Christianity in a Multifaith World

UCSB Front Porch, February 1, 2002

Draft: Do not cite without permission.


The Context of the Problem
An old problem: Christianity in the context of other faiths
Before modernity, "the problem of faiths" is no problem; only the claims of particular rivals are
A new problem: Christianity's de-monopolization in European/American religious culture
The Modern Problem
Modernity abandons appeals to authority in favor of "universal reason"
Modernity's primary opponent is the Christian tradition
Christianity survives by (failed) suppression and (compromising) accommodation
"The problem of faiths" is a problem of any faith at all in a world of reason
Rival faiths only weaken Christianity's appeals to authorities
"Postmodern" Problems
In the twentieth century, modernity fails, and is increasingly abandoned
"Modernity without hope" begets radical relativism: no one may judge another's claims
Relativism is often called postmodern, but refuses to move beyond modern epistemology
For relativists, "the problem of faiths" is a problem for any claim that rejects relativism
True postmodernists, without embracing relativism, understand knowledge as
socially constituted and intrinsically subjective (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
developed in traditions (Alasdair MacIntyre)
beyond propositional logic (Michael Polanyi, J.L. Austin)
Here "the problem of faiths" reverts to its premodern form
Problems after 9/11
Americanism is reinvigorated (with modernism, pragmatism, inclusivism, libertarianism)
Radical moral relativism is weakened (with anti-globalism, pacifism, postmodernism, multiculturalism)
Premodern/modern/postmodern religious fundamentalism is weakened (with Islamism, Zionism, conservative Christianity)
Three Challenges
From (resurgent) modernism: to cooperate in its program
From (unbowed) ideological relativism: to accept its egalitarianism
From (publicly) unshaken Islam: to convert
Three Opportunities
For modernism: to love enemies, consider others better, and correct fallen minds
For ideological relativism: to know truth as liberating even fallen wills
For unshaken Islam: to find God's perfection in weakness
Results depend on Christian initiative
Three (!) Sources of Comfort
These challenges contradict each other
Christians are currently sideliners in some of these contests
Challenges reinvigorate us to new creativity and achievement

The Context of the Problem

The Christian faith is one faith among others. Is this a problem? Is it a problem for other faiths? Is it a problem for Christians?

It's certainly not a new problem. Christianity arose in the context of other faiths. Historically speaking, so has every faith – even, in Israel's canonical memory, the faith of YHWH (Gen. 4:1). God has always contended for mindshare among many objects of our worship. All the problems associated with that have been around for a long time: the exclusivity of Christianity, the persuasiveness of other faiths, the destiny of others, and the temptations to merge the worship of YHWH with worship of other gods. (The really shocking thing would be not to find out that others have ably addressed the problems centuries ago.)

Then what would be called for is a standard lecture in historical theology that displays the seminal work on the topic of other religions from influential historical figures – Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine. Alternately, I could act like the systematic theologian I have been trained to be, frame the question in terms of the destiny of the unevangelized, and offer a typology of positions of "exclusivism," "inclusivism," "pluralism," and "universalism."

Both strategies would have to give honorable mention to the impressive hierarchy of faiths in Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, which has the added benefit of making us Protestants uncomfortable that we aren't at the top.

Yet in another sense the problem of other faiths is a new problem for Christianity. The contemporary problem of many rival faiths has arisen out a particular context: The weakening of Western Christianity's lock on European and American religious culture. I have a feeling that I am here at UCSB in February 2002 speaking about Christianity in a multifaith world because of the intellectual landscape of UCSB in February 2002. Because it is here that we find ourselves, it is here that I want to start, not in the illusory objectivity of a theological typology or historical grand tour.

The Modern Problem

UCSB's intellectual inheritance is basically European, which means it has been trained to frame intellectual problems basically in modern terms. That is, its intellectual world has historically tried to pursue the accumulation of knowledge objectively, dispassionately, and scientifically in order to serve the citzenry of America and the brotherhood of man. This is the metanarrative of practically every one of your disciplines. Even the ones that predate the Enlightenment were reshaped to conform with the Enlightenment's plausibility structures.

This means that your disciplines were decisively shaped by a centuries-long effort, born in the aftermath of Europe's disastrous Wars of Religion, to abandon appeals to authority in favor of appeals to universal reason. In order to survive and prosper, that effort had to defend itself against one primary opponent: the Christian faith. The Church rested its claims (and they were impressive claims!) on the authority of Jesus Christ, delegated to his apostles and recorded in their Scriptures.

