excluded from the fine tone and subtle

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 105

 

argumentation of the intellectual elite.8 But whatever the origins of

these disciplines, many of the insights generated by them are ex-

tremely valuable, especially when deployed by thinkers who are a

good deal less skeptical than are many of the leading scholars in the

movements themselves. Be that as it may, there are three entailments

beyond reasonable dispute, and all of them have enormous impact on

anyone who wants to preach the gospel.

First, in one form or another these ways of looking at reality have

made an impact on virtually all the arts disciplines, and on not a few phi-

losophers of science as well. Not only in English 101 are students intro-

duced to Derrida and Fish, but in sociology, history, philosophy, law, and

anthropology. In every instance the net effect is predictable: while

rightly decrying the hubris that thinks human beings can understand

anything perfectly, that talks glibly about absolute truth without recog-

nizing that all human knowledge is in some ways culture-bound, these

movements unite in depreciating truth itself. Theory has thus buttressed

the empirical and cherished pluralism of the age, generating a philo-

sophical basis for relativism. Unlike the old-fashioned liberalism, which

took two or three generations to work its way down from the seminaries

and the universities to the ordinary person in the pew, this brand of lib-

eralism has made it all the way down to the person in the street in about

half a generation.

The result is what S. Carter calls a "culture of disbelief."9 Carter has

courageously and insightfully chronicled how we have moved beyond

mere civil religion (to use the expression that R. Bellah made popular

by his famous 1970 essay) to the place where modern politics and law

trivialize all values, all religious devotion. This stance is now in the air

we breath. The extent to which it has invaded the church is troubling;

still more troubling, for the preacher of the gospel, is the extent to

which it is everywhere assumed, especially by middle and upper

classes, by the media and print elite, by almost all who set the agenda

for the nation.

Take, for example, the recent interpretations of the Constitution's

separation" clause. Whether or not these interpretations have been

rightly construed, the tendency in public education has been to be silent

on virtually all matters religious. How can one be historically accurate

in one's treatment of the Pilgrim Fathers if one knows nothing about the

history of Western Christianity? My son attends grade four in a public

 

8 See the provocative and analogous thesis of J. Carey, The Intellectuals and the

Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939 (New York:

St. Martin's, 1992).

9 S. L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize

Religious Devotion (New York: Basic, 1993).

 

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school which, by most standards, is excellent. For their Christmas con-

cert this year--or, more accurately, their Season's concert--there was not

a single song that had anything whatsoever to do with Christmas or

Hanukkah. By "anything whatsoever" I exclude not only explicitly reli-

gious pieces but also songs of the "Jingle Bells" variety. I have never

heard, in ten songs, so many eminently forgettable lines of well-sung

poetry. It was all entirely harmless. But it was also a sign that the culture

of disbelief is striking again. When I was a child, all of us sang Christ-

mas carols at school, at home, and at church. It would have been hard to

find a child who could not recite the words, "Veiled in flesh, the Godhead

see / Hail, the incarnate Deity." Today the schools are becoming silent;

there is little singing at home, for it has largely been displaced by VCRs;

and in the church, there is more and more "special music" performed for

us, with less and less congregational participation that ensures people

learn truths through song,

We are thus ensuring that an entire generation will be ignorant of

the most elementary structures of the Judeo-Christian heritage on

which our civilization has been nurtured. Worse (from the perspective

of the preaching of the gospel), they will not have the "hooks" on which

to hang the appeals to the gospel that have been our staple. I recognize,

of course, that with the rising empirical pluralism in the land, adjust-

ments in the public school education system are inevitable, and in

some instances desirable. But massive silence regarding all things

religious, a silence fostered by our culture of disbelief, is not the best

option. As Jewish talk-show host D. Prager puts it:

 

Liberals are always talking about pluralism, but that is not what they

mean . . . . In public school, Jews don't meet Christians. Christians don't

meet Hindus. Everybody meets nothing. That is, as I explain to Jews all the

time, why their children so easily inter-marry. Jews don't marry Christians.

Non-Jewish Jews marry non-Christian Christians. Jews for nothing marry

Christians for nothing. They get along great because they both affirm noth-

ing. They have everything in common--nothing. That's not pluralism.

