When pluralism is patronizing

I was having a great conversation with my two new friends the other day at W/N W/N (my new favorite coffee shop) about academia’s condescension of people with faith, or for me, people with Christian faith. Most of the professors in the humanities didn’t have the audacity to just reject faith as a brain-dead explanation for how the world works (like some of the science professors would). But they did have a kind of patronizing way of “equalizing” all of our faiths as cultural expressions that should be included, tolerated, and accepted. The religion of postmodern pluralism dominated the liberal academic landscape of Temple University, it seemed.

The common debate between modernists and postmodernists is not unlike the one that happened a few months ago between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Michael Steele, Nicholas Kristof, and Ben Affleck. The sides of the debate seem to include no one with actual faith, just worldly philosophies that either lump all faiths together as “evil” or “tolerable.” The academic debate rages, meanwhile people with actual faith in God are marginalized—they are sent to the kids table, not able to have a real conversation with the adults.

The postmodernists think the modernists are prejudicial, while the modernists think the postmodernists are ignorant. What they don’t realize is that capitalism and “democracy” (really oligarchy in the U.S.) and postmodern pluralism are “faiths” of their own. They are neither tolerant nor rejecting faith, just subscribing to a different one.

For me, in college, just like we were encouraged to be tolerant of gender, race, class, orientation, age, faith was just another social construction to be tolerated. Tolerance, alone is such a low-level action compared to say, love. Acceptance almost seems like a concession. I think as Christians, we are called to be reconciled, not so that we can function as individuals, but rather, to live as the Body of Christ. Paul says it this way:

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

Here’s another way: We are finding our true selves in Christ. Jesus reconciles all of us to him, and we find our true selves in him, not in any worldly identity or social construction. The unifier is Jesus Christ and the unifying principle is the Gospel.

You can imagine that for a person who thinks Jesus is the reason to transcend all social construction, why it would be offensive to have that person’s faith characterized as one of the social constructions to be transcended. For many members of the faith being compared with other faiths as mere cultural artifacts is offensive. Often, beliefs are not just a matter of where they were born or where they grew up, they were a revelation from God.

I hear the argument, surprisingly often, that faith is as arbitrary as language, for example. I don’t blame them for thinking this—Christians, in particular, have made their faith a fabric of U.S. culture and have defended it as such. The U.S. civil religion and American Christianity are so enmeshed, most people think they are one in the same. The idea then becomes that faith is just another aspect of our identities. I speak English because I live in Ireland. I’m a Muslim because I’m Egyptian. I eat coq au vin because I grew up in France. I follow Jesus because I was born in a red state. Everything about me is merely a product of my culture. Because of that, individuals are stripped of, truly, as System of a Down sings, “the single most potent element of human existence… faith.”

When we reduce people down to social constructions and then tell them to transcend them, we are asking them to subscribe to a philosophy (that could very well be a social construct of its own). The postmodern idea of pluralism, for lack of a better term, is a faith in its own right, at least a worldview. It is one that removes Christ from the equation of justice and equality and reconciliation, and makes Him just another additive. The modernist that decries all faith as foolish (like Bill Maher famously does) is just as prejudicial as the postmodernist who thinks all of them are equal.

At least the modernist emphasizes a scientific philosophy that supercedes another philosophy; at least he or she is being honest. The modernist seems to have a belief system that is worth debating. The postmodernist makes it seem like there is not an overarching philosophy that dominates, but rather that all our equal. Beyond that thin layer, though, is social constructionism, a falsely just, body destroying, individually edifying idea. How it invariably influences us is worth considering.

Faith is not just a cultural artifact. Exporting the concept that it is, is in fact a form of evangelism, which the academic, pluralists so frequently hate and criticize. I suppose, like anything, so long as we agree with the prevailing philosophy, proselytizing is OK. I’m committed to the revelation of truth, as the Holy Spirit brings it to us in the body.

6 Replies to “When pluralism is patronizing

  1. Jonny my friend, I wish you and I lived closer so we could have coffee. I’d argue with you over definitions/understandings of postmodernism and plurality, we’d debate over what is really patronizing and I’d point out the absurdity of Bill Maher (his job is to patronize. That may or may be his personality, but that is his job! – We’d laugh, hopefully) and by the end of our second cup of coffee, we’d agree in some big picture sort of way.

    Know that I appreciated the post and would argue/nitpick over specifics. But I agree, like anything, pluralism can be patronizing. But what I appreciate about pluralism is that it allows a place for the best narrative/ideology to win (or at least it should do this). I truly see a pluralistic culture as the ideal context for the church to flourish. Glad to be laboring and telling the story along with you. Peace, Tim

    1. What a friendly comment! I think we would agree on, like, everything–but I will hold my ground on not wanting the sociologists to categorize my faith as a social construction that can merely “co-exist” with the other social constructions. There may be truth in all faiths, but that is rarely the argument I hear for why we should tolerate everyone. I enjoy a pluralistic culture where we can discuss ideology and philosophy, but the rule-makers for such a discussion make it so that no one “wins.” Social constructionism wins.

  2. Well said Jonny – I’d hold that ground with you regarding the social construction agenda. Man, I wish we could have coffee. Let me know if you’re ever in the Boston area, I’ll let you know if I’m in Philly again.

  3. This is real good. Ben and Aaron and Faith and I were talking last week about how maybe even post-modernism is going out of style and the educational institutions that philosophize about it are getting behind the times. Post-modernism was a disillusioned and often cynical reaction to the broken promises of the modern era institutions. Science developed the a-bomb and didn’t cure cancer. Education didn’t make jobs more accessible and left people with massive debt. Faith didn’t keep families together and left scandals. Government is as difficult as ever and stuck in endless wars. Post-post-modernists (aka millennials) are still somewhat cynical, but are also hopeful, and enjoy sampling what goodness they find in the world and mixing it up. The irony of ironies is that goodness can come out of such a broken world and a post-post-modern might just laugh for the joy of that irony. This next generation is fertile ground for friendship with Jesus, who they will find has much in common with their approach to living.

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