By / Jun 16

American society is becoming increasingly diverse. As that happens, the public square becomes a crowded, and sometimes hostile, place. At times it seems there is no longer room for meaningful public debate. But is there a way forward? Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing John Inazu, author of the book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. In the book, Inazu sets forth a framework for public square engagement that allows citizens to live according to their convictions while actively participating in a diverse society. Below, John answers questions about the book and his model for public engagement.

JW: John, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Please tell us a little bit about your personal and academic background.

JI: Thanks for having me. I live in St. Louis with my wife, Caroline, and our three kids: Lauren, Hana, and Sam. We’re members of Central Presbyterian Church, and I serve on the board of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

I have engineering and law degrees from Duke (can I say “Go Devils” on this site?), and I also have a PhD in political theory from a school down the road from Duke. I teach at Washington University, mostly in the law school, but this fall I will also co-teach an undergraduate law and religion class. Before becoming a law professor, I practiced law for four years as an active-duty Air Force attorney at the Pentagon, served for two years as a high school youth ministry director, and read a lot of books.

JW: Obviously you are interested in the First Amendment and the public square. Can you talk about what prompted you to write Confident Pluralism? What were your aims for the book and what audience were you hoping to engage?

JI: I wrote my first book on the First Amendment’s right of assembly.   (That book is a bit pricy on Amazon, but you can download a free PDF.) The purpose and values underlying the right of assembly include protecting difference and dissent in our communities and our ways of life—issues related to living in a pluralistic society. As I started to think about a second book, my initial plan was to write a theoretically oriented argument about pluralism and democracy. But my friend, Andy Crouch, and my graduate school advisor, Jeff Spinner-Halev, persuaded me to write for a broader audience. Confident Pluralism is a serious book, but I worked hard to find compelling examples and avoid academic jargon. As an example, I frame my chapter on the First Amendment’s public forum doctrine around the popular television show, Parks & Recreation.

JW: The idea of pluralism has been around for a long time, but it is still widely misunderstood. In your view, how should people think about pluralism?

JI: The most important idea that Christians need to understand about my argument is that pluralism does not mean relativism. To be sure, some prominent philosophical arguments for pluralism embrace a kind of relativism that is incompatible with Christian faith. But simply recognizing the deep differences that actually exist in our society—and the ways that those differences challenge our own assumptions and vocabulary—does not mean capitulating to relativism.

JW: You emphasize in Confident Pluralism that you are not seeking to settle debates over which view is right or wrong. That idea may sound strange to many people of faith who are very concerned about discerning and demonstrating truth. Can you explain the difference for us? Can Christians, and adherents of other faiths which make exclusive truth claims, be faithful to their confession while embracing the idea of pluralism?

JI: You’re right that many Christians are wary about this part of my argument (which relates to the concern about relativism in the previous question). I think in some cases this is because they haven’t taken seriously enough the “confident” part of confident pluralism. Here is how Tim Keller and I put it in a recent article in Christianity Today:

“Our engagement in the world is made possible by our confidence in the gospel, even in a pluralistic society where others have profoundly different beliefs. We won’t always be able to persuade those around us that our beliefs are right and others are wrong. Indeed, some of our most important beliefs stem from contested premises that others do not share. But recognizing the existence of these disagreements should not prevent us from holding to what is ultimately true. Our beliefs can be true, and we can hold these warranted beliefs confidently even though others reject them.”

JW: Today’s public square has become a rather messy place. How do you respond to those who contend that the culture is simply closed off, or too far gone, for significant civil discourse or public debate to take place?

JI: There are a lot of challenges to discourse and debate in our culture. Social media exacerbates these problems—our words today are more public, portable, and permanent than they have ever been before. Still, I don’t share the deep pessimism of some Christians, as I explain in this response to Carl Trueman’s review of my book in First Things. Even those who are more pessimistic than I am might remember that first century Rome was not exactly friendly to expressions of Christian faith. Yet Christians in those days continued to serve their neighbors and engage with the culture around them.

JW: In the book you differentiate between the personal and legal dimensions of Confident Pluralism. Can you explain these categories for us? Are these dimensions currently functioning well in our society or are they under threat?

JI: The legal dimension of Confident Pluralism focuses on three areas: (1) protecting the voluntary groups of civil society through the rights of assembly and association; (2) facilitating and enabling dissent, disagreement, and diversity in public forums; and (3) ensuring that generally available government funding is not limited by government orthodoxy. The personal dimension of Confident Pluralism aspires toward tolerance, humility, and patience in three civic practices: (1) our speech; (2) our collective action (including protests, strikes, and boycotts); and (3) our relationships across difference. The personal and legal dimensions are interrelated. Silencing other viewpoints may begin with personal antipathy, but it ends with legal prohibition—a refusal to extend the protections of the law to one’s adversaries, and ultimately, an effort to turn the law against them.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson recently wrote that “what is frightening about Inazu’s account is how weak the foundations are in current legal interpretation for this type of generous pluralism.” He’s right. Constitutional doctrine in the areas that matter most to pluralism (the right of association, the public forum, and the free exercise of religion) is weak and unstable. That doctrine needs to change. I don’t think enough people realize how bad the law is in these areas. Too many people assume that constitutional safeguards will protect them just because something is in the text of the Constitution or because James Madison spoke highly of a particular right. But that’s not how the law works—for better or worse, courts and administrative agencies have a great deal of power to shape the meaning and scope of constitutional rights.

