Bill Buffie and John Charles exemplify the grass roots of the progressive Christian movement.
They are widely-read, deeply thoughtful people who have prayerfully considered great theological questions.
They are weary of hearing simple religious formulas and platitudes in church.
They are lay people who aren’t going to take it lying down any more.
“Lay people are not ignorant with respect to the complexities and inconsistencies dotting the landscape of the history of world religions. Don’t ‘dumb down’ the message for us,” they say in their new book, The Christian Pluralist(p 47). Buffie is a medical doctor and Charles is a federal agency executive. They knew each other well through their participation in the adult education programs of their church, in which they found themselves publicly challenging the fundamentalist theology that was presented.
Their book is particularly useful precisely because it is such a well-spoken voice from the pews. Buffie and Charles employ an extraordinary number of question marks in their writing. The Christian Pluralist exudes an attitude of curiosity and humility, revealing the authors’ commitment to the quest for further understanding. Each chapter of the book closes with a set of questions that invite the reader to examine carefully his or her beliefs, reflecting the authors’ trust that this process will lead to spiritual growth and to deeper respect among adherents of different religions. The structure of the book lends itself very well to use by adult education classes in churches, discussion groups, and book clubs.
“Pluralists believe that there are a wide variety of faiths that all are legitimate, and contain valuable truths, when considered from the proper cultural perspective.” (p xxvii) “Tolerance of the perspective of others is simply not enough.” (p xxx) Pluralism is at the heart of their faith experience, and it is through this principle that they interpret the Christian tradition. For instance, they suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity illustrates the pluralistic heart of the faith. “If the orthodox Christian does believe in God manifest as three separate entities simultaneously…. then it is not unreasonable to suggest that God’s nature, and the path to salvation itself, if truly available, might be revealed by three (or more) mechanisms simultaneously.” (p 13)
For Buffie and Charles, pluralism goes far beyond “political correctness”. It is at the core of their spirituality and morality. It is essential to the practice of compassion, which they see as the center of Jesus’ teaching and example. “If we can be less threatening to those outside the faith by the words we use, we stand a better chance of entering into dialogue and reaching mutual respect and understanding. If we preface what we say with the words ‘It is my belief..,’ we open the door to dialogue. If we preface our remarks with, ‘The truth is…,’ we close that door.” (p 101) “We can learn so much from one another if we open ourselves to acceptance and celebration of our siblings of other faiths. This does not mean love the sinner, hate the sin. Nor does it suggest we love the unbeliever, but convince him to believe. That attitude will not bring us together on the journey to God.” (p 107) “We feel it is time to put aside the suffering promulgated by the competition for defining and understanding God in absolute terms.” (p 146)
The authors address many of the theological issues that disturb and alienate so many lay people. How shall we make sense of the problematic passages of the Bible, taking scripture seriously without taking it literally? What do we mean by “truth”? Who or what do we mean by the word “God”? To what degree can we have any certainty about God’s will and purpose? How can we reconcile the roles of scripture and tradition with our best lights from science and social progress? How can we be fully and authentically Christian without claiming our religion to be superior to others? Their exposition of pluralism expands into a primer on the whole spectrum of progressive Christian thought and practice. This book is a sign that pluralism is perhaps the single most distinguishing feature of the progressive Christian movement. The chauvinism of traditional Christianity toward other religions, its exclusive claim to the ultimate truth, may have turned more people away from the faith than anything else.
The Christian Pluralist is a gentle manifesto, a heartfelt plea for churches and pastors to rise to the level of sensitivity and sophistication found among the people sitting in the pews. It is a great resource for study groups in churches, Let’s hope that when the people lead, as Buffie and Charles have done in this book, the leaders will follow.