plurality and unity

In this essay from a couple of years ago and today’s post at the Hog Blog — the first for a Christian audience, the second for a general one — I’m trying to think through what I’m calling plurality without pluralism. I take it that pluralism is a preferential option for a diversity of human ends, as well as the means by which to pursue those ends. I also take it that Christians cannot affirm such pluralism. Christians believe that “the chief end of man is to glory God and enjoy him forever,” or, if they would not put it precisely that way, perhaps they would say, with St. Augustine in the final chapter of the City of God that our end is the Great Sabbath of God:

Suffice it to say that the seventh day will be our Sabbath, whose end will not be an evening, but the Lord’s Day, as an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, and prefiguring the eternal rest not only of the Spirit, but of the body also. There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. Behold what will be, in the end to which there shall be no end! For what other end do we set for ourselves than to reach that kingdom of which there is no end?

However we choose to put it, it is surely clear that there is no diffuse plurality of ends for human beings, but rather one great one. In Revelation 7, we see “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” but they are all “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and singing the same hymn: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Jesus commands us to be one as he and the Father are one.

There’s no need to belabor the point — nothing could be more foundational to the Christian faith. So why, then, do I think I have cause to give at least one cheer, maybe two, for plurality?

1) The diversity of callings in the church, and of charisms, which it seems we always struggle to acknowledge and accept, though Catholics do a much better job of it than Protestants, at least in my experience. These callings and charisms, when rightly exercised, all tend towards the one telos of Christians, but they often don’t look that way. The teacher leading students in conversation, the contemplative in ecstasy, the hospice worker cleaning the body of a dying woman, seem to be following wholly different models of the conduct of life, and indeed can themselves be tempted to think that way. People called to any active form of life always tend to suspect the contemplative of not really doing anything. Examples could be multiplied endlessly.

2) The double character, immediate and eschatological, of Jesus’s commandments. We are commanded to be One even as the Father and the Son are one, but this does not give us license to enforce a merely visible oneness — this is what Simone Weil calls “spiritual totalitarianism” and Charles Williams “the method of imposition of belief.” (In The Year of Our Lord 1943 I explore this theme in more detail.) Just as there is an idolatry of experience that drives us apart, there is also an idolatry of order that unwisely strives to force us together. The commandments must be pursued immediately but will only be fully realized eschatologically. “Be perfect, even as my Father in heaven is perfect” is not something I will do today.

3) The need, resulting from the former two points, for humility. We must be constantly aware of the self-blinding nature of sin, yes, and that should be enough to guarantee at least a measure of humility. But more than that, we need to remember the general character of revelation about both human and cosmic teleology. “No man knows the hour” and all that. And still more we must acknowledge the imperfect knowledge that comes from being simply finite creatures. Even the wisdom of the unfallen Adam was a human and thus a finite wisdom. I’m not a fan of Schleiermacher, but every Christian needs a theology of finitude.

A few years ago I would have said that the greatest danger facing the Christians I know was a kind of carelessness about the truth, a shrugging at difference and disagreement; now I think it’s the opposite, a kind of premature foreclosure, which is a way of immanentizing the eschaton. Obviously in any group of people we will find both intellectual flaccidity and intellectual rigidity present, but I do think that rigidity is now in the ascendent, simply because it is in the ascendent in our ambient culture and Christians, for the most part, behave as their ambient culture behaves.

In a recent conversation with Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum, I recommended what I called — then half-jokingly, and now that I think about it more seriously — the Gandalf Option. I take that phrase from something Galdalf says to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who believes that Gandalf is plotting to rule that kingdom:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

I think we Christians today have become so exercised by the felt need to sniff out and banish disagreement and difference that we are forgetting to nurture the worthy things in this world that are now in peril. Thus I said, in a recent post, that “pure critique is a high-demand, low-reward kind of work. It can be helpful if you want to rally your base, but I find it more useful to celebrate what I believe to be true, and true, and beautiful, and embed critique in a larger, more constructive enterprise.” We are called to be gardeners, but it often seems that we prefer to be cops.

