January 19, 2020 Editor

Book Review of Christianity and Pluralism, Ron Dart and J. I. Packer, Lexham Press, 2019; 70 pages

Book Review of Christianity and Pluralism, Ron Dart and J. I. Packer, Lexham Press, 2019; 70 pages

WN: This brief missive offers much to consider and chew on.


In this reviewer’s experience, there is none so fundamentalist as one who has grown to reject what once was held near and dear. (Not of course, that such rejection automatically predisposes one to fundamentalism.) I have lived for decades with not a few in my extended family. Dart writes again in the new Preface:

It is not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism. But many liberals seem unable to question their blind spots—such is the nature of ideology. They signal openness to the legitimate nature of alternate readings of timely and timeless issues, yet they are actually closed to such. (p. ix)

Though one must feel for those genuinely harmed or worse by religious fundamentalists—or any kind of such. A sordid business. Dart ends the Preface with this sentence:

Pluralism and syncretism can be as exclusivist as any of the positions they rail against as being exclusive.(p. ix)

I reflect in part on my experience of this within our extended family on my website post, Easter Song.

Chapter 1 begins with a review of Ingham’s book by Dart. Ron welcomes the issues raised by Ingham, which of course in the twenty-first century are pressing on any faith tradition new or old the world over. There are ten points Dart adduces, hoping that “these questions will nudge the issues raised in Mansions of the Spirit to a deeper level and enrich the meaning of dialogue.” (p. 2)

Irenic throughout, Ron concludes on a personal note:

As someone who has been taught and nurtured by the radical Anglo-Catholics, I find that Mansions of the Spirit lacks a rigorous mystical theology, a radical politics, and a high Christology-ecclesiology. I think, without such a full vision of what Christianity has been, is, and ever shall be, inter-faith dialogue will lack a certain depth and challenging honesty. (p. 8)

Before Christmas I was at a gathering of mainly Anglicans to celebrate a vicar’s birthday. In conversation with a former rector attending St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Abbotsford, as we began chatting he mentioned that Church. I asked for clarification as to which he meant, since there had been a Church split several years ago over in part the direction Bishop Ingham had taken the diocese. The sharp retort was that there is only one real Anglican Church in Abbotsford by that name; that he didn’t know “whatever else” the other was. In that I joined Sons of the Holy Cross, a men’s Order through induction by that “whatever-else” Church of which Ron Dart is a member, I felt taken aback. I of course know of no back story to his comments. But I know the Anglican Tradition (and that Church) enough to know it has charitably housed not a few disparate expressions of faith over 2,000 plus years, of which the “whatever-else” Church is as authentically Anglican as any other. In my experience, fundamentalists of whatever stripe seem lacking in embrace of charitable dialogue. The former rector in that brief encounter seemed not interested in such dialogue . . . thus adding one more fundamentalist instance to my experience.

Chapter 2 by J. I. Packer, doubtless the best known living Evangelical theologian in the world, challenges Ingham in typical Evangelical theological fashion. He states that Ingham does not understand well the key tenets of the historic Church Traditions, including Anglican until about 70 years ago, by Packer’s accounting. (Both publications use the same number, so I accordingly updated.)

Packer states that “the book in fact challenges everyone who has any sense of historic Anglican identity, and it must be dealt with accordingly.” (p. 14 I presume my former rector conversation partner would demur.)

Packer presents Ingham’s “Story Line”: in essence exclusivist Christianity is “an imperialism that makes the all-on-a-level dialogue he favors impossible, so naturally he is hard on it and sweeps it aside.” (p. 16) The steps to this story line are traced.

Packer is unimpressed, and says that the Bishop is trying to ride two horses in his Bishop’s role, but that “Trying to ride two horses at once, Michael comes to grief.” (p. 22) The rest of the chapter develops why.

Chapter 3 by Dart looks at the Parliament of World Religions. With reference also to the United Church of Canada, Dart flags “a rethinking of the historic Christian tradition that needs to be examined in some depth and detail.” He asks in the next sentence: “Are we bringing Trojan horses into the camp?” (p. 36)

Dart then proceeds to look at four main models of inter-faith dialogue: exclusive, inclusive, pluralist, and syncretist. Each has strengths and weaknesses, he avers; and gives short shrift to “tribalists” religious or secular unwilling “to engage both our tradition and other traditions in a challenging yet respectful manner.” (p. 37) The warning from Dart is that “the notion that my tribe is right, other clans are wrong . . . runs through culture wars, economics, politics, education, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, and patriotism, not just religion.” (p. 58, emphasis added) In the religious realm for instance, Karl Barth, the sophisticated theological Mount Everest of the twentieth century, was both an exclusivist and a universalist.

