Philip Clayton on Plurality 2.0

This piece is part of an on-going blog series called Plurality 2.0 (watch video here). Full schedule of guest authors throughout April and May is available here.

Philip Clayton (Claremont School of Theology) has published numerous books and articles on Christian theology, philosophy, and science.  He currently runs a Ford-funded project dedicated to supporting effective forms of Christian community (on the “act locally” side) and to building a strong progressive Christian voice in American society today (on the “think globally” side).  His website is here.

Living Interwoven Identities

philip-claytonWhenever we hear about a new release — of a movie, software, whatever — we want it. So what’s Pluralism 2.0, and where can I buy it?

Face it: the old product is really worth turning in. The old debate about pluralism is a loser on all sides. Either you’re faithful to Christ and the Bible, in which case you have to say that all the others are going to burn (at least that’s what I was taught at my Christian college and seminary). Or, according to the rules of the old debate, you endorse multiple routes to salvation, in which case your Christian voice and identity start to collapse, and you’re on your way to a hopeless, heartless relativism. Tertium non datur — there’s no third way.

So you want to invest in Pluralism 2.0; where do you find it? Well, it turns out that it’s such a radical revision of 1.0 that you have to change your whole way of thinking to buy into it. But it’s such a powerful upgrade that it’s worth the time and effort to make the switch. Here’s the idea:

Earlier in this series Ryan Kemp-Pappan blogged that the order is “Belong, Behave, Believe,” not “Believe, Behave, Belong.” That’s right. Each of us — Christian, Jew, Muslim; American, Chinese, Kenyan — belongs more places than we can count. You are a cradle Christian who encountered Buddhism and existentialism in college and social justice ministries after that. I was raised atheist and had a dramatic conversion to Christ in high school. Our friend is a former evangelical who says she can no longer believe, yet she is as preoccupied with Christianity as we are. With such complex, interwoven identities, is it any surprise that “following Jesus” means such different things to different persons?

I’m guessing that most readers of this post in fact already live in Pluralism 2.0. If you’re one of those people, interwoven identities is second-nature to you, like the air we breathe. Of course our Christian identities are not rigid and fully definable in “essentialist” fashion. All important identities weave their roots in, around, and through everything that we are. Does this mean that we have to listen really hard to understand another’s identity? Yes. Does it make judging others, whatever labels they use of themselves, more difficult? You better believe it. Does Pluralism 2.0 make us relativists who could never be Jesus’ disciples with our entire heart, soul, strength, and mind? By no means! (If I had another post, I would walk through the major moments in Jesus’ ministry when he showed incredible awareness of the complexity of human identities, like John 4, Luke 7, and Luke 10.)

A few days ago Brian McLaren blogged about four major crises: the crisis of the planet, the crisis of poverty, the crisis of peace, and the crisis of purpose. By this last he meant “a dysfunctional spirituality system that fails to provide a framing story capable of healing the previous crises.” Many, when they read this, are tempted to build the walls around Christianity higher, to turn Christian theology into the Master Narrative. But Jesus’ kenosis or self-emptying (Phil. 2) teaches me a different lesson. Like the Spirit, let’s be disciples who “come alongside” to represent Jesus with love, compassion, and careful listening before speaking. This was Jesus’ Way.

The next two decades will bring technological and social changes more rapid and revolutionary than anything this planet has ever experienced. Rigidifying the past won’t help us be church in a powerful way to this brave, new world. But boldly finding new ways to be Jesus’ disciples will.


  1. says

    Amen, from one Philip to another. Following Jesus’ example of emptying instead of building walls against the rest is a great way to live the truth of Christ in the new reality we enter.

  2. Jason says

    Surprisingly little of substance here. It reads more like a song to the choir. I’d like to know what’s wrong with the first option (“…you’re faithful to Christ and the Bible, in which case you have to say that all the others are going to burn”). Or do you read the Jesus who believes in hell, damnation, eternal fire, etc., out of your Bible?

  3. Philip Clayton says

    Phil and Brian, thanks for your posts. Jason, from what you’ve written it sounds like the more substance I add, the more we’re going to disagree. That’s why I think Adam was right to have us start with the question of pluralism: does it or does it not require us to think differently about our Christian identities? I’m guessing that you’ll say no. I’ve clearly said yes…

  4. says

    Yes! If someone went through my wastebasket hunting for wadded-up rejected drafts for my contribution to this piece, the investigator would find in every instance a writer who succumbed to the temptation to buy into that old dichotomy between watered-down ecumenicism and zealous theological certainty. My third way was found in embracing Jesus as would a child; that is, without a systematic theological grid obscuring either my own need for repentance or others’ relative nearness to salvation.

    The certainty fueled by impregnable doctrinal positions may keep out the wolves, but it can just as efficiently keep adherents from a living faith, and by extension, from the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven through the diverse lives of people in all their glorious, plural, otherness.

  5. Jason says

    One more thing: it may be appropriate to speak of the act of faith as the intellectual equivalent to the embrace of a child. But faith seeks understanding.

  6. rodney neill says

    The old liberal idea that there is a common experiential core or essence shared by all religious traditions leading to the divine/God etc like different paths up the same mountain although attractive to many has been severely criticised as it fails to recognise the irreducible differences in theology, belief, practice and rituals between different religions which are essentially ‘language games’ that shape experience…..a very simplified form of the postliberal school of thought position (Lindbeck). Do we then go down the same route as John Hick?


  7. rodney neill says

    Hello Phillip

    I am Rodney Neill from Northern Ireland – I have read your article about God beyond orthodoxy and also listen to your transforming theology podcasts and very much appreciated them. I have been really inspired by process ideas in my on going struggle to make sense of Christianity….I wish there was was process thought inspired stuff in the UK!

    all the best


  8. Philip Clayton says

    Rodney, thanks for your posts. You’ve identified two of the biggest pieces in this plurality puzzle. First, we really DO have to dispense with old-style pluralism — the “old liberal idea” that all religious people are really saying the same thing and just don’t realize it. Doesn’t the advocate that all religions are really one (the “perennial philosopher”) actually place himself above ALL the religious traditions as the final arbiter of truth?

    Second, I agree that process theologies offer great resources for thinking Christian identities in this age of pluralities. David A. Pailin has been called “Britain’s foremost exponent of process-relational thought” (link here). The recently deceased Oxford scientist-theologian Arthur Peacocke advocated a position LIKE process theology. Process theologians John Cobb, David Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki continue to have an influence in the more liberal wings of the Anglican church.

    The dialogue between process and emergents is just beginning. See Tony Jones’ post after his time at Claremont (link here). Tony and I will be on stage together a couple of times in 2010, and process is sure to come up.

    One caveat: it would surely be ironic to get hung up about being an “orthodox” process theologian when one is critical of essentialist battles over Christian orthodoxy. In an age of plurality, one doesn’t buy into ANY philosophy hook, line, and sinker. I am interested in MANY currents of contemporary culture as I struggle to explain my Christian identity to those around me ….. and to myself.

    — Philip

  9. says

    The New Testament Christians lived in a more pluralistic world than our present one and yet they claimed and died for the exclusivity of Christ. it seems that our modern scholars lack the courage of standing up for the faith. Too ivory tower for their own or even the Church’s good.

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