Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Value Images: Pluralism

After my last post, it might seem as though the next step would be to lay out a definition for a "value" and then argue for that definition. Instead, I am going to move in a different direction. I'm going to illustrate a number of verbal images I believe are contained within our value system. Note, however, that unlike a definition, I am not pretending that these verbal images exhaust the meaning of value-language. My next few blog posts will attempt to give a number of these eidos/eikons. This post will begin with pluralism.

Image #1: Our values are pluralistic. I don't mean pluralistic in the weak-relativistic-everything-goes-sense which gets attacked so often. Weak-pluralism is such a tempting straw man for so many public figures and academics to attack. Total relativism certainly has its problems, but I think its critics often have other targets in mind when they attack it. While weak-pluralism is almost certainly a problem (particularly among college students, I have noticed), all too often the diagnosis and solution presented by its critics falters. It is as though an archer aims an arrow at two separate targets, intending to hit both (weak-pluralism and opponents of mono-absolutism) and ends up missing both targets. Later on, it will become clear why these are two separate targets. For the moment, however, this illustrates one of the elements of the kind of pluralism I have in mind.

Pluralism has many features. The first is obvious - many elements. On the world community scale, this multiplicity of values is obvious. However, upon further reflection, it becomes clear that we as individual localities also are made up of a multiplicity of values. Everything from something "abstract" like love to something a little less "abstract" like "Nationalism" to something even more "concrete" like valuing the "desire to eat." I hesitate to separate values along abstract/concrete lines for several reasons, but for now I merely wish to illustrate the point that we, as human beings, are made up of a near infinitude of values. Which brings me to the next aspect of pluralism I'd like to highlight.

All too often the philosophical enterprises have attempted to "reduce" our near-infinitude of values to a few. As valuable as the words "love" or "good" are for example, they often become whitewashed by out attempts to mash our irreducible values into a single whole. Our desire to be made whole may be understandable in the end (as we are clearly broken creatures at least in part) but that very desire ends up doing us a disservice. Obviously, for example, "Patriotism" cannot be reduced to "love" but neither can "altruism" be reduced to "compassion." As theopoets we must affirm that each word has a purpose, each word a surplus of meaning. Each word paints a slightly different picture.

Even without reductionism, we can compare/contrast values through synonymy. In fact, with our near-infinitude of values (imagine, for the moment, that I value typing the letter "l" for the word "letter" in this sentence at the very moment I type it, and one can easily see the absurd amount of values we as human localities contain even moment to moment) in order to function we often have umbrella terms which attempt to encompass many different irreducible values. Sometimes this works with more success, sometimes not. Usually these larger terms function best when we acknowledge their fluid nature and that they only reach partial success at encompassing multiple values.

Part of the fact that these umbrella terms fail at total success is that our values are often contradictory. It is easier to see this on the larger scale of "big" values. We see this in the terms one describes one's self - American Christian related to such and such family, etc. No matter how much some public figures wish us to believe that American patriotism and Christianity are mutually supporting (and non-contradictory) an American Christian is a walking contradiction. The history of "just war" is a perfect example of the tensions created when christian faith is placed within a national context. Whether "just war doctrine" is a wise idea or not it is hard to imagine how one can go from Jesus to war of any kind. Heck, even in our own moment, it is hard to imagine how one can go from praying in church on Sunday to a justified war of any kind. And yet, humans have such an amazing ability to rationalize. We have an amazing ability at ignoring tensions in our values. Part of the role I feel the theopoet/prophet is to play in today's society is teasing out the tensions that live within our values and letting them live in the open. American Nationalism has gathered a serious amount of power while rationalizing faith and other possible checks into its bubble. The best way to denounce an idol is to reveal it as an idol. Let us unveil our other values for what they are - contradictions. Lovely contradictions. Consistency is overrated.

This is not to say that contradictions in our values is a bad thing. For starters, our local horizons of experience are often so confusing that contradictions are unavoidable even if we are aware of them. Unchecked values of any kind are also generally quite destructive - it is amazing how genocide can often be rationalized as an act of love. That is not to say that we should scrap the wonderful power in our best symbols. However, our best values will be made more complete by other contradictory values. I dream of what American patriotism would actually will in the world if Christianity actually stood against some of the present values within American patriotism. What would our Christian faith look like if we let it be informed by (contradictory) dialogue from our other values (even things as simple as our experiences of other religions, etc.). Value conflicts not only prevent us from doing harmful acts, but they also help us to reform and act in beneficial ways as well. With all of this said, I am proud to acknowledge myself as a Buddhist Christian Derridean Theopoet Existentialist Postmodern... (the list could go on for a while) without attempting to reduce any one of these dialoging-values to the other. Each has a valuable part to play. Notice, however, even though this is a clear break from mono-absolutism, we have also taken a step away from relativism. Behind all of this conversation (behind the veil) is a ghost. For by acknowledging that dialogue and value-conflicts are "good" things I have run against the ethical problem all over again. The ghost of ethics haunts on. Ghosts generally haunt for a reason. However, perhaps our ethical ghost has a little more form now... as we live our lives of mutual-contradictions. One more contradiction... a ghost with form. An ethic and an idea.

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