Author Topic: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?  (Read 866 times)

Paul L. Knudson

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Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« on: December 15, 2010, 09:16:51 PM »
Craig Hovey teaches philosophy and theology at Fuller Seminary.  He makes a distinction in his book, "Nirtzsche and Theology," that I found helpful.  I share it for what its worth.  I think it could be informative for us as we live in the reality of a pluralistic world while doing battle with relativism and secularism.

Pluralism:  "It is an empirical reality in which different groups make rival claims within and outside of political discourse...It names a situation in which any resolutions that might otherwise have been accomplished through appeals to a uniting political vision are no longer possible.  Truth has not exactly dropped out of consideration as a metaphysical notion, though different groups will have varying notions of it at the level of theory."

Relativism:  "It is not an empirical reality but a philosophical doctrine that may follow from the reality of pluralism.  In relativism truth has, in fact, dropped out.  It cannot be said to have been refuted; only that it has failed to sustain sufficient interest politically and possibly otherwise...Particularly insofar as relativism is a philosophical doctrine, it is always in the position of overdetermining the political exercise of actual pluralistic communities."

Hovey sees "secularism" as akin to relativism as a philosophical theory rather than an empirical reality to be dealth with one way or another.

Sometimes I think that some of us are inclined to believe that we can "turn back the clock" and no longer live in a pluralistic world.  We imagine an idylic past where there was a unifying vision underlying peoples and that this can be retrieved either through political power or religious zeal.  We may equate pluralism which is a fact of life with relativism and blurring the distinctions feel compelled to work for a world of a kind of uniformity that does not and will not exist.  We can stand firm against the dangers of relativism and secularism without retreating into our like minded enclaves or joining forces with those determined to win back this world for God, by force if need be, at least by the force of law.

Is this distinction made by Hovey helpful or dangerous?  At first reading I find it helpful but am open to thoughts that challenge the distinction.

Paul L. Knudson

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2010, 08:41:53 AM »
One particular reason I started this new thread relates to reactions I sometimes have when I read my Touchstone and First Things magazines.  With their heavy Roman Catholic orientation and its emphasis on natural law I sometimes think that the "empirical reality" of pluralism is possibly not being recognized for what it is, a fact of life, in which we live.  How we bear witness against relativism seems different to me than dealing with pluralism.  When we fight our internal battles within the Lutheran family I do not believe that the "bound conscience" notion as lived out is accepting pluralism in the culture.  It is not even respected on face value.  I am not calling for live and let live, just an acknowledgment that pluralism is not going to go away and how do we wrestle with it. 

I am off to the doctor for an annual physical, and so if someone does respond my lack of immediate response is not disinterest.

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2010, 09:18:47 AM »
Craig Hovey teaches philosophy and theology at Fuller Seminary.  He makes a distinction in his book, "Nirtzsche and Theology," that I found helpful.  I share it for what its worth.  I think it could be informative for us as we live in the reality of a pluralistic world while doing battle with relativism and secularism.

Pluralism:  "It is an empirical reality in which different groups make rival claims within and outside of political discourse...It names a situation in which any resolutions that might otherwise have been accomplished through appeals to a uniting political vision are no longer possible.  Truth has not exactly dropped out of consideration as a metaphysical notion, though different groups will have varying notions of it at the level of theory."

Relativism:  "It is not an empirical reality but a philosophical doctrine that may follow from the reality of pluralism.  In relativism truth has, in fact, dropped out.  It cannot be said to have been refuted; only that it has failed to sustain sufficient interest politically and possibly otherwise...Particularly insofar as relativism is a philosophical doctrine, it is always in the position of overdetermining the political exercise of actual pluralistic communities."

Hovey sees "secularism" as akin to relativism as a philosophical theory rather than an empirical reality to be dealth with one way or another.

Sometimes I think that some of us are inclined to believe that we can "turn back the clock" and no longer live in a pluralistic world.  We imagine an idylic past where there was a unifying vision underlying peoples and that this can be retrieved either through political power or religious zeal.  We may equate pluralism which is a fact of life with relativism and blurring the distinctions feel compelled to work for a world of a kind of uniformity that does not and will not exist.  We can stand firm against the dangers of relativism and secularism without retreating into our like minded enclaves or joining forces with those determined to win back this world for God, by force if need be, at least by the force of law.

