Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Adventures in Pluralism: How Shall We Behave?

Christians in Political Science 

If the last year of public discourse in the media has taught us anything, it's this: Politics can be messy. But for all the division and confusion, recent movements—from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring—have also heralded the empowerment of groups across the political spectrum, around the globe, raising their voices and asserting their place in the political landscape. Politics can also be an incredibly important means of social change.

With this dichotomy between the glaring flaws and powerful promise of the political process as a backdrop, Christian political scholars from across the country convened at Gordon College this past weekend for the biennial Christians in Political Science (CPS) Conference—a partnership with the Center for Christian Studies, the Institute for Global Engagement, and the Center for Public Justice (CPJ).

Keynote Speakers 
The three-day conference featured lectures from sociologist and Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay along with scholars from Duke University, the University of Washington, and Wheaton College, with the CPJ's annual Kuyper Lecture given by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. While the topics were varied, a common refrain could be found in many of the talks, attempting to address this question: How do, or how should, Christians engage with the broader political culture in a way that is pleasing to God?

Dr. Lindsay spoke from his research on evangelicals who hold positions of power, exploring how several key people of faith used this power to impact organizations (i.e. a particular company) and institutions (i.e. marriage, American politics, the Church), often through actions that would seem paradoxical to the outside observer. "These people bore witness to their faith through actions," he explained. Relying on their relationship with God, Lindsay said, they exercised their power with attentiveness and humility: giving up extravagant bonuses; giving voice to a once quiet demographic; resigning from a rewarding but all-encompassing job in order to devote time to family.

Another speaker, Wheaton College's Amy Black, focused on the concept of "political discourse as Christian witness." Even in the divided political landscape, Black argued, "you can disagree forcefully but respectfully." This involves admitting mistakes, modeling graceful conversation, and doing away with the "hermeneutic of suspicion"—the notion that any opposing ideas are secretly laced with malicious intent. 

 The Kuyper Lecture

Dr. Volf's Kuyper Lecture served as the capstone for the weekend's programming. Speaking on the topic "A Public Faith: A Christian Alternative to Secular and Religious Political Exclusivism," Volf unpacked the complicated relationship between two types of philosophies—exclusivism and inclusivism—as they relate to religion and politics. In doing so he made a compelling case for respectful engagement within a pluralistic democracy.

Religious exclusivists, he explained, are those who believe their faith is the one true faith; this includes a wide majority of Christians. And religious exclusivists are often, by their very nature, political exclusivists—individuals who believe that a political system should enforce a specific set of morals and beliefs as defined by their particular faith or value system. (By contrast, political inclusivism embraces pluralism as the stage on which civic conversation is set, regardless of the personal creeds of each of the political actors involved.)

In a globalized society with 7 billion people, approximately 2 billion of whom claim religious exclusivism, Volf believes this is problematic: Political exclusivism has a tendency to hinder respectful, constructive civic dialog, and has historically led to religious oppression of various kinds, from the Inquisition to the Taliban. Recognizing this tension between a theologically valid claim to religious exclusivism and the often damaging effects of political exclusivism, Volf has focused his recent work at Yale Divinity School on the thesis that "Religious exclusivists can embrace pluralism as a political project, and this can be done from the foundation of their own faith commitments."

In his lecture, the theologian supported this claim with the example of Roger Williams, a 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony figure who was eventually exiled for his claims that the state should not enforce the whole of God's law as laid out in Scripture. But Williams did not defend this belief from a position of spiritual laxity. Rather, he argued from his own strong religious convictions.

Volf quoted William's "A Plea for Religious Liberty": "It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God."

This was the crux of Volf's argument. It is possible for religious exclusivists to believe firmly in the truth of Scripture, and because of that firm belief, understand that God has created all humans equally, all valid in their experience and allowed to live and express themselves freely. It is, therefore, according to Volf, not the job of government to enforce piety through political exclusivism, because (quoting Williams again) "false worship stinks in God's nostrils."

"How Shall We Behave?"

The lecture closed with responses from a panel of CPS scholars, each panelist expanding on threads Volf had introduced in his own talk, discussing the historical, theoretical and policy impacts of political inclusivism.

Among the respondents was Gordon Associate Professor of Political Science Paul Brink. As he thought through the implications of embracing pluralism in political theory, Brink managed to summarize one of the main themes of the entire CPS conference: "How shall we behave?" he asked. If not a particular religious ethical system, what will undergird our political process, and how can we interact with each other in a way that validates our own beliefs and others'?

"It's hard to establish rules,” Brink admitted, but he welcomed the challenge of imagining a more open and inclusive political process—one more reflective of the grace Williams defended so adamantly centuries earlier.

To view full videos of all five CPS Conference lectures, including Volf's Kuyper Lecture, visit the Gordon College YouTube page.

Photo 1: Gordon President D. Michael Lindsay delivering his lecture, "Higher Power? How Christians Use Power to Shape the World Around Us"

Photo 2: Miroslav Volf

Photo 3: Volf with President Lindsay, CPJ CEO Stephanie Summers and the panel of respondents. (Left to right: Julia Stonks, Whitworth University; Paul Brink, Gordon College; Stephanie Summers, CPJ; D. Michael Lindsay, Gordon College; Miroslav Volf, Yale Divinity School; Vincent Bacote, Wheaton College.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post John, I enjoyed it. At this time of great division, I often wonder what would Jesus do. And only come up with: well certainly NOT any of this.