People of Faith and the Presumption of Pluralism

I’ve been delighted by the amount and quality of the responses from so many people to these blog posts. Frankly, I am quite amazed. I come away from these comments realizing that people want to engage. People want to be thoughtful about their lives and about the shape of the world. People want to influence the culture in which we live, and that requires thinking things through.

And so I say thank you for challenging me, for opening up my blind spots, for filling in the vacant spaces in the things I am trying to think through too. This conversation is helpful. It is encouraging and challenging.

Because of the comments over the weeks, I want to try to clarify some things. I wrote last week about my growing frustrations that the Christian voice is being marginalized more than ever in the secular culture in which we live. I tried to say that I believe there is serious danger ahead if we succeed in silencing the voice of people of faith in the public square. While I want to do so winsomely, effectively, and respectfully, I believe engaging the culture is necessary and right.

In his important work on the dramatic cultural shift from a “background” of belief to a “background” of choice about belief, the philosopher and historian Charles Taylor portrays this as nothing less than “a titanic change in our Western civilization.” The shift has been breathtaking. In his recent book A Secular Age, Taylor notes that we have moved “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” Such a culture is called a pluralist culture.

But “the presumption of unbelief” has “achieved hegemony,” says Taylor, in so many of the influential parts of our society: the university, the world of entertainment, the press, and so many parts of our government. When it comes to talking together about things that really matter, the presumption has grown that people of faith are really not up to the challenge. To make a claim on the truth somehow disqualifies you as an able and willing partner in discourse about the things that matter in the world.

A deeper problem occurs when we begin to regard positions of belief as “a sign of cognitive and moral infirmity,” to use the language of the inimitable intellectual Stanley Fish. And that has surely happened as well.

Is this a good thing? That’s the question I’m trying to ask.

I think it is critical to think through what it means to be a Christian in a genuinely pluralist culture. We live now with a presumption of pluralism. Pluralism assumes there are various points of view on what is true and good and beautiful, and we should all be at the table of discussion and deliberation. We should all be given the chance to aim our society in directions that are good.

For me this is where the Christian perspective has so much to offer. Our faith proposes from the beginning a vision for human flourishing. Our vision for human flourishing is about building new lives and new communities out of broken ones. It is about entering the picture when people are not flourishing. It is about bringing help and hope into the world. Surely the Christian voice should not be silenced and marginalized when the stakes are so high for our world.

The scary question is what our world will be like if we no longer have the voice of people of faith at the table, in the mix. That’s the issue I am trying to get at. That’s what I find myself worrying about. That’s why I think engaging the culture is so important. Well, let’s think this through carefully, because it does matter. Thank you for caring with me and sharing your thoughts.