 

Or, more accurately, that's not the first kind of pluralism, i.e., empirical

pluralism, but it is most certainly the kind of culture postmodern philo-

sophical pluralism wants to build.

Second, the rise of the new hermeneutic and of deconstruction has

sapped the faith of many an undergraduate, and introduced a raft of new

challenges to those interested in evangelizing them. Thus, Miss Christian

goes off to the local state university, full of zeal and the knowledge of a

few fundamental truths. There she will not find lecturers who will de-

vote much time to overturning her truths. Rather, she will find many lec-

turers convincing her that the meaning in her religion, as in all religion,

is merely communal bias, and therefore is relative, subjective. No religion

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 107

 

can make valid claims of a transcendent nature. Truth, whatever it is, does

not reside in an object, historical or otherwise, that can be read off by

finite human beings; rather, it resides in fallible, faulty, and finite know-

ers who themselves look at things a certain way only because they belong

to a certain section of society. Miss Christian is told, a trifle condescend-

ingly, that if her religion helps her, she should be grateful, but that no

intelligent person could possibly believe, this side of Derrida, Foucault,

and Fish, that her beliefs have a transcendent claim on everybody every-

where. Thus, without overtly denying her faith, Miss Christian discovers

that its vitality has been sapped. It has been relativized, trivialized, mar-

ginalized. Without ever having had a single one of its major tenets over-

turned by historical or other argument, the whole edifice of Christian

truth has been detached from the objective status it once held. Miss

Christian drifts off, and it may take years before she thinks seriously

about Jesus again--if she ever does.

For similar reasons, evangelism among university students has

changed a great deal since I was an undergraduate. If a Christian offered

testimony thirty years ago, it was possible to get into a strong debate,

sometimes even a heated one, over the validity of the truth claims that

were being advanced. Part of intelligent Christian witness on a secular

campus was, for example, to muster the arguments for the historical res-

urrection of Jesus, to display the veracity and coherence of the Scrip-

tures, and to demonstrate the awesome wisdom and love in God's plan

of redemption. You can, of course, do all these things today, but the first

question is likely to be: "Yes, but what about all the Hindus?" In other

words, granted the empirical pluralism of our age, why should your par-

ticular brand of religion be thought better than anyone else's? And

granted the philosophical pluralism of our age, your expression of belief,

though very interesting and even at times compelling, is no more than

the subjective product of your religious community. It is your depiction

of religious experience, decisively shaped by who you are; it is reality for

you, but it is not culture-transcending reality. Nothing is.

In the same way, a friend may listen to your testimony, and then

smile quietly and say, "I'm so glad that your faith helps you. As for me,

I don't really need it, and frankly I find it impossible to believe what you

do. I enjoy your friendship, but please don't push your religion down my

throat. We've each got to find our own way, and your way isn't mine."

Where do you begin?

Third, under the impact of the new hermeneutic and of deconstruc-

tion, the nature of tolerance has changed.10 In a relatively free and open

 

10 The next few paragraphs are adapted from D. A Carson, "Christian Witness in

an Age of Pluralism,” God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl E H. Henry, ed. D. A.

Carson and J. D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 38-39.

 

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108                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

society, the best forms of tolerance are those that are open to and tolerant

of people, even when there are strong disagreements with their ideas.

This toleration for people, if not always for their ideas, engenders a mea-

sure of civility in national discourse while still fostering spirited debate

over the relative merits of this or that idea. Today, however, tolerance in

many Western society increasingly focuses on ideas, not people.

The result of adopting this new brand of tolerance is less discussion

of the merits of competing ideas--and less civility. There is less discus-

sion because toleration of diverse ideas demands that we avoid criticiz-

ing the opinions of others; in addition, there is almost no discussion

where the ideas at issue are of the religious sort that claim to be valid

for everyone everywhere: that sort of notion is right outside the modern

"plausibility structure" (to use P. Berger's term), and has to be trashed.

There is less civility because there is no inherent demand, in this new

practice of tolerance, to be tolerant of people.

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended

by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how

flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and

uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how

obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-

promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a

degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other

religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is imme-

diately stirred up: pluralism (in the third sense) has been challenged.

Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated. Corre-

spondingly, proselytism is a dirty word.

What is sometimes forgotten is that this vision of tolerance is, at

one level, akin to the view of religious tolerance in some remarkably

intolerant countries. In some Muslim countries, for example, it is per-

fectly acceptable to be a Christian; but it may be illegal and is certainly

dangerous to become a Christian. What is overlooked is that genuine

religious freedom necessarily includes the right to convert and to

encourage others to convert. At the heart of such freedom is the as-

sumption that ideas matter and that they must be argued out in the

marketplace, and that individuals have the right to change their minds

and adopt new positions even if everyone around them is convinced

that their ideas are preposterous. Of course, these rights are still main-

tained in the United States. By and large, however, they are not cher-

ished, for the focus of tolerance has changed. Philosophical pluralism

has managed to set in place certain "rules" for playing the game of

religion--rules that transcend any single religion.

I do not for a moment mean that everyone plays by these rules. In

fact, it is becoming clear that this third form of pluralism tends to mil-

itate, in time, against the first two. Instead of a rich diversity of claims

 

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D. A Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM   109

 

arguing it out in the marketplace (i.e., empirical pluralism), in what

Neuhaus calls "the naked public square,"11 and instead of this diversity

being cherished as the best way to ensure freedom and to pursue truth

(cherished pluralism), the pressures from philosophical pluralism tend

to squash any strong opinion that makes exclusive truth claims--all,

that is, except the dogmatic opinion that all dogmatic opinions are to be

ruled out. By way of reaction, various groups respond by becoming

defensive. They circle the wagons and yell slogans. Small wonder, then,

that S. S. Harakas can affirm that the prevailing worldview in America

is not pluralistic (at least, not in the first and second senses, as I have

labelled them), but atomistic and antireligious.12

When philosophical pluralism is allied, in the popular mood, with

the notion of progress, so that those who disagree are often pictured as

quaint vestiges of a bygone era, the pressure to conform is enormous,

since the notion of "progress" has been a watchword of Western culture

for at least two centuries. Recently, the idea of progress has come under

vigorous and long-deserved attack.13 Moreover, in university circles

deconstruction itself is just beginning to be "deconstructed." But as far

as I can make out, philosophical pluralism is still the dominant ideol-

ogy, and it produces enormous challenges to the preacher of the gospel.

 

The Impact of Correlatives of Pluralism

 

By "correlatives of pluralism" I am referring to a variety of societal

trends that are partly causes and partly effects of pluralism. For ex-

ample, the second one I shall mention, rising biblical illiteracy, con-

tributes to pluralism in that there is a declining percentage of citizens

who are so well read, biblically speaking, that they can withstand the

negative features of pluralism's onslaught. They soon become part of

the problem. On the other hand, the more philosophical pluralism tri-

umphs in the land, the less incentive there is to read the Bible. In that

sense pluralism contributes to biblical illiteracy. Most of the "correla-

tives of pluralism," as I have called them, that I am about to introduce,

have this kind of dual relation with one form or another of pluralism.

My concern here is not to give a rich account of them, still less to an-

alyze their relationships with pluralism, but to identify them briefly,

and then reflect on their impact on the preaching of the gospel.

 

11 R J. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

12 "Educating for Moral Values in a Pluralistic Society; GOTR 29 (1984) 393-99.

13 See especially C. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics

(New York: Norton, 1991).

 

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1. Secularization

 

Most social scientists do not think of secularization as the societal

trends that tend toward the abolition of religion, but as the societal trends

than tend toward the marginalization of religion. It has been repeatedly

shown that the percentage of Americans who attend religious service at

least once a month (or who at least say they do!) has been remarkably sta-

ble for most of the century. Variations occur, of course, but they are rel-

atively small. But studies in the processes of secularization do not focus

only on such brute statistics as the number of those who attend church

services now and then, but also on the way religious commitment bears,

or does not bear, on all of human life.

