How to Live as a Christian in a Non-Christian World: Learning to Embrace Pluralism

How to Live as a Christian in a Non-Christian World: Learning to Embrace Pluralism

This article was published a few years ago as two shorter articles at Relevant.com.

Waking Up to A Non-Christian World

We live in weird times. Almost every day we are shell-shocked with news about terrorist attacks and the international export of islamic terrorism through ISIS’ worldwide network. While we ask ourselves where all this is going, some politicians tell us we can no longer trust our muslim neighbor. They also tell us we should build walls to protect us from villains crossing our southern border. And as we wonder what to make of such calls, we are surprised to find evangelical leaders rallying in support of those that make these claims, all in name of the culture war we’re engaged in as Christians.

In the midst of this unrest that is stirred up, pollers indicate that Christianity in the US is in decline. A steady stream of reports tells us that the number of nones (those who are not an adherent of any religion) and the dones (those who are done with religion) are on the rise while church attendance steadily decreases. Perhaps it is no wonder that Jerry Falwell’s moral majority movement, which began in the late 70s as an attempt to bolster evangelicalism’s political clout, has now seen fit to resort to support the Trump ticket. (Almost) everything is permitted in the struggled for political influence, because it’s the only way to stem the tide of liberal anti-Christian laws that seem bent on ostracizing Christians from mainstream culture. Weird times indeed.

The decline of Christianity is experienced as a problem by a lot of people. A good number of Christians are not used to feel like a minority. As Christians we have been told that we possess ultimate and absolute truth. We are used to governments that, at least to a large extent, subscribe to an ethics that can generally be called Christian. We are used to living in a Christianized culture, even when not everybody is Christian.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to learn to deal with a world that does not agree with the Christian point of view, or any one particular view for that matter. Our world is one of cultural and religious plurality. Plurality come from the world ‘plural,’ which means “more than one.” There is a plurality of religions and ideologies, i.e. there are a lot of them competing for attention and vying for the claim of ultimate truth. There is no longer just one story that people subscribe to.

A Blast From the Past

Interestingly, Christianity once started as a small sect with only a few members. The early Christians lived as a small group in a volatile pluralistic world. As these Christians spread across the Mediterranean world they were not belligerent, did not even think of culture wars, did not demand their rights, and had no opportunity to live in a protected Christian sub-culture.

Though they did claim absolute truth they did so only as one voice among many and they did so joyfully sharing their faith not by starting nasty arguments. Even less did they pledge allegiance to any one emperor in the hope to gain political clout. They were not intimidated by the pluralism of the Roman culture, nor were they taken aback by the many gods that were worshiped in the empire. Yet, a mere 300 years later, their message had subverted the power of the mighty and Rome eventually became a Christianized empire.

While we cannot copy the first Christians, for their context is not ours, their example inspires. We wonder whether we might be able to embrace our pluralistic world the way the early Christians did their. The big difference between now and then, however, is that in those days Christianity was not yet a word tainted by a bad history of oppression, hypocrisy, and irrelevance.

Finding Our Way Back

As we are surrounded by muslims, atheists, pagans, agnostics, Hindus, cultists, buddhists, and adherents of many other religions and world views, the only advice many Christian media seem to be able to give Christians is about their spiritual life: about how they should walk with Jesus, or how they should have quiet time and read their bibles, how they can better manage their churches, or improve their marriages. When it comes to preparing Christians to live in a non-Christian world, Christian media and Christian writers are largely silent. It’s not popular to think about a conversation with Islam, or a dialogue with a Buddhist, or sharing tips on how to develop a genuine friendship with an atheist. We prefer our Christian bubble, our little subculture where we all speak each other’s spiritual language.

How do we find our way back to our culture?

