The Unintended Reformation:

Conceptualizing pluralism and consensus in the modern Western world

posted by Paul Silas Peterson

Without pointing out those places where I agree with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I would like to add a qualification to his claim that the modern Western world is correctly described as “hyperpluralistic.”

The term “hyperpluralism” is sometimes used in socio-political discourse to refer to the fragmentation of political interest groups and the resulting challenges associated with forming coalitions. Gregory, however, often writes about “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose.” He thus uses the term in a more general sense, which includes moral, philosophical, cultural, political and theological aspects. The discourse about pluralism in Gregory’s book is related to the analysis found in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. There, MacIntyre addresses the “self-avowed moral pluralism” of “liberal societies,” which have “abandoned the moral unity of Aristotelianism, whether in its ancient or medieval forms.” Similar sentiments can also be found in John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. Milbank narrates, among other things, a long conflict between Christianity and the individualism of liberalism, as well as of an older, “incipient liberalism.” Milbank finds the latter already among Augustine’s opponents: “Augustine recognizes an individualizing degeneration in Rome’s more recent history, and condemns the ‘incipient liberalism.’” More recently, in A Secular Age, Charles Taylor claims that “We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane.” Taylor remarks that “the present scene, shorn of the earlier forms, is different and unrecognizable to any earlier epoch. It is marked by an unheard of pluralism of outlooks, religious and non- and anti-religious, in which the number of possible positions seems to be increasing without end.”

While these authors, and Gregory as well, are certainly right to point out the great variety of worldviews – or, as others may prefer, expressions of the absolute – that currently coexist in the Western world, there is also significant agreement to be found, which would suggest the existence of a soft consensus, and not only regarding our selfish habits. To suggest that there is a soft consensus is not to posit a hard consensus, a “uniformity of belief and evaluation,” which Nicholas Rescher strongly challenges in his Pluralism. The entire Western world has nevertheless agreed (1) to live with a modern democratic political order, (2) to enforce concepts of unalienable human rights, (3) to uphold the rule of law, and (4) to secure the separation of powers. These four points suggest that there is a soft consensus in contemporary Western societies. While it would be possible to claim that these points are not directly concerned with what Gregory calls the “Life Questions,” in my assessment these matters rest upon basic values that have correlations with views of the person and conceptions of the good. Points 1 and 2 especially draw upon a general view of the person, of the individual, which is more or less shared in Western society. In this regard, the high view of the individual, and thus the high view of that individual’s opinion, is presumed in these points, but it could also be added as a fifth point in the soft consensus. This high view of the individual also has roots in religious traditions which are reflected in the Scriptures: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26); “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

There are many other values which follow from the high view of the individual and that also constitute elements of soft consensus in modern Western societies, such as the necessity of some kind of education and basic health care for every person, the legal equality of men and women, the legal indifference of race, background or social class, etc. Another attribute could be added to the soft consensus in relation to the rule of law and the separation of powers. These points rest upon the idea of a limitation of government powers, oversight, and control. In this regard, they presume the value of freedom. A high view of freedom could therefore be listed both as a presupposition of points 3 and 4 and as an independent sixth point in the soft consensus. Freedom is articulated in a variety of expressions in the modern Western world, such as the freedom of the press, of religion, of movement, the freedom to exchange ideas, thoughts and writings—and, as one might add today, without a central government collecting the information—to change religions without coercion, to associate with a group or a political party, to start a new business, to quit a job, to strike, to buy and to sell what one pleases, to own property, and to trade goods and services.

All of these expressions of freedom are presumed in all Western societies to differing degrees and all of them rely upon basic views of the person as a responsible agent endowed with freedom. In the most coherent articulations of freedom, however, it is described as not only the absence of restriction but the ability to flourish. In this sense, the idea of freedom presumes some conception of the good. Another attribute in the soft consensus could also be described in relation to the rule of law. The law is a concrete representation of the norms and regulations that are held to be not only equitable, just, and good, but also reasonable. No individual authority or person is above the law: lex rex. In a related sense, all individuals are bound not by arbitrariness but by reason and by the reasonable justification of their actions. This principle presumes the human capacity, in normal cases, to make reasoned decisions and to be held accountable for them. The importance of reason and rational justification therefore belongs in the soft consensus as a presupposition of the rule of law, but also as an independent seventh point. In the most coherent articulations of reason, of course, it is situated within the relevant values, presuppositions, ideals, dialogical context, and religious faith, and thus in relation to some conception of the good: “reason is beautiful and gentle” (Plato, Laws, 645). Another matter which belongs in the soft consensus relates to the idea of the separation of powers. This principle shows, of course, the importance of the limitation of power within government, but it also thereby postulates a presumed cooperation in the formal execution of power, administration, and management. A high regard for cooperation therefore belongs in the soft consensus as a presupposition of the separation of powers, but also as an independent eighth point. The most effective cooperation is, of course, dependent upon general agreements regarding shared goals and a basic goodwill between the cooperating parties.

