Looking for God in a Plural World

Justo L. González ’58 S.T.M., ’60 M.A., ’61 Ph.D.

More than ever before, people are on the move – refugees, tourists, migrants, merchants, technicians, missionaries of various faiths. Increasingly it is a plural world. Seeking to describe it, we speak of “pluralism.” We say we live in a “pluralistic” age.

However, this may well be a misnomer. We certainly live in a plural world, where diversity and instantaneity are inescapable. But “pluralism” is more than diversity. “Pluralism” is an attitude that embraces the world’s plural condition.

It is possible to live in a plural world without being pluralistic, much as it is possible to live in a modern world without being modernistic.

Unfortunately, we are not living in a world that is becoming more pluralistic. We live in a world that is becoming more plural, but where there is also more fear of it – a fear of pluralism. Those who bemoan the present encounter of cultures and religions, those who bash immigrants as the cause of all their woes, are not pluralistic. They simply live in an increasingly plural world, and they dislike and fear it.

When Faith Goes Unchallenged

Is there room in Christianity for pluralism? Many say there is not. Witness the politicians who make headway by combining Christianity with xenophobia, and the preachers who do likewise. Yet it is also clear that the darkest times in the history of Christianity have been those when the faith has held unchallenged sway as the only, or almost the only, religion of a region or era. It is often in such circumstances that corruption and abuse abound. This describes the period of the medieval inquisition and of simony. It is also in such circumstances that nationalism or regionalism is confused with Christianity. This was the case of the crusades and of “manifest destiny.”

All of this leads one to wonder: Could it be that God uses other faiths and even unbelief to call the church to greater obedience? Could it be that in the challenge of the “other,” Christians are to hear the word of God?

Only One Source of Truth

Perhaps one should begin by affirming that Christianity is pluralistic by nature. Radical monotheism implies that God is the creator of “all things, visible and invisible.” There is nothing that is alien to our God. Certainly, sin is present in every human activity, organization, belief, and religion, twisting the good creation of God. Certainly, there are ideas, beliefs, and practices that Christians must reject. But those who hold such ideas and beliefs, and those who follow those practices, are still the creation of the same one and only God. In other words, there is only one God and therefore only one source of truth. Whatever truth may be found anywhere is truth from God.

Does this lead to relativism? Possibly. And yet, even if it does, such relativism is better than the absolutism that seems to be its most common alternative. Absolutism claims to have God tener a Dios en el bolsillo, as we say in Spanish – to have God in one’s pocket. But any “god” that can be “had” or possessed is not the sovereign God of Scripture but an idol. This is the idol of the crusades, and the idol of present-day xenophobic American “Christianity.” Ironically, this “Christian” idol is quite similar to the idol of Islamic extremism! (Could one even say that it is the same idol, under a different name?) Compared with absolutism, relativism at least acknowledges that God or ultimate reality cannot be anyone’s possession. We are in the hands of God; God is not in our hands.

But there is a different sort of pluralism that does not lead to relativism. On this score, we may do well by looking at the early church as it encountered Hellenistic culture and drew on the doctrine of the Logos to affirm and claim whatever good it found in that culture. Certainly, there are many problems with the doctrine of the Logos and the way it has been used in the history of Christianity. But it has an undeniable value: It allowed Christians both to respect and to criticize Hellenistic culture while keeping the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ at the very center of their faith. In concrete existential terms, this is what allowed a believer such as Justin to be open enough to another culture to draw from the Greek philosophers, and yet firm enough in his own belief to die as a martyr. His writings show that he was not an absolutist in his belief. His martyrdom shows that he was not a relativist.

With Christian Eyes

Today, neither absolutism nor relativism will do. What we are called to do as Christians may well be, like Justin, to look at this new, plural world, accept it, see God’s action in it, and read it with Christian eyes.

If God is the creator of all truth, then whatever truth there may be in Islam, or in animism, or in secularism is a gift from the same God who has given Godself to us in Jesus Christ. And it is our task as Christians to discover and acknowledge it, just as it is our task to discover and denounce any falsehood there may be in Islam, in secularism, or in Christianity itself.

The doctrine of creation calls us to do this, yet it may well be eschatology – the doctrine of end things, the theology of the ultimate destiny of all creation – that will give us the vision and the courage to do it. As is well known, there is a revival of attention to eschatology in contemporary theology.

For Christian absolutists, eschatology is a matter of fear and prediction. For relativists, it is a matter of myth and illusion. But eschatology is, above all, a matter of hope. It is the claim and the certainty, even amid the darkest times, that God’s love and truth will prevail. No matter how confusing, baffling, and even threatening the present diversity may be, eschatological hope allows us to trust and even to rejoice – that in these new conditions, when we see a multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, God may be giving us a glimpse of the truly pluralistic Reign of God that stands at the heart of our hope.

Church historian Justo L. González ’58 S.T.M., ’60 M.A., ’61 Ph.D. is considered a patriarch of Latino and Latina theological education and mentoring. His many books include A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1975, three volumes), The Story of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010, two volumes), Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Abingdon, 1996), and Essential Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox, 2005).