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Diversity: Reclaiming a Buzzword

Devra Torres, Apr 19, 2012

God is clearly fond of diversity.

Last week, I posted about the striking variety in personality, temperament, talents and style among Catholic priests.  Several readers noted the same individuality among the saints. 

But is it just the Church?  Reader (and friend) Jessica Essolen pointed to a Baptist minister and a Jewish philosopher who display plenty of flourishing individuality.  And what about those Catholic "reductionists" we all know who misguidedly promote particular devotions or styles or images as the only authentic piety?  (Steven Greydanus has some worthwhile thoughts on the subject.)

So, it's true: on the one hand, some Catholics do act as if they had very little use for diversity.  On the other, the Catholic Church does foster the unrepeatable individuality of every single human person. 

But it's not just Catholicism.

It's God Himself.

"Hold on!" you may be hollering.  "I know all about embracing diversity.  I've been hearing about very little else for the past 40 years--but I didn't expect that kind of blather from a respectable blog like this!  Isn't 'diversity' just a code word for relativism?   Isn't it just a way of saying that the Bee Gees

are just as good as Haydn

(aesthetic relativism) or that scientology is just as good as Christianity (theological relativism) or that a 'friend with benefits' is just as good as a lawfully wedded husband (moral relativism)?"

Ah.  I see what you mean.  You've understood "diversity" exactly the way it's usually intended.

But I submit that it's a term worth taking back from the roving reductionist word-hijacking brigade that's been running around unrestrained for so long now.  (While we're at it, let's reclaim "choice," too.  Then we'd be able to make perfectly reasonable claims like "God, the inventor of free will, is pro-choice" without fear of misrepresentation.)

Yes, we should embrace legitimate diversity.

And no, we shouldn't be surprised to see lots of it in a world that emerged from the hand of an infinite and perfect God.  When we call Him "perfect," we don't just mean He doesn't lie, cheat or steal.  We mean He's complete, lacking in nothing.  Certainly not in imagination.

He didn't have to make us male and female, or melancholy, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic.  But He did.  He didn't have to invent asperatus clouds

or the crab nebula

or platypuses.  

He didn't even have to create the universe in full color, or give us eyes to perceive it that way.  Nor was He obliged to create billions of human persons, each with an unrepeatable subjectivity and the capacity for free actions with real-world consequences.

Why would He have bothered if what He truly desired was cultish, freedom-suppressing uniformity?  If we believers have given the impression that that's what our Faith is about, then no wonder there's such a glaring need for a new evangelization.  It's urgent that we make it clear that liberty-squashing piety is just as unappealing to us as it is to the most self-respecting, autonomy-treasuring atheist or agnostic.  As Fulton Sheen put it,

"There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be."

We embrace real diversity because it manifests the countless facets of the unbounded personal Being who we worship.  This is an altogether different thing than heedlessly dabbling in different flavors of aesthetics or ethics or religion because we don't believe any of them are worth arguing about (never mind killing or dying for, pace John Lennon).

 At the International Academy of Philosophy, our motto was "Diligere veritatem omnem et in omnibus": Love all truth and love it in everything.  We delighted to unearth grains of truth in even the unlikeliest places.  (Some people were scandalized that we found some of those grains in Kant.  Others, before them, were scandalized that St. Thomas found them in Aristotle.)

So it's one thing to seek out objective truth in all kinds of places.  It's quite another to indulge in random, pointless appreciation of this n' that, aspiring to nothing higher than agreeing to disagree.

How, then, do you distinguish between the riches of a diversity worth celebrating and an incoherent relativism?  (Then there's the no less urgent question: How do you do that in a little blogpost, without losing any heroic readers who may have persevered this far?)

St. Augustine had some excellent advice about this--at least, it's usually attributed to him.  It goes like this:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

I don't presume to improve on that, but here are a few clarifications worth noting:

In fact, as a convert, it still strikes me as an astonishing amount of lattitude.  Within certain broad limits, a Catholic is perfectly free to believe in creationism

or (theistic) evolution.

 An American Catholic is not required to belong to any particular political party (though not everyone talks that way in an election year).  There are Eastern and Western rites, traditions, and liturgies.  There are myriad childrearing styles, careers, associations, and spiritualities that a Catholic layperson can practice and participate in with a perfectly good conscience.  

And as the Jewish mother of a small tribe of free, unrepeatable subjects

--well, I'm sure I'm anthropomorphizing here, but I'm very impressed, and almost scandalized, at how much our Father respects His children's ability to exercise our own judgment.  I have what are known as "adult children" of my own, and I find it exceedingly difficult to let them run around using their own judgment.  I can't shake the sense that it must be hard for God, too, to take the "risk" of allowing all that freedom and all that diversity--especially since He knows that it will often end badly (rather than just worrying that it might, like earthly parents do).

I could almost believe that it must be tempting for Him to put His foot down and declare, 

OK, this experiement is over!  Look what you did with the freedom I gave you!  From now on, you'll all have the same opinions, the same tastes, and the same personalities!  For your own good!  Because I said so!

But then, that wouldn't be very personalist of Him.