Until recently, the Enlightenment held the upper hand in its battle with the Church. In censuring scientists like Galileo, the Church gained a (well deserved, though not entirely deserved) reputation for scientific obscurantism. European intellectuals deserted the old appeals to authority. Christianity spent the next several centuries in something of an intellectual wilderness, not defending itself from other faiths' appeals to their own authorities, but defending its very right to exist. It did this by appealing to the authority of its revelation against the authority of universal reason, or to its revelation's conformity with universal reason (i.e., its reasonableness), or to the transcendent authority of its revelation in the special sphere of faith.

In the modern context, the problem of "Christianity in a multifaith world" is really the problem of any faith at all in a world of reason. The existence of rival traditions that appeals to other sources of special revelation only makes the Christian case harder. It was on this problem – the problem of faith rather than the problem of faiths – that modern Christian theology usually focused its intellectual resources.

Of course, other faiths were pressured in similar ways. However, since they were not the dominant faiths of modern Europe, they were taken less seriously and consequently they received a lower level of scrutiny. Furthermore, Christians were and are often content to level Enlightenment attacks on rival faiths, for instance dismissing Muhammad's Quran as a pastiche of plagiarized religious ideas rather than reckoning with it on its own terms.

"Postmodern" Problems

At the turn of the millennium, UCSB lived in a pretty new world. It is Enlightenment modernity that was increasingly abandoned – not because the world discovered that Christians were right all along, but because modernism failed on its own terms. "Universal reason" failed to deliver on its own promises. In fact, it failed persuasively to establish its own existence.

Modernism's crises have handed Christians a new rival: radical relativism. Many have taken the Enlightenment's failure to arrive at a persuasive universal standard for reason as evidence that "all truth is relative," meaning that no one may judge the claims of another. (There is an often noticed latent modernism here, in the absolutism of the categorical denial of absolutes. While unreconstructed absolutists are fond of equating relativism and postmodernism, in fact relativism is just modernism that has lost its hope.)

When Christians agonize about the problem of "Christianity in a multifaith world," I sense that we are usually falling into the temptation of relativism. We are still sold out to the dream of finding a reason that doesn't depend on and extend the authority of a tradition, even our own! When no such reason is found, we lose our nerve. Our discomfort with representing Jesus as truly authoritative, truly the king of kings, is a function of our comfort with representing reason as truly autonomous, truly the epistemological king of kings.

Yet relativism should not be confused with true postmodernism. Epistemology today increasingly understands all knowledge to be socially constituted and intrinsically subjective (thus Ludwig Wittgenstein), to develop in terms of discrete, rival traditions of enquiry (Alasdair MacIntyre), and to take forms far beyond the narrow constraints of propositionalism (Michael Polanyi, J.L. Austin). These are promising developments, relieving pressure on Christians to justify the traditional nature of our tradition. Under true postmodernity, the problem of "Christianity in a multifaith world" basically resumes much of its premodern character. (Nevertheless, modernists haven't given up the fight, and postmodernists haven't reached any sort of consensus on how to proceed following modernism's self-destruction.)

Thus at the turn of the millennium, the Christian faith, having both survived and assimilated modernistic epistemology, faced a new and unfamiliar intellectual landscape. Its fight against modernity continued, but modernity was a much weaker opponent. Its uneasy alliance with modernity continued, but modernity was a much less attractive partner.

Intellectual postmodernity is still a basically European world. Some time ago Tom Wolfe called American academia "a little colony of Europe," and his quip is still pretty accurate today.

Problems after 9/11

Times changed again in 2001. In the several months following 9/11, Christianity has faced a reinvigorated modernism. [Here let me repeat a claim I have made elsewhere.] Today "the American way" (meaning American-style democratic pluralism) is stronger, more confident, and has racked up truly impressive successes at home and abroad. All those American flags symbolize a worldview that's on a roll. Caught in its updraft (whether deservedly or not) are pragmatism, interventionism, Enlightenment modernism, ethnic inclusivism, and libertarianism. This is certainly true in America, and it is even true throughout the West (though intellectual elites everywhere have yet to catch up with popular sensibilities).

Americanism's strength has come at the expense of two rivals. The first is radical moral relativism. This didn't have the resources to respond persuasively, and sometimes even coherently, to 9/11's challenge. Suffering by association (again, not necessarily deservedly) are anti-globalism, liberal pacifism (Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army"), postmodernism, and multiculturalism. Their sponsoring institutions have suffered too: Universities and colleges, advocacy groups, pessimistic editorial staffs, the United Nations, and so on.

