I believe it was Bill Clinton who said something to the effect that we are living, and will spend our lifetimes, in the midst of the most diverse and drawn together world, ethnically, religiously, and culturally speaking, than any other time in history. It only makes sense, then, that the ways we react in this new time will end up defining, in large part, who we are as individuals and as innovators. And I’m finding that, lately, I find tolerance of pluralism to be one of the best traits a person can have.
I’d like to be able to say that I’ve never been a fan of claims of exclusive revelation but I’m not that naive. I’m sure there was a time, and I could think of it if I cared to dig about, when this idea filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Why I should ever feel pride or accomplished because of this idea is beyond me. But that’s really outside of the scope of what I want to talk about in this post.
Pluralism, in my head, seems to be a word that represents the idea that many people all over the world are searching for things like truth and meaning in different and individually stimulating ways. More than this, though, the ism part of the word makes it a way, a method, for believing that this is the way things are and, in a sense, ought to operate. In other words, many searches for identical things can be happening in different ways and still be successful and of value.
Thoughts of pluralism always lead me to this idea of tolerance, or that we are to be respectful of each other’s methods and distinctions as part of some sort of mutual transaction of equality that is both deserved and desired by all people. I respect a Republican’s or a Democrat’s choice to choose a party and follow political lines in a certain way. Why? Because, as silly as I may personally find that particular choice, I really want them to respect my choice to remain agnostic of such a choice. I’ve entered into an understood social contract with, hopefully, almost everyone I come into contact with. You get the idea.
The thing that concerns me most of all, regarding those who would claim to have exclusive access to a particular path toward truth (that inevitably segments them from other people) is not that this would belittle other methods toward truth. It would seem that the most obvious result of one culture or another claiming exclusive knowledge of a topic would demean the independent progress of others, but I don’t think this is usually the case. I’m actually worried about something slightly diagonal to that issue.
When someone believes they are right, whether about their choice of organized religious group or the best way to organize their bookshelves, they tend to close themselves off from those with other ideologies and systems. This doesn’t, though, usually happen in an outright fashion. What I tend to see instead is something that takes place below the surface, sometimes below the point where someone is wiling to acknowledge it as real, sort of like the place where so many people find comfort in hiding their racism. I’m concerned that a lack of plurality leads to a rampant breakdown of tolerance. And tolerance is a beautiful thing to see, so that’s sad to me.
I find myself frustrated, anymore, by thinkers that relegate differing paths and systems of thought to some lesser playing field. My thinking in this area was most definitely transformed by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which describes the scientific process (and, though not his intention many other practices) as an irrational traverse between paradigms and without a collective goal.
Many things seem to simply be paradigms anymore. That’s the level I want to talk at. And maybe I want to be too pragmatic about it, and find and work with those paradigms which lead people to live better and happier together, but the simplicity of such a goal is so much more attractive than defending some sort of intellectual hill.
That said, defending intellectual hills can be lots of fun, and I’m always up for climbing atop one of my own if anyone out there feels like jousting.
This post was written at least partially in response to Timothy Lloyd’s post over at Theological Current called “Historic Christianity & Christian Pluralism“, in which he argues that pluralism is in opposition with historic, doctrinal Christianity. I mean this small collection of words only to join the same lobby of discussion, as my intentions here are a bit more widespread (and thus, probably less concrete and directed) than what he wrote. In any case, his is worth a read if you are interested in the issue of pluralism within the realm of the Christian church. So go read his already.