The editor of this journal is fond of reminding us of the role blogs and web-based magazines have in provoking fruitful discussion. In that spirit, what follows here is in response to a recent online discussion, to which embedded links will from time to time refer the reader.
Trial balloons are meant to be shot down; that is why you fly them. Dr. David Koyzis, a regular contributor to these pages, flew a trial balloon, producing a flurry of online discussion around the topic of principled pluralism (an in-depth description of which can be found on the Center for Public Justice’s website).
The term “pluralist” here is not intended here as a synonym for religious relativism. Instead it has two aspects: structural pluralism and directional pluralism (in the sense used by the Center for Public Justice). Neocalvinism argues for structural pluralism in reaction to the classically liberal exaggeration of the political importance of the individual. Structural pluralism is intended as the recovery of an understanding of the importance of different types of institutions and communities in human life, including public life. The role played by the government, according to this view, is that of doing justice for both the individual and the various forms of human community, like families and schools, businesses and churches. It should be added quickly that in this view, government has no authority to impose conformity of belief within its jurisdiction. Thus a principled pluralist perspective envisions a colourfully-dressed public square. This is the second aspect of the pluralism for which neocalvinism makes the case—“directional pluralism” in the CPJ’s description—a recognition that public respect for freedom of conscience requires provision in the public square for diverse religious communities to give voice and institutional body to their beliefs and commitments.
Playing the part of Evangelical Protestantism’s angry Catholic conscience, the New Pantagruel’s pseudonymous Fr. Gassalascus Jape, S.J., Inquisitor (alternatively Expectorator) took careful aim from his repose in The Japery at what he called the “liberal heart” of Koyzis’ argument. His assessment of a colourfully-dressed public square? “My guess is that Koyzis believes, along with other accomodationists seeking détente with the dominant liberal order, that gaining a seat at the table of public ‘discourse’ is the most faithful public expression of his Christian faith.”
As should be expected, the person who “innocently” flies a trial balloon usually has a weapon by his side. Dr. Koyzis defended himself against Fr. Jape’s accusation that he was accommodating liberalism with a discussion of the very un-liberal tenets of a neocalvinist social philosophy. In response, Fr. Jape raised a question about authority: “Who’s the boss? That is the question.” Who governs the public square? Whose perspective is privileged? Indeed, some perspective will be; and principled pluralism is a Christian perspective. Fr. Jape thought it extremely wrong-headed to theorize about a public square in which Christianity is but one among many “legitimate” faiths. We might honestly wonder if such an arrangement is even possible. Fr Jape’s point is this: religious, ideological, and philosophical perspectives mutually exclude each other. The naked truth is that Christ came to bring a sword; the public square, as with the rest of human life, is a battlefield.
Now, people speak of two types of sins. For those of commission, guilt is obvious because there is an intent to sin. On the other hand, sins of omission often can be downgraded to acts of negligence deserving of nothing more than a sharp warning to smarten up and pay attention. In my judgment, principled pluralism commits the latter and lesser of these two sins; and in that regard I am in agreement with Fr. Jape’s critique of Koyzis’ proposed political alternative to the liberal order. In its perfect world, the principled pluralist position holds that government has no authority over a person’s belief, and people must in fact defend their freedom of conscience. By necessary implication, in the present world this means “that no philosophy, ideology, or religion should be given a privileged place that leads to public discrimination against other communities of conviction.” But principled pluralism has its roots in a Christian tradition. By giving other groups a place at the table, Christian principled pluralists give up the pie, handing out slices of the political pie to groups that have very different ideas about how political life should be structured.
Fr. Jape believes the integrity of the Christian message to be compromised by even the smallest hint of liberalism—as he defines liberalism. Not surprisingly, he does not consider principled pluralism as a possible solution, but rather as a part of the problem. For Fr. Jape principled pluralism is simply another home for liberalism’s divided heart, promising goods it cannot possibly deliver. The faithful thing for Christians to do instead is to “hunker down”—by which he means, retreat and let the liberal order of the Western world destroy itself. When it’s all over, the Church can “[s]ee what’s salvageable from the rubble.”
