We continue with our reflections from the last time. I realise that these are a rather challenging read, but hopefully it will be worth it. Following on from our previous thoughts, the conflict that arises from trying to live as a faithful Catholic within the plurality and complexity of modern life produces a tension within us. By reflecting on what it means to be faithful to the life and traditions of our faith and understanding the motivations behind our views and positions, helps mediate the tension into self-understanding and an understanding of others. Dialogue, talking with others and listening to their viewpoints and positions expands our horizon of understanding while also reducing the levels of conflict and tension, and so leads to a lessening of the polarisation that tears away at the Body of Christ.
Adopting and elaborating on a model of religious pluralism from a Harvard University academic, Diana Eck, I would like clarify four characteristics of a genuine plurality to help us in our attempts to understand ourselves and others, and to begin listening and talking to each other about our particular understanding and practices of our shared faith tradition.
First, plurality is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. This is only possible if one has accepted the reality of the legitimacy of diverse voices in theology and in public conversations around authority, tradition, and liturgy. This is rather difficult for adherents of fixed positions who are not prepared to admit that there are nuances and depths in these areas. Contemporary positions have been reached in these areas over centuries of discussion, study and conflict. Competing schools of thought have co-existed in the Church over centuries of discernment and public discussion in philosophical and theological deliberation, eventually arriving at considered decisions in the form of conciliar declarations and papal pronouncements. These considered decisions were arrived at precisely because a diversity of thought from a variety of sources was given hearing in the public forums of the day. Yet equally true is that determinations were reached without due consideration to the range of thinking around these issues, which often led to ongoing controversy. A realistic acceptance of the historical precedents and the value of diversity must precede an energetic engagement with other and opposing viewpoints.
Second, plurality is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Taking into account the intellectual tradition that believes in the unity of knowledge modified by the unattainability of the fullness of truth in this life, authentic plurality seeks to understand alternative and opposing viewpoints. If I merely tolerate the other, I behave in a minimalist manner, believing I have nothing more to learn and that the other is in need of conversion. The hardening of positions and the demonising of the other, questioning their fidelity to the Church or to the socio-relational demands of the Gospel lead to inflexible ideologies that inevitably descend into polarised oppositions. The principle of critical enquiry into all spheres of human knowledge is violated when I refuse to understand not only the key points of disagreement between myself and another, but also when I refuse to understand the underlying reasons behind our different positions. If I engage this as a starting point, I discover a mutuality that unites us beyond our differences and begin a conversation that widens horizons and deepens understanding in our respective viewpoints.
Third, plurality is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. A healthy plural consciousness is marked by the belief that several viewpoints on hot button issues are not only legitimate but that they are a necessary sign of a living tradition in which people engage passionately with their beliefs. However, it also means that I must be conscious of the tendency for passionate commitment to become ideology. In seeking to understand perspectives other than and opposed to my own does not mean that I grant equal weight to all, but that I seek to encounter them and to hold my position not in isolation from them but in relation to them. I do not confirm the rightness of my position by unreflectively dismissing that of others, nor do I relativise my commitments by respectfully acknowledging and understanding those of the other. Nevertheless, because commitment to my viewpoint is not uninformed but the result of critical reflection and attentive discernment, I must when occasion demands voice it in the public forum and be prepared to defend and promote it; and grant others the same right and opportunity. I must try to persuade others to my viewpoint with reasoned argument and also allow others to persuade me to theirs, always mindful of the deeper faith tradition, the gospel imperatives, and the freedom of conscience granted to us both.
Finally, plurality is based on dialogue. Our love for the Church and for the unity that is a defining mark impels us to listen to each other in humility and trust if we are to avoid slipping into polarisation. In dialogue we recognise our common identity as Catholics and affirm our mutual commitments to the Church, while also presenting our viewpoints in non-ideological discourse. Through dialogue we come to know the foundational concerns that underlie our alternative commitments and the hopes that sustain our vision for the future. As soon as we enter into dialogue we step back from labelling the other and recognise one as passionate about the issues as I am, gaining insight into the motivational factors that give rise to particular commitments. If we approach dialogue with a self-critical consciousness we also come to know the anxieties and uncertainties that motivate our own commitments, and are open to a critical revision and reshaping of our views. Through the dialogue and mutual critical reflection that accompanies this process, we begin to discover that we share more in terms of underlying commitments than when we sought to place ourselves in ideological opposition to each other, and so begin to go beyond static identities and fixed positions.
Ultimately it is a striving towards an integrated Christian wisdom and a deepening of the bonds of unity in a genuine self-sacrificing love that lead us into a sincere faithfulness within the rich depths of our Catholic faith tradition.
In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.