I want to give one cheer for Damon Linker’s essay about pluralism and how it gets in the way of young moderns approaching traditional religion. I think he’s onto something, but I would frame the problem differently than he does.
Here’s the heart of Linker’s argument:
But perhaps the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be.
The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion. My former boss Fr. Richard John Neuhaus exemplified it quite vividly when he grandly pronounced on numerous occasions that economics is a function of politics, politics is a function of culture, and culture is a function of religion. It sounds nice and tidy, but it’s too nice and tidy.
Each of Neuhaus’ nested spheres — economics, politics, culture, religion — has its own dignity and logic. Each can and should be understood on its own terms — and the tendency of each to subsume the others under its own categories and assumptions can and should be resisted.
There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole. A pluralistic whole. A differentiated whole shot through with contradiction and paradox. This is something that modern men and women intuitively understand, even if they’ve never read a word of the great philosophical pluralists (Daniel Bell, Isaiah Berlin, and Michael Oakeshott), and even if they choose to devote their lives to fighting it in a futile and self-defeating embrace of fundamentalism.
Until religion comes to grips with and responds creatively to the fact of pluralism, it will find itself embroiled in a battle against reality.
And that is a battle it is bound to lose.
Linker conflates two questions here, neither of which is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter.
The first question is whether a given traditional religion’s account of reality is a “fairy tale” or whether it grapples with “the world as it is.” But it’s trivially easy to indict secular or even anti-religious types for holding a “simplified” view of reality, and equally easy to find great philosophical diversity within any of the world’s great religious traditions. Most of the things most people believe – whether they are religious or not – are not particularly firmly “grounded” and do not give a particularly coherent and comprehensive account of reality. But we make do. Meanwhile, the Book of Job grapples with theodicy in a far more sophisticated manner than moralistic therapeutic deism does. If fairy tales were the problem, why do so many young people – including “nones” – gravitate towards what Linker himself has described as an “insipid” theology?
The second question relates to the problem of consilience, whether all our different ways of apprehending reality ultimately “fit together.” Linker expresses a kind of eschatological faith in such consilience – ultimately, yes, everything fits together – but right here and now we can’t see quite how, and so, in the here and now, we have to respect the distinctive languages and assumptions of different disciplines and not wave them away by trying to reduce them to a single, “fundamental” mode of understanding. I have no objection to this stance, which I share, but again, I’m puzzled why it’s a problem for traditional religion. Yes, there have been philosophers within various religious traditions who have striven mightily to impose a kind of consilience on all of knowledge – within Christianity, Thomas Aquinas comes to mind – but if we conclude they failed, well, so they failed. They are only human, and no religious tradition should be reduced to those individual philosophical labors.
Linker’s experience of a certain brand of Christianity was deeply marked by the need to answer all fundamental questions – I rather suspect he shared that need at the time that he first started working for First Things – but I don’t know that most traditionally religious people, including traditional Catholics, are similarly defined by that need, which is peculiar to a certain variety of intellectual who can be found in religious and non-religious quarters. Rather more common for those who adhere to traditional religion, I think, is a desire to know how to live, whether in the form of an actual manual for living or a community that manifests distinctive and specific norms. That desire, I think, is closer to the heart of what attracts most people who come to traditional religion, as well as being closer to the heart of what keeps those who do not leave the fold.
So why do I want to give Linker one cheer? Because I do think that pluralism poses a fundamental challenge to traditional religion. But it’s not the pluralism of modes of knowledge that poses a challenge, but the pluralism of identity. It’s not that traditional religion can’t “handle” natural selection, or psychopharmacology, or biblical source-criticism; it’s certainly not that it can’t explain the evil of the Holocaust. It’s that traditional religion – Abrahamic religion, anyway – demands that you identify yourself definitively as an adherent. It demands an unequivocal commitment. And contemporary young people, according to all the evidence, are very wary of making commitments like in any walk of life: in love, in work, or in terms of religious identity.
Why that resistance to commitment is a topic for another time – but that, I think, is the fundamental challenge of pluralism to traditional religion among young people today.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that not all religious traditions work the way the Abrahamic religions do. Hinduism is something you are born into, not something you adhere to. And if you aren’t born into it, you can perfectly well dabble in Hindu traditions or practices in a way that you can’t dabble in Christianity or Islam, and, over time, assimilate into Hindu society – or not. Buddhism, historically, has spread spatially by conversion, and not just genealogically by descent, but there’s nothing comparable to baptism, circumcision or the shahadah to mark one’s “conversion” to Buddhism, and little sense of exclusivity vis-a-vis other traditions such as is taken for granted in Abrahamic religions. The various indigenous Chinese “religions” – if they are even properly characterized as such – are even less exclusive, as are the various practices that fall under the rubric of “animism.”
Plenty of non-Abrahamic religious traditions, including Western religious ideas that pre-date the encounter with Jerusalem, have sophisticated things to say about the nature of the divine, as well as about how to live, but do not demand the kind of allegiance that the God of Abraham does. It may be that these modes of religion will hold greater appeal in the future because they “work better” with the kind of pluralism of identity that I described above. Or maybe American Christianity will “evolve” in that direction; Christianity has taken divergent forms in the past, from the Cathars to the Shakers to the Mormons, so who’s to say what future Christianities will emerge. Or maybe Christianity will emphasize its exclusivity of allegiance more than ever, pushing against the tenor of the times to make itself more distinct, and winning its share of adherents precisely for that reason.
Or maybe all of these things will happen. By definition, pluralism implies that there is no one thing that any religion “must” do lest it be consigned to irrelevancy. To any question or problem, including the one identified by Linker, there exist a plurality of answers.