Download a copy of “Witness & Worship in a Pluralistic America” by Dr. John F. Johnson and the Faculty of Concordia Seminary. Below you’ll find the Introduction to the paper.
American society in the twenty-first century poses a myriad of challenges for the church as it seeks to be an effective witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Among these challenges is an increasingly pluralistic cultural and religious context.
Until the last half of the past century—with the exception of missionaries and possibly business persons and government representatives—members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had little direct contact with people of other faith traditions. After World War II, however, immigration from Asia and Africa to the West began to dramatically change the demographic character of most predominantly Christian countries, including our own. The most dramatic increase of Asians and Africans entering the United States came after the revised immigration laws in 1965. While it is not known exactly how many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus there are today in our nation, most studies suggest that there are at least six million followers of Islam, two million Hindus, and only a slightly lesser number of Buddhists. Indeed, these faith communities continue to be among the fastest growing in the country, not only as a result of first-generation immigration but through the conversion of thousands of young adult Americans. Evidence of the presence of other faiths also abounds. In other words, the mission and ministry of our church now takes place in a more pervasively pluralistic context than ever before in its history.
This American pluralistic context impacts the church in two ways. First, of course, pluralism denotes sheer diversity. It is an indisputable fact that there are now many cultures, many ethnic groups, many traditions, and indeed, many worlds inhabited by our one humanity. Throughout this century, we will continue to experience the influence of a broad spectrum of people with all their attendant values and lifestyles. Missouri Synod Lutherans must recognize this reality and the fact that it will impact our witness. We do have an obligation to acknowledge the dignity and worth of cultures and beliefs other than our own. There should be no reason why we should not embrace pluralism in this sense and, indeed, celebrate it. In this sense, pluralism means that we live with each other and accept each other even in the face of real differences, including religious distinctions.
However, there is a second dimension to our pluralistic context. It is not simply the fact of diversity but the approach to diversity. This perspective transforms pluralism into an ideology. Philosophically, pluralism rests on the assumption that ultimate reality is many or multiple. This notion of pluralism often is extended today to the issue of the plurality of religions and the exclusive claims of biblical truth. The religious pluralism of John Hick, for instance, contends that divine truth is present in all religions and that hope of salvation takes place within these religions in a plurality of ways. That is to say, no revelation contains God or absolute reality. Rather, each revelation is only “real” as it is perceived or conceived by particular human beings in particular, and diverse, cultural contexts. Hick calls for a “Copernican revolution in theology” whereby Christianity must be displaced from the center of the universe of religious faiths to its periphery, along with all other religions which “circle equidistantly from God, the shared center.”
It is this second orientation to the pluralistic character of our society—pluralism as ideology—that challenges most acutely a biblical and confessional church body such as ours. How do we acknowledge the presence of other faiths in our society while understanding God’s truth to be identical with Christ, the Word of God? How do we respond to opportunities to relate to other faiths in “the public square” while maintaining the distinctively Lutheran Christian perspective that no social order deserves the title of “Christian” and that no social order is, apart from the influence of Christianity, God-less? What do we wish to communicate regarding the absolute truth claims of our faith in a pluralistic society?
These fundamental questions, and their manifold variations, have prompted controversies, divisions, and debates in many church bodies. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has not been immune from such discussion. The purpose of the following essays from members of the Concordia Seminary faculty is not to definitively answer all of the questions or address all of the issues attending this churchly conversation. Rather, they are offered as resources for reflection and study in a time when all of us are called upon anew to exercise our witness and worship in pluralistic America.