An Interview with Rachel Fulton Brown

Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of Medieval History, Fundamentals and the College at the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on the intellectual and cultural history of Europe in the Middle Ages, with particular emphasis on the history of Christianity in the Latin West. She is here with us today to discuss her experience as a Christian. 

What comes to your mind when you hear the term “pluralism”?
What comes to mind when I hear “pluralism” is pagan antiquity. I think Christians are actually experiencing a climate similar to that which Christians experienced in antiquity, in which there were a number of forms of recognizing the divine that all competed with each other in their descriptions. So, just as pluralism presumes that all descriptions of the divine are equally valid, in pagan antiquity you would worship the gods of your own city. However, Christians made the claim that the God they worship is not just the God of the city, but the God of Creation…worshiping other local divinities is not worshipping God. That’s obviously a problem in modernity because we don’t like saying other forms of worship are actually wrong. We want to say they’re all equally valid in some way, but in proper Christian terms, pluralism is making a challenge to the claim that we actually have the proper understanding of reality.

What is behind that motivation to view other forms of worship as equally valid? 

We’re working with the fallacy that starts from the claim that there is such a thing as religion that is plural. The proper under- standing of religion is worship. So the Christian religion is worship – a Christian worship – and all other forms of worship are mistaken or distorted. Consider Christian missionaries in the 19th Century: when encountering people of many different traditions and cultures, they always worked with the idea that people have access to some part of the truth. 

 This is a belief in Natural Revelation

Yes. For Example, Bartolome De Las Casas tried to convince the Spanish that the ap- propriate way to convert the Aztecs, Incas and other peoples of the Americas was not by killing them since they wouldn’t confess properly. He instead argued that the Spanish should acknowledge the rationality of their practices of worship and say that human sacrifice is, within the natural understanding that you would have without Revelation, the best sacrifice you can make. He made an argument that they have, insofar as they are human, the same capacities – the same sort of rationality as Christians – except they lack the Revelation necessary to understand the full Truth.

In that sense, a positive reason for plural- ism is a Christian understanding that you need to start with the expectation that who you’re speaking to is human, made in the image and likeness of God, and that they’re in error because they have not been shown the Truth of the Gospel.

So pluralism is, in a sense, a Christian heresy because it attempts to accomplish the vision of Pentecost – bringing all together in worship and acknowledging that the Spirit can speak in many different languages, cultures, and ways – but leaves out the claim that there is Truth. In that sense, it’s an Enlightenment heresy as well because it suggested that there is a realm that is factual, empirical, testable, and material, a realm separable from the realm of values, which are subjective and untestable and sort of impressionistic or emotional. We’re stuck as Christians because the Christian revelation claims that reality, Creation, Heaven and earth, and our existence as physical creatures is in fact bound to the truth of the transcendent. In modern terms, there is no way to talk about this claim that doesn’t undo the very project of Enlightenment.

What role has pluralism played in your own en- vironment as a Christian scholar in Academia? The academy has a problem because it has a religious faith that it denies is a religious faith. Its faith is what I described earlier: that there is that Enlightenment divide between reason and value. Between fact, what can be known and proved empirically, and what is simply subjective.

What’s also funny about the academy’s faith is that it’s a faith in the significance of the individual and the realization of the individual person. But within a sociological claim, the things that are preventing the realization of the individual are external structures. That’s why we end up with the race-class-gender Trinity, which claims that we are constricted in expressing our full individuality because of these oppressive structures. There’s a utopian claim that if you could just get rid of all of these external structures, the individual would be able to realize herself perfectly. Within Christian terms, that means you’re not understanding the proper relation of the soul in the church; you’re not intersecting the proper relationship of the individual to the community and the way in which those two actually are necessary for each other. 

And for my experience of what it’s like as a Christian in the academy, you have to recognize that you are dealing with different faiths and different religious propositions. Christians understand that they’re working from a particular faith position. Most secular academics don’t. For example, I wrote a Sightings article a year and a half ago and suggested that this was, in fact, a religious crisis. One of the things that the academy was meant to be good at, theoretically, was arguing theological problems, but you can’t do that if many of your colleagues don’t recognize that what they’re doing is arguing theological problems. I, as a Christian, because I’m used to being the one that doesn’t make sense to people, am used to the exercise of having to explain why it is that I see the world in the way that I do. The acade- my, as a community as an environment, doesn’t have to explain itself to itself in those terms.

So you’re saying your role in this sort of environment is one of witness?

Yes, that a good way to put it. You have to be very good at practicing your argument. Rule number one is to prepare yourself. You need to study the arguments. You need to practice them. You need to recognize that someone arguing with you is an opportunity to make your argument stronger. And the thing is, you only get better at it when you realize you are actually arguing Truth. However, the academy is not interested in that level of truth claim. Typically, they think that truth is facts in STEM and everything else is subjective. If you’re ar- guing against that structuring, you’re going to have a uphill battle. So as a Christian you need to practice, you need to be calm, and you need to read and train yourself. I think about St. Catherine, who was able to hold her own against the philosophers.

It seems you’re saying that pluralism is a good thing – that it can help people of faith think critically about what they believe. However, that can only be in an environ- ment where people are committed to truth claims.

Well, we have to go back to the fact that Christianity developed out of a culture in which it al- ready was forced to defend itself. [That culture] is already there in the New Testament. The very first argument comes from the early Christians arguing with their own kinsmen, which is how we end up with Christians and Jews as two different discussions. Even within the New Testament you see the earliest Christians having to make the argument that Jesus’ com- ing was the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. Hence, Christianity is born in an argument. And then, when the people who do see Him as the Christ go out and try to argue with those who aren’t even Jews – the Gentiles -, they have to develop their arguments for that culture too. You see this in early apologists like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr who argue with the pagan philosophers. Intellectually, I think that’s one of the great strengths of Christianity: at every single point of its development, it was challenged.

So in every age, there are questions Christians have to deal with. Do you lament that the question Christians have to deal with today is the question of Truth itself.

I don’t lament it at all! I think Christians should welcome it. I think you should be a happy warrior! This is what we’re called to do. You asked me what what’s pluralism? It’s the temptation of the world, the temptation of falling into each other’s approbation. It’s like the reason political correctness is a problem: people don’t, in fact, enjoy conflict very much. One is very uncomfortable when someone comes along and says, “I don’t think that’s the answer.” Christians need to be okay with that, because that’s what we’re called to be: witnessing into the world of mysteries that the world doesn’t find easy to grasp. So laughter and war. The war part is being will- ing to be in the debate. It’s being willing to be in the disputation. I’m reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel before he is smitten and given the name Israel. That’s our model. And you’re willing to wrestle with God; you’re willing to wrestle with each other. You enjoy it because you understand that what you’re wrestling for is truth. If people expect me to feel besieged and undone in the academy, they’re wrong. It is good and you will be stronger if you welcome it…We are a witness to Joy 


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