What’s wrong with the world today, you may well be asking yourself? If we could send our Western Democratic Society off to the doctor for an analysis, what would the diagnosis of our illness be?
I recently listened to an old RN Drive radio program with Waleed Aly on the issue of Melinda Tankard Reist’s position within the “feminist” camp. In that program, Scott Stephens, the editor of the excellent ABC Religion and Ethics website, posited a term that was completely new to me: “agonistic hyperpluralism”.
Now, following the QandA debate between Pell and Dawkins, Stephens has published a complete essay (“Questions without Answers in the Kingdom of Whatever”) on the phenomenon he calls “agonistic hyperpluraism”. I challenge you to read the article and NOT conclude – as I have done – that he is absolutely spot on with his diagnosis of our society’s present illness.
It is a devasting critique of what happens when there is no longer any shared basis for communal discourse.
One phrase in his essay stood out to me: “provided our lives are never constrained by the moral demands of actual community”.
That is what the Church represents for me living in today’s society – an “actual community” that makes real “moral [and faith] demands” upon me as an individual who has chosen to belong to it. Rejecting the kind of “agonistic hyperpluralism” that besets our modern society (and, I would have to be honest to say, also our Church), I have chosen to belong to the community known as “the Catholic Church” and to conform my thinking as an individual to the thinking of this community as a whole. In other words, “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”.
You may think there is “freedom” in being a “free thinker”, unconstrained by the demands of belonging to a coherant and real community. You may say that such “constraint” forces not only uniformity but is a rejection of diversity. I say that such is freedom is nothing but a recipe for the complete disintegration of society. To use an analogy from physics: the reason the world of matter exists and exists in such a marvellous pluriformity, is precisely because the individual building block that make up everything that exists (atoms etc.) hold together and interact on the basis of immutable laws of physics. If each atom was indeed “atomic” (in the sense of individual) nothing concrete would exist. Everything would, in fact, be exactly the same – a dull thin soup of atoms tasting of absolutly nothing.
In positing the idea of “agonistic hyperpluralism”, Stephens has offered a diagnosis of our woes. He does not offer a cure. I believe that the Church does offer a cure. It is an “actual community” that exists with no less an aim than uniting the whole of human society in the Kingdom – not of “whatever” but – of God.
[P.S. If you are not completely burnt-out with these “science and religion” debates, then you might like to join me tonight at 7:30pm at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne for a conversation between two eminent philosophers, Peter Singer and Brendan Purcell. The topic is “the role of reason in faith and unbelief”.]