About four years ago, I was distributing literature in the student union of a typical midwesterm state university. A middle-aged college administrator with a worried look on his face approached me to take a look at our leaflets.
“This is religious literature” he announced.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “Does that make a difference?”
“Of course it does,” he replied. “Now, if this were political material, it would be okay, but you are violating our students’ rights in handing this kind of material out.”
He then told us we would have to leave. I asked him what student rights I may have violated and his response was, “the right not to hear.” Now, I had heard of the right of free speech and its corollary, the right to hear, but never the “right not to hear.” I then asked whether the students’ right to hear and interact with religious information might take precedence over their right not to hear. He quickly informed me that in “a pluralistic culture such as ours, the right not to hear and not to be bothered takes precedence over the right to hear.”
We were brusquely escorted to a dimly lit comer of the building to serve as our new base of operation and instructed “not to be a bother.”
As I reflected on this experience, I was struck by its broader pattern. John Murray Cuddihy, in his book No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, perceptively reasons that, in our pluralistic culture, a conscientious citizen’s highest religious duty is to refrain from offending those who might be bothered by the idea of religious duty. In essence, it is a violation of the rules to lay uncomfortably ultimate burdens, such as the Lordship of Jesus Christ, on others who don’t share our perspective.
It has become an almost unchallenged rule that “pluralism” must necessarily be defined as “a social arrangement which recognizes no legitimate place for those who lay claim to a knowledge of truth.” This sort of pluralism fosters a fierce cultural intolerance of any person or cause or message which calls for a radical commitment to a transcendent truth. And that would violate the foundational tenet of pluralism, which is that every person owns a piece of the truth and, thus, something is lost and nothing gained by seeking for truth with a capital “T.” For democracy to remain a viable social system we are told, it must be protected from those dogmatic sectarians who insist on breaking the rules by dragging their message into the public arena. For the system to work we are told, conflicting truth claims must be subordinated to the higher truth claim that being the relativity of all truth claims.
As social commentator Richard John Neuhaus observes, “pluralism is a jealous god.” It erects its own criteria for “ethical” and unethical behavior. To be ethical is to play by the rules, which state that all truth claims are relative and those not adhering to our particular interpretation of the “truth” ought not to be bothered. To be unethical is to break this rule by invading the invisible “dome of privacy” which is assigned each person to protect him from unwant4 troublesome messages. Therefore, while the “right not to hear” is not a constitutionally protected freedom, it is guaranteed by the unwritten ethical code of pluralism.
Religion as Personal Preference
This unofficial criterion is all quite logical given one major presupposition. If religion, i.e., a system of thought which lays claim to ultimate truth, is considered a purely personal matter, a matter of trite and preference with no legitimate claim beyond the sphere of one’s subjective thought life, then it is consistent to question the activities of those who insist on bringing their religious claims to bear on others.
A few years ago, I was talking to an evangelist from Australia. He commented on how, in his country, it was considered downright impolite to invade the privacy of another by initiating a conversation on one’s religious orientation. We can all identify with this attitude. Who among us hasn’t cringed at the sight of two young men riding up on bicycles to invade the sanctity of our privacy by ringing our doorbell and initiating a religious conversation?
One evening, I was speaking to a group of college men about the relevance of a personal relationship with Christ. Afterwards, a man from the audience approached me and said simply, “Why did you bother us?” and walked away. This young man’s response is not uncommon. His reasoning was quite logical given the assumption that my message was simply a matter of my own subjective appraisal of truth, an expression of my feelings about faith rather than a declaration of ultimate truth, a matter of personal preference rather than divine obligation, and hence a nice but not necessary pursuit.
Religion in a pluralistic culture is treated much like tennis. Some people play and some don’t. Some buy over-sized rackets and some play with mid-sized ones. Some open a can of new balls every time they play and some are content to play with old ones. But who makes a big deal out of it? We would question the sanity of someone who traveled around the country, or went door-to-door in our neighborhood, insisting on the ultimate importance of playing tennis.
In like manner, some folks are religious and some aren’t. Some worship on Saturday and some on Sunday. Some follow Jesus and some follow Buddha and some don’t care. But why make a federal case out of it? In the eyes of the pluralist, this is as silly and annoying as the person who pesters you about the size of your tennis racket.
The rules of pluralism dictate that no religion can lay legitimate claim to be the ultimate, transcendent truth, and no fair-minded, pluralistically informed person would stoop to impose his religious opinions on another. Religious persuasion is a gauche, if not ethically suspect, activity. It is an arrogant and annoying imposition of one’s personal preference upon another.
The Christian Message in a Pluralistic Setting
In light of this analysis, it is not surprising that an ethical shadow is cast over the activities of the Christian communicator who seeks to present his message to a culture committed to pluralistic fair play. But these questions must be asked: “Is the Christian proclamation of the message of Jesus an inherently unethical practice?” “Is it out of order to try to persuade someone of the truth of Christianity?” “Does the right not to hear supersede the right to hear and to make up one’s own mind?” “Is Christian persuasion a violation of pluralism and its freedom of choice ethic, and thus a threat to the very fabric of our democratic culture?” While Christian communicators appreciate the pluralist’s concern for fair play and open-mindedness, they must answer an emphatic “no” to these questions. This “no” is based on the Christian conviction that God has acted decisively for the salvation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and that as His ambassadors, we are obligated to announce this truth to the world which God loves. This declaration is unashamedly interventionist. It invades the public domain. It refuses to be relegated to the dimly lit comer of subjective, relative preference.
The Christian communicators entrusted with the dissemination of such a message will invariably find themselves participating in what might be termed, according to one definition of pluralism, unethical behavior at worst and impolite behavior at best. While Christians want to be as fairminded and tolerant as anyone else, we must take issue with what we perceive to be the trivializing of our faith by the tenets of pluralism. For to relegate Christian truth claims, or any truth claim for that matter, to the scrap heap of subjective preference is to reduce the concerns of ultimate reality to the same level as whether one drinks Coke or Pepsi. If religion is only a matter of personal preference, it is not worth believing.
And so the Christian communicator affirms that to be persuaded of the truth is to be a persuader of others on behalf of that truth. This, of course, does not mean that we reject the concept of ethical propriety. Rather, we affirm the highest ethical standards in our practice of communicating the good news of Jesus. But we must take issue with an understanding of pluralism which posits a sterilized, insulated environment as the “right of every citizen.” The right not to hear, not to be bothered by messages which are of ultimate import is not the kind of pluralism affirmed by the Christian communicator.
The Christian communicator supports a concept of pluralism which champions equal access of any and all legitimate messages to the public forum. It ranks an individual’s right to hear and decide above his right not to hear. In the name of true pluralism, all messages are to be given the opportunity to be accepted or rejected on their own merits.