We need to remember that — to cite Gandalf again! — that “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,” and that we are just a handful of people in the great procession of Christ’s saints. That’s why I think I can, with a bit of adaptation, be comforted by some words that Tom Stoppard gives to Alexander Herzen, which I discuss in today’s post — words that call us to work patiently towards oneness without demanding, or even expecting, that in this vale of tears we will come into the full inheritance of it: The Gospel of Jesus Christ “will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”

Mindslaughter and the united front

Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (delivered as a lecture in 1958) begins with a meditation on political ends and means. “Where ends are agreed,” he writes, “the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.” It is simply a matter of political engineering. This is of course what Oakeshott calls “rationalism in politics.”

Berlin then comments that if a stranger visited a British of American university, he would surely think that all the questions of ends has been settled, “for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.” That is, our professoriat act as though they believe that all the old debates about the social and political order, debates that go back in the West at least to Socrates and in the East at least to Confucius, have been decided. In Berlin’s view, this habit of mind “is both surprising and dangerous.”

Surprising because there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, in both the East and the West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.

I think it was an awareness of just this danger that made the great historian Robert Conquest write, in one of his last books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), that in an age dominated by what he calls “mindslaughter” — the destruction of intellect by ideas that have “grown too violent to be affected by rational criticism” — Yeats’s description of the state of affairs just before the Second Coming might not be right. When Yeats wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he implied that the best needed to acquire a “passionate intensity” of their own — but Conquest isn’t so sure. Maybe what the world needs is more people who are skeptical by temperament, inclined to suspect certainty, wary of passions and their resulting intensities.

Conquest says, citing Orwell, that he wants to resist “the lure of the profound.” I have not been able to find that Orwell ever wrote that, though perhaps he said it to Conquest — I believe they knew each other, and Conquest wrote an incisive poem about Orwell. Why resist profundity, or at least the quest for it? There’s a hint at the beginning of Christopher Hitchens’s book Why Orwell Matters, which is dedicated to Conquest with these words: “premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of ‘the united front against bullshit.’” What the desire for profundity lures us into is bullshit.

Maybe we don’t need any more passionate intensity for a while. Maybe we need to revivify the United Front Against Bullshit.

the fish in the fish store window

A writer was invited to teach a religion-and-literature course at a prestigious divinity school, but found himself rather in trouble with his students. One of the works he assigned was King Lear, and some students found it rife with “sexist language.” Another was Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and had he noticed that all of the characters were men? A third text was Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and its intrinsic racism should have been obvious.

The school was Harvard Divinity School, the professor was Frederick Buechner, and the year was 1982. He describes the experience in his memoir Telling Secrets. It all happened thirty-seven years ago, if you weren’t counting: sometimes today’s kerfuffles were also the kerfuffles of yesteryear, which more of us would know if we had some temporal bandwidth. That could help us to get some context, and a grip.

You might take Buechner’s side on all this, or you might take his students’, but in either case the really interesting thing, to me, is how much more confident those students were about their political commitments than about anything that could even half-plausibly be described as “religious belief.” Thus this memorable passage:

Harvard Divinity school was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism – feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians, all pursuing truth together – but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way I have never forgotten. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I have tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes.

And then one of his students, an African, said: “The reason I do not say anything about what I believe, is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.” But no one was afraid that their political commitments would be shot down. Perhaps — and perhaps for that reason — there wasn’t anything “beneath the level of their various causes.”

I’ll leave you with Buechner’s reflection on this exchange: “At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost.”

nostalgia for proceduralism

One of the classic critiques made against the liberal social order is that it is philosophically thin, characterized by an inadequate, narrow, limited account of human being and human flourishing. It effectively waives essential questions of what the human animal is and replaces those questions with a commitment to certain fixed procedures applied to all. These procedures, philosophical liberals believe, are the best preservers of peace in a highly plural society such as ours. This “liberal proceduralism” is most often associated with the work of John Rawls, but its pedigree goes back at least to Locke.

