“Aren’t these the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the ‘hot air gods’? The gods that couldn’t scare birds from a cucumber patch?”
Such is the question posed by Curtis White, an English professor and cultural analyst, in an article entitled “Hot Air Gods” found in the most recent issue of “Harper’s” magazine. For White, “hot air gods” is a way of describing the anemic and impotent deities that result from unrestrained pluralism. In White’s view, enforced and indiscriminate pluralism has the potential to rob our creeds of their uniqueness and our deities of their scandalousness:
What reigns in our national spectacle is the pluralistic assumption that you have a right to your cockeyed belief and that it is something I am compelled to respect and even admire in you, even though what you believe may have very little to do with what I believe. Yahweh and Baal—my God and yours—stroll arm-in-arm, as if to do so were the model of virtue itself.
White goes on to make the point that an idolatry of pluralism also, ironically, opens the door to individualism, even isolationism:
There is an obvious problem with this form of spirituality: it takes place in isolation. Each of us sits at our computer terminal tapping out our convictions. It’s as if we were each our own foreign country.
In his most potent conclusion, White suggests that the only kind of orthodoxy that can thrive in the midst of such a theological climate is a pseudo-orthodoxy revolving around the core doctrines of pluralism, entitlement, and commodity:
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy. It is heresy AS an orthodoxy. The entitlement to belief is the right of each to his own heresy. Religious freedom has come to this: where everyone is free to believe whatever she likes, there is no real shared conviction at all, and hence no church and certainly no community…Our religious content soon becomes indistinguishable from our financial content and our entertainment content and our sports content…In short, belief becomes a culture-commodity. We shop among competing options for belief.
All of this may be a bit deeper than any of you wants to travel in the middle of a busy Advent. But, given all of blogosphere conversations about pluralism that I’ve encountered in the last couple of years, I found myself drawn to White’s subject matter. In particular, his analysis of the erosion of orthodoxy (however one may define it) in an effort to create the lowest spiritual common denominator seems spot on. We certainly struggle with this issue denominationally. My sense is that we also struggle with the issue in our effort to live as faithful Christ-followers in a culture that is also home to Jews, Muslims, Elvis-worshipers, and atheists.
Interestingly, the etymology of the word “pluralism” comes from a Latin root (”plur-”) which means “more.” Our current cultural and ecclesiastical pluralism, however, seems to mean “less.” More specifically, our current pluralism dares to say “give us less of your particularity, less of your unique doctrine, so that we might all get along without the hard work of understanding and appreciating our distinctiveness.”
As a result, there is the widespread temptation to reduce the Sovereign Creator of heaven and earth to a hot air god with very little to say or do. Similarly, we may find ourselves inclined to overlook the scandal of particularity in favor of the more general platitudes that everyone with common sense would find palatable.
Personally, I long for a different kind of pluralism—one that will allow me to love and appreciate my Muslim and atheistic neighbors while at the same time proclaiming “Merry Christmas” and “Jesus is Lord.”