Q&A re pluralism

Q&A re pluralism

After having the pleasure of talking recently to some really thoughtful undergrads at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill about religious pluralism, I received some very provocative follow-up comments and questions.  Here is one of them, along with my response (I hope to blog on another comment in a bit):

“Dr. Clark said that only someone who wasn’t a pluralist could effectively speak into someone’s life if they were dealing with something like addiction. I’m not sure I agree with that, and think that even pluralists could say something like that based on their own moral code that they should help people.”

Response: Great comment.  It addresses  one of my main points, so I’m eager to clarify. One of my questions for discussion was: does pluralism provide a means of confronting wrongdoing, both individually and systemically?

That is, individually, does it encourage and enable me to challenge and confront a loved one whose actions are harming us/others? Systemically (i.e., at the political or cultural scale), does it empower me to challenge and confront injustice and to “speak truth to power”? Does pluralism provide me with a way of saying, “What you are doing is unjust”? To say that is very different from saying, “What you are doing is against my own personal moral code, so you should stop.” My question is: Doesn’t pluralism prevent us from being agents of change against wrongdoing, whether at the individual or systemic levels? Doesn’t pluralism prevent revolution? If so, that is really, really good news–it’s gospel–for those who are presently in positions of influence and power, who have the majority of the resources and privilege. But it’s bad news for those who are not. This, it seems to me, is the hidden agenda of pluralism: to promote the status quo. And that’s why pluralism, in my mind, isn’t just disagreeable or unpalatable; it is scary and deceptive: it silences any voices that call for change by (ironically) condemning them as “intolerant.” How can one “speak truth to power,” if truth is merely a private affair in a plurality of “truths”?

A further thought: When we try to help others, we have in mind some idea of how they need to be helped. That is, we have a blueprint or goal for what we want them to become, even if that blueprint originates with them. (E.g., we could be assisting someone to commit suicide, because that is what they have decided is best for them, and we have chosen to adopt that goal with them.) And not only is there a blueprint or goal for what we want them to become, there is also some idea of how we want to help them. Speaking for myself, when I try to help others, even/especially those I know well and care for deeply (as a husband, father, minister, son, brother, friend, etc.), I am often deeply challenged by how difficult it can be to discern on my own what it looks like to help another person and how to go about doing it (similarly, as a minister, I have congregants who will come to me, seeking counsel for how to love their loved ones, coworkers, and classmates). If asked simply to rely on my own moral code, at times I would lose heart and wonder, “What do I know?” and “Who am I to try to help this person?” Alternatively, at other times I have presumed to know that I know exactly what the person I care for needs. Then the problem is not self-doubt (“who am I?”) but pride (“Here, let me run your life for you”). In other words, what guidance, much less permission, does pluralism give us for knowing how to love others?

The unique (and, hence, controversial) Christian response to that question is that Jesus himself is the standard of love: he not only tells us but embodies for us what love is. And he demonstrates that love is a breathtaking, life-giving, soul-awakening, arduous, costly, rejection-laden, often lonely affair. To restate my question: how does (or can) pluralism provide us with a definition of love?

Anyone, feel free to “push back”!

3 thoughts on “Q&A re pluralism

  1. These are great points. Thanks, Bruce. Before this past summer when you brought it up, I had never considered how pluralism (or relativism, for that matter) supports a dangerous status quo.

    I’d be interested to know more of that student’s reasoning. Implicit in his statement is that the pluralist he’s mentioning has his “own moral code.” But if he does, then fundamentally he’s not a pluralist; he’s whatever that code represents (e.g., utilitarian, deontologist, etc.).

    On another note, I wonder if anyone has ever done a survey to see how many people care about truth at all; that is, if given the choice between the red pill and the blue pill (the dilemma posed to Neo in The Matrix), how many would choose a hard truth, and how many would choose a pleasant delusion? I think that definitely matters, because if people care more about being pleasantly deluded than wrangling difficult truths, then your provocation for them to seek the truth will go unheeded.

    “How can one “speak truth to power,” if truth is merely a private affair in a plurality of “truths”?”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to imply that people want the truth because the truth is what gives us power. I agree that it does, but look around us: power is perceived to be in missiles, money, muscles, etc. Some people don’t care about what is metaphysically true (John 18:38); they care about what works to maximize their survival (and pleasure) and then, if there’s anything left over, the survival (and perhaps pleasure) of others. This is Darwinism taken out of the science textbooks and embodied in a worldview.

    Having said that, I don’t think any given person you meet is a sociopath either. There are common courtesies and most people aren’t going to stab you if you skip them in the line at the grocer. We’re bound in a social web that keeps many of these things in check. But look what happens when we have an opportunity: looting in the streets of Ferguson, MO. How many of those people were just normal folks waiting in line the month prior? How many of them cared about “truth?”

    Therefore, this entire discussion is predicated on the assumption that Truth exists (with a big-T regarding these larger things like justice, ethics, metaphysics, etc). If it does, why pursue it? You seemed to appeal in this way:

    “If so, that is really, really good news–it’s gospel–for those who are presently in positions of influence and power, who have the majority of the resources and privilege. But it’s bad news for those who are not. This, it seems to me, is the hidden agenda of pluralism: to promote the status quo.”

    Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to assume that your readers/listeners want to care for those who do not have resources and privilege. In highlighting the discordance between an urge to help others and the inability to intellectually justify it within a given moral framework (i.e., pluralism), I think you’re trying to cause enough trouble to lead a person to question their worldview. But I don’t think we can get out of this discussion without an appeal to Scripture directly, for the unrepentant sinner will always relieve cognitive dissonance in a way that does not acknowledge God (Romans 1:18-21); it’s a mark of the sinner to suppress truth! It’s not just that 2+2=5 is wrong, but that 2+2 equals something that is true!

    I’m not saying we should neglect cutting of the supply lines that continue to ferry in intellectual resources for pluralists (and, if we’re being honest, ourselves at times). Certainly not; but I think we should also include wise, gracious appeals to the words of God. That doesn’t mean a Bible tract shoved under someone’s door, either. I appreciate how you do this in other contexts, Bruce: drawing out the antithesis between a faulty worldview and Christian truth. It is not neutrality to abandon the Bible to prove our point.

    1. Hey, Josh!
      At one level I would want to say “Uncle” to all your critiques above. You’re right: I am assuming that my (imaginary) pluralist conversation partner does in fact care about things like truth and about who does / doesn’t have privilege and resources. I suspect I would there are ways in which I would be right and ways in which I would be wrong to make that assumption. Proverbs 26.4-5 provides (or, presupposes, really) a paradigm in which this is the case. At the end of the day we all must live in a world created by God: it would be impossible not to care about some truth, and we would probably all find our own lack of privilege / resources to be an injustice. We all must borrow from his created order to live. Like a rebellious teen who lives off the wealth of his parents, our rebellion against God can only exist by using the resources we have received from him in the first place.

  2. I wasn’t critiquing anything you had written; I was just clarifying. Sorry if it sounded like I was trying to get you to say “uncle.” 🙂

    “Like a rebellious teen who lives off the wealth of his parents, our rebellion against God can only exist by using the resources we have received from him in the first place.”

    True. What an appropriate comparison.

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