I followed this electronic discussion between Koyzis and Fr. Jape—as I had a prior discussion between Fr. Jape and James Brink concerning Ray Penning’s assessment of Richard John Neuhaus’ Naked Public Square—with a growing sense that the two sides were talking past each other. My best effort to fathom the cause of this has led me to conclude that the two debaters are operating with distinct, though closely related, meanings of the term “liberal.”
The meaning Dr. Koyzis assumes when he uses the term is filled with a neocalvinist structural critique. By this definition the term “liberal” is primarily identified with autonomy of the individual, the preeminence of individual rights over any other consideration in the court of law, and the presumption that organizations and institutions do not truly exist except as contracts between individuals, which are easily broken. The principled pluralist alternative responds by giving individuals responsibilities in addition to their rights, and it sees organizations and institutions as created by God to be more than just a sum of their individual parts. Schools, for example, are more than just a collection of students; they make an institutional contribution to the order of society. In a similar fashion, government rests on more than a social contract; it is ordained by God to see that justice is done.
By comparison, Fr. Jape’s definition of “liberal” has a more limited scope. He rejects outright any attempt to mediate between different perspectives, to find a place for a plurality of perspectives. His point is well taken: different perspectives — religious, ideological, philosophical — structure the world differently. If you give others a place at the table, the end result is that the table, and who can sit at it, will be redefined. The great liberal enterprise failed to comprehend this, believing it possible to create an undivided humanity by eliminating all public expression of religious belief in favour of the hegemony of autonomous human rationality in the public square. Religion is exiled to private life. Principled pluralism appears from this vantage point to be a religiously-flavoured continuation of the grand liberal project, when it theoretically provisions the public square for the presence of multiple religious perspectives. What, after all, happens when one of those perspectives says it doesn’t agree and won’t submit to the principled pluralist approach?
Differing theoretical perspectives translate very quickly into different practicable responses. While I understand Fr. Jape’s critique of neocalvinist social theory, and partly agree with it, my own answer to the practical question “What do the times call for?” places me much nearer to Dr. Koyzis.
Certainly, good reasons can be found for calling principled pluralism an “accommodationist” theory, but Fr. Jape does need to turn the coin over to look at the other side. Not sharing Fr. Jape’s sense of the imminent downfall of Western civilization, the prescription Dr. Koyzis offers addresses the immediate North American situation. He outlines a plan to beat secular pluralists at their own game; hence the name principled pluralism. And I am persuaded. The big bad secular society is not THE ENEMY; nor are other religious groups. A godless society, if such a thing were even possible, nevertheless belongs to God. From this vantage point, a public square populated by a diversity of faiths doesn’t seem so misguided. There is a practical question to be asked here with an ethical implication: if someone does not believe as a Christian does, are we simply to separate ourselves from them and live as though they never existed? If he is hungry, do we offer him nothing to eat?
There is historical precedent for believing that Christians can truly have a positive cultural influence no matter how desperate the times look. All is never lost. Indeed, it would seem to me the more desperate the circumstances that surround us, the more effective a mobilized Christian community can be.
I will not presume to think that Fr. Jape’s prescription of “hunkering down” is intended to cut the Christian community off from contemporary public life entirely. Having stood with an estimated 800,000 to hear Pope John Paul II speak at World Youth Day in Toronto, and considering other evidences of a vital Roman Catholic community in North America, I find the language of withdrawal a little hasty.
Prediction is a notoriously dangerous enterprise to stake a life and livelihood on. For this reason I am hesitant to predict the imminent destruction of the liberal order of Western civilization. In the immediate future, Fr. Jape thinks it best to personally “resist disorder” with the hope that any such efforts would “spill over into one’s family and one’s immediate community.” In this statement I find a very human admission that no social or political order can be changed overnight, and that the efforts of individuals only go so far.
I do not think, as the reader should be able to divine by now, that principled pluralism solves all our problems. Because of this, I am glad to have a Catholic conscience like Fr. Jape whispering into my Protestant ears, warning Evangelicals not to invest their heart and soul in the present shape of things.
But, does a Catholic have room for a Protestant conscience? Let Fr. Jape consider this: the general modern liberal tendency is to presume to have the final solution to the problems of world history. No neocalvinist would claim the same. Future generations will have enough problems of their own to wrestle with. The present generation must wrestle with what it means to be a faithful Christian presence in the here and now. Perhaps the good father could come to see principled pluralism as an appropriate next step into whatever the future holds.