Is this distinction made by Hovey helpful or dangerous?  At first reading I find it helpful but am open to thoughts that challenge the distinction.

Would this definition not make Relativism something akin to boredom? The culture has become bored with having to determine truth and, as it was probably multitasking anyway at the time  :) ,just moved on to something else. A very postmodern phenomenon, yes?
Peter Kruse

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Scott6

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #3 on: December 16, 2010, 11:08:21 AM »
One particular reason I started this new thread relates to reactions I sometimes have when I read my Touchstone and First Things magazines.  With their heavy Roman Catholic orientation and its emphasis on natural law I sometimes think that the "empirical reality" of pluralism is possibly not being recognized for what it is, a fact of life, in which we live.  How we bear witness against relativism seems different to me than dealing with pluralism.  When we fight our internal battles within the Lutheran family I do not believe that the "bound conscience" notion as lived out is accepting pluralism in the culture.  It is not even respected on face value.  I am not calling for live and let live, just an acknowledgment that pluralism is not going to go away and how do we wrestle with it. 

I am off to the doctor for an annual physical, and so if someone does respond my lack of immediate response is not disinterest.

Yes, I think that the distinction between pluralism and relativism is defensible, and your comment connecting pluralism to empirical reality and also to natural law is interesting and not one that occurred to me before.

As most folks here know of my appreciation for Peirce, I'll go ahead and refer to him.  He would see pluralism, perhaps too obviously, as simply a description of the fact that there are many communities who hold to different "common-sense" beliefs (here, "common-sense" is a description of those communal beliefs that people don't even notice as operative most of the time and are rarely doubted).  Different common-sense beliefs result in different communities.

This is non-relativistic, however, because in Peirce's view, relativism isn't a coherent option but rather the product of what Bernstein more recently called "Cartesian anxiety" -- thinking that if you can't formulate a propositional, eternally valid and applicable, foundational belief then everything slips away and anything goes.  Peirce would simply say that this choice doesn't reflect what actually happens -- people live their lives all the time without some type of eternally formulated warrant for doing so.  Furthermore, as relativism depends upon Cartesian doubt, it fails again because we not only don't, in point of fact, but also can't put everything in doubt at once, which is what relativism would ask us to do.  So Peirce would say that we can warrant our beliefs, and those warrants are inextricably connected with our communities.

ddrebes

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #4 on: December 16, 2010, 11:41:57 AM »
I'm finding this distinction helpful--though I'm still pondering it. I think it challenges relativism while also challenging those who continue to (attempt to) communicate an orthodox Christian faith as if orthodox Christianity is still a primary authority in public life. The situation (pluralism) needs to recognized as the current territory in which the Gospel needs to be communicated. Relativism is not the necessary response to pluralism.

jpetty

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #5 on: December 16, 2010, 11:52:49 AM »
Where do the two match up historically?  In other words, which came first?

Rev. Kevin Scheuller

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #6 on: December 16, 2010, 12:00:20 PM »
Paul, thanks for starting this thread.  In a sense, you could say that acknowledging the reality of pluralism (whether I like to or not - I'm with most people in that I don't) is the only way my wife and I can love each other and continue to live together.  She and I couldn't be more different politically.  I wish we didn't neutralize our household every election day, but we do.  

She and I are colleagues serving a two-point parish in the ELCA.  In the aftermath of CWA 2009, she has been as consistently for those decisions as I have been against them.  I remember during a walk we took together 7 or 8 years ago telling her that I thought it would be difficult for me to remain in the ELCA if they ever eventually decided the way they decided at CWA 2009.  She told me that it would be difficult for her to remain in the ELCA if they didn't eventually make those decisions.  

