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Shaping a Vision for Cultural Pluralism

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by permission of the author, November, 2,000.


Globally, cultural pluralism is a truly critical issue. Under its impact the nation state is giving way. At the same time we in the United States have committed ourselves to building a nation state on the basis of cultural pluralism. Is this possible? We Christians have committed ourselves to making it work within the church. If we succeed, perhaps this will be the greatest contribution of the church to the wider society in this generation.

In this paper I want first to look at the global situation with all its testimonies to the divisive character of cultural diversity. I will then turn to the U. S. experiment -- the forms it has taken thus far. In the third section I will offer two more promising models that we can now envisage. After that I will come to the church's contribution and our responsibility.

I

The word "nation" has had a double use. My dictionary gives as the first meaning: "a people, usually the inhabitants of a specific territory, who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language or related languages." The second meaning is: "an aggregation of people organized under a single government, a country."

Many of us have not been especially sensitive to the difference between the two meanings because in European history nations in the second sense came into being largely to express the aspirations of nations in the first sense. That is, the French people, defined by common customs, origins, history, and language, created the nation state that is France. Nationalist sentiment has supported the French government against other governments. France is thus a nation in both senses.

But the fit between national boundaries in the second sense and nations in the first sense is rarely perfect. Even in France there are Basques who do not identify themselves culturally as French. Their national feelings bind them to the Basques in Spain. Also there are French-speaking people in Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada who do not identify with France.

As I grew up I assumed that the primary determinants of national feeling were the boundaries of nation states. I assumed that French Basques were primarily French, whereas French-speaking Swiss, Belgians, and Canadians were primarily Swiss, Belgians, and Canadians. Today we know that the situation in each case is different, and that cultural-linguistic differences are extremely important.

Switzerland remains the great success story of a pluralistic society in which the political boundaries largely correspond with the personal loyalties of its people despite cultural-linguistic diversity. Belgium has survived an acute internal struggle between its French and Flemish populations by giving equal status to the latter after centuries of subordination. For example, the great University of Louvain has divided into two. The old campus has now become Flemish, called the University of Leeuwen. A new campus was built a few miles away for French-speaking Belgians. At present the effort to hold together in one country two quite distinct cultural and linguistic communities seems to be succeeding. Only time will tell.

Canada is currently in the news because of separatist feeling in the predominantly French province of Quebec. Here the French minority seem more committed to their Frenchness than to the nation-state of Canada. On the other side, much of English Canada has been unwilling to yield its cultural dominance so that Canada could become a truly bi-cultural country.

I have chosen mild examples. It is easy to find more violent ones. There are the division of the Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan and the continuing ethnic struggles in the former. There is the long-protracted struggle in northern Ireland. There are the independence movements of various cultural groups in the Soviet Union. There is the ongoing struggle of the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. There are the rebellion of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the bloody disintegration of Lebanon, and the near-hopeless frustration in Israel. There are the endless tribal conflicts in Africa as the people there try to adapt to the boundaries imposed upon them by colonial rulers. There is the millenia-long "Jewish problem" in Europe, as the national feeling of the majority again and again led to the persecution of the Jewish minority in its midst, culminating in our own time in the "final solution." It seems in general that governmental boundaries are not as determinative of personal loyalty as we once thought, and that cultural and linguistic loyalties are more intractable.

II

Let us consider the American experiment against this background. It is a remarkable one, and it has been remarkably successful. A high percentage of people from many cultural backgrounds have transferred their primary loyalty to this country. This has often happened soon after arrival, and after several generations, intermarriage and cultural assimilation are often so advanced that national origin becomes quite minor in one's self definition. Against the background of European nationalism all of this is to be celebrated as realizing something of the meaning of the motto: e pluribus unum.

Today we are all aware of the limits of this accomplishment. The many who became one were all European. Even that requires more careful formulation. The Irish, the Italians, and Eastern Europeans found themselves on the periphery of a Protestant culture. As late as World War I, even persons of German descent were viewed with suspicion. Still, in fact, the unifying process had gone a long way. There has been no serious movement for the autonomy of ethnic groups of European origin. All have been in fact loyal to the government of the United States. And today Irish, Italian, or Eastern European origin is no barrier to public acceptance.

For non-Europeans the story has been very different. Against the Native Americans, genocide has been practiced on a large scale. Africans came as slaves and were denied any opportunity to become part of the society even after emancipation. Asians and Hispanics were accepted as laborers but not as real participants.

It was only after World War II that we began to face up to the severe limitations of the unity we had sought. We had assimilated Europeans with many ethnic backgrounds into an English-speaking and primarily Protestant-secular culture. But within our national borders were large numbers of Africans and Hispanics, and smaller numbers of Asians and indigenous people, who were marginalized. In spite of their exclusion from political and economic power, most of these groups identified themselves as American and wanted to be more accepted as part of the unity. Hence the first response, especially under pressure from Black leadership, was to extend to these groups the methods by which others had been assimilated.

The most important instrument of the assimilation of the many European ethnic groups was public education. Most Blacks had been segregated into very inferior schools. We integrated the schools as well as other public facilities. The goal was to assimilate all minority groups into the majority culture and ethos.

For one group this experiment has worked brilliantly -- the Asians. Once legal restrictions were removed and racial barriers lowered, Asians entered the mainstream of American life. The only problem in the public schools is the dramatic way in which they have outperformed other groups. It would be easy to imagine that within a few generations, the question of ethnic origin would become no more important for Americans of Asian descent than it now is for Americans of European descent.

