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”!