I believe I share an ecclesiology with many on this forum that favors orthodoxy far more than democracy (to put it in as diplomatically a way as I possibly can). The embrace of relativism in far too many places gives everyone the Pyrrhic victory of being able to say the empty phrase, "Well, that may be your truth, but it's not my truth."  Sadly, too many Christians (especially Lutheran Christians) have confused the very Lutheran appreciation for paradox and have, as a result, slipped into far too much comfort with heterodox.

Scott6

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #7 on: December 16, 2010, 12:00:29 PM »
Where do the two match up historically?  In other words, which came first?

If you're speaking of plural communities, my guess is that they started somewhere near an ancient tower.  ;)

If you're speaking of "pluralism," you'll have to be more specific as I'm not sure if you mean the term or some usage of the term.

But the contemporary concept of "relativism" really only became an option post-Descartes.

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #8 on: December 16, 2010, 12:25:05 PM »
I think of pluralism as a recognition that distinct groups make truth claims which may be in conflict, and relativism as hostility to the very idea of absolute truth claims.

Pluralism seeks peace despite conflicting truth claims; relativism seeks peace by suppressing truth claims.

Jon

Rev. Kevin Scheuller

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #9 on: December 16, 2010, 12:28:03 PM »
I think of pluralism as a recognition that distinct groups make truth claims which may be in conflict, and relativism as hostility to the very idea of absolute truth claims.

Pluralism seeks peace despite conflicting truth claims; relativism seeks peace by suppressing truth claims.

Jon
I like your distinction.

iowakatie1981

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #10 on: December 16, 2010, 01:09:21 PM »
I think of pluralism as a recognition that distinct groups make truth claims which may be in conflict, and relativism as hostility to the very idea of absolute truth claims.

Pluralism seeks peace despite conflicting truth claims; relativism seeks peace by suppressing truth claims.

Jon
I like your distinction.

Me too, Jon.  In general, I have no problem with pluralism, besides a romantic longing for the days of yore when everybody went to church and all was right with the world.  But being of the younger generation, I have no actual memories of such a time.  Pluralism is "some people are Christian and some people are Muslim and some people are Hindu, and although those all bring competing truth claims and each of us thinks we're right and the other's wrong, we can still live together respectfullly and in relative harmony."  This is not, however, an argument for never presenting one's own truth claims, for not praying and working for the evangelization and conversion of our non-Christian neighbors.  It's simply a real-life acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot, nor are we called to, spend every minute of every day standing on our Hindu neighbor's doorstep reading the Bible aloud and demanding that they repent and be baptized.  Relativism is "there are many paths to God, and I'm not one to judge the spirituality of others.  If it works for them, great!"

I don't read Touchstone, but I do read First Things, um, religiously...;)  I think that they don't so much deny pluralism, as they continually take a stand (explictly and implictly) against relativism.  I'm not sure what they have for writers outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but inside that, while maintaining a heavy lean towards RC, also publish plenty by Lutherans, Jews, Evangelicals, etc...

And I think that's ok.  Because while I'm "comfortable" with pluralism, in the sense that it doesn't freak me out, I also can't imagine that it's really ultimately God's plan for the world, as least as far as religious belief is concerned.  Differences in language, culture, style of dress, food and beverage preferences, taste in music, etc... are all things that can exist simultaneously and add depth and richness to our life here.  But if God really intended for there to be a whole bunch of different religions, and hey, it's all good, then why bother with that pesky Great Commission, or the notice at some point, "every knee shall bow, every tongue proclaim", or even John 17? (which oughta make us sit up and take notice of the log in our own eye - I'm looking at you, 30,000 Protestant denominations.)

So, I think First Things and others in that vein don't so much deny pluralism as they deny relativism and assert that there is a Truth and call us, therefore, to live in that Truth and look with hope and longing toward the day when religious pluralism is no more, because of the coming final victory of Truth over relativism.  (Or, at least it does for me...Maybe I'm the only one??)

