Pluralism Doesn’t Mean Relativism
Image: Jim Culp / Flickr

Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has caused widespread and heated debate. Some say it allows people to discriminate against gays and lesbians, while others say it gives people of faith more liberty to live out their convictions. Reactions to the Hoosier state’s new law show there is fundamental disagreement over the scope of religious liberty and to what extent particular minorities should be protected.

The pointed commentary surrounding the Indiana law is a recent reminder that we lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, the meaning of human flourishing. Our differences are everywhere: they pervade our backgrounds, preferences, and allegiances. They affect not only what we think, but also how we think—and how we see the world.

To be sure, not all of our differences are problematic. Most of us think some difference is good, that a variety of perspectives makes life more interesting. I think the world is a better place because I pull for the Duke Blue Devils (especially today!) and some of my friends cheer for lesser basketball teams this time of year. March Madness would be less interesting if everybody liked Duke and nobody cheered against them. (My friends have assured me there is little danger of this possibility.) We might reach a similar conclusion about beauty, taste, and humor. Some of these differences enrich our lives. Some of them lead to sharper thinking and greater creativity.

On the other hand, we do not think that all difference is good. We can all name beliefs and actions we think the world would be better off without. This is especially true when it comes to our moral beliefs. We might prefer a society in which everyone agreed about what counts as a justifiable homicide, a mean temperament, and a good life.

To complicate matters, we also disagree over the nature of our disagreements, and over how much disagreement is good. That is all the more true when we look outside of our Christian communities to those who live, work, and play alongside us. Some of the differences manifested in our broader culture are fundamentally at odds with each other—they cannot all be true. It cannot be the case that the act of abortion is both morally acceptable and morally intolerable. It cannot be the case that God came into the world in the person of Jesus and that he did not.

These and other differences matter. They create the practical problem of how we live together in spite of and across our disagreement. One answer to that problem is what I call Confident Pluralism. This posture does not naively suppose our differences will go away. Rather, it helps us pursue a common existence amid our deeply held differences. Instead of the elusive goal of unity, Confident Pluralism suggests a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our “many-ness.”

Confident Pluralism

Confident Pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence reinforces the convictions we hold. Pluralism recognizes and reinforces the differences that exist. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of difference. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence ignores and sometimes trivializes our stark differences for the sake of feigned agreement or false unity. Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to exist without suppressing or minimizing firmly held convictions.

This is not a distinctly Christian idea, and Christians and non-Christians alike could embrace it. Indeed, the origins of the phrase point toward that possibility.

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