What such studies show is that millions of Americans are religious

in certain ways, but that fact has precious little bearing on anything they

really judge important in their life. Another way to get at this subject is

to evaluate the national discourse. A century and a half ago it was im-

possible to engage for long in political or historical study without bring-

ing 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 judgment. Today, there

is not a history department in the land that would approve a Ph.D. dis-

sertation that tried to infer anything at all about providence. Fewer than

six decades ago, President F. D. Roosevelt, at the height of the Great De-

pression, could tell his fellow Americans, in one of his radio fireside

chats, "Our problems, thank God, are only material." It is impossible to

imagine any of the last half-dozen presidents saying anything similar.

The national discourse is taken up with economics, politics, entertain-

ment figures, sports and sports heroes, crime, corruption, disasters,

weather, international affairs (at least when they are seen to have a

bearing on the US)--but nothing about God, very little about religion,

not even very much about such concepts as truth, courtesy, civility,

honor, duty, moral courage--all of which sound vaguely quaint and old-

fashioned in our ears. The powers of secularization stalk the land.

The bearing of all this on the preacher of the gospel is obvious. We

must not only declare the whole counsel of God, but do so in an envi-

ronment where the subject is perceived to be vaguely irrelevant. In fact,

if you seem too passionate about it, you may appear to be vaguely ir-

relevant. To bridge this gap, many preachers succumb to the temptation

to become entertainers (for entertainment is one of the categories people

do understand), or to the temptation to transmute the gospel into some-

thing that helps us in our perceived inadequacies (for endless self-focus

certainly dominates the national discourse). Other preachers, more ro-

bust, dig in and condemn, and gather a group of like-minded conserva-

tives around them, but make little impact on the land. What shall we do?

 

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 111

 

2. Rising Biblical Illiteracy

 

In 1950 the Gallup organization asked the question, "Did you

receive any religious instruction in your youth? Only 6% of Americans

answered negatively. When the same question was put to people in

1989, the figure had risen to 38%.

Many of us are so cocooned in our confessional churches, or we

live in such relatively conservative parts of the country, that we really

do not have any idea how serious this challenge has become. Less than

two years ago I gave a series of evangelistic talks to a small group of sci-

entists near Chicago. I went in expecting that two-thirds of them would

not even know that the Bible has two Testaments. I discovered that my

estimate was a trifle low. Some churches that draw significant numbers

of university students take time, whenever they have a special service

geared specifically to the outside, to explain what prayer is, before pub-

lic prayer is offered: many of those who attend have never prayed, or

witnessed prayer. A few months ago I was on a television set for a

couple of days, working on two or three religious programs sponsored

by The Learning Channel and US. News and World Report. I shared

my faith, in some detail, with three people; I probably chatted with

thirty others. I found only two who knew the Bible had two Testa-

ments--and these two people had found out only during the previous

few weeks, while working on the programs at hand.

In many parts of the country, we cannot assume any biblical

knowledge on the part of our hearers at all. The most elementary bib-

lical narratives are completely unknown. In a fifth grade class of thirty

students, not far from our home, the teacher asked if anyone knew who

Moses was. Only one child could say anything about him. On another

occasion in the same class, the word "sin" came up, and one child asked

what the word meant. In some adult circles, if a biblical narrative is

recognized at all, it is because they have seen an epic film--Charleton

Heston playing Moses, perhaps. Didn't he have something to do with

the ten commandments?

The relevance of these findings ought to be obvious. If we preach

outside the conservative enclaves in the country, we are often facing

astonishing ignorance.

 

3. New Age Theosophy

 

So many books and articles have appeared in recent years describ-

ing one facet or another of the new age movement that I need not

describe it afresh. This highly heterogeneous movement has certain fea-

tures in common. Most visions of "god" in the movement are pantheistic.

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

 

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112                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

self-fulfillment, to become self-actualized, to grow to our full potential,

until we are rather more at one with the god/universe than we otherwise

would be. The focus, in short, is self; evil is reduced, and any notion of

judgment imposed by a personal/transcendent God whose wrath has

been and will be displayed, is utterly repugnant. Needless to say, there

is no need for a mediator, let alone a suffering priest who takes our sin

on himself.

