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Pluralism, Christians, and moral discourse

July 21, 2014

In a thoughtful essay on religious freedom, pluralism and LGBT rights, John Inazu asks a lot of non-Christians:

Pluralism does not entail relativism. Living well in a pluralist world does not mean a never-ending openness to any possible claim. Every one of us holds deeply entrenched beliefs that others find unpersuasive, inconsistent, or downright loopy. More pointed, every one of us holds beliefs that others find morally reprehensible. Pluralism does not impose the fiction of assuming that all ideas are equally valid or morally benign. It does mean respecting people, aiming for fair discussion, and allowing for the right to differ about serious matters. [Emphasis added-PK]

I am deeply sympathetic to this viewpoint. But I suspect Inazu will not get much traction from non-Christians–and especially the liberal secularists he ultimately needs to convince. What, exactly, would he say to San Francisco yuppies to have them admit: “Ah yes. I see how others would find my belief in X repugnant. I guess I should embrace pluralism because it ultimately benefits me too.” Which belief or set of beliefs could be offered for debate here? More likely than not, Inazu’s very premise would be rejected because few people are as courageous or reflective as he is. Few people would acknowledge that any of their beliefs are morally reprehensible.

We need a lower bar to cross. Pluralism cannot depend on passing such a difficult test. I’d be happy if we could all just admit out beliefs have subjective moral dimensions. That reasonable people can disagree on these dimensions and it’s not all facts and numbers and rationality. That we all believe some things are wrong just because. These types of arguments are much more palatable. The passage above asks a bit too much, and I wish Inazu had instead focused on this line of reasoning:

In a society that lacks a shared vision of a deeply held common good, we can and must live with deep difference among groups and their beliefs, values, and identities. The pluralist argument is not clothed in the language of religious liberty, but it extends to religious groups and institutions…Most of us structure our lives around our deepest moral commitments. And we instinctively want our normative views to prevail on the rest of society. But patience reminds us that the best means to a better end is through persuasion and dialogue, not coercion and bullying.

I know I am picking on just a few sentences in an otherwise remarkable essay. I also know that basic message in these two sections overlap substantially. But given how important pluralism is, and given how the public increasingly views religious freedom, it’s important to be precise and consistent. People who disagree with Inazu will parse his writing much more strictly than I have.

Perhaps it would help if Inazu elaborated on his vision. While he provided a basic framework and a few examples, it’s short on specifics. What exactly does a Christian pluralistic message look like? How should Christians go about it? What should Christians emphasize and what shouldn’t they? If Christians are to successfully adopt a message of pluralism after decades (centuries?) of emphasizing exceptionalism, these details need to be filled in. Fast.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    July 26, 2014 10:08 am

    1. Religious exceptionalism is not specific to Christianity. You can find it in other religions like Judaism. It fuels continuing problems we have today. It might be good to explore it more broadly. Remember the creation stories you write of are shared between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the the Islamic version is somewhat different).

    2. In the first excerpt, you called Inazu’s words a viewpoint. I don’t think it’s a viewpoint. I think he’s actually appealing to definition. For some reason, in my religious experiences, people confuse relativism and pluralism. And they are not the same by definition. So it’s not really a viewpoint, he’s giving facts even if they are unaccepted facts. I think it might be a semantic issue with people, perhaps.

    3. The answers to those questions in the last paragraph are already being lived by many smaller progressive Christian communities. It will be difficult to find the answers in fundamentalist Christian communities because they don’t ask those questions nor seek to live those questions. But it’s already happening in other communities (that may or may not understand creation a certain way without being creation-ists).

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