The Cultural Landscape
We live in a pluralistic culture, which is not really a bad thing, even as an orthodox Christian. The early Christian movement and its disciples flourished within the pluralistic society of the Roman Empire alongside other religions and beliefs, proclaiming the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples. The idea of a “marketplace of ideas”–where different beliefs and convictions can engage and dialogue with one other–was undoubtedly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrestled the country away from the idea of a state religion, though they themselves were largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview and values. Additionally, the United States as “the land of opportunity” lent itself to being a “melting pot” of different cultures and immigrants. In the 20th century, ideas found a medium in an increase of communication, technology, literacy, and education. This has continued to evolve from television to the internet (videos, podcasts, online streaming, and…well, blogs). This has given us tremendous opportunities to engage in dialogue and discussion with the “global village”.
At the same time, my generation in particular runs the risk of shutting down any productive dialogue by regressing into the extremes of either uncomfortable silence or loud, counterproductive diatribes.
As a confessional, orthodox Christian living in a pluralistic and postmodern age, it’s not the most popular thing in the world to state belief in Jesus Christ as the exclusive way to God. Our culture and generation seems to have developed a bit of an allergy to any propositional truth-claims whatsoever, and are very quick to cry “foul!”. That’s what marks postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon. It’s important to remember that exclusivity (or exclusive truth claims) is not exclusive to Christianity any more than it is to Islam, Judiasm, Hinduism, and other world faiths and religions. Most religions and beliefs since the dawn of time have been inherently propositional, and our allergy to propositional truth claims in general is a novel, Western, and modern invention (or rather, a postmodern invention). The other day, I read an anecdote in an article in which a native Indian remarked with amusement at how Westerners have appropriated (or maybe misappropriated) the Eastern faiths and religions to fit into our cultural paradigms and their overt focus on tolerance. This idea is not practiced in nearly the same way in Eastern countries and cultures. While there might be a respect for different religions and spiritualities, they do not share our sensitivity to the principle of having exclusive truth-claims. Ironically, to downplay the exclusivity of religions is itself an ethnocentric move of white culture. So where’s the disconnect?
The Breakdown in Communication
I have received degrees in both psychology and counseling, and almost every time I mention it, people have consistently taken a mental step back and asked, “Are you analyzing me right now?” As amusing as it continues to be, such a reaction stems from an inherent misunderstanding of what psychology and counseling actually is. And so when I tell people, there is a kind of shield that pops up between us, even if it is usually done somewhat in jest (though I suspect also with some degree of seriousness). Similarly, when I tell people that I am a Christian that believes in Jesus Christ as the sole way to God, it is not uncommon for an invisible wall to go up. This has the unfortunate consequence of stopping any true and genuine dialogue from actually happening.
To be fair, Christians have had our fair share of loud, obnoxious people within our fold that have attracted media attention for exactly that reason: being loud and obnoxious and stampeding through the marketplace of ideas, leaving the more considerate ones to clean up their mess and pick up the pieces. That is not the constructive dialogical approach that more thoughtful Christians have chosen. Many, myself included, have chosen to stick with our convictions while nonetheless dialoging and engaging with people of other beliefs, as well as the larger culture around us. Unfortunately, the damage has often already been done and this has had the unintended consequence of people shutting down, even when you approach with a smile and outstretched hand.
The Alternative Approach: Constructive Dialogue
The Bible is actually replete with examples of how to appropriate engage each other in a constructive manner.
The apostle Paul also had encounters with pluralism in a literal marketplace of ideas in Acts 17. Acts chapter 17 features Paul walking into the ancient city of Athens, a cultural hub and the philosophical/intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman, Mediterranean world. The “marketplace” in which he found himself in was a literal one: where people were buying and selling idols and images to gods/goddesses of various faiths and religions. (There was even a shrine to “an unknown god”, lest the Greeks had forgotten about one in their negligence.) There, Paul was invited to address the intelligentsia, the intellectual elites of his day, which consisted of many “schools of thought”. Instead of disparaging the culture around him, Paul used his platform to both affirm certain parts of the culture and its instincts, while also contradicting other aspects of the culture at the same time. He even quoted one of their pagan poets, showing his familiarity and engagement with the culture around him. In other words, Paul was dialoging with the culture. More importantly, he was doing so out of love and concern for the culture and people around him (verse 16 describes him as being “distressed”).
The main exemplar, though, is of course Jesus Himself, who as I have said elsewhere, never surrendered His convictions, but spoke to others about them in gracious ways. Or, as the apostle John puts it, He was a unique combination of both grace and truth (John 1:17).
Jesus Christ was simultaneously the most exclusive and inclusive religious figure the world had seen. He said things like: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes through the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Similarly, He encouraged His followers to “enter through the narrow gate”, because “wide is the gate that leads to destruction” and “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13-14).
And yet, Jesus also broke down and defied social barriers, racial barriers, and even gender barriers of the culture and society of His day. His message was inherently exclusive, and yet it was a message that was made open and universal to everyone, regardless of social class. His message was that anyone can come; and yet come they must. It wasn’t just for the cultural elites, whether the rich or the “moral majority”. Jesus spread this inherently exclusive message to the social outcasts, the marginalized, and the lowly. Jesus Christ was simultaneously the most exclusive and inclusive religious figure of His day, and perhaps of human history.
This attitude spread to His early followers. The early church actually grew and flourished within the lower social classes in the first few centuries. The early Christian movement was also diverse and multicultural, featuring people of different racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus it was seen as an anomaly of a phenomenon in the ancient world. The early Christians were marked with how much they loved and took care of each other, regardless of their ethnic and cultural differences. They were also marked with how they cared for the sick and the poor.
So you see, the idea that having convictions based on propositional truth claims is inherently intolerant is simply not the case.
One of my close friends in high school was an atheist that I shared a lunch table with. Those conversations over cheap cafeteria food and chocolate milk were some of the most formative in shaping and examining my faith. Similarly, one of the first people I talked to in college was an agnostic. In my first blog post, I offhandedly mentioned a theologically conservative pastor who co-hosts a podcast with his atheist friend on matters of life and faith. I’ve had many conversations with Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc. I’ve had conversations with people of different cultures and sexual orientations. These conversations have not led to me abandoning my convictions, but examining them in new light. And in that sense they have been enriching and enlightening.
True tolerance in the “marketplace of ideas” isn’t the absence of truth-claims, but the discussion and dialogue of competing truth claims. It is the presence of dialogue and discussion. It’s not the throwing your hands up and giving up the pursuit of truth. It’s pursuing and discovering the truth in discourse and exchange. It is kindly agreeing to disagree, but never stopping with that or being content. The fact is, everyone holds a worldview. Everyone has a way of seeing the world that is based on presuppositions on how the world works, its purpose and meaning, and the values that logically result.
We are given the opportunity to dialogue and discuss through mediums such as the blogosphere. Let us use it responsibly. Let us critique each other’s beliefs, yet let us also do so gently, out of an air of respect and of love. Let us not regress into uncomfortable silence that we often mean by “tolerance”, yet let us also not regress into yelling at the top of our lungs.