IS ANYONE SERIOUS ABOUT PLURALISM?
Arthur Jones relativises the relativisers
A GOOD PLACE to start
1. is with a distinction between plurality - as a recognition of the presence of religious diversity in modem Western societies; and pluralism - as the doctrine that all religions are equally valid ways of salvation
2. Behind pluralism lurks the spectre of post-modern relativism, the claim that all knowledge - all truth - is relative to a particular culture: "it may be true for you, but not for me." Relativism is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Christianity today. It lies behind the dominant assumptions that absolute truth-claims are dangerous ('fundamentalist'!), that religious dogma is incompatible with tolerance, and that dialogue must replace evangelism.
Yet this is far from being the whole picture. It is one of the signs of the crisis of the Western world that we can seem to be constantly passing backwards and forwards between two incompatible universes. Alongside the practice of relativism we have a new promotion of absolutism. For example, it has been widely taken for granted that all children should attend common schools that transmit a common culture by means of a common ('National') curriculum. The 'self-evident' universality of maths and science are constantly paraded in defence of this arrangements. In this universe debates over multiculturalism (or pluralism) are non-existent or trivial. Despite all the inroads of relativism, our societies - through their dominant institutions - still privilege two key aspects of the old modernist order:
the commitment to universal scientific reason (or secular rationality); the belief in a unified nation-state.
The first has been addressed in other articles
3. but the latter demands our attention because it resolves the paradox of our incompatible universes and also clarifies how tolerance actually operates in our society.
The dominant conception of the nation-state grew out of the political nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries which conflated nation and state and established (though often retrospectively) a common national language and culture. The ideal of 'one state, one nation, one language' became orthodoxy and has remained so to the present day. Whatever their precise historical relations, the notion of separate human beings tapping into a universal scientific reason has fused with the liberal democratic principle of the universal political citizenship of autonomous individuals. Consequently the national language and culture are seen as (religiously) neutral.
The key to understanding all this is the traditional liberal distinction of private and public realms. What we must grasp is that this distinction is primary: principles of pluralism and tolerance are secondary to it. Whatever is assigned to the private sphere is not amenable to state regulation and thus is properly an area for pluralism, tolerance and relativism! But whatever is assigned to the public realm - nearly everything that matters, including education - is a proper area for absolutism - for state intervention and regulation. In other words, liberal talk of multiculturalism (or 'pluralism') has never really been serious, because the two foundational commitments of liberalism ultimately reduce pluralism to assimilation - assimilation to the liberal ideal of a national or global society governed by the principles of secular rationality.
The consequences for religious minorities are dire. For them pluralism and toleration are purchased at the heavy cost of not being accepted as equal partners in the public realm. In fact this arrangement is profoundly destructive of all communities which seek to maintain and propagate a distinct identity and distinctive values. The irony is that it also undermines liberalism itself (for liberalism, too, is an 'ethnic' culture!). For what, in the present social climate, is the common culture that schools are supposed to pass on. It can only be a common denominator whose values are becoming ever thinner in content and their grip on the public ever more tenuous. The double irony is that the demand for schools to 'teach values' becomes correspondingly ever louder!