JW: If you could press any thought into America’s consciousness, what concept or belief would you want the public to embrace? What do you think is the greatest hope for the future of America’s public square?

JI: That’s a big question. I suppose I wish we all saw each other more as human beings instead of as labels and abstractions. We need to realize that we are in this together, and that the “we” cannot simply be the people who look like us and think like us. Christians ought to be leading by example in this area, and too often we do not. Russell Moore is right that “this election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” And too many white Christians are complicit in personal and systemic beliefs and practices that contribute to this darkness. I hope and believe that the resources of Christianity are deep enough to lead the church into a better and more authentic engagement with the world around us. But we also have a great deal of work to do in our own house. We can’t expect to have a credible witness in the public square if we don’t have it in the fellowship hall.

You can learn more about Confident Pluralism on John’s website. And for further thoughts on the intersection of his book and Christian theology, see these articles:

“Pluralism Doesn’t Mean Relativism,” Christianity Today (April 6, 2015)

“5 Guidelines for Living in a Pluralist Society,” Christianity Today (October 10, 2014)

“Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights?  It’s More Complicated,” Christianity Today (July 16, 2014)

By / Mar 10

What are we to make of all the great plurality of objects, events and viewpoints displayed before us in the world? We are each spectator to an eclectic parade of sometimes wildly differentiated phenomena. The fact we have such textured experience of the world was the stubborn metaphysical perplexity of ancient philosophers. Recall the famous line attributed to Heraclitus (by Plato), “One never steps into the same river twice.”1 The river we step into on Saturday is not the same river on Sunday, at least not in any material sense, and yet it is the same river to the extent that it represents the place the river occupies. His river metaphor illustrates the truth that broad and unrelenting fluctuations to reality are also direct contributors to its ongoing permanence. The river is what it is by virtue of its material flow and its being the location of such flow. For Heraclitus, the plurality of human experience does not represent omnipresent novelty, but rather life’s interconnectedness and unity. What interests him about difference, in other words, is its implicit sameness.

What concerns us, however, is whether this apparent plurality is so extensive it justifies tacit acceptance of pluralism. Clearly the more modern impulse is to answer “yes.” Unable to find unity in diversity, sameness in difference, moderns tend to oversimplify plurality and difference by presuming them intrinsic goods. The great modern value of individuality is itself a cherishing of isolated uniqueness, of doing all one can to make oneself “stand out from the crowd.” Divergence with antiquity is here at its most pronounced, for it isn’t unity that interests the modern, but token plurality, an enshrining of diversity for diversity’s sake. Of course, among the most detrimental consequences of this outlook is pluralism’s drift into moral relativism, from mere observation of pluralities to relativizing the moral truths of those pluralities.

If these comparative sketches between ancient and modern moral experience are accurate, and I think they are, then modern moral pluralism represents a unique challenge to traditional understandings of moral order. Moderns need reminding of what imbues plurality with significant meaning. To this point Oliver O’Donovan offers in Resurrection and Moral Order (hereafter RMO) perhaps the most compelling Christian ethical treatment of pluralism in recent memory. The apparent plurality of moral viewpoints is redressed by the real unity wrought by an original, sustaining and completing Power that renews and orders the moral order. At stake is nothing less than the moral order itself, for if we cannot distinguish a unifying truth to all pluralities then morality itself becomes a socially fragmented sphere of competing interests.

Of special interest to O’Donovan is the agent’s relation to their “moral field.” When confronted by the moral field, agents are invited to interpret that field. The moral field sets a context for free action and thus furnishes the final determination (this side of Judgment) of what the action means. Some of what we encounter will strike us as routine, while some utterly novel. Whether Smith throws a baseball striking a batter out or throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window depends entirely on the context of his pitch. An obvious comparison but nonetheless important—the freedom of an act depends largely on context and its rightness on the form of that context.