In this brief expository sketch of some shared values, it has been presumed that the structuring principles of modern Western societies are not arbitrary assertions but rather principles that are connected with one another, interwoven with historical developments and representative of human life and ideals. One author who has sought to show how the initial four points, as enumerated above, are positively connected with the “big story of the West” is Heinrich August Winkler, in the first volume of his History of the West: From the beginnings in antiquity up to the twentieth-century (2009). (By the way, he also has a chapter bearing the subtitle “From Wittenberg to Washington.” Unfortunately, this work has not yet been translated into English.)

In addition to the soft consensus addressed above, it could be argued that the modern Western world is much more unified today in its basic values than it was in the last century. We have indeed come a long way since the bloody imperial wars a century ago, the big political, ideological, and military conflicts of the early and mid-twentieth-century, the hardened positions of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, and the optimistic aspiration to a quick “end of history” with the spread of Western political ideals across the world. Of course, other things could also be added to this list of common values in the soft consensus. One might also mention the continual reaffirmation of basic moral virtues (and vices) in Hollywood films, which tend to exemplify the cultural expectations of modern moral norms and the implied soft consensus, such as the general honorableness of self-sacrifice, the good of compassion, the inescapable consequences of clearly evil actions, the virtue of trusting in one’s conscience against all odds, the victory of good over evil, etc. The ecumenical movement, which gained significant attention in the 1960s and 1970s, could also be referred to as an example of the trend in the second half of the twentieth century towards mutual understanding in Western societies. There is also a large corpus of literature, including the Bible and various classical works, which is generally recognized as a reference point for the ideals of human life and thinking in Western societies. Even the plurality of religions in the West does not necessitate the postulation of a hyperpluralism. A variety of positions have been developed to conceptualize this issue in history, philosophy, and theology. As is already reported by Luke, the Apostle Paul (drawing from Epimenides and Aratus) saw that God “is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28).

In the modern period, Rudolf Otto developed the conception of a shared basis in the “Holy,” and Hegel, before him, saw the world’s religions as a part of a unified process of the divine Spirit’s self-realization. Schleiermacher’s conception of religion as the feeling of absolute dependence also allows for ways of seeing some commonality among different religions. Of course, many of these religious-philosophical programs would require modifications in light of the criticisms that have been brought against them. Even viewed from the positions of exclusivism, however, the term “hyperpluralism” is not the normal way of describing alterity. In exclusivist systems the “other” is rather understood within the broader narrative of that particular religion’s account of the world. This leads to vocabulary for designating those who are on the outside, which also presumes, in most all cases, the associated guidelines for their respectful treatment. There are many contemporary authors who, from religious perspectives, have contributed to the conceptualization of pluralism. One of the authors in the German context who has sought to develop an understanding of Christian faith within the conditions of modern pluralism is Christoph Schwöbel. In his Christian Faith in Pluralism (Christlicher Glaube im Pluralismus, 2003), he attempts to interpret pluralism and simultaneously seeks to develop some points of orientation from the tradition of Christian theology for conceptualizing Christian faith in this context. Many other examples could be named, such as the Scriptural Reasoning Project or A Common Word Between Us and You.

While pluralism is certainly a major feature on the landscape of modern Western societies, there is also evidence of a soft consensus in some shared values. Along with this, a general movement towards mutual understanding in the social, political and religious orders of Western societies is identifiable in the last century. Finally, contemporary figures in various religious traditions have been seeking to conceptualize pluralism, to understand it and to manage it, not so much from the “original position” (John Rawls), or through the negation of religious particularity, which has to do with personal identity, and not even in the negation of the idea of mission or evangelization, but in taking account of religion in all of its facets and in many cases with the emphases that derive from the specific doctrinal traditions. This is not to suggest that pluralism in modern Western societies is not a major challenge. It does suggest, however, that the situation may not be as daunting as it is sometimes presented. At the same time, the issue of pluralism in modern Western societies can be very easily aggravated by external social, economic, and political pressures that turn it into a tinderbox for ethnic and social conflict. It has little to do with the subject matter of the above remarks, but in closing I would like to suggest that the contemporary economic crisis in many Western countries, the reported high rates of unemployment (especially among the younger generations) and the mountains of trans-generational national debt that have been irresponsibly produced are probably much greater issues of concern at the moment than the relatively manageable pluralism of Western societies. While some might suggest that these challenges exemplify the deterioration of any shared common good, they are probably better understood as concrete management problems in our imperfect world. The underlying principles of modern Western societies are more robust than is sometimes presumed, but this is no city of God.

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