Wednesday, July 22, 2015

[Opinion] GPS: Universalism, Relativism, or Pluralism?

Os Guinness

1. The questions under consideration are:

How to live with our deepest differences in a world of diversity?

How to conduct ourselves in civility in a Global Public Square (GPS)?

In the following selection from The Case for Civility (2008), Os Guinness lays out three approaches to the questions: progressive universalism, multicultural relativism, and covenant pluralism.

In a way, all three approaches are intellectual heirs of Enlightenment Europe.

The twin foundations of modern European cultures are Greco-Roman culture and Christianity.

Of Western Europe, Roman Catholicism inherited what was left after the Western Roman Empire fell to the barbarians.

The Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment provided successive corrections to the authoritarian-hierarchical structure of Roman Catholicism.

Yet, it seems the liberal values associated with the Enlightenment such as freedom and tolerance are not the last in line to the corrections.

For all the tolerance of the Enlightenment thinkers, some of their modern descendants are not able to tolerate those who make exclusive claims to either truth or authority; and the exclusivists are not able to tolerate other exclusivists either.

We are due for further corrections and so the questions posed by Os Guinness.

2. (Guinness 2008, 158-162):

A Global Public Square

Those who would still dismiss the notion of an American civil public square as empty idealism should consider two further points. First, the search for a civil public square in America is made all the more urgent by the emergence of a global square. Just as sound carries across water, so discussion and debate in a global era now almost instantly become a global conversation. Witness the worldwide Muslim response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, to Jerry Falwell’s remarks about the prophet Muhammad, to the Danish cartoons, or to the pope’s speech: “Rude remarks in Lynchburg, riots in Lahore.”

Thanks to the wonders of technology, such a global public square is beginning to emerge, and it raises the same issues as the American public square with a vengeance. Living with our deepest differences is all the more difficult because of the increased intensity of global diversity, global conflict, and the lack of any constructive global precedents for civility. But curiously, the same three tendencies that are at work in the United States are starting to show their face in the emerging global square, so it is urgent for farsighted leaders to articulate and demonstrate the vision that is best, and to do so before the mold begins to set and harden.

On one side in the global public square are the advocates of various visions of progressive universalism -- those who believe that their way is the only way and the one way for everyone, and who are prepared to coerce others into believing their way, too. Among those in this category are not only obvious groups such as communists and Islamists, but less obvious groups such as a motley array of liberals, feminists, democrats, capitalists, and globalists, all of whom are eager to carry their message to the world, and (at least in their opponents’ eyes) to promote it with force if necessary. In short, in good Enlightenment fashion, progress in the Western way is made the universal future for all humankind (“the West is best”).

William Pitt the Younger’s warning about revolutionary France in 1792 would apply to many global-era movements and also to apprehensions about the universal pretensions of the United States: “Unless she is stopped in her career, all Europe must soon learn their ideas of justice -- law of nations -- models of government -- and principles of liberty from the mouth of French cannon.”

In a world as diverse and divided as ours, in which there are properly many different ways to be modern, the outcome of this first approach to the global public square is plain: conflict and increased hostility.

On the other side are advocates of a vision of multicultural relativism -- those who believe that nations as much as individuals are free to believe, and to live as they choose to believe, and that it is no business of anyone else’s to interfere in that freedom. Coming as we do from widely different faiths, worldviews, and cultural backgrounds, who are any of us to judge anyone else? It all depends on how each of us sees it, and no one has the right to judge anyone else, or to interfere in anyone else’s life.

For example, in 1947 the executive board of the American Anthropological Association refused to sign the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights on the grounds that it was an “ethnocentric document.” After all, as anthropologists know, human rights are Western in origin and far from universal. Failure to see this is “First World conceit” and becomes an easy justification for the “imperialism” of the “new evangelists” of the Western style of progress.

Far more humane and tolerant at first sight, this vision is also inadequate. For if the progressive universalist vision leads directly to conflict, the multicultural relativist vision leads directly to complacency -- toward evil and human oppression. If everything is a matter of cultural relativism and none of us has the right to judge another, was Bartolomé de Las Casas wrong to stand against the conquistadores, or William Wilberforce to fight for the abolition of slavery, or Martin Luther King Jr. to resist Jim Crow laws, or Simon Wiesenthal to track down Nazi criminals, or feminists to fight against the mutilation of female genitalia today?

To be sure, the moral duty to intervene at times means that there must be clear moral and political guidelines to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate “interference.” But in an age of violence to women, globalized crime, terrorism, human trafficking, and genocide, a failure to make judgments and a failure to intervene are not a sign of being humane but of a deep deficiency of humanity and a reverse imperialism that would freeze cultures in time and leave the poor and the oppressed to their plight.

The third option for the global public square is a vision of civility through covenant pluralism: everyone in the world is free to believe what they choose to believe, on the basis of freedom of conscience; but, as with the civil public square, they have to accord the same freedom to others, and learn to live with a double eye -- one to the integrity of their own faiths, and the other to the responsibility of seeing and dealing with others through the lens of their faiths. In short, recognizing and respecting the difference of others, without relinquishing the integrity of one’s own faith, is a prerequisite for global freedom and justice.

The third position confronts American Christians, and especially Christians in the Religious Right, with a clear choice. In the eyes of many, American Christians are associated with the first option -- progressive universalism, and the imposition of one way on everyone -- which is why Christians appear so threatening to so many.

On the one hand, the Christian faith is the world’s first truly global faith, the world’s largest faith, and the world’s most diverse community. It offers the world’s most translated and translatable scriptures, and in many parts of the world it is the fastest-growing faith. On the other hand, the Christian church over the centuries has carried its universal message in two entirely contradictory ways -- the way of Jesus of Nazareth and the way of the Roman emperor Constantine.

Both ways have been universal in their message, though in quite different ways. The way of Jesus was the way of a servant, aiming to bring justice and peace to the world, emptying himself of legitimate power, and being prepared to suffer and die in carrying out his task. The way of Constantine, on the other hand, was the way of a conqueror able to impose his will on the world despite all resistance. What would be disastrous at this early stage of the global public square would be a combination of attitudes created by American superpower strength, Constantinian Christian attitudes, and an overheated, apocalyptic, end-times fundamentalist style of thinking. Christians must choose and follow the way of Jesus rather than the way of Constantine.



Guinness, Os. 2008. The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It. HarperCollins e-books.