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.