  1. Not the Christian bubble. For starters, this is not to be found in a return to the Christian bubble where we all tell each other how right we are. It is easy to agree with those in your own group especially when it is done by telling everybody how bad those on the outside are and how necessary it is to stand together in a world that is increasingly losing its bearings. We may feel happy to be among each other, but as the world is lost to us so we are lost to the world. Before we know it we’ve become an obscure subculture that has lost its bearing with society. Soon we are left without impact or relevance.
  2. Not through intellectual supremacy. It also won’t do to enter the public arena ready to slash the perceived enemy with arguments that offer superior support for the sole correct worldview, namely Christianity. Some think that pure force of logic is going to convince the world that Christianity is the only option. This doesn’t work, because there are different rationalities at work in other religions and worldviews that are within themselves entirely coherent and plausible. Even when an argument is won on pure logical grounds others are not necessarily going to be convinced, for logic does not equal plausibility and because pure logic always has its own inherent bias that makes people suspicious.
  3. Not by means of culture wars Another disastrous way to engage a pluralistic world is to strive for power. If you have power you can legislate and enforce upon others the laws that you deem to be Christian. When you are the boss you can make others bow for Christ and force them to confess that he is Lord (but you’re really only making them bow for you). This, however, merely results in Christianity becoming odious. People start hating its hateful and deceitful rhetoric. This approach betrays the Christ who taught his followers to go into the world as sheep among wolves to bless rather than to dominate.

We need to get back to the world. Did not Christ send his followers into all the world? And is a pluralistic society in a way not the ultimate blessing since fulfilling Christ’s command is done simply by stepping out of the door of your home and out of your comfort zone? The worst thing we can do is telling the world that we are better: we are better, so we withdraw in our subculture, we are better intellectually, we are better so we grab power.

What Christians more than ever need today, in a time that the Christian sub-culture is shrinking in size and Christian witness is losing influence, is help to figure out how to live in this pluralistic non-Christian world in a way that does justice to Jesus’ call to be his disciples in the world. This entails not seeing the other as a project to be mastered or conquered but a person to start a conversation with. Christians need to become conversation partners.


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How to live as a Christian in a Pluralistic Society

Our world is changing from a Christianized society to one in which Christianity is a minority. Where you once had to make an effort to meet a non-Christian (well, that is truly a long time ago) it is now virtually impossible not to bump into a one the moment you leave your home. Where once Christian morality was the norm, we now find Christianity needing to fend for itself against secularism that with a certain air of objectivity goes about marginalizing Christianity one subtle step after another. Some even think that Christians are being persecuted. Christians seem to only now be waking up to the fact that we are living in a pluralistic society, a society in which there is a plurality, i.e. a manifold, of religions, opinions, world views, cults, and philosophies. Gone are the days of an assumed meaning and ethic that governed society along a narrative that seemed to make sense for each and everyone.

Above, I addressed the urgency of this situation. Christians seem to be ill-prepared to speak to their non-Christian neighbor; they don’t know how to handle ambiguity or a situation in which their voice is just one among many others. It seems that in failing to learn how to live in a pluralistic world we fail in being faithful witnesses to Christ. In other words, learning to live in a pluralistic world is not only important for our survival it is essential for our identity as disciples of Christ.

How do we deal with this? As Christians we are not used to sharing the microphone with others. We believe the public square should only sound the song of the Christian worldview for only it is the truth. This attitude is a self-destructive one. Christians need to learn to open up for the world out there.

Here are a few suggestions on how to live as a Christian in a pluralistic world.

1. Holding your truth in humility.

The first Christians were humble. 2000 years later we only have more reason to do so. Christianity has been in power for many centuries in one form or another, whether it was the Roman Catholic Church that sought political dominance in Europe, the Christianized culture of the medieval period, the Inquisition that persecuted heretics, or the modern nation state of Europe that went to spread Christianized culture to its colonies. Christianity has wreaked so much havoc. By seeking power and wielding it, the Church has denied Christ.

Another good reason to hold the Christian truth in humility is because the truth we hold, speak about, and proclaim is ultimately not in our possession. The truth of Christianity is not a statement but a Person. Christ said: I am the truth, the way, and the life. As the truth, the person of Christ is not reducible to a statement and as our Lord he cannot be brought under our control. There is nothing quite as ugly as human know-it-alls.