I have often joined in those critiques, and have been especially attracted to the anti-proceduralist arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre, but now that proceduralism is greatly weakened and perhaps dying, I am starting to miss it. Some time back Ross Douthat tweeted that if you thought you hated the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right. Similarly, I thought I disapproved of the proceduralist liberal order, but that was before I met the post-proceduralist liberal order.

Here is a classic argument based on the assumption that we are living in, and that arguments can appeal to, proceduralism. It concerns no-platforming strategies by leftist protestors on university campuses, and here’s a characteristic sample of the substance and tenor of the argument:

If [students] are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.

But protesters who shout down others without acknowledging that they too could be shouted down are acting without “intellectual integrity” and “good faith” only under the assumptions of proceduralism. And student protestors do not share those assumptions. For them, what matters is that their positions are correct and the positions of those they are shouting down are profoundly wrong.

Similarly, you often hear political pundits contend that Republicans act in bad faith when they cheerfully allow President Trump to behave in precisely the same ways that they fiercely denounced when President Obama did them, or that Democrats lack intellectual integrity when they protest behavior by the current President that they cheerfully embraced in the previous administration. These arguments too appeal to proceduralist norms in conditions where they simply have no force. Few of our politicians are willing to share a common set of rules and norms with those they are convinced will ruin the country if they get a chance (or are beholden for their seats to voters and donors who think that).

When Conan the Barbarian was asked “What is best in life?” he replied, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Had you been there, would you have replied, “Now Conan, you need to think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned, and it was your women who wailed in lamentation”? I trust that the question answers itself.

Proceduralism depends on the belief that my fellow citizens, while often wrong, indeed in some cases profoundly wrong, can be negotiated with. It depends on the belief that, while a world made precisely in my image may not be in the cards, if I and my fellow citizens agree to be bound by a common set of norms, then we can probably negotiate a tolerable social order. It depends on the belief that people whose politics differ from my own are not ipso facto evil, nor do they need to be pushed to the margins of society or forced out of it altogether. When those stances are not in play — and especially when all sides agree that error has no rights — proceduralism withers.

And that’s why, though I agree that proceduralism is morally limited and metaphysically thin to the point of invisibility, I am already missing it. I can feel the nostalgia coming on.

the limits of pluralism

Much of the history of religion in America has been written to emphasize the triumph of pluralism. Perhaps rightly so. That has meant, however, that those who have never conceded the premise that all or most religions, or even most Christian denominations, are more or less equal, have not been taken as seriously in our histories as they might. Even today there are vast numbers of Americans who, although committed to live at peace with other religious groups, believe it is a matter of eternal life or death to convert members of those groups to their own faith. Like it or not, such evangelistic religion has been and continues to be a major part of the experiences of many ordinary Americans. The dynamics of such religious experience need to be understood if one is to understand large tracts of American culture. Indeed, the tensions between religious exclusivism and pluralism are among the leading unresolved issues shaping the 21st century world.

– George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough. In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is, in our view, morally disreputable. That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and ability to live her life as she sees fit. Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should instead offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition. We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement. And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough. They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality. Nor is it enough for tender college students to hear criticisms that go to the heart of their own sense of identity. Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

But this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims? Well, in my view, they should be able to and the fact that they can’t helps reveal an incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim. Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is principally and practically impossible to extend recognition to all or even most, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives. Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game. And so what is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is a set of moral judgments about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating, and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss.

In a few months, the Supreme Court will likely conclude that same-sex civil marriage is a constitutional right. That will mean increased liberty for gays and lesbians who wish to marry; it will also lead to increased pressures on religious organizations and individuals who believe that marriage is fundamentally between a man and a woman. We will see more challenges to the florists, the bakers, and the pizza-crust makers.

