We commonly grant nowadays that most of us live in societies that are pluralistic and largely secular. Many places in the West, as a growing number of writers and thinkers have noted, can be called post-Christian. Secular liberalism of one sort or another is the dominant discourse.
The challenge, therefore, is to try to shed some light on the real and existential problem posed to Christians of how to live in contemporary modern society duly respecting diversity while not endorsing relativism. Many thinkers, both secular and Christian, have dealt at length with this problem. Reformational thinker Jonathan Chaplin recommends a “Christian pluralist” response to the political challenges posed by deep religious diversity. He challenges liberalism and argues for a broader role for religion in the public square.
For Chaplin, “Christian pluralism”, far from being a contradiction in terms, is an essential aspiration for an authentically Christian political perspective. In his new book Faith in Democracy, he explains how liberalism gives primacy to individual freedom, deriving other political principles such as justice, rights or community from it; and ‘secular liberalism’ bases individual freedom on the moral and spiritual autonomy of human beings (developing the thesis he made in Chaplin 2006, p.145). Such a view is not neutral but gives primacy to individual autonomy, which is radical freedom on secular terms.
An authentic Christian pluralism, where Christians can respect diversity while at the same time eschewing relativism, is inseparable from a Christian account of the nature and normative purpose of the state. And the normative purpose of the state is to promote the public good. This means distinguishing between directional or religious truth: the ultimate truth about our existence; and political truth: the truth about the shape of the political order (ibid., p.166). Chaplin grants that ‘there is ample historical evidence that citizens can sometimes reach relatively enduring agreement on truth claims of the latter kind on the broad design of a political constitution without agreeing on truth claims of the former kind’ (ibid.). However, he also argues that it is legitimate for Christians, in fact imperative for them, to influence the kind of political order that will be adopted. For an authentic Christian pluralism, Chaplin advocates a ‘Christian diversity state which seeks to maximize respect for directional diversity subject to the inevitable constraints on diversity arising from a wider Christian conception of the nature and role of the state and other associations’ (ibid., p.167).
Chaplin critiques some other Christian responses to liberalism. (1) Christian Monism (establishing a Christian state in place of the liberal one) does not adequately respect diversity. (2) Christian agonism (seeing the task for Christians as to survive not rule) fails to influence the state’s concept of the human good by retreating to the position of a ‘subaltern republic’. (3) Christian establishment (aiming for a partial, constitutionally limited establishment) fails to distinguish between religious and political truths, resulting in a failure to identify the correct boundaries of the ecclesial and the political. The weaknesses of these three positions, according to Chaplin, all derive from their lack of an account of the nature and normative purpose of the state.
The All of Life Redeemed webinars with Jonathan Chaplin are being organised jointly with Thinking Faith Network. Please join us from this Thursday to think about and discuss how Christians can respect diversity while advocating the common good.
Chaplin, J. (2006) ‘Rejecting Neutrality, Respecting Diversity: From “Liberal Pluralism” to “Christian Pluralism”’, Christian Scholar’s Review 35,143-175.
Chaplin, J. (2021) Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM Press, London.
Liza Lansang Espinoza is studying for a PhD at the VU University in Amsterdam while living in Busan, South Korea. She previously taught in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of the Philippines.