2. Establishing the Kingdom is God’s Business.

Many Christians have the unstoppable urge to establish God’s kingdom on earth. They want to establish a theocracy (much like Israel in the Old Testament or certain muslim countries in existence today). This is not possible because, we live in a democracy. To use the democratic process to establish a theocracy is undermining and subverting democracy itself. Besides, no theocracy was ever established by human hands and whenever it was it was always a human work sustained by human fallibility, injustice, error, and oppression. Christ was clear about the ambiguous nature of the kingdom as a condition of the human heart and a reality that was present among those that follow Christ. Christ did not call us to establish an empire but to live out the kingdom. The first Christians certainly got this; they were noted for their different character and behavior.

3. Absolute Truth is God’s Business.

We need to refrain from claiming the exclusive right to absolute truth. Some Christians make themselves quite odious by making the mistake to think that being in possession of the Bible, God’s Word, is tantamount to having the only truth there is in hand. This is dangerous and ridiculous. The Bible as God’s Word to humanity testifies to what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Christ for humanity and the world. It doesn’t mean that the Bible contains all truth exhaustively. If that were the case, no magi would have ended up in Bethlehem, Jesus would have never mastered the skill of carpentry, and no one would be able to read the Scriptures. Truth is everywhere: scientific truth, philosophical and folk wisdom, truth in non-Christian religions. Truth abounds. In the pluralistic city of Athens the apostle Paul did not shy away to make use of the Greek poets to get his message across. Truth is found among non-Christians and often in greater measure. Precisely because Christians think they know it all. A pluralistic society provides a unique opportunity to learn from other religions and ethnic groups.

4. Actions Speak Louder Than Words.

In a pluralistic world, the emphasis should be on deeds rather than words. If you only come with words, you proclaim your truth amidst a multitude of voices, opinions, and alternative truths. A well-meaning Christian will say: “But Jesus is the truth, the absolute truth; the Bible teaches that salvation is only in and through him and that he is the sole mediator between humanity and God!” But if we actually do listen to the words of this savior, we find that he taught that one can recognize the tree only by its fruits. In other words, the truth, too, will only be recognizable by what it produces. Even Jesus says it.

In a monolithic culture, where all noses point into the same direction, words are often sufficient to convince somebody of the reigning truth (everybody already believes it anyways). But in a pluralistic culture there is only one way to convince people of the truth: fruits, i.e. deeds that prove the words to be faithful to reality and faithful to the words uttered. Without the fruits, the truth of Christianity sounds as hollow as any other so-called truth. Apologetic arguments can in fact come across as disingenuous and insincere. And even if the speaker appears to be honest, there are hundreds of other voices around the corner that with equal sincerity proclaim this or that truth. Jesus’ words about fruit-bearing are words that are pertinent to a pluralistic culture.

Let’s not forget that for all its adherence to the truth, Christianity doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to fruits. Christians have murdered and raped in Jesus name, and pursued political power and wealth in the name of their religion. Christianity has a bad track record with its trumping of its truth: so much of it was accompanied by injustice (inquisition, colonialism) or outright nonsense (for instance the prosperity gospel).

5. Learning to listen.

Listening is a great problem among Christians today. In their haste to evangelize and proclaim their own version of the truth, Christians have plugged their ears and go around shouting from bull-horns that they got it right and everybody should listen to them and do things the way they do it. Christians often only listen to make converts. Such a posture makes communication in a pluralistic world almost impossible. It doesn’t show respect and won’t generate respect. Adherents of other word views and religions have stories to tell too. They possess wisdom and experience, they may have knowledge of paths to treasuries of knowledge we as Christians didn’t even know existed.

This closed-off mentality among many Christians is actually the opposite of the proper Christian attitude. Christianity is a faith that leads from amazement to amazement, from confrontation to confrontation, from wonder to wonder. Those who know everything already have made it impossible for themselves to be amazing, brought to wonder, to experience subversion. Any genuine encounter with Jesus will upset and up-end your life. Just as we need to be open to the subverting and transforming encounter with Christ we must be open to the encounter with others around us, especially those outside of our protective bubble. Being less narrow-minded may help us to experience of the broad-heartedness of Christ.

Living in a non-Christian world, a pluralistic society, is a challenge but also an invitation to the other who is different. It draws us out of our comfort zone, forces us to rethink our own faith, and invites us to an authentic Christianity that constantly critically examines itself in search of Christ in the other.


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Photocredit: Matt Collamer on Unsplash