I’ve been meaning for some time to get back to a discussion I was having with Lee about Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Or rather, about issues related to the book, since I haven’t actually read it. In particular, I wanted to elaborate on what I said here:
if difference is desirable, what do do about this tendency toward homogenization and syncresis that tends to occur when different cultures interact — that is, if they don’t kill each other first? Would it be bad if, after one of these deep discussions, people actually came to an agreement? (I guess my deep skepticism about the “mosaic” model of multiculturalism is showing here — there does not seem to be much historical precendent for that being a permanent state of affairs.)
Lee responded, in part:
S. notes that the Trinity is a model not for how things are, but for how they should be – community-with-difference. Now maybe that’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but if the alternatives are monoculture or unending conflict, it seems that it’s something worth considering.
My initial response was, “What’s so bad about a monoculture?” But I realized that sort of inflammatory position would take a post-length explanation. So here goes.
It’s important, first of all, to distinguish here between cultural differences and individual differences. One of my problems with Suchocki’s analogy between the Trinity and religious pluralism is that it seems to assume they are the same (again, going off Lee’s summary here). When we’re talking about groups, sometimes they do reflect individual differences, but it depends on the size and the structure of the group.
For an analogy, let’s consider a high school. You have your various cliques — the football players, the computer nerds, the drama club, the musicians, etc. Such cliques generally are based on certain individual traits that are frequently inborn, caused by people seeking out their own kind. On the other hand, anyone who’s been in such a clique knows that they tend to contain a variety of personalities. And more importantly, those transient voluntary communities aren’t what really make the school. The school is the authority structure that contains all of these cliques and types, because it’s the institution that endures through the generations and has to take everybody who comes in. Different high schools are often tagged with different personalities by its neighbors — such-and-such is the jock school, or the hippie school, or whatever. But unless each school is extremely small, that doesn’t mean that other personalities aren’t there. They’re just not as numerous, or favored by the power structure, or part of how the school wants to present itself to the world.
So when we’re talking about a given group, an important question is: is it more like a clique, or like a high school? Religions and cultures can sometimes be like cliques, but only if they maintain those clique characteristics of being small, voluntary, and (usually) short-lived. Most religions and cultures are, in my view, more like high schools. As they grow and new generations are born into them, they come to accommodate different individual types. And so I actually think that “community-with-diversity”, as Lee puts it, is not some utopian idea; that’s what cultures already are, almost by definition. That does not mean that they accommodate every last person who appears in them; every culture has some concept of “criminality” and how to deal with it. But I don’t see what that really has to do with Suchocki’s project of religious pluralism. The religious disputes that come up are over the authority structure of the group, which, among other things, governs the relationships between the different personalities and cliques and where they stand in the hierarchy. When I look back at the Protestant Reformation, for instance, there were certainly some strong personalities clashing in it. But I don’t think the division would have persisted through all these centuries if it hadn’t entailed setting up different authority structures that governed broad swaths of people.
In fact, it seems to me that Suchocki is simply proposing yet another authority structure here. She sounds a bit like a principal trying to mediate between the jocks and the nerds and trying to get them to treat each other with respect. But the dispute here isn’t between cliques: it’s between different high schools, or more to the point, different models of what high school should be like. And that’s where my defense of monoculture comes in. Do we really need to have that many models of high school, all at the same time? If your goal is to accommodate individual and clique differences in the best way, then it seems like what you should be doing is finding the high-school model that best does that. Accommodating human diversity is one thing, but do we really need a diversity of authority structures? The best argument for that, it seems to me, doesn’t really have anything to do with human diversity but with the fear that a single power structure would become abusive and corrupt. However, the downside of maintaining multiple structures is that relations between them are a constant Darwinian conflict. It sounds like both Suchocki and Lee are hoping that tolerating individual differences will alleviate that problem, but for the reasons I outlined above, I think that is actually a very different issue.
The other major point I wanted to elaborate upon is what I called “tendency toward homogenization and syncresis that tends to occur when different cultures interact.” It sounded to me that if you literally sacralize cultural difference, you’re actually going to be fighting that tendency, because it tends to erase difference. Lee didn’t address the point directly, except to doubt whether that would really happen. “People generally have good (or at least very deep-seated) reasons for believing what they do, and I think it bespeaks a failure to take them seriously to assume that we can march in and change their minds with our dazzling arguments. (It’s noteworthy that much of the history of religious conversion has occurred by less lofty means.)”
I think that’s another unspoken assumption here: assimilation only occurs by force and other dubious means, so if we stopped doing that, religious and cultural diversity would be basically preserved. That seems highly questionable, however. For one thing, if you look at history, the conquerors tend to adopt things from the conquered nearly as often as vice versa: that’s one reason why, 1,500 years after the barbarians sacked Rome, we still deploy versions of the Roman language, the Roman calendar, Roman civic institutions, Roman law, etc. Similar things happened when various barbarian hordes conquered Mesopotamia and China. Historians know better than I do why this happens, but clearly Darwinian selection, as applied to cultures, is not determined solely by the sword.
But probably a far more important phenomenon is what happens among individual persons when they interact with outsiders. Suchocki aims for “friendship,” but everybody and his uncle knows that “friendship” ain’t the only kind of friendly relations that occur when people get along. So, if you’re not going to make and enforce some rule against intermarriage, what happens when people inevitably have sex? And therefore, children? I’ve known a lot of families where the parents hail from different religions and/or cultures, and each has its own way of working things out. But when you consider that authority structure is a basic component of religious/cultural difference, you can’t really raise a child with multiple conflicting authority structures, any more than you can send them to different high schools at one time. I mean, you can, but it’s probably not a good idea. So children of these unions tend to go one of three ways: choosing one parental culture over another; syncretizing the two somehow; or going with some third culture (often “generic secular American,” in my experience).
If you’ve got intermarriage happening on a large scale, clearly the two cultures can’t really go on with an arm’s-length, we-will-agree-to-respect-our-differences sort of relationship. In that sense, the Southern segregationists’ logic was right: desegregation leads to intermarriage, and intermarriage leads to the end of the culture that you knew before. The question is whether to fight this, or go with it. I am sure he didn’t mean it this way, but Lee’s statement that “if God only wanted there to be one religion, he should’ve created a different kind of world,” echoes the Southern judge who claimed that if God had wanted the races to mix, he wouldn’t have put them on different continents. Yes, people in different locations develop different cultures, even different gene pools. But people also travel, intermarry, multiply, and populate the world to the level where cultural interactions are flitting every day across the Internet. Did God intend that, too? And if so, can religious diversity really be the endgame?