Monday, December 19, 2005

Finding Community in the Dignity of Difference

When I wish to be (or to be seen as, or to see myself as) a unique thinker or a misunderstood radical it is very distressing to realize that everything that I could ever think, say, or write has probably already been thought, said or written by someone who did a better job of it than I ever will. But this desire to be so unique is an unhealthy desire, because not only is it egoistic, but it cuts me off from the community which is so essential for healthy living. C.S. Lewis once defined friendship as being able to say "Oh, you think that too. I thought I was the only one." That kind of friendship, built on intellectual and spiritual camaraderie, brings the lone wolf pseudo-intellectual into a community built on common ideas.

Lately, as I've written before, I've been reading Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference. I recommend this book as highly as I can recommend anything. Each chapter, each page, each sentence has been an epiphany, a revelation. While Sacks identifies himself as a conservative (and he says nothing in his book which makes me question that self-identification) and while he belongs to a different religious tradition, in reading his ideas I've found myself often exclaiming that line which C.S. Lewis claims is the basis for friendship. In Jonathan Sacks, or at least in this book, I have found a true friend, a friend which calls me into a community.

Sacks, in this book, is a pluralist in the same way that I am a pluralist. He is not the sort of patronizing pluralist who says that all religious expressions are equally valid or that all religions are really saying the same thing. He clearly understands the uniqueness of his own Jewish tradition as well as the respective uniqueness of each other tradition. There may be points of commonality, but each religious tradition is distinct, saying its own thing. Rather, his pluralism, like mine, is an acknowledgement that while we are all different we occupy the same space, and must learn how to share that space in peace, respecting each other not in spite of but because of our respective differences.

This morning I read a passage from The Dignity of Difference which summed up my project with this blog better than I could have said it myself. I am loathe to allow others to speak for me. When I was a youth minister and later the pastor of my own church I rarely used any kind of standardized curriculum because I wanted to be able to find and use my own voice. But I am losing my need to be so unique, and I am losing the pride that I have in my own abilities. If Sacks can say what I wanted to say better than I could have said it, then let Sacks speak. So, at the risk of turning this blog into a storehouse of quotes, here is Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, saying what I wish that I had said:

Religions do not agree with one another, nor with secular philosophies, when it comes to some of the great moral issues: abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research, homosexuality, cohabitation outside marriage and many other divisive matters. It is this very potential for bitter conflict that leads people to embrace moral relativism on the one hand (if religions do not agree, then morality is mere choice), libertarianism on the other (society should pass no collective judgement on moral matters; morality is a private affair). Both of these positions are, I believe, false. We argue about morality in a way, and with a seriousness, we do not about matters that are really relative (how to dress for a dinner party, for example). And we do not truly believe that moral issues are private - if we did, there would be no protests on environmental or human rights issues, no public moral debate at all. Yet the question is real and urgent: how do we live with moral difference and yet sustain an overarching community?

The answer... is conversation - not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating (making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them) and listening (entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own). Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine. In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both are the same as they were before. In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine. That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society - not by a single dominant voice, nor by the relegation of moral issues to the private domain of home and local congregation, but by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood, across the boundaries of difference.

In a plural society - all the more in a plural world - each of us has to settle for less than we do when we associate with fellow believers. A Catholic may believe that abortion is murder, a Jew or Muslim that sex outside marriage is forbidden, and these convictions are given life within our respective communities of faith. But we cannot seek to have them imposed by force of law on those who are not members of our community if there are other groups who seriously disagree and make a compelling case for the right to construct a life along different lines. Yet what we lose is more than compensated for by the fact that together we are architects of a society larger than we could construct on our own, one in which our voice is heard and attended to even if it does not carry the day. Just as community is built on the willingness to let the 'I' be shaped by the 'We', so society is made by the readiness to let the 'We' of our community be constrained by the need to make space for other communities and their deeply held beliefs. Society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective futures, rather than dust blown by the wind of economic forces. Conversation - respectful, engaged, reciprocal, calling forth some of our greatest powers of empathy and understanding - is the moral form of a world governed by the dignity of difference.

I have but little to add to this. As I read it, it occurred to me that while Sacks is speaking on a large scale, with interactions between religious groups within nations and across national boundaries, his insight, particularly on the need to distinguish between conversation and debate, also carries over into smaller, more intimate interpersonal relationships. The most difficult aspect of marriage is trying to fit two distinct wills into one living space. Marriage is cohabitating in life-partnership with the "other." This other may compliment you nicely, but is also different from you, with different values, intentions and expectations. Most of these differences are not fully explored until well into the marriage because there has never been a need to bring them up. But, when they arise (and they do arise, they always arise) they must be dealt with appropriately or they will poison the relationship.

My wife and I, in the midst of the chaos which has followed our joint decision for me to leave the ministry, are learning the value of distinguishing between conversation and debate. We are learning to converse, but it is a slow and painful process. I have a will, and she has a will, and conversation requires the mutual submission of our individual wills for the good of our family. For this to work, we are discovering, we each must be willing to listen more intently and less judgmentally than we have ever had to listen before. We must also learn how to communicate authentically by welcoming the other into our own perspective without making them feel threatened or guilty. We must learn how to share pain without blame. We must learn how to open up without exploding. We are learning this, and I am very encouraged.

I expect that, in this respect, what is true of us is true of others as well. The mutual submission of wills is the most difficult necessity for any interpersonal relationship. And we are made for relationship. The songwriter David Wilcox argues that relationships, with the mutual submission of wills which they require, are the way in which we learn to be fully human. Here (rather than, say, in quantum mechanics, which is crazy!) what is true of the small is also true of the large, and vice versa. Human relationships, whether they are between individuals, communities, or societies, require the approach that Jonathan Sacks has laid out for us, as they are all about not only overcoming but even respecting and loving difference.


Ewtdawg said...

Strangely, I was less hit by the bulk theme of the post than by the introduction. Recently, I have been somewhat plagued by the need to come up with something unique and different. It has paralyzed my writing, my teaching, my planning. I fear doing such a poor imitation of the wisdom of others that I will lose my audience completely. Of course, maybe that is the point. Maybe, as teachers, we are to simply light the path for others to go on ahead. Hmm...that gives me an idea. I'll email you in a day or two.

Sandalstraps said...

Paralyzed is the right word for it. When we need to say something profound we premptively censor ourselves, paralyzing the creative process and ensuring that we will never say anything at all, much less something profound.

You need not be anything but faithful. Of course, being faithful may be the most difficult.