Dart succinctly presents numerous instances of contradictory/exclusivist approaches to spirituality in a variety of Oriental traditions. He sums up:

The fact that these differences do exist should not be minimized or ignored; this stubborn reality means that some sort of exclusion is built into the very nature of the human quest to receive, articulate, and live forth a vision of the renewed life.” (p. 40) Dart therefore calls for “Authentic and genuine dialogue [that] means being thoroughly rooted in a tradition and speaking from it.” (p. 40) He suggests: “I think it can be argued that the most profound understanding of tolerance rises from the traditions in which the exclusive model has the deepest hold.” (p. 41 Note however that Dart makes no claim that it invariably does! It does not!) And even the meaning of dialogue is distorted when abiding differences are glossed over “with the best of pluralist intentions.” (p. 41)

Within my extended family, there have been for decades various shades of dogmatic fundamentalists about for instance “prophecy” interpretations in the Book of Revelation à la “Left Behind” series, or the “historicity” of the first eleven chapters of Genesis à la Creation “Scientists”; fundamentalists who variously have called me a heretic, or denied I can even be a Christian who believes in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. (I do!) There are also dogmatic liberal secularists who, once “Christian” now deny and scorn anything good about the Church (displaying a grotesque ignorance and misreading of Western history and about the relationship between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith); who say “Paul, damn him!” in incredible misrepresentation and profound ignorance of Paul’s place in laying the groundwork for democracy, equality, human rights, and freedom—all cherished values at the heart of Western society, at its best. Others are self-described agnostics or atheists with a major in rejection of religion and a minor in meaningful rational thought or dialogue. There are others who take pains to excoriate and mock the “liberals” and “progressives” for their failure to see their blind spots, all the time woefully blind to their own. By these I hear epithets that I am a “liberal”, or a “progressive”, or a “Leftist”—despite my steadfast refusal to be defined by any such label, not even (though aspiringly) “Follower of Jesus”—given my failings. And this all within my extended family! A huge dose of respectful dialogue as Ron points to is sorely wanting (and wanted!) in this family; one that is indeed a microcosm of some of the current Western culture wars religious and secular.

Dart’s depiction of the “inclusive (Catholic) model” posits a “fulfillment thesis” (p. 41) through Christ: Christ fulfills not only humanity’s noblest yearnings, he also fulfills all positive spiritualities. While commendable Dart indicates, other religions have similar fulfillment theses. He asserts: “But there comes a point when the inclusivist must draw boundaries and lines in the sand, and such a step means the demands of a sophisticated exclusivism must be faced and not flinched from.” (p. 45) A great example from this reviewer’s experience was working on a project with the eventual title, The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice. There was respect shown by all for all religious perspectives/lenses through which Restorative Justice was observed, each occupying a chapter in the final edit. A highly rewarding experience for me!

Pluralism is certainly a well-meaning model. But, Dart warns, “Pluralism, in short, can be most imperialistic and bully-like, and in the name of tolerance, much intolerance can rule the day.” (p. 48) My former Christian family members tend in that direction, openly intolerant of Christianity or any religions daring to defy their ban on making truth statements about the Ultimate. Scorn takes the form of, “But surely . . .”, or patently ridiculous notions are articulated not unlike the subtitle of Christopher Hitchins’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (emphasis added.) Really? I mean really?! A statement of such sweeping magnitude and dogmatic certainty rather shatters the boundaries of language inadequacy in defining its substance to be “fundamentalist”. I do an extended essay/book review of the brilliant take-downs of such overreaching irrationalism found described in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Some things I guess remain simply beyond ludicrous, intentionally “imperialistic and bully-like”, even hopelessly intolerant and silly . . .

Dart says:

The pluralist model, like the exclusive and inclusive methods, excludes ways of knowing that cannot be trapped in its filter.” (p. 49) And, “ . . . while liberal pluralism can tell us what we should be free from (negative freedom), it tends to be weak and limp on the large and competing questions of what we are called to be free for (positive freedom).” (p. 50; emphasis added)

The final model is the syncretist. Dart notes that there are three forms currently of syncretism, not unlike in the past. In summing up his observations, we read:

So, it is crucial to recognize that the exclusive tendency is at work in the inclusive, pluralist, and syncretist models; those who would avoid this reality are not facing the hard facts. (p. 55)

Dart also warns against “chronological snobbery” claiming rightly I believe, “the motion and movement of history will betray their highest aspirations.” (p. 57); namely those who claim we are in a new age of humanity’s progression towards ever greater clarity and unity. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing at the beginning of the Enlightenment claimed such in his essay, “Die Erziehung des Menschengechlechts” (“The Education of the Human Race”), and Hegel philosophized that “each new epoch in history both critiques and builds on previous periods of history.” (58) Others such as Ewert Cousins’ Christ of the 21st Century Dart believes will fall prey to disappointment as history grinds on.

It is much more insightful [Dart claims] to realize we have been here before many times in the unfolding drama of history, and our task is to learn from the best of the saints of the past while sidestepping many of their foolish mistakes. (p. 59)

Christianity was born in a very similar spiritual milieu to our own, and in being true to itself, Dart observes, it adopted neither pluralism nor syncretism. He goes on to suggest that “the Christian tradition, at its wisest and best, is most at home in a prophetic exclusivism, an enlightened inclusivism, and a critical and principled pluralism.” (p. 60) He notes that the Roman Empire was syncretist and pluralist towards all religions—provided they bought into the ways of Empire. Dart writes in this respect: “If the Christian vision is going to be more than a mere personal conversion to a bourgeois ethic and lifestyle, then the prophetic voice must be heard again. (p. 62) For, “The kingdom of God will collide with the kingdoms of this world, and it is in such a kingdom that the costly grace of genuine evangelism and dialogue takes place.” (p. 63)

Dart in the end calls for a “most meaningful inter-faith dialogue [that] in the future, will be grassroots dialogue, grounded and rooted in the human struggle for a just and meaningful world, [which]  means that our understanding will need to be much more connected to the church and prophetic politics.” (p. 63) I think as well the inter-faith dynamic will include witness to the joyfulness and consolation of experiencing the Ultimate through Christ.

One brief Appendix, “The Enlightenment, the Liberal Establishment, and Religious Pluralism” completes the 70-page missive.  Religious pluralism dominates, Dart claims, the liberal establishment, which in turn in the West is culturally hegemonic. He concludes: 

. . . but those who dare to think from a position of critical theory (rather than merely saluting at the shrine of Enlightenment social liberalism) need to raise some troubling and nagging doubts about the validity of religious pluralism itself. How and should the spell be broken? Is it possible to engage in the difficult questions of good, better, best and bad, worse, worst without slipping into reactionary fundamentalism? It certainly is, and a much deeper religious pluralism might take us in that direction. Perhaps this is the path of a prophetic exclusivism and an enlightened inclusivism (p. 68)

I indicated earlier that our extended family is microcosmic of the minefields of fundamentalisms at work in today’s culture. In particular the hegemonic liberal fundamentalisms are embraced by some amongst us who never were trained to read history or literature—let alone theology! Yet their dogmatic pronouncements are indicated to be “unassailable”, such as “Jesus was no more than purveyor amongst many avatars of universal Wisdom”. Of course if so, one must ask, why in the world was he crucified, and why did so many early followers cheerfully embrace martyrdom, and were indeed martyred?

Renowned Irish literary critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton puts the matter colourfully:

Messiahs are not born in stables. Jesus is a sick joke of a Savior. Nothing about his suffering and his death is presented as heroic. The idea of a crucified Messiah [or an all-sweetness-and-light Wisdom Teacher, one might add] is as absurd an oxymoron as the notion of a tender-hearted tyrant. A failed Messiah would constitute an absolute novelty in the Jewish tradition. It would also have been a grotesquely offensive notion. The first Christians were risking their necks for the sake of a claim which their fellow Jews would have found both repellent and utterly outrageous.” (The Gospels: Jesus Christ—Introduction by Terry Eagleton, London: Verso, 2009; pp. xv and xvi.)

Another such, that the historical Jesus is not to be found in the received Gospels of the Church, but by generally post-Enlightenment white male (usually) theological scholars who for over 500 years have played the game called “Jesus Historical Reconstructionism” . . . And so many reconstructions turn out making Jesus look like those same white, liberal, tenured professors . . . ((Premier historian/theologian James D. G. Dunn (see more below) writes:

All we have in the NT Gospels is Jesus seen with the eyes of faith. We do not have a ‘historical Jesus’, only the ‘historic Christ’. As [Martin] Kähler noted, the proof of the pudding is in the diverse Jesuses constructed by questers generally, not least the Liberal and now neo-Liberal Jesuses. In each case, the distinctiveness of the ‘objective Jesus’ is largely the creation of the historical critic. The irony indeed is that the typical ‘historical Jesus’ is as much a theological Jesus as in any Gospel portrayal, since the constructed Jesus has been almost always an amalgam of the historian’s own ideals (the fifth Gospel according to Kähler) and the critically (selectively) worked data. [Ref 103: . . . My point is rather that the only Jesus we can realistically expect to emerge from the critical dialogue with our sources is the Jesus who made the impact on the disciples which we encapsulate in the word ‘faith’. The point is developed in the following pages.] (Jesus Remembered (Volume 1), p. 127)[/ref]

Please click on: Review: Christianity and Pluralism

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.