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.