Nevertheless, not suffering by association is what you might call moderate or pragmatic moral relativism. Instead, this child of the Enlightenment is on the rise! To quote a release by the Barna Research Group:

People were asked if they believed that "there are moral truths that are absolute, meaning that those moral truths or principles do not change according to the circumstances" or that "moral truth always depends upon the situation, meaning that a person's moral and ethical decisions depend upon the circumstances." At the start of 2000, almost four out of ten adults (38%) said that there are absolute moral truths that do not change according to the circumstances. When the same question was asked [after the attacks], the result was that just two out of ten adults (22%) claimed to believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.1

I find that an astounding result. But when you think about it, it is consistent. What this means is that September 11's morality is being judged through the lens of modern American pragmatism rather than some other ethic (such as "You shall not murder"). The attacks are so counterproductive that they present little challenge to pragmatists. They look wrong even from the conviction that all moral truths (not just some) are situational. (Remember, Americans rely on pragmatism to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and today's doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Pragmatism comes in handy in wartime.)

The second weakened rival is religious fundamentalism. This is usually considered directly responsible for the attacks themselves. Suffering by association (not necessarily deservedly) are traditional Islam, Zionism, and conservative Christianity – any tradition that hasn't made its peace with pragmatic liberal pluralism. Americans have been shocked and repulsed by the popularity of militant Islamism, the depth of Muslim anti-Judaism, and the opportunism of Indian-Hindu, Israeli-Jewish, and American-Christian responses to militant Islam. These all looked too much like the attackers to be attractive. The public has gone out of its way to protect the rights of fundamentalists, but this hasn't translated into respect for fundamentalist ideas.

Three Challenges

So, right now Christians face not one but at least three problems of "Christianity in a multifaith world": First, the problem of justifying our claims before a resurgent modernism, which is only pleased with our peculiarities as long as they do not interfere with its agenda of liberalizing, democratizing, and capitalizing. Second, the problem of justifying our claims before a despondent, still vocal relativism, as claims whose scope goes beyond our own community. Third, the problem of justifying our claims before rival faiths such as Islam, some varieties of which haven't learned to be chastened by modernity, and others of which have been emboldened by modern uncertainty and collapse.

First, in America's "public theology" after 9/11, like America's public theology during World War II, religion is most acceptable when it's at the service of patriotism. Now, as then, the "God" who's appreciated in the mainstream American political tradition isn't a God who ever challenges the mainstream American political tradition. This puts today's evangelicals in the position of yesterday's liberals.

Here is what I mean by that: During World War II the mainline denominations (Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, American Baptists, Disciples, Lutherans) were well integrated into American public life. Their agendas fit the broader public agenda. Their ethics were pragmatic. By contrast, by World War II fundamentalism had been driven underground (willingly) for decades. Fundamentalists pursued conversions, missions, and biblical traditionalism out of the public spotlight. Their agendas didn't fit the broader public agenda. Their ethics came more thoroughly from their own traditions. This had its problems – social isolationalism, for instance – but it had the benefit of keeping fundamentalism from being absorbed into Americanism. (It was not until W.R. Hearst puffed Billy Graham in 1949 that these movements began to regain national prominence.)

Times have changed! Since about 1975, the activist Christian right has been fighting a political culture-war. Politically interested evangelicals have adopted a stance of patriotism, yet have used it to fight the prevailing shape of American public life. Their agenda has centered on three issues: advocacy of school prayer, opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay rights. (By picking lost causes, it has guaranteed itself a long life.)

After 9/11, these causes look more lost than ever. To other Americans, they look too much like the political agenda of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Therefore, the social pressure is greater than ever for evangelical patriots to drop their culture war and conform to the more urgent need of coming together into an all-American coalition to fight the Al-Qaeda threat. (My fear here is not that the Christian right will abandon its lost causes, but that it will abandon much more.)

Second, we are surrounded by ideological relativism: In our public school systems, in college, on "Oprah", and in both establishment and alternative media. In this context, communities who appeal to authority in anything more than a private way are routinely described as "fundamentalist." This caricature makes us easier for relativists to target. When some time ago I heard a colleague, Chandra Mallampalli, articulate the definition of "fundamentalism" that is being used for a major University of Chicago project to study (and really to construct) the phenomenon, I realized (with some satisfaction) that I – a postmodernist professor of theology at a non-fundamentalist institution – fell under the definition! I think a growing contingent of Westmont students, raised fundamentalist or evangelical, are under such pressure from ideological relativism that they are surrendering to it. (The irony is that they are surrendering to an ideology that is being widely discredited among those who are less naive than they.)

Falwell's and Robertson's interpretation of 9/11 as God withholding protection of an America that tolerates gays and feminists really made non-evangelicals shake the fundamentalist dust off their feet, and pressured evangelicals to prove our "good" public intentions. Those who persist in pressing public claims of faith that go against the cultural grain will be either ignored or vilified.

