Pluralism: A Rowdy Affair (Joe)

6 May

In the wake of Sung Yeon’s post on pluralism, I’ve been doing alot of thinking about the subject.  It seems alot of other people are doing the same as evidenced by the Plurality 2.0 conversation going on at the Pomomusings blog of Presbyterian pastor.  I’ve made a couple of responses to the posts there in the comboxes and I’d like to share some of those in more detail here.  For me pluralism is a loaded term.  It is essentially the answer to the issue of diversity.  Most likely the way you understand or misunderstand diversity will impact your particular version of pluralism, hence the term means many things too many people.   So I think its most proper to begin a discussion of pluralism by revealing my thoughts about diversity.   What exactly is difference in a society and why does it matter?  First and foremost, it is an unavoidable social reality.  I have dealt with that reality all of my young life.  I was born an urban African American, but raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.  That made me a different kind of urban.  I received my education in a school prized for its ethnic and religious diversity, and I’ve come to find my vocation in a Church that has offered me global possibilities for fellowship.  At each of these steps diversity has been an enigmatic presence, at once frustrating and ambrosial, but always where I am most at home.  So before I even gave thought to its theological or philosophical uses, the presence of diversity was my foremost social reality.

If pluralism is about dialoguers and evangelizers, then my experiences, particularly my earlier ones were marked most by dialogue.  I really didn’t have much to share or “evangelize”, so I started off being a dialoguer, or simply a listener if you will.  As I questioned and observed others, I came to realize that the boundary markers we make around identity, ethnic or religious, often do not hold.  I met Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists as well as blacks, whites, east and south asians who all defied my expectations about them.  They changed and they grew over time.  Some cherish their faith, others dissent from them. Others still are neutral or agnostic toward any faith. The reasons are many and in order to understand we need sincere dialogue which is not self-seeking.  So what are the implications of my observation for dealing with pluralism as a society?

Well, if we consider ethnic and religious identity to be set in stone, then the kind of pluralism we build will prioritize protecting these cultures eremetically sheltering them from the risks of external (and internal) engagement.  Yet if  we consider ethnic and religious identity to be fluid and changing, then the kind of pluralism we build will prioritize protecting the creative, tensive environment in which cultures can hold their own or be transformed with respectfulness.  

These days I not only have a desire to listen, but also to share.  I am both a dialoguer and an evangelizer.  If we’re honest about it, at some level we all are both.  We all have some claim to make about who we are and how we want others to treat us.  We all find ways to makes sense of and find a purpose for the diversity in which we live.  Most of us don’t think about this, but as a member of the ‘Diversity Generation’ (Gen Y), its the air we breathe.  The ambiguity of being both a dialoguer and evangelizer, of listening and sharing is one many of us take to as a fish does to water.  As a Christian, this is not to say we must be abrasive, confrontational and violent with what we share.  For many of us, to do so would contradict and undercut the content of the message we wish to share.   

But in regards to evangelism, I would hope that my witnessing (in both word and deed) to my own faith may guide the course of others as they discern God’s call on their life. For some, but not all, that may mean changing faiths, and if Westerners do so rather freely I don’t want to impinge upon someone else’s ability to do the same. Ultimately where they or I move on the faith continuum may not be as important as the fact that through our encounter we nudge, prod, and love each other towards being something different, something better than we were before we met. I’ve never had any encounter like this that wasn’t as some point messy. But they were worth it. And its likely my theological understanding of the Holy Spirit that allows me to make peace with that.

If what I’ve described is in some way a concept to big to get your head around, then good.  Welcome to the world of true diversity.  It’s a wild, rowdy, mad world.    Cultural diversity flummoxes and confounds any of us who try to decipher it.   We will not escape with easy categorization or cheap schemes to manage and control it.  We cannot flip through it callously like a rolodex.  We cannot close it off as we would the rooms of a house. If your Pluralism is primarily about those tasks, I have two words for you: Good Luck.  

From my vantage point, in defining pluralism we get too easily tripped up on making sure everyone has the same end goals and motivation. It’s part of that myth that says we can engineer diversity.  I believe  if we do embrace diversity at all, we tend to do so for a multitude of reasons. Some of us want to see society transformed, others are moved to treat an individual with dignity despite their background. Then there are those that want to change peoples beliefs, or at least the way they treat one another. If pluralism is chiefly about getting all those people to agree, whew! That’s alot of energy expelled.  On the other hand, if it’s more about means than ends, it seems no less challenging, but perhaps a bit more humble.  By focusing on means, it would free us to creatively set new goals that alone we could not previously imagine. It would free us to do that risky work of transforming one another. Instead of the vision being set for us by whoever holds the most power, it allows us to set the vision of pluralism together on equal footing. Instead of trying to change the goal of the game, lets just change the way we play. Maybe we can start with basics: Debate vigorously without doing one another violence. Or how about not coercing anyone by witholding material help from them. That may not seem like a big deal, but in some places around the world, yes even in the US, its a good start.

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