Principled Pluralism, the Image of God, and the Golden Rule

By Cody Beasley

When I first learned about principled pluralism, I immediately became defensive. I assumed it was nothing more than moral relativism or religious inclusivism. How can people value truth claims while actively participating in a public square that’s increasingly diverse? However, I have found that, far from inclusivism, principled pluralism welcomes differences in the public square. While its vision essentially relates to the government’s role in protecting the rights of individuals and the social structures and religious communities they create, the ideals of principled pluralism can be embodied on a personal level as we sincerely dialogue with those who are different from us. By creating space for people, with their truth claims and communities, principled pluralism offers a major benefit that the Western landscape often lacks today: the opportunity to genuinely understand one another.

In his book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, Matthew Kaemingk, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary, identifies a glaring flaw in the Western mindset:

There is a consistent pattern in the West of reducing diverse and multifaceted cultures, communities, and faiths to simplistic caricatures. Soon enough we will find that the simple act of listening and paying attention to the complexity of human life is not only a critical skill; it is a virtue. (18)

How often do we hinder genuine dialogue because we settle for viewing another person or group through the lens of our preconceived ideas about them? When I pass judgment on someone based on my assumptions about them, I only justify the narrative that I already believe in, whether or not that narrative is true. I construct a belief system based on assumptions, not the truth. And in a world that generates increasingly complex issues, simple narratives won’t do. Principled pluralism disavows these caricatures by viewing the reality of genuine differences among people through the lens of a robust biblical theology centered around two foundational truths: the image of God and love of neighbor. By remembering these biblical themes, we can advocate for principled pluralism in our personal lives, dismantling our caricatures of the “other” and instead listening to and learning from them.

The image of God bestows dignity and worth to every person, regardless of their truth claims or worldview.

Principled pluralism operates within the biblical paradigm by holding to the image of God: God chose to create people in his image. The creation account of Genesis records, “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female” (Gen. 1:27 CSB). New Testament authors also contribute to this theme: “[God] himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth” (Acts 17:25b-26a). Although theologians debate its precise meaning, the image of God generates equality among human beings: not only do both men and women possess the image of God, but so does every nationality. It should inform every interaction that we have with another person. Not only that, the image of God applies to everyone universally.

As a feature of the created order, the image of God bestows dignity and worth to every person, regardless of their truth claims or worldview. Daniel Darling, the vice president for communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention, helpfully reminds us that “people are more than the sum of their beliefs.” As the one who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” God sets the example for how committed Christians should relate to people who hold opposing truth claims (Matt. 5:45). If I neglect the basic dignity of a person based on their religious convictions, then I have violated the created order that God has ordained. In book three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin notes,

We are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love…. We remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them. (696-97)

The image of God compels me to listen to and understand someone’s worldview without devaluing their personhood—not because all truth claims are equal, but because all people are.

For an excellent example, Kaemingk describes how the Western political environment violates the image of God in our Muslim neighbors. He explains how both the political right and left are guilty of reducing immigrants to categories: “Those on the political right tend to frame their Muslim neighbors with threat-oriented categories and stereotypes…. However, more often than not, the political left avoids threat-based frames and opts for need-based frames.” (42)

When Westerners speak for Muslims like this, we violate the inherent dignity that they possess as human beings. We often neglect genuine dialogue with them and instead define them by our own preconceived ideas. We propagate our own narratives about Muslim immigrants—whether or not those narratives are true—because they’re safe for us. Our narratives are safe, we think, for our families and our futures. They’re safe to preach from the pulpit or post to Facebook, safe for our political careers or professional ambitions. Many of us are guilty of speaking for Muslim immigrants without ever speaking to a Muslim immigrant. But how can we contribute positively to the conversation about Muslim immigration if all that we know are our assumptions?

Kaemingk concludes, “The simplicity of threat and need-based stereotypes are more desirable than the complexity of real living-and-breathing Muslim neighbors.” (44) However, this does not have to be the end of the discussion. Thankfully, from a biblical perspective, it’s not.

The Bible’s “golden rule” offers a corrective to the dehumanizing environment of Western politics by calling people to genuinely love their neighbors. Jesus states in Matthew 7:12a, “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.” This single sentence helpfully reframes incredibly complex issues around our basic responsibility to one another as human beings who possess dignity. How does our understanding of Muslim immigration change if we consider ourselves in the immigrant’s shoes? Jesus himself, through the biblical authors, wants us to know that treating another person the way that we want ourselves to be treated is the highest honor that we can give to someone by virtue of our equality as image-bearers. In fact, the very heartbeat of Christianity is the call to have “the mind of Christ,” who counted strangers as so important and worthy of love that he left his rightful home and died for them—for us (Phil. 2:3-11). If Christ died for us when we were the stranger, then how can we not demonstrate love for our neighbors by humbly listening and learning from them?

Principled pluralism addresses some of the most difficult questions that face our nation by advocating for individual human beings on the basis of the image of God and love of neighbor. It acknowledges the many extensive, irreconcilable differences that separate the American public and it applies the same biblical paradigm to each individual and social structure. To honor the biblical-theological mandate of the image of God and love of neighbor, the public square must accommodate various religions, truth claims, and civil institutions without asking a person or group to check their religious convictions at the door. Instead, principled pluralism cultivates a spirit of peaceful disagreement in the public square while safeguarding a community’s social institutions and civil structures. People embody the ideals of principled pluralism when they treat fellow humans with respect and dignity; listening to and learning from the viewpoint of the “other”—whether Democrat, Republican, Muslim, or Jew. Our simple narratives do not equip us for the complex questions and issues of our day. A commitment to principled pluralism offers us a way to begin to address some of the most difficult questions that face our nation by advocating for individual human beings on the basis of the image of God and love of neighbor.

Cody Beasley is a graduate of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he plans to complete an MA in Biblical Languages.


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