Paul L. Knudson

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #11 on: December 16, 2010, 01:38:34 PM »
Thanks for the multiple responses.  As I think about our approaches to bearing witness to Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Savior of the world, before whom every knee will bow, I found it helpful to think of simply dealing with the reality of pluralism not so much as an ideology but as the territory in which we bear witness.  I find Timothy Keller, for example, with his apologetic approach to witness to 20 and 30 year old doubters not threatened by their challenges.  He takes them seriously, values them as persons, but yet makes in part an apologetic case for the Christian faith as not just one more pluralistic option.  Some of you here with your strong convictions that identify you as Evangelical Catholics can bring an effective witness also.  I simply think that whatever approach we take we need to be careful not to project the notion of scorn of the pluralistic reality we face.

I am rereading David Bentley Hart, "Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies."  Hart can be an intellectual ally for us in his uncovering of "modernism's" own contribution to the problems we face.  He says:  "the history of modernity is the history of secularization, the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradtion and doctrine."

Hart is, of course, not embracing this effect of modernity, relativism, and secularism.  He actually in this book traces the lack of attention to history among "our fashionable enemies."  Grand sweeping judgments against Christians throughout history as agents of violence and intolerance are exposed as fraudulent. 

What I am encountering more and more are friends, who in attacking some of us as intolerant and hung up on the authority of the Word, who do not seem capable of seeing that the path of mainline protestantism is leading us in a manner that is destructive.  The autonomous, suupposedly free individual, unencumbered by the pervasiveness of sin, is given way too much credit.  Hart, speaking of our "fashionable enemies" as a respected intellectual student of history, culture and the Christian faith, is dismissed as all worked up about stuff ordinary folk need not worry about.

I personally believe until we can engage "liberals", or whatever we should see them as, on these fronts we will fall short.  Being stuck in the culture wars over homosexuality as the issue dividing us, will block this more difficult and yet pressing challenge in our witness as the Body of Christ.

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #12 on: December 16, 2010, 08:48:16 PM »
As most folks here know of my appreciation for Peirce, I'll go ahead and refer to him. 


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Team Hesse

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Re: Pluralism and Relativism: Meaningful distinctions for us?
« Reply #13 on: December 17, 2010, 12:20:29 AM »
One particular reason I started this new thread relates to reactions I sometimes have when I read my Touchstone and First Things magazines.  With their heavy Roman Catholic orientation and its emphasis on natural law I sometimes think that the "empirical reality" of pluralism is possibly not being recognized for what it is, a fact of life, in which we live.  How we bear witness against relativism seems different to me than dealing with pluralism.  When we fight our internal battles within the Lutheran family I do not believe that the "bound conscience" notion as lived out is accepting pluralism in the culture.  It is not even respected on face value.  I am not calling for live and let live, just an acknowledgment that pluralism is not going to go away and how do we wrestle with it. 

I am off to the doctor for an annual physical, and so if someone does respond my lack of immediate response is not disinterest.

Yes, I think that the distinction between pluralism and relativism is defensible, and your comment connecting pluralism to empirical reality and also to natural law is interesting and not one that occurred to me before.

As most folks here know of my appreciation for Peirce, I'll go ahead and refer to him.  He would see pluralism, perhaps too obviously, as simply a description of the fact that there are many communities who hold to different "common-sense" beliefs (here, "common-sense" is a description of those communal beliefs that people don't even notice as operative most of the time and are rarely doubted).  Different common-sense beliefs result in different communities.

This is non-relativistic, however, because in Peirce's view, relativism isn't a coherent option but rather the product of what Bernstein more recently called "Cartesian anxiety" -- thinking that if you can't formulate a propositional, eternally valid and applicable, foundational belief then everything slips away and anything goes.  Peirce would simply say that this choice doesn't reflect what actually happens -- people live their lives all the time without some type of eternally formulated warrant for doing so.  Furthermore, as relativism depends upon Cartesian doubt, it fails again because we not only don't, in point of fact, but also can't put everything in doubt at once, which is what relativism would ask us to do.  So Peirce would say that we can warrant our beliefs, and those warrants are inextricably connected with our communities.

Been reading and writing some on John Locke. Found his notion of "probability" helpful while remaining humble in establishing warrant this side of the parousia. Seeing through the glass darkly, as someone once said.

Lou