Nathan the Naive: Pluralism, Postmodernism, and Playing to the Gallery

Michael S. Horton
Friday, May 1st 2009
May/Jun 2009

How many times have we heard that relativism is synonymous with postmodernism? Whether celebrated by friends or assailed by critics, postmodernism is getting a lot more credit (and discredit) than it deserves in contemporary Christian conversations. On the more "Emergent Church" side of things, breaking out of an era of rigid dogmatism and religious intolerance is a sign that we are finally coming of age: hence, post-modern. On the more conservative side, postmodernism equals a denial of truth and a descent into spiritual, moral, and theological anarchy.

It is hard to deny that many convictions one could take for granted in evangelical circles are now worn lightly, if at all, and that even the very idea of right and wrong answers belongs to the dustbin of "modernism." However, if we go back to the leaders of the Enlightenment-the epitome of modern thought-we quickly learn that there is really nothing "postmodern" about religious relativism and subjectivism.

Postmodernism or Most-Modernism?

In his latest book, Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Thomas Nelson, 2008), Emergent Church leader Brian McLaren tries to show that when we see Christianity as practices rather than as a system of belief, there are lots of convergences with other religions. The book concludes,

What if there is a treasure hidden in the field of our three great monotheisms, long buried but waiting to be rediscovered? And what if the treasure is a way…that can train us to stop killing and hating and instead to work together, under God, joining God, to build a better world, a city of God? What if our suffering and fear are not intended to inspire deadly cycles of defense and counterattack in a vain search for peace through domination, but instead, what if they can serve to break and soften us like a plowed field after rain so that the seed of God's kingdom-a few notes of God's eternal harmony-can grow within us and among us? This is my hope. And this is our hope. Amen.

McLaren still includes himself among those who acknowledge Christ as the Savior of the world (though "salvation" is redefined in the process). Nevertheless, by moving what matters most about Christianity-its public, particular, unique, and exclusive claims-indoors to the realm of inner experience and spirituality, he exhibits the characteristically modern allergy to the scandal of the particular.

I'll never forget a series of lectures by a formerly evangelical professor at Oxford. His basic thesis was that all religions-in their most mystical versions (often considered heretical by the establishment)-were really saying the same thing. After his concluding lecture, a few of us-a Muslim, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and I-went to the pub and agreed that he had basically dismissed everything that was important about each of our religions and replaced their particular beliefs with his own particular beliefs (characteristic of a white, middle-aged, Western, liberal Protestant) that he assumed to be universal. In the name of tolerance and the pure religion of Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise (see my sidebar "Lessing's Parable" on page 19), he exhibited intolerance toward any particular religion and its own distinct claims. (For a good definition of religious pluralism, see Patrick Smith's sidebar on page 24.)

That which is universal-that which we all know deep down to be most true-is our inner sense of God's existence and our moral duty to love God and our neighbors. In other words, it's law (Rom. 1-2). However, the gospel is totally foreign, an external Word brought to us by a herald that announces God's free forgiveness in Christ. Turn away from this particular series of mighty acts of God in history, outside of us, to universal religious experience and morality, inside of us, and you turn the law into gospel and the gospel into law.

Of course you can find a lot of family resemblances among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists in terms of practices: they pray, cherish sacred texts, participate in sacred rituals, and they all say that they aim at inculcating greater love and peace. Of course, the sharpest divisions appear when it comes to systems of belief. However, that is exactly where Christianity becomes most interesting-and it transforms the meaning of our practices in the bargain. The story it has to tell to the world is not told in different ways in other religions. It is strange, unfamiliar, and at first irrelevant if not offensive. The inner world of mysticism and pietism has always been a refuge from the clash of competing claims about objective truth, but the gospel isn't a claim about how I feel or how I live-or even about how I think. The gospel radically transforms our feelings, thoughts, and practices; but only because it is not about anything that is done by us or in us. It is not a claim about me at all. It is the Good News about God's practices, not mine; his thoughts and feelings toward me, not mine toward him. It does not well up within us, but comes to us from outside.

