Pluralism and Mission

According to Charles W. Forman in his article Religious Pluralism and the Mission of the Church, in International Bulletin of Missionary Research Issue 6:1, the issue of pluralism was for a long time met with indifference in the mission society.

The reason for the indifference is doubtless that pluralism was thought of as only a transitional phase. There would be temporary pluralism in various lands as a stage in the process of conversion of entire people, but that stage did not in itself merit attention.

Forman mentions that Christian scholars seem to have a favorable stance to pluralism. He mentions W. A. Visser’t Hooft and his claim that

[I]t is good not only when the church is weak but also when the church is strong and might be able to dominate society. He affirms this because pluralism makes evident the real nature of the church’s life which, in imitation of its master, is to be carried on in humility and not with forceful domination.

Forman connects the favorable view of pluralism as a response to the negative aspects of Christendom, especially the lack of distinction between society and church.

Community pressures were determinant in the realm of religion which made for a formal acceptance of religion without great conviction. Under Christendom’s sway the Christian faith was identified with a particular culture and particular social pattern, which meant that prophetic protest could be stifled and critical attitudes toward society could be seen as anti-Christian.

It is perhaps reason to add that in the age of Christendom anti-Christian attitudes can be seen as anti-social. Here Forman speaks about Christendom like a thing of the past, but one does only need to listen to the formal GOP’s response to the State of the Union here in the US (2014), or look at the elections about changes to the Icelandic Constitution in October 2012 to see that Christendom is not dead yet.

Forman warns that pluralism cannot only be seen as a cure for the evils of Christendom, it must be evaluated by its own merits.

The constant concern of those who write about pluralism is to find ways by which people of different faiths can live together harmoniously and create a society to which all can be loyal.

Forman refers to George Lindbeck and warns that relativistic view of religions and/or lack of common ethos can easily lead to either social disintegration or tyranny, and claims that

[t]his relativism must almost necessarily be combined with some kind of civil religion that is to be accepted by all and that is to fill the need for a common world-view if the society is not to follow the road toward disintegration and tyranny mentioned above.

The same danger is addressed in the saga of Þorgeir ljósvetningagoði and his decision at Althingi in Iceland in the year 999 or 1000.

Forman mentions the Roman Empire and the importance of emperor worship as a common denominator. Other examples of aspects of civil religion can be seen in Eastern Asia, and India.

The United States can be seen as a great example as well. Forman does not address how the civil religion appears in the States, but for the record I would like to mention the focus on the flag, the usage of the national anthem, the military, and liturgy during sports events, to list only a few important aspects of the civil religious activities and symbols.

Forman mentions another way of dealing with pluralism.

[T]here are examples in history of an alternative form of adjustment to pluralism which is less common and therefore less likely for us, but still important to not. This form is that of isolation and encystment of a religious group. Those few religious people who refuse to adopt the common relativism gradually shut themselves off from the general culture. They stay within their own circle and build walls around their group.

This way of living separately in the same place, can be seen in the Middle East, in so called millets, according to Forman. I would like to add that the Islamic concept of Dhimmi, a protection from certain parts of the laws in a particular community can be seen as an attempt to deal with pluralism by compartmentalizing the society.

Forman’s understanding is that

[b]oth the tendencies within pluralism that we have described, the major one toward relativism and civil religion and the minor one toward isolation and encystment, are contrary to the whole outlook of missions. It should not surprise us, therefore, that we can see a decided weakening of mission efforts in recent years.

However, Forman assumes that pluralism is unavoidable and therefore it is important to see how its positive aspects can be used for mission. Here, Forman mentions the importance of freedom of religion and the cross-cultural world view. At the same time, mission must battle isolation and encystment, and counteract the danger of relativism.

Forman addresses also the dangers of civil religion, when he says.

So [missionaries] can acknowledge a modest role for something like civil religion. But they will also be a force that helps to keep that religion from becoming all-absorbing and oppressive. Since they represent a nonrelativist type of Christian faith they cannot allow any final authority for the civil religion or offer any final loyalties to it even in earthly matters. This can be a crucial contribution to keeping the pluralist society open and humane.

In this article Forman addresses how can we accept the reality of pluralism without embracing it. I think his thoughts are relevant and insightful.

It is common in scholarly circles to write and speak as Christendom is a part of the past as Forman does here. I understand that assumption, but at the same time I think we need to recognize that Christendom is still alive (maybe not well) in various parts of the world, and operates as an all-absorbing and oppressive civil religion of the type Forman warns about. In such situation the prophetic voice of a missionary is also important, not only as a representation of a nonrelativist type of Christian faith but as a prophetic voice for open and human society.

One thought on “Pluralism and Mission”

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism in relation to the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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