The paradoxes of pluralism

15 Dec

Many of us have been deeply disturbed by the race riots in suburban Sydney.
We had imagined that things like this happen in other parts of the world, but not here.

Why would we think that?
How fortunate we are, to have maintained such an illusion, for so long!

Or are we fortunate? Or is it foolish?

I have spent much of this week contemplating the paradoxes of pluralism. When we welcome diversity, multiculturalism, and celebrate the different contributions of people from many parts of the human family, there are risks, dangers, and lots of problems we must address, lest these gifts and contributions become worse than divisions, they become a cancer which undermines and destroys community.
In Australia, I think many of us have been intellectually and politically lazy, and naive at very best, imagining that it all comes so easily. Being multicultural has just happened for us: have another pizza! Pass the sushi!

I have long been an advocate of pluralism. I head an institution which teaches that the church must be a place of inclusion, a community where differences do not divide. This for me is the way of God. It is the human reflection of the divine life, the holy Trinity.
But there are paradoxes in this pluralism.
This week, we have seen  the violence between gangs of young people, some of them ‘immigrants’ (despite having been born here, they are treated as if they do not belong), while others carry the Australian flag and claim to be ‘defending’ our way of life against these ‘others’.
The fact is that both sides claim to be victims. They claim they have been alienated: aliented by the inclusiveness of our society. That’s the first paradox. When you welcome the many, some are offended, because they don’t want to be part of the many, they want to be the only ones.
There are many people who want to be special, the only ones; some want to be ‘special’ to God, and find it offensive that God might save those others … whoever the others might be. This was a paradox jesus faced. To the religious, who thought themselves to be special to God, Jesus was just too inclusive.
Recently, I encountered the claim that a community that claims to include all, to welcome all, cannot be a community. It was said that you can only be a community if you have some controlling norms, something which is excluded, something which you will not tolerate.
Here’s the paradox again.  Really: I wonder. My conviction is that if this claim is right,  our community must be defined by the refusal to fall for that kind of rhetoric. What we ‘exclude’ is the kind of demand that says we must be intolerant of this or that ‘other’, or else we are not a ‘community’.

There is another paradox, in theology and in society more generally. When we welcome diversity, including a range of ideas, opinions, theological perspectives (for example), we always run into the criticism that diversity leads to relativism. If you allow more than one point of view, you will end up with ‘anything goes’, and in fact have no point of view at all. You lose all truth.
This is the last bastion of the ‘modernist’ epistemology, which claims not only that truth is singular — there is only one true and correct perspective on any given topic— but, more than that, that soem people can be in possession, and indeed are in possession, of this singular truth.
Usually, the people making this epistemological claim also seem to be in possession of the truth, on at least some topics, which they hold to be most central.
But who can in fact have this ‘God’s-eye-view’ which allows them to have the whole truth about anything?
I am not saying that there is not truth. To claim that is of course to claim another singular truth!
No, this is about saying that many of us, from different angles, each have ‘our’ truth, that is, our truthful persective on reality, our approach to the truth, and we ought to welcome it in each other and receive it from each other, as part of the whole, part of ‘the truth’.
That means, we need to allow for the fact that we might have something to learn from those whose ideas and perspectives are very different from ours.
There’s the paradox: this means that we cannot rest on the comfortable idea that diversity is an end in itself. Diversity is a challenge, a demand" to think through, and maybe disagree with, what my neighbour might have to say. This demands respect. It demands the respect to listen, understand, and not just pass it off.
So much easier to be indifferent! This is where Australia has gone wrong: we have imagined that we were tolerant of others, when in fact we are mostly indifferent. We don’t care: Those foreigners can eat differently, act ‘strangely’, they can have their ideas: until it disturbs me. Then, suddenly, I resent it, because I never really respected their difference. My tolerance was water thin.
Now, we have to learn some new and very hard lessons. How—it seems God only knows. The Prime Minister denies there is a race problem. The Premier of New South Wales announces new laws to ‘stamp out’ violence. Who will help us to understand it? Who will lead us through the paradoxes of diversity?
The cost of community is eternal vigilance in favour of these paradoxes, and against division. The call to community is much harder than the will to isolation, indifference, and the hollow certainty that only my group has the truth.
We need, again, the courage of Jesus to confront those who are so sure they are right, and the compassion of Jesus to engage with the alienated and the dominant, and draw them both out of their isolation into a new community.

One thought on “The paradoxes of pluralism

  1. Can I make the suggestion that you submit this (or an edited version of it) as an opinion piece to the Age? It’s exactly the perspective that’s been lacking in all the talk that’s surrounded the riots.

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