2 + 2 = whatever

Pluralism throws in the towel before the argument starts

Issue: "The first straw," Aug. 28, 1999

Pluralism, my dictionary says, is "the theory that reality is composed of a multiplicity of ultimate beings, principles, or substances."

Which, on the face of it, is both absurd and repulsive-not only for any thoughtful Christian, but for anybody at all who engages in rigorous, logical thinking. To talk about holding to a "multiplicity of ultimate beings [or] principles" is to argue that 2 + 2 = 4 and that at the very same time 2 + 2 does not equal four. It is to argue that a light switch is on and off at the very same time, that a budget is both balanced and out of balance at the same time, that you have engaged in sex with another person but that you also have not engaged in sex with that person. The essence of pluralism is that contradictories are possible. And who can deny that such is near the core of the society we live in today?

So it's valuable to remind ourselves again of the important distinction between such "pluralism" and what our society used to call "tolerance." In too many people's minds, the two are the same. In fact, they're vastly different.

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Pluralism, as it's embraced by so many today, suggests that everybody's ideas and values are equal. Tolerance says that other ideas and values will be permitted even if they're deficient. The two concepts are miles apart-and our society's continuing collapse finds its roots partly in our leaving the wisdom of tolerance and moving toward the delusion of pluralism.

But pluralism, of course, is hoist by its own petard. For how can one argue that pluralism is the proper societal structure without also allowing that there's room for someone who argues strenuously against pluralism?

I'm here to argue strenuously against pluralism, and for a return to mere tolerance.

With a pluralism model, a society throws in the towel before a good argument ever gets started. One idea is as good as another. In theory, a dictatorship is as good as democracy. A crackpot cult leader is as much to be listened to as is Billy Graham. Geraldo Rivera is as good a source for the news as is Edward R. Murrow. The medicine man who sits next to the tattoo artist down the street is as good a source for advice about your cancer as is the oncologist at the university's medical center. It doesn't really matter, you see, for all ideas are of equal value.

Carried to its logical conclusion, pluralism not only cuts the heart out of competition as a basic human drive, but suggests that the improvement of society in general is a pointless exercise. Better ideas? More humane understanding of the human condition? A step ahead for humanity? But who's to say? All is relative.

A generation ago, such a description of our society would have been a parody. Now it's dismayingly accurate. And it's because we've moved from tolerance to pluralism.

But if, on the other hand, we were still merely tolerant rather than pluralistic, we'd leave room for people to espouse dictatorships, to push their cultish ideas, to cheapen the media, and to propagate quackery-but we'd only rarely dignify their varied efforts by pretending that all their ideas were of equal worth. While pluralists would keep enlarging their big round table to make sure everyone had both a chair and a microphone, we tolerationists would insist that the right to rant and rave out on the parking lot shouldn't be denied to anyone who keeps a few basic rules, but that a place at the table is something to be earned.

Take, for example, this basic assertion by David the Psalmist: "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." That's an exclusivistic claim that makes no sense of any kind for a pluralist, who by definition is required to hold that all "ultimate beings" can make parallel truth allegations simultaneously. There's no way I can be a pluralist and say something like that at the same time.

I can, however, resonate with David's claim and still show civility and kindness toward a Hindu, a shaman, or even one of the witches who demonstrated on the city-county plaza in my hometown last week. "I've got virtually no respect for what you say you believe," I can say to such a person in good conscience, "but I still value you as a person made in God's image."

Christians in America need to learn, far better than we've demonstrated in recent years, how to make that important distinction.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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