There are at least two important implications for the preacher of

the gospel. The first is that a person who is largely biblically illiterate

but who has absorbed substantial doses of new age theosophy will hear

us to be saying things we do not really mean. If we talk about God,

Spirit, new birth, power, abundant life, peace, joy, love, family life, con-

science, faith, trust, and a host of other topics, they will all be nicely slot-

ted into a new age framework. Even words like "sin" will be read as

"bad things" or perhaps "bad karma"--but not at all as something whose

badness derives from its offensiveness to the God who has made us and

to whom we must give an account. The entire structure of thought of

such a person guarantees that he or she will hear us quite differently

from what we intend to say, what we think we are saying. "Sin" is a

snicker word--that is, it conveys nothing of odium, but makes people

snicker. Millions of men and women fornicate without the slightest

qualms of conscience. If you find it hard to credit what I am saying it

is because you have done too little preaching among frankly secular,

biblically illiterate, new age Americans.

The second implication is that many ostensible believers inside

our churches--some of whom are genuine believers and some of whom

are not-have inevitably picked up some of the surrounding chatter

and, being poorly grounded in Scripture and theology, have incorpo-

rated into their understanding of Christianity some frankly incompat-

ible elements. Remarkably smarmy notions of "spirituality" abound;

very few ask, for instance, what a "spiritual" life looks like according

to the NT documents.14 In this framework there is going on, as Tinker

puts it, a battle for the mind,15 even though many have not perceived

the nature of the fight.

 

4. Vague but Emphatic Appeals to the Cosmic Christ

 

The person who is usually credited with the expression “cosmic

Christ”; as it has come to be deployed in international theological circles,

is Professor J. Sittler, then of the Chicago Divinity School, in his 1961

 

14 See my article, "When is Spirituality Spiritual? Reflections on Some Problems of

Definition" JETS 37.3 (1994)381-94.

15 M. Tinker, "Battle for the Mind," Churchman 106 (1992) 34-44.

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 113

 

address to the third Assembly of the WCC at New Delhi.16 Building on

Col 1:15-20, where the word "all" is used six times, Sittler assigned the

"all" maximum scope, insisting that God's redemption is "cosmic in

scope; and that the Christ envisaged there is the "cosmic Christ." From

this lead, a number of writers have used the same expression in pro-

gressively complex ways. For example, Panikkar defends the view that

"Christ" is found not only in the historical Jesus, but also in certain

strands of Hindu thought.17 One can find not dissimilar notions in

H. Kung, K. Rahner, M. M. Thomas, and many others.

More conservative exegetes have often pointed out that to base

such views on the Bible it is necessary to pick and choose the texts of

the Bible, and then interpret them outside their context. This is of

course a form of deconstruction. No less disastrously, "Christ" is so di-

vorced from the historical Jesus that the term can be given almost any

content one wishes--though certainly no NT writers had any such dis-

junction in mind. Thus what texts are interpreted to say is intentionally

distanced from authorial intent.

Whatever the problems inherent in such views, they are wide-

spread in mainline denominations. Where our ministry touches men

and women from such backgrounds, or includes students enrolled in

religious studies programs in many universities, it is imperative that the

preacher know his audience well enough to address the distortion of

the biblical portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

5. The Sheer Pragmatism of the Baby Busters

 

The number of books and papers differentiating between "baby

boomers" (people born between roughly 1945 and 1960) and "baby

busters" (people born between 1960 and 1975) is now legion. One of

the most useful surveys is a fairly recent article in The Atlantic

Monthly.18 Baby busters do not want to be lectured; they expect to be

entertained. They prefer videos to books; many of them have not

learned to think in a linear fashion; they put more store than they rec-

ognize in mere impressions. As a result, they can live with all sorts of

logical inconsistencies and be totally unaware of them. (How many

 

16 For a useful summary of the development of the expression, and a telling cri-

tique, see S. Sumithra, "Conversion: To Cosmic Christ?" ERT 16 (1992) 385-97.

17 R Panikkar, 'The Meaning of Christ's Name," Service and Salvation. ed. J. Pathra-

pankel (Bangalore: C.M.I., 1973), 242ff. Cf. also his 1.964 book, The Unknown Christ of Hin-

duism: Towards an Ecumenical Christophany (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1981). Panikkar exegetes

a passage from the Hindu Scriptures, Janmadi Yasyatah, which on his reading speaks of

the cause, power, and goal of all things, but leaves this cause/power/goal unnamed. Panikkar

names it "Christ."

