A Different Strand

On the morning of August 24th, it was my privilege to speak at Cathedral Church of the Advent. It was a pleasure to hear the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Frank Limehouse. His sermon was on Jesus Christ as our “fixed point”, a nice nod in our direction. We are appreciative. The sermon, as it turned out, was a nice segue into my talk. The topic I was asked to address was pluralism. Pluralism is one of those words that defies an easy definition.

Sitting in a popular coffee shop before the service, I was looking over my notes when I saw a poster on the front window encouraging people to apply for employment with the franchise. It read:

“You’ll notice it the moment you walk into one of our coffeehouses–the partners who work here are a diverse group of people who reflect the local community. We offer a welcoming environment that embraces individual differences and encourages mutual respect. If this appeals to you … let’s chat.”

What concept was being emphasized here as though it were a value? Pluralism or, in the vernacular, “diversity.” More than that, diversity for diversity’s sake. Striking up a conversation with one of the baristas, she told me that their employee handbook contained much of the same language and gave me one. She was right. Of their “six guiding principles,” numbers one and two emphasized “respect” and “diversity.” But I was particularly interested in number six, which stressed that employees “recognize that profitability is essential to [the company’s] future success.”
Here was a practical example of pluralism as a philosophy. And yet, like so many who adopt it, they had relativized everything but what was really important to them. (In this case, that was capitalism.)

I say pluralism as a philosophy because it is quite a different thing than the fact of pluralism. To be clear, a society may contain any number of ethnic and religious groups, but that alone does not make it pluralist in nature. America, for example, has traditionally been composed of people who represent a variety of backgrounds, but it could still be said “We hold these truths to be self evident …” America was not pluralist in philosophy. It was a melting pot.

But that is changing.

Several years ago, while I was still in education, I attended a “diversity workshop.” The meeting began–no kidding–like this: a man and woman, leading the meeting, started with a roll call of different races. “How many African-Americans do we have here? Please stand. Alright, let’s celebrate them!” This was followed by a round of applause. “How many white people? Any Asians? Let’s celebrate them!” However contrived it may have been, it was harmless enough and apparently well-intentioned. But they continued, listing almost every conceivable religion, philosophy, and lifestyle: “How many heterosexuals? Any homosexuals? How ’bout transsexuals? Let’s celebrate them!”

After what seemed like an eternity, we were divided up into small groups where we were to discuss what diversity meant to us. When it came my turn to speak, I said, “Diversity has never made any civilization great. Civilizations are made great by their ability to overcome their differences and find common ground.” There was a collective gasp and looks of horror hung uneasily on the faces of my educational counterparts. One could imagine them thinking, “Is he allowed to say that? Doesn’t he know that this is a diversity workshop?”

When one fellow challenged the political correctness of my comments, I told him that I was adding diversity of opinion to our group. This seemed to throw him into a quandary. He said nothing further.

Another said that he, too, disagreed with me. “Wasn’t it diversity that built the world’s great empires? And what about America?” he argued.

“No,” I countered. “Diversity is what destroyed them. Marathon might serve as a nice metaphor for my point: there, it was Greek homogeneity that defeated Persian diversity.” (Historical note: the Greek city-states, while politically divided, shared a common language and heritage. The Persian army, by contrast, was held together by the lash. Much of their ranks were composed of people who shared virtually nothing in common. Indeed, even communication was difficult, so diverse were the languages.)

“And as for America,” I continued, “look at your money: ‘E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One.‘”

The conversation was continued and I don’t know how many in our group were persuaded by what I had to say, but this much was obvious: my diversity of opinion was not “celebrated” by some in the group. Pluralism as a philosophy means that one cannot take too strong a position on anything outside of pluralism itself.

To be clear, I am not saying that diversity is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a good thing. But it must have a unifying principle. Without it, diversity, by its very nature, is divisive. If one is thinking of building a house, for instance, a diversity of professional skills is needed: architects, masons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, roofers, etc. But while they all serve different functions, they are all working toward a common end.

This is the Apostle Paul’s point in I Corinthians 12 where he offers a biblical view of diversity: many members, yes, but only one body, and it belonging to Jesus Christ. He was addressing the issue of spiritual gifts, and, noting their various functions, emphasized that they are “for the common good” and under the Lordship of Christ.

I have often wondered what the folks at the diversity workshop might have done if, during the celebration of all that was different, I had said, “I am a cannibal” or “I am ‘old school’ Hindu, and practice suttee.” And what if I were to apply at the coffee shop and say that I was a socialist who neither believed in gain nor in private property, but in the free and equal distribution of their coffee? Would they ‘respect’ that sort of diversity? I imagine not. But if diversity was itself their guiding light, rather than right or wrong, on what basis could they logically condemn such an action or worldview?

“Do not judge by appearances,” said Jesus. “But by right judgment.” (John 7:24) And what is to be the “guiding principle” of that judgment? “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise … practice these things …” (Philippians 4:8)

Confucius, whose teachings were a mixed bag, hit the nail on the head when he said, “He who sets to work on a different strand, destroys the whole fabric.” On this point, Confucius and I find our commonality.

© Copyright 2008 Larry A. Taunton

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