Various liberal scholars have sought to modify liberalism in order to recognise the claims of minorities and avoid 'the tyranny of the majority'. What I strongly doubt is that any of them really appreciate the depth and implications of cultural/religious differences. Or, if they do, they appear to subordinate it to a conviction of the superiority (and, implicitly, universality) of their own secular liberalism (i.e., scientific reason). All too frequently there appears an inability, or refusal, to take religion seriously combined with suspicion of those who do. All other cultures are tacitly regarded as superstitious! This prejudice is deadly serious, in that it. acts as a barrier to recognising the suffering of hundreds of millions of believers worldwide4. The prejudice can hardly be openly admitted, so a common trick is to stress the dangers of fossilising any given (minority) culture as it is at one historical moment for one constituency. The dangers are real but the appeal is dishonest when scholars then proceed as if cultural differences are not important. Indeed it ensures that secularists do not face that critical engagement with different cultures - with Christianity? - that might lead to genuinely transformative learning. As things stand our secular society is profoundly oppressive.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There is only one way we ought to go; to a renewal of the confidence that truth exists and is worth having and preserving, that it is Christian truth, and that it is public truth. As against the claims of scientific objectivity, we must learn that even science is worldview dependent, and that the evaluation of those worldviews is the crucial issue3. As against the claims of cultural relativity, we must be clear that the greatest problem with relativism is that it undermines the credibility of all beliefs. It is bad enough to say that each community's beliefs are equally valid, but at least within each community there would be standards to which people could be held accountable. Within our individualistic, pick-and-mix culture, every person's views are equally valid. Then there can be no accountability except that of brute force. For if there is no basis for saying whose views are right, then whoever can muster the most power (votes, guns ... ) decides. In other words, relativism makes both the good society and the doing of justice impossible. It produces only victims without hope of experiencing either.
For there to be any kind of society, people cannot avoid evaluating and making judgements, whatever they might say to the contrary. The key question we must always ask is: on what basis, according to which criteria, from - what point of view, in the light of which norms? And our key affirmation must be that only if there is Truth above our communities, is criticism possible, patriotism safe, and democracy liberating. Every alternative represents oppression. But we have still not reached the heart of the matter.
The scientific worldview is so plausible because of the visible successes of science the washing machines and TVs, the antibiotics and fertilisers. Relativism is so attractive because we have lost the grounds for believing in truth. In both cases the plausibility is unchallenged because we have lost the communities necessary to nurture truth and transmit it to the next generation - communities that in their healthy wholeness of life5 would render both scientism and relativism fatally implausible and desperately unattractive.
Tolerance is fundamentally a problem of truth. Without truth, tolerance is meaningless. But to recover truth we need community. In the late 1990s the fundamental challenge we face as Christians is that of creating truth-bearing communities in societies that have undermined and marginalised them. If we continue - as we do - to act as secular individualists in the world - whether modern or post-modern hardly matters - then we will continue on to doom, and to shame in the day of Judgement. Jesus came to save individuals, but He also came to heal their public places.
Arthur Jones is an education consultant.
1. The issues addressed in this paper can be followed up in several books. I consider the clearest, most concise, and most insightful exposition to be that of Stan Gaede in When tolerance is No Virtue: Political Correctness, Multiculturalism and the Future of Truth and Justice, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 119 pp. Other valuable discussions are Don Carson, The Gagging of God.. Christianity Confronts Pluralism, Leicester: Apollos, 1996, 640 pp.; Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992, 173 pp.; Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen, Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay in Christian Public Philosophy, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993, 183 pp; Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices.. Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, Leicester: Apollos (IVP), 1991, 323 pp (but note Ramachandra's critique of Netland, pp 167-170); Vinoth Rainachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996, 293 pp. The approach of this paper is expanded, with full references, in Arthur Jones, Community, Culture and the Curriculum Programme of Alternative Schools, MEd thesis, University of Bristol, 1998, 7 1 pp and Science in Faith.. A Christian Perspective on Teaching Science, Romford: Christian Schools'Trust, 1998, cl 50 pp.
2. These definitions of the two terms are, of course, controversial, but some such distinction is essential whatever terms we use.
3. See Arthur Jones, The idolatry of secular science, New Directions, 2 (25), 1997, pp 5-6 and Christian schools: desirable or detestable? New Directions, 2 (31), 1997, pp x-x.
4. See Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997, 3 3 5 pp.
5. In a fallen world communities, too, can be evil and oppressive. The priority always belongs to truth; communities belong under the truth, never above it. Church communities should also reflect the diversities of God's world. Modem Western Christians find this peculiarly difficult and gravitate to churches of people 'like us'. But if we can't be church together, how can we be church to the world at all?
6. There is abundant help for Christians to he good parents and good witnesses, but not to be - good citizens. Not surprisingly, Christian voting habits are found to be the same as those of their pagan neighbours.
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