18 N. Howe and W. Strauss, "The New Generation Gap," The Atlantic Monthly

(December 1992) 67-89.

 

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114                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

times have I tried to explain to a university-age young person who has

made some profession of faith that it is fundamentally inconsistent to

claim to know and love the God of the Bible, while being shacked up

with someone? They can see they are doing what the Bible forbids, but

when you press them to articulate the contradiction they scuttle into in-

consistency without embarrassment.) They are cynical, not idealistic.

They vehemently deny the existence of absolutes: that is their one ab-

solute. Many have never experienced principled morality in the home.

They have been brought up without a coherent vision or value system,

and they have embraced pragmatism with a vengeance. Many of them

are furious with the preceding generation (that's me and my genera-

tion) for being so crassly materialistic that they have ruined the econ-

omy and dumped a tax load onto their shoulders. On the other hand,

they are no less materialistic themselves, and will vote for any candi-

date who promises to deliver more goodies while lowering taxes--pre-

cisely the same greedy stupidity that afflicted the generation they

condemn. Pluralism is so much their creed that even when the stron-

gest arguments are arrayed to explain, on biblical presuppositions, why

morally "good" people should be rejected by the Christian God and as-

signed to hell, their hearts so rule their heads that very frequently no

amount of argumentation is adequate.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how people with

such positions as these will have an enormous impact on the way the

gospel is perceived, if it is preached in strictly traditional categories.

The solution of some is to design what are in effect baby buster

churches, or at least baby buster church services.19 The problem, of

course, is that unless the various components in the culture of baby

busters are analyzed biblically and theologically, we will not know

what elements we must confront and reform, what elements are mor-

ally neutral, and what elements should be commended and strength-

ened. But unless we engage in such reflection, we will either remain

insensitive to the changing face of American culture (and thus serve

only those churches that are found in very conservative parts of the

country, or those churches with an aging population), or we will capsize

to merely pragmatic considerations ourselves, and build so-called

churches with a lot of happy baby busters and very few genuine con-

verts pursuing the knowledge of God and growth in genuine holiness

and service.

 

19 E.g., L. Anderson, Dying for Change: An Arresting Look at the New Realities

Confronting Church and Para-Church Ministries (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1990).

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 115

 

6. The Hegemony of Pop Culture

 

I do not want to succumb to the elitism that makes sharp distinc-

tions between popular and high culture.20 Nor can I quite bring myself

to believe that the medium of television is so bad, intrinsically speaking,

that even if all the programs were Christian the medium itself is beyond

redemption: so McLuhan, Ellul, and many others.21 Granted, a great deal

of what appears on television is rubbish; granted, this medium, de-

ployed in an undisciplined way, can take over families, squash conver-

sation, fertilize couch potatoes, discourage serious reading and thought,

and pamper my desire to be entertained; granted, much that evangeli-

calism has attempted to do on television is theologically pathetic;22

granted, a culture addicted to the visual presentation of data presents

peculiar challenges to the proclamation of a God who is not only invis-

ible, but who insists that the desire for visual security and certainty is

one of the hallmarks of idolatry.23 Still, I think that one of the most fun-

damental problems is want of discipline. Homes that severely restrict

viewing hours, insist on family reading, encourage debate on good books,

talk about the quality and the morality of television programs they do

see, rarely or never allow children to watch television without an adult

being present (in other words, refusing to let the TV become an unpaid

nanny), and generally develop a host of other interests, are not likely to

be greatly contaminated by the medium, while still enjoying its numer-

ous benefits. But what will produce such families?

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 vehicle of grace to enable the people

 

20 See, for example the telling review of K. A Myers, All God's Children and Blue

Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Westchester: Crossway, 1989), written by

W Edgar and published in WJT 53 (1991) 377-80.

21 See, most recently, S. Vibert, "The Word in an Audio-Visual Age: Can We Still

Preach the Gospel?" Churchman 106 (1992) 147-58.

22 See especially Q. J. Schultze, Televangelism and American Culture: The Busi-

ness of Popular Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991).

23 See Vibert, 147-58.

 

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116                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

in his congregation to pursue it with determination, joy, and a sense of

adventuresome, God-pleasing freedom.