Catholics could tell much the same story as evangelicals. Their theological exclusivism, authoritarian hierarchy, and categorical ethics suffer by association too, and no number of papal apologies for the crusades will change that. Anti-patriotic Christians have a different problem, which I will not address here.

Third, the reaction to 9/11 among Muslims has awakened American Christians to the emphatic quality of Muslim evangelism. If Muslim confidence has been shaken by its role in the worst atrocity in modern American history, that doubt is not being displayed publicly. (Before making too much of this elision, we should remember that Christians don't talk much about Jonestown.) Conversions are reportedly up since 9/11 (though Christians of all people should know not to trust conversion statistics). In the face of militant Islam's recent setbacks, it seems to be on the wane, but moderate Islam, not skepticism or openness to other faiths, seems so far to be the fallback position for ex-Islamists.

Confident Americanism, despondent relativism, and insistent Islam all offer challenges to Christianity's basic evangelical heritage. This heritage includes an uncompromising witness to Christ alone as the savior of the world, a commitment to missions and evangelism even when they are dangerous and politically embarrassing, and a high respect for Scripture.

The American public longs for us "religious zealots" to quit fighting, get along, accept each other as equally valid options for respectable citizens, and join together in something we can all agree on: the project of defending and strengthening American democratic capitalism. Ideological relativism longs for us "absolutists" to adopt its shadow absolutism instead, and retreat into our own comfortable private worlds. The Muslim world longs for us "people of the book" to accept the corruption it believes of our Scriptures, its triumphalistic vision of prophetic service to God, its works-based vision of salvation, and its cult of worldly strength.

Three Opportunities

But this is a defensive picture, born of a pessimism that has been afflicting me since 9/11. While I see all of these as profound challenges, when I reassert my instinctual optimism, I see something else. In that spirit, let me rephrase the threefold problem of Christianity in our multifaith world, now as a threefold opportunity.

The American public has pinned its hopes on a peace through military and economic strength that demands that its people subordinate every other goal and conviction to the common interests of the electorate and the market. Without our Christian witness, they will never really learn to love enemies and pray for persecutors, to consider others better than themselves, or to serve a God who isn't like them. Ideological relativists have followed the false god of reason, been disillusioned, and now stand ready to follow Nietzsche into the cult of their own wills, a project that is bound to be just as fruitless and even more violent. Without our Christian witness, they will never know the "true truth" that sets free from ignorance. They will never know the knowledge that is entrusted before it is derived. They will never submit to the one who works in them to will and to work well. Muslims have followed a prophet who preaches success rather than resurrection. Without our Christian witness, they face their inevitable failures as signs of God's abandonment, rather than knowing their inevitable weaknesses as grounds of God's companionship.

Without us. We need to resist the pressures to relax these features of our faith. We need to insist more than ever upon Christ alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, because our Savior is the light of the world and the hope of our future, and because our Savior entrusted us with his good news. No modernist is going to reason it into existence. No relativist, pluralist, or universalist is going to take it to the ends of the earth. No Muslim is going to extract it out of the Quran. Jesus has poured out his Holy Spirit and left it up to us.

Three Sources of Comfort

I find several sources of comfort in this picture, whether I look at it pessimistically or optimistically:

First, these are challenges that can't all be lost. We live in volatile times. Militant Islam and Western pragmatism and radical relativism can't all win, because they contradict each other as profoundly as they contradict Christianity. (Despite radical relativism's strength on college campuses, I think that in the long run it's the weakest of the three.)

Second [as I have claimed elsewhere], Christians are sideliners in some of these contests. We aren't forced to fight. That means we can pursue the particular calling that only we have, to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching in partnership with Jesus. Indeed, as I see it, the most present danger is that we evangelicals will be co-opted to fight Americanism's (quite legitimate) battles, and in doing so we will forget our own calling and lose our own identity.

Third, there is comfort in discomfort. When we coast, we slow down. The last few months have reinvigorated some Christians, and if they rise to the occasion, their achievements will be considerable. We now face a public that increasingly associates exclusive claims with totalitarianism, evangelism with cultural invasion and revolution, and biblical authority with anti-intellectualism. So when we do continue our witness to the Good News, we're going to have to do it in a new way, which doesn't evoke images of Wahhabi Islam, the Taliban, bin Laden, John Walker, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Our precarious position should prod us to think more creatively and more aggressively about how to witness faithfully to Jesus' victory over sin and death for our sake.

The concrete shapes of that witness would make good topics for discussion, or good subjects for another day.

1. Barna Research Group, "How America's Faith Has Changed Since 9-11," November 26, 2001 (