We will also see more challenges to religious student groups, religious universities, and religious social-service organizations. Christians and other believers with traditional views on marriage should be concerned about the coming challenges. And they should work to ensure meaningful legal protections for the ability of religious organizations to live and act according to their religious purposes.

But it would be a mistake to let our concern over these challenges lead to resentment or unkind words toward our neighbors, gay or straight, who will celebrate the Court’s marriage ruling. Legal and political battles—as important as they are—have real-world consequences not only for us but also for our friends and neighbors. It would be a mistake to forget that our words and actions continue to matter regardless of the legal and cultural environment.

There will be times to stand in defense of Christian witness. But let’s not mistake a greater awareness of the pluralism that actually exists in our society as the immediate threat. We might see it instead as an opportunity—an opportunity to offer a more credible witness to the world as we find it. As Hauerwas reminds us, “the church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kinds of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” Those forms of social life play out in how we honor marriage and singleness within the church, and how we show love of neighbor to those outside of the church. The coming months and years will give us plenty of opportunity for both.

Christians have a long way to go in affirming the value of pluralism for all members of society. We might begin by recognizing its role for our gay and lesbian neighbors. When Uganda enacts a law that punishes homosexuality with death, U.S. Christians can speak out against such a law. Domestically, we need to think carefully about the kinds of legislation being pushed at the state level. Some proposed laws are undoubtedly important to protect religious institutions’ right to live in accordance with their own beliefs and traditions; others are deeply problematic. Christians in states without any antidiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians might consider supporting those laws containing exemptions for religious groups, rather than simply advocating for religious freedom on its own.

Unkind words have emerged from almost every corner of the public discourse. Christians should not be bullied or silenced by careless language. But neither should they engage in it. Advocacy for Christian witness must itself demonstrate Christian witness. In this way, our present circumstances provide new opportunities to embody tolerance, humility, and patience. And, of course, we have at our disposal not only these aspirations but also the virtues that shape our lives: faith, hope, and love.

fake pluralism

I am (or try to be) a partisan of pluralism, which requires respecting Mozilla’s right to have a C.E.O. whose politics fit the climate of Silicon Valley, and Brandeis’s right to rescind degrees as it sees fit, and Harvard’s freedom to be essentially a two-worldview community, with a campus shared uneasily by progressives and corporate neoliberals, and a small corner reserved for token reactionary cranks.

But this respect is difficult to maintain when these institutions will not admit that this is what is going on. Instead, we have the pretense of universality — the insistence that the post-Eich Mozilla is open to all ideas, the invocations of the “spirit of free expression” from a school that’s kicking a controversial speaker off the stage.

And with the pretense, increasingly, comes a dismissive attitude toward those institutions — mostly religious — that do acknowledge their own dogmas and commitments, and ask for the freedom to embody them and live them out.

It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

Ross Douthat. NO. KIDDING. I have never in my life co-signed anything more fervently than I co-sign this.

the raw appeal to power

That ‘something else’ has a lot to do with the complexities of religious loyalty, as I’ve said. But it also has to do with a basic commitment to the kind of institutional pluralism and tolerance of principled dissent that the United States has always wisely tried to cultivate. And here I find Drum’s overall perspective simply appalling. The idea that the state should only ‘tread carefully’ on issues of liberty, conscience and freedom of religion in areas where polling data shows significant support for the position or community in question is a recipe for majoritarian tyranny and government overreach. The logic that he’s applying to orthodox Catholics could be applied just as easily to the Amish, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and a host of other groups that don’t have the kind of institutional resources that Roman Catholicism can muster in its own defense. Yes, sometimes state interests are compelling enough to trump religious liberties, and defenders of this mandate have every right to make that case. But the argument that the state’s interests can trump religious liberties so long as the group of people being asked to violate their consciences is small enough is not an argument at all. It’s just a raw appeal to power.