Meanwhile, the harsh reality is that most Americans, including

most of those in our churches, have so been shaped by the popular cul-

ture that no thoughtful preacher can afford to ignore the impact. The

combination of music and visual presentation, often highly suggestive,

is no longer novel. Casual sexual liaisons are everywhere, not least in

many of our churches, often with little shame. "Get even" is a common

dramatic theme. Strength is commonly confused with lawless brutality.

Most advertising titillates our sin of covetousness. This is the air we

breathe; this is our culture. How shall we address it?

 

7. The Multiplication of Single-Issue Believers

 

One of the difficult components in the current fragmentation of

evangelicalism is the movement away from the centrality of the gospel

and toward one of a dozen or more "in" causes. It is not that the gospel

is being overtly denied. Rather, the gospel is mildly assumed, but excites

few passions among contemporary evangelicals. What excites passions

and commands allegiance, energy, publications, and commitment, is one

or another of the current "hot button" topics: abortion, women's ordina-

tion (for or against), home schooling, school prayer, concerts of prayer,

social involvement in inner-city programs, denominational power strug-

gles, forms of worship, debates over prophecy and healing, and so on.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that Christians should not be working

in these and many other areas. What I fear, however, is the detachment

of these causes from the gospel, or worse, the displacement of the gospel

by one or more of these causes.

Historically, many Christians have led the fight for various social

reforms. Many of the men and women converted under the ministries

of Harris, Whitefield, and the Wesleys were the ones who spearheaded

the introduction of trade unions, legal measures to prohibit child labor

in the mines, radical prison reform, reform in education, the abolition

of slavery, and much more. But the best of these leaders did so out of

the matrix of the gospel. In other word, they were passionate for the

gospel first, and out of that framework saw their wider responsibilities

and discharged them faithfully. Unless I am mistaken, many modern

Christians who become deeply involved with one or more of the issues

I have listed focus so narrowly on their particular issue that the gospel

itself, while never denied, is de facto of minor importance.

For the preacher of the gospel, this means that there is a queue of

people eager to assess you, not on the basis of your faithful articulation

of the gospel and its entailments, but on how frequently you bang their

particular drum. Bang it often, and you're a good chap; neglect it, and

 

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D. A. Carson: THE CHALLENGE FROM PLURALISM 117

 

you demonstrate your unforgivable inability to perceive what is of

transcendental importance about their particular issue.

What preacher has not felt this kind of pressure?

 

Final Reflections

 

I conclude. There are numerous dimensions in American culture

I have not even introduced. For example, I have not asked how various

groups of African-Americans hear the gospel, or how young immi-

grant Chinese hear it, or how educated white women from Ivy League

universities hear it, or how white, blue-collar males hear it. Moreover,

I must hasten to make clear that quite different though complemen-

tary analyses are possible. For instance, in one of his books Dyrness

asks, "How does America hear the Gospel?,"24 and focuses on the

white American middle class. Dyrness thinks his way through three

complexes of values that are, for this group, quintessentially Ameri-

can: (1) pragmatism, an essentially materialist basis; (2) hope or opti-

mism; (3) rugged individualism. In each instance Dyrness tries to

analyze the strength and weakness, biblically speaking, of these com-

ponents of culture. Whatever the merits of his analysis, Dyrness is try-

ing to encourage reflection on how the gospel is heard. And that is a

question of paramount importance.

All that I have said today has been pretty negative. Had I time, I

would paint a still more negative picture, for we must grasp that the

Christ-rejecting societal trends I have briefly outlined are, from a bib-

lical perspective, tied to the deceptive power of the devil himself. Our

struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against supernatural power,

even in heavenly places.

Small wonder that gospel victory, in any culture as in any life, de-

pends, ultimately, on the grace of God. But that truth does not absolve

us of the responsibility to be wise, discerning, and faithful heralds of

the gospel. My second lecture, then, will suggest some strategies and

priorities for preachers who want to proclaim the gospel in our culture

faithfully and, by God's grace, fruitfully.

 

24 W. A. Dyrness, How Does America Hear the Gospel? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1989).

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            The Criswell College

            4010 Gaston Ave.

            Dallas, TX 75246

www.criswell.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu