During the second half of the Twentieth Century, society and culture in North America and Europe made a dramatic ideological shift in the direction from which it considered religion and religious expression. This shift involved a movement away from a Christian consensus to make room for a spectrum of religious practices and viewpoints. This change in perspective developed out of a growing religious tolerance, which began with the skeptical and often anti-religious Eighteenth Century Enlightenment. The trend resulted in a culture-wide suspicion of religious devotion and a desire to make equalize the religious playing field so that all religions could compete for followers without society showing favoritism. This concept would come to be known as religious pluralism.
As time went on, the commitment to pluralism raised a very practical question: How can society allow for a wide variety of competing religions without becoming fragmented or degenerating into religious warfare? Western Culture answered that question by using a combination of the following approaches:
Secularization of Society. This is the idea that religion should remain a private and individualistic affair within a non-religious culture. Secularism is the position that public life must be as free as possible from dominance (or even significant input) by religious ideologies or groups. In a secular society, people may practice religion as long as it does not significantly impact others or the culture as a whole. A secular culture, therefore, will be driven by humanistic ideals as defined by whatever group happens to gain power.
Celebration of Diversity. All religions are seen as more or less equal in essence and value, differing only in points of theology and philosophy. The thinking goes that since the main value of religion lies, not in providing eternal truth, but in keeping citizens moral and cooperative, religion can be used by the reigning culture to achieve its greater purposes of progress and order. The diverse elements within the various religious traditions are celebrated much as ethnic cultural differences are celebrated within the larger culture.
Enculturalization of Religion. Traditional religious beliefs and practices are modified or discarded in an effort to conform to and harmonize with the overall values of society. Whereas religion has often taken a prophetic role in critiquing culture, enculturated religion tends to affirm and offer spiritual explanations for the values of society. Much of the “modernizing” movement in religion during the past century has taken this position.
Using a combination of these approaches, Western culture has been able to replace the influence of traditional Christianity in society and accommodate religious pluralism. The challenge for the traditional element of the Christian Church is to remain distinctively Christian and biblical, while engaging culture in meaningful dialog and relevant ministry.
Given this position, two obvious errors present themselves.
The first is to remain so committed to tradition (sometimes under the guise of biblical truth) that any possibility of meaningful interaction with society is forfeited. Some would argue that the Amish have taken this road. The second possible error is to attempt to stay relevant to the evolving culture and slowly (and perhaps with the intention of gaining a hearing within the culture) to sacrifice vital truths and compromise on key issues. One could cite numerous examples of this fallacy.
Perhaps this is the key issue of the Christian Church of our age (or any age): To remain faithful to Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace, while at the same time being relevantly prophetic. May God grant us wisdom to see the opportunities he sends our way and the courage to face our times!