Pluralism is part of the everyday lives of young Americans. As a curious older person, I read all kinds of things in print and on the internet. I read stuff by Jews, Muslims, atheists, vegetarians, gays and lesbians, libertarians and so on. But, most of the people I know personally are Christian and culturally mainstream. Young people have much more opportunity to know and form face-to-face friendships with people outside the norm.
That is one reason for the prevalence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Kendra Creasy Dean, in Almost Christian, tells about an overheard conversation between her daughter Shannon and her Hindu friend Lali. Shannon says, “I think all religion’s gods are part of the same god.” Lali replies, “Yeah, we need lots of gods. One religion can’t do everything.”
Formally, the girls have just disagreed, but they don’t notice this. They have recognized each others beliefs and accommodated them to their own. This conversation functions to further the girl’s friendship.
To affirm distinctive moral or theological beliefs as true and more than opinion, gets in the way of interpersonal relationships. But this only works if both parties hold their beliefs loosely, if they do not matter that much.
In Dean’s view though, Christianity does matter. What we believe about God and the death and resurrection of Christ is what makes the Christian story hold together. So she asks this series of excellent questions:
“Where is the line between identity and openness? Who are my people, and who is the “other”? If I proclaim Jesus as Lord, am I indicting those who do not? If my religion matters to me–if I am willing to stake my life on one Truth against which I measure all others–does that make me a person of faith or an ideologue? If I believe God loves everyone, does that make every religion equal or all religions irrelevant? (p. 32)
The answer to this for relationship-sensitive teens is to be nice. They do not want to take the risk of offending anyone or being labeled as intolerant. Dean thinks this niceness covers up, not only the profuse diversity of people, but the resources each tradition has for dealing with others. Christianity, for instance, has virtues of hospitality and compassion. These go beyond mere niceness and treat others with respect without papering over differences.
Dean says that Jews and Christians have always seen their religions as arising from love for God more than as a list of propositions to be believed. Well, but there is a segment of Christianity that is really into correct beliefs. In fact, what Dean herself says about the bedrock of belief in the triune God and the death and resurrection of Christ, implies that certain doctrines are essential. But she wants to stress the love of God.
What I take away from this is that niceness robs us of real dialog (of course, so does being not nice–nasty and arrogant). Not just teenagers, but the total church has not found a way yet to navigate this sea of pluralism. Dean is surely right that if Christianity is to be a life-changing faith that challenges culture, then it has to be more than a very nice thing.