In spite of the oft-repeated claim that postmodernism embraces the scandal of the particular against modernism's obsession with the universal, the particular claims of Christianity continue to be suppressed in the pursuit of some supposedly universal religious experience. John Lennon's "Imagine" (see sidebar on page 18) may be the ballad of postmoderns, but it is simply another verse in the hymn of modernity-basically a re-telling of Lessing's parable. Evangelical celebrants of a kind of "pop" postmodernism do not often realize the depth of their commitment to modernity. I am not worried by the threat of postmodernism as much as by the threat of most-modernism: the well-worn assumptions of modern relativism dressed up as the latest fashion.

It is not uniquely postmodern to acknowledge that our religious convictions are conditioned by our social, cultural, and linguistic location. All of that is evident enough in Lessing's parable of pluralism, Nathan the Wise. But to move from the obvious fact of our sociocultural conditioning to the conclusion that culture is a source of divine revelation along with Scripture is a characteristically modern (liberal) move.

My own reservations about the post-conservative evangelical project echo the criticisms of Harvard's Harvey Cox by Professor George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary:

One problem with Cox's analysis, which many will be sure to note, is that there really is nothing "postmodern" about it. At best it simply rearranges the furniture in the old modernist room. Perhaps theology is just getting around to appropriating Marx's insights about how the poor are exploited and Lessing's insights in Nathan the Wise about the plurality and underlying unity of religions, but that hardly seems any reason to dignify the affair with an exalted term like "postmodern." After all, why have modern skeptics been so skeptical if not largely because their encounter with religious pluralism convinced them that all religious truth claims are arbitrary?

Trying to harmonize revelation with human experience, whether that of the individual or of culture, is doomed from the start. As Hunsinger observes,

The Christ of natural theology is always openly or secretly the relativized Christ of culture. The trajectory of natural theology leads from the Christ who is not supreme to the Christ who is not sufficient to the Christ who is not necessary…."God may speak to us," wrote Barth, "through Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so." No such object, however, can ever be allowed to become a source of authority for the church's preaching, for no such object can have independent revelatory or epistemological status. Only by criteria derived from the one authentic scriptural voice of Christ can we know if God might be speaking to us in those ways or not.

He concludes by appealing to Jewish scholar Michael Wyschogrod: "Wanting to assimilate theology into the foreign mold of the surrounding culture, Wyschogrod suggests, is an essentially Gentile aspiration."

With pietism and fundamentalism as their only resources, many post-conservative evangelicals today skip over some of the most edifying witnesses to Christ in the modern era who refused the rationalist-irrationalist choices of this era. If their conservative nemeses demonize postmodernism, their only recourse is to lionize it. Only as we know what we believe and why we believe it as Christians are we able to recognize God's common grace in the worst of times and the common curse that believers and unbelievers share in the best of times.

It is certainly true that we are more aware of other religions today. My next-door neighbors are Muslims and some of our closest friends are agnostics. As the cultural and religious diversity of our neighborhoods change, non-Christians are no longer remote "others," but friends. But the fact of pluralism does not entail that we all worship the same God by different names and in different ways.

Rewriting Lessing's Play

The problem with the most-modern narrative is that the gospel's claims are of an order entirely different from what Lessing, Kant, and other modern (and allegedly postmodern) thinkers imagined. To make this point, I have to revise Lessing's play.

There is only one true ring, but it is one that the emperor gave to the first father to wear as a sign of his regal dignity-and faithfulness to his imperial commission. However, this first father cursed the ring and tried feverishly to remove it from his finger. When this failed, he covered it with mud and worked to pry the magic stone from its setting. Now the ring-once glowing with the luster of royal patronage-bore only a consciousness of the emperor whose benevolence he had spurned.

Arraigned before his imperial lord, the father realized what he had done-and expected death. There was indeed a sentence of judgment: on him, his wife, his heirs, and on the whole realm entrusted to his care. Much to his surprise, however, the emperor promised to send his own son who would fulfill the commission that the first father had refused to complete, restoring his family's fortunes and rebuilding his ruined realm. Finally, the imperial son arrived, but instead of being welcomed he was rejected, beaten, and killed. Yet it was the emperor's intention all along to restore his kingdom by these means. Fulfilling the first father's commission and taking upon himself the first father's sentence, the imperial son was raised by his own father from the dead and from his own robe of conquest innumerable gowns were sown and given to all who would wear them to his festive celebration.