Determinacies of the moral field alert us, thinks O’Donovan, to two dominant ways of interpreting and overcoming novelty within the moral field, one by drawing upon experience of the past, and the other by anticipating the future. Before treating them in turn it is worth noting that novelty is undetectable without memories of the past. Every novelty emerges from the past and is, as it were, colored by it. Yet modernity’s chronic historical amnesia leaves agents increasingly prone to ignorance of antecedents. Newness defines the present at every passing moment and thus anxieties wrought by the fragmentariness of our moral experience become all the more perplexing. Under these conditions, claims O’Donovan, even the agent himself becomes a plurality, “a sequence of dissociated roles and responses evoked by the shifting self-transforming meanings of the world.”2

Bearing this in mind we return to the two ways of overcoming novelty in the moral field, either by (i) drawing on experience of the past or (ii) anticipating the future. In the former, agents act as their forbearers have acted and hope that despite their temporal separation some form of continuity is achieved enabling modest management of contingencies. We might loosely call this the “conservative” posture. And yet, although this view has much recommending it, including the illuminating prowess of wisdom, “we are left with the problem that knowledge of the past cannot simply be transformed into knowledge of the present.”3 Which “pasts” will we select, for example, and which criteria will we use to decide between them all? “The only way to tame the unknown is to come to know it,” and conservatism does not adequately bridge the gulf between subject and novelty. But neither does the second approach, for that matter. Without rehearsing the well-understood limitations and self-contradictions of consequentialism, it is enough to say here that the future is eligible for anticipation only if its latent possibilities have been pre-decided and thus no longer really new to us, “for it will be the state of things which we ourselves . . . have chosen.”4

Neither the past nor future is limitless or “open” to interpretation. We reflect upon the past and deliberate upon the future with varying degrees of tentativeness, much like a young child taking his first clumsy steps into ambulation. Actions must be thinkable, and to be thinkable they must be confined to distinct limits immune to openendedness. “Only if we are endowed with a vision of what it is in the world which measures change and so stands beyond it, can we dare to encounter change.”5 The Bible calls this discerning “vision” wisdom, “the perception that every novelty . . . manifests the permanence and stability of the created order, so that, however astonishing and undreamt of it may be, it is not utterly incommensurable with what has gone before.”6 X is similar to and dissimilar to Y because both variables are configured into a wider web of moral intelligibility. Wisdom is what apprehends and then puts that intelligibility to use, making vast pluralities appear more like narrow unities. And on this point O’Donovan is again instructive: “The plurality of situations and events which characterizes the experience of history, the fact that every event is ‘new’ and different from every other, can be seen as a pluriformity in the world-order, which is a capacity for different things to transpire and succeed one another within a total framework of intelligibility which allows for their generic relationships to be understood.”7 Wisdom applied to the moral order transforms incomprehensible plurality into comprehendible pluriformity. And this in part explains why moral pluralism must be false.

Pluriformity describes the manner of reality’s moral presentation, and wisdom facilitates understanding of that presentation. Many of our contemporaries, however, do not see permanence as the necessary site of novelty. Moderns tend not to perceive reality in the Heraclitian sense but as an ever-novel “space” for introducing and reintroducing still greater novelties. There is perhaps no greater illustration to this attitude than the rapid proliferation of technology. It is commonly believed that, from a moral point of view, technology’s “form” is simply what we make of it, becoming what it is by virtue of our invention and use. But this overlooks the pluriform shape technology takes within human affairs. The Internet, for example, is both similar and dissimilar to past technologies. It helps connect people but does so without analogue; it captivates attention and yet endlessly distracts; it is “cyberspace” yet place to conduct one’ daily affairs. Reduction of reality to a sequence of novelties jettisons wisdom in favor of unmitigated “progress” as a moral ideal, the prevailing criterion of modern life. The principal moral question is not “how shall we use technology?” but “what form does technology take among us?”

To complete the idea, let us try to illustrate the usefulness of this concept more vividly. Smith and his wife are informed by physicians that the first phase of fertility treatments is not likely to result in conception. The couple should instead consider either IVF or surrogacy as an alternative. Knowing enough about IVF to be aware of its considerable moral drawbacks, they explore the potential of surrogacy and solicit the “services” of a womb-candidate. Pause here. At this stage many will consider the moral implications of their decision in purely consequentialist terms: Do the ends of our acts justify the means? A biological child is desired above all, therefore methods of implementation do not figure into the deliberations. But if Smith and his wife shared some provisional grasp of reality’s pluriform nature, then their deliberations would instead begin with reflection upon past experience, the significance of life processes, or still other relevant implications. The novelty of surrogacy as a medical technique will not overwhelm their moral sensibilities. Sexuality, conception, pregnancy and childbirth all have a wider, richer logic.

Should one feel a definite lack of the wisdom even to initiate this seemingly complex line of reasoning, they may take solace in the truth that if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

1 Surviving fragments of Heraclitus’ writings strongly suggest that the fundamental meaning of his river metaphor is that some things stay the same only by changing.

2 Ibid., 185.

3 Ibid., 186.

4 Ibid., 187.

5 Ibid.,188.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.