As my last post indicates, I don’t know much about the new Pope. But one thing I’ve gleaned from his admirers and detractors alike is that he’s an archenemy of relativism. He believes in absolute truths and morals that don’t change, standing against a culture of pluralism and postmodern subjectivity.
Hmmm, this is sounding familiar. But I have to say, coming as I do from the virtual font of liberal relativism, that the way conservatives characterize it never seems quite right. The liberals I know are not total relativists who think there’s no such thing as fixed truth or good and evil. However, they have themselves partly to blame for this misconception. Just as the Shawmut Baptists say that they follow unchanging draconian values but practice something a lot more like situational ethics, pluralists tend to talk the language of relativism but can seem awfully absolutist a lot of the time.
This fact, I believe, comes from the basic nature of human social life. We bond with people over what we have in common, but there is no one with whom we agree on absolutely everything. So relational life is a constant negotiation working out what things you simply must share, and what is unimportant enough that you can disagree without disrupting the relationship or community. This is true of conservatives and liberals, Christians and atheists — everybody, really.
I think that if you state a position on something and a liberal starts criticizing you for being intolerant and absolutist, it really means either a) I think you’re wrong, but it’s easier to criticize your absolutism than explain why I think you’re wrong, or b) I don’t think this issue is important enough to be absolutist on. The former is irritating, but the latter causes deeper misunderstandings. As I’ve said before, many religious liberals disclaim the need for orthodoxy, saying churches shouldn’t throw people out because they disagree, and yet attack people like George W. Bush for claiming to be a Christian while behaving in an un-Christian fashion. This is often justified by pitting “orthodoxy” against “orthopraxis”, but honestly, I think you can’t really separate beliefs from actions. What they’re really saying, I think, is that a lot of points of orthodoxy having to do with past conflicts like transubstantiation don’t seem to have much to do with important conflicts in the present world. So the reason these “You’re intolerant!” “You’re a relativist!” arguments bore me so much is that I don’t think the parties are really arguing about the crux of their dispute.
That’s not to say there’s no actual difference between the amount of relativism practiced by people like the Pope or the Baptists and that practiced by Western liberals. Ault pointed out in his book that urbanites are almost forced to be relativists because they encounter so many people every day who are very different from them. The small-town milieu of a place like Shawmut River, along with the fundamentalist withdrawal from the world, makes it a lot easier to be a purist.
I think that this points to something many pluralists don’t want to admit. When you have profound differences with people, the differences themselves create distance between people: it’s not like someone always says, “Oh, you’re different from me, out you go.” We’ve all had the experience of “growing apart” from someone we used to be close to, because our lives and personal changes cause us to have much more different views of the world than we once did. The question is how you deal with that distance. Basically, you have three options. You can try to close the distance by one or both of you persuading the other to think more in concert, which may or may not be possible. You can attack and try to get rid of that person. Or you can resort to what might best be called courtesy: show respect towards that person, rein in your personal feelings, and try to avoid areas of disagreement and focus on what you do agree on.
The third option is basically the foundation of pluralist society. It keeps diverse people living peaceably next to each other. The more troublesome question, though, is whether it can really form a basis for community. Some liberals I know are so inculcated with the value of pluralism that all their relationships start to take on that respectful courteous distance. Ault remarks that his subjects who visit liberal churches say they found them “cold and unfriendly.” This is not because those churches mean to be, he points out, but because they think it’s friendlier to respect people’s personal space. (If you’re a newcomer at Shawmut River, they’re all over you like a cheap suit.) It would be pretty depressing, though, if that sort of interaction were the most you could hope for in a human relationship. I think most of us treasure most the relationships with people with whom we have profound things in common. Sometimes we have relationships with people whose differences prove educational and mind-expanding to us; but that is more often the result not so much of respecting differences as being at least partly converted to them. Or, you might say, of them imposing their beliefs on us.
When it comes to church, this becomes even more fraught. When Rilina posted about the Pope the discussion turned mostly on this question of how much churches should enforce like beliefs, and whether they can do things like deny communion. One commenter said no, churches have no right to deny communion simply because a person disagrees with them. I don’t know. It seems to me like this may be another case of denying that differences do create distance, whether you want them to or not. You can give communion to everybody, but I don’t see how that could fail to dilute the meaning of communion — to turn it into a general courtesy like offering drinks to a visitor. The power of communion to bind people together, it seems to me, comes partly from the fact that for all those centuries it was always closed.
My own church practices open communion, I should say, but it has obviously given a lot of thought to these questions of unity and difference. This month I’m taking an inquirer’s class that PMC puts on as a prerequisite for membership. It goes over the history of Anabaptism and what Mennonites believe, and also about PMC’s specific covenant. The exact points of the covenant are a subject for another post, but what’s relevant to this one is the attitude the pastor wants us to take towards it. You don’t have to agree with everything on it, he said, but you do have to agree that these points form the basis of the community you’re joining. In other words, you can’t be like one of those women who, as one comedienne put it, shows off her new boyfriend by saying, “Look, I have an alcoholic! I can change him!” You have to accept the church as is. And while that does allow room for polite distance, I think the prospect of bonding yourself to an organization with strong beliefs — especially one that offers you “accountability”, according to one point of the covenant — is only going to be appealing to someone who agrees with it on the basics.
It may not always be easy to articulate what binds you to a church. Hugo said not long ago that a lot of things drive him crazy about All Saints, but “it’s home.” We can’t always articulate how we know what is safe and what is dangerous to disagree on. But somehow we do know, and this follows us through our lives.