Switching now from uninspired parable to inspired prose, we meet the apostle Paul before the Athenian debating society as he makes his closing argument: "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).

Lessing's false humility is evident in his conclusion. Pretending to be the "modest judge" who must give way ultimately to a wiser judge in the future, he has already played the latter's part throughout the parable. However, he-the modest judge-is actually judged as a pretender by Christ. "The times of ignorance [that] God overlooked" are now over. Something has happened in history that cannot be undone. The Son of God has appeared in the flesh-in our history. Fulfilling the law that we have broken, bearing the curse that we deserve, and being raised to the right hand of the Father, he alone possesses the authority to condemn and to save. Jesus Christ is not just a name that Christians happen to use for the one divinity worshipped by all peoples. Rather, it is "the only name in heaven and on earth by which we may be saved" (John 1:12; 14:13; 20:31; Acts 2:21, 38; 4:12; Rom. 10:13; Phil. 2:9; Col. 3:17; Heb. 1:4) and his redeemed community is visible only where sinners gather in his name (Matt. 18:20).

In Lessing's parable, there is one promise and it is all law: love the one God whom all decent people worship and love each other. Of course, this is universal religion, which God implanted in the conscience of all his image-bearers in creation. Apart from special revelation, we cannot know why we feel guilty and why we die; but everyone has a sense of God's existence, power, goodness, and justice. Like all natural theologies, however, the Enlightenment religion stops here. With our first parents after the Fall, we all naturally flee God's presence to cover our nakedness with fig leaves. Denying special revelation (i.e., the gospel), these thinkers thought it impossible to believe what one did not already know deep down. They are not hearers of news but seers of "clear and distinct ideas." And in this way, they close themselves off from the glad tidings of joy for all people who believe. Though corrupted, every religion does indeed grasp something important of this universal moral consciousness. Not only Judaism and Islam, but Buddhism and Hinduism-even Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Madonna-have a sense of their obligation to love "god" and their neighbors. But that's not news. It certainly isn't good news, at least for those who know that they have broken that covenant.

The gospel rests upon the fact that Jesus Christ was raised by the Father from the dead on the third day. Jewish and Roman authorities agreed that Jesus had been crucified, that he died and was buried. They also agreed that the tomb was empty after three days. All of this can be proved from Roman as well as Jewish sources. Where the interpretations diverged was on the question of what happened to Jesus' body. According to Jewish and Roman authorities, his body was stolen by his disciples (despite the strong Roman and Jewish guard posted in order to prevent that possibility). And what are we to make of the willingness of the disciples themselves, who by their own characterization cowardly fled the scene of Golgotha, to publicly proclaim the risen Christ and embrace the most horrible forms of martyrdom? The apostles testified before Roman authorities by reminding them of the events of which they were fully aware and inviting them to interview living eyewitnesses.

There have been myriad unbelievers down through the ages who have denied the possibility of such a miracle. Many arguments have been crafted to deny God's involvement in nature and history-and even his existence. But no one has yet been able to offer a plausible alternative to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not surprising that those who deny this historical fact would look away from the scandal of the cross and resurrection to universal ideals of spiritual and moral practice as definitive of pure religion. What is surprising is that anyone who does profess faith in Christ's triumph would see anything else as more interesting.

As Paul said in his Mars Hill address, this is the question that faces us all. It is not a question of whose religion works best in the long run, which is more helpful, or which produces the greatest benefits for the greatest number of people. It is a question of whether Jesus rose from the dead. That is the question that pulls all others into its wake. The gospel addresses our deepest (though suppressed) existential anxieties about life, death, guilt, and judgment. Arguments and evidence may persuade the intellect; but the gospel is not only true, it is "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). Whether one believes in the resurrection or not, the fact that Christianity exists as the announcement of that news distinguishes it not only quantitatively but qualitatively from all religious claims. The story that the Bible tells of creation, fall, redemption, and Christ's return in judgment and deliverance at the end of the age to make all things new doesn't just describe the real world, it is the real world. If it is not true for all of us, then it isn't true for any of us.

1 [ Back ] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 76.
2 [ Back ] Hunsinger, 80.
3 [ Back ] Hunsinger, 255.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, May 1st 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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