But just this possibility raises questions about the ideal. Is the unity we want that of assimilation into the dominant Anglo culture? The question is asked on both sides. Anglos have become more aware of the limitations of their own culture and more interested in the cultures of the East. To eradicate that culture from persons of Asian descent no longer appears as an unqualified gain. From the side of the Asians, the culture into which they are asked to assimilate appears decadent. They do not want to give up the values and spirit that enable them to succeed so brilliantly in American society.

For Blacks and Hispanics the issue appears somewhat differently. Access to public schools and to other institutions from which they had previously been largely excluded turns out to be less beneficial than they had expected. For some of their number, it works personally. They can rise through these institutions, internalize the Anglo ethos, and succeed in the public competition so central to that ethos. But for many others, a majority, it does not work. Their cultural heritage and the ethos it has produced have not emphasized those values that lead to success in Anglo culture. To whatever extent self-esteem depends on that kind of success, public openness to their particiption in the competition lowers their self-esteem. They can continue, with some legitimacy to blame public prejudice and discrimination against them, but the truth is that others, with differing cultural values, including members of their own ethnic groups, have been able to succeed despite the obstacles. To whatever extent success in competition in Anglo culture is a measure of the excellence of a culture, their cultures are inferior.

This raises acutely the question of the justification of the hegemony of one culture in the unity that is to emerge out of the many. Perhaps African, Latin American, and Native American cultures have values that are radically different from European and Asian ones, values that lead to different measures of human wellbeing and success, and perhaps the effort to replace those values with others that will lead to success in Anglo culture is a mistake.

The community that has been struggling longest and most self-consciously with this question is the Native American. For centuries now, when the U. S. government has not promoted or at least allowed genocide, it has worked to eradicate the difference between Native American cultures and the Anglo one. Native American culture has certainly suffered under this assault, but it has not been destroyed. The consciousness of its value and the willingness to sacrifice for its preservation have been part of the experience of Native Americans for many generations.

For reasons such as this the ideal of assimilation of all to Anglo culture has given way to the ideal of pluralism. The Black Power movement was a crucial expression of this shift. Blacks learned to be proud of their Blackness and of all that meant culturally. In theology we were forced - painfully - to recognize that our heritage in Christian thinking was white, and that other racial groups had an equal right to determine what Christianity truly is. Instead of emphasizing the "one" that the nation was to become, we emphasized the multiplicity of cultures that could enrich the whole.

But clearly there is a problem here for both church and state. No community or institution can exist without some commonality or unity of purpose and values. If each ethnic community within it defines the end for the whole in different terms, terms expessive of its distinctive perspective, decisions at the inclusive level will have to be made purely in terms of power. Indeed, the more radical expressions of black power were suppressed by force, and the more radical proposals to the churches were simply voted down.

III

Most public discourse and public action in the United States moves between assimilationism, called integration, and pluralism. It is often assumed that there are no other choices. For those who are able to succeed in public competition within Anglo society, assimilation dominates public behavior, while privately, or in conjunction with others of their ethnic group, they may cultivate their distinctive cultural values. Generally, despite the rhetoric, the assimilative process is primary and advances with successive generations.

Meanwhile, the situation for those who do not succeed in the competition established by dominant Anglo values becomes more disparate all the time. They do not have institutional embodiments of the values of their cultures which provide different contexts for measuring success. Above all there is no economy expressive of their values where they could succeed without betraying their heritage. To fail in the dominant competition is to be reduced to squalor. Only the Native Americans have been able to maintain some semblance of a distinctive economy in which their values can be expressed, and this is quite minimal and unsatisfactory.

The Black Muslims offer another model of more successful pluralism. They have carried their separation from the dominant society into the economic realm. Although the basis of their successful businesses does not, so far as I can tell, have any special connection to African or Afro-American culture, its separateness allows them to maintain their separatist identity in other ways.

III

The question now is whether there are other models for thinking of our national goal of e plurabis unum. Can there be sufficient unity without eradication of the diversity of cultures? Are there other ways to deal with cultural pluralism than assimilation and separateness. A Black professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Henry Young, has just published a book dealing with this question: Hope in Process: A Theology of Social Pluralism, and my reflection on this topic owes much to him.

One way to think of this matter is to distinguish two levels. One can say that to be a participant in any society one must accept a minimum core of values. To be a full participant in the life of the United States, for example, you must be loyal to the nation state and you must internalize those values that enable you to be effective in its economic life. Beyond that, pluralism can prevail. You can continue in the religion of your choice. You can celebrate the art and literature of your people. You can maintain cultural connections with the land of your ancestors. You can raise your children as you see fit, so long as that does not prevent them from assimilating the core values of the society.

To a large extent this expresses the present situation. Assmilation is required in matters that are essential for national unity and economic order. Beyond that, pluralism is welcomed. We have freedom of religion. We all enjoy the multiplicity of cuisines that are available, as well as contacts with the arts of many countries. But this compromise trivializes culture. Fundamentally, it is a continuation of the assimilationist program.

Young proposes that we employ an ecological model in thinking of a pluralistic society. Here the unity of all the diverse species does not consist in an homogenization. Each retains its real difference from all the others. But each contributes to the richness of a whole that is very different from any one of them.

The ecological model is extremely suggestive. Members of any one of the species making up the eco-system have some relations primarily with other members of their own species, but they are also intimately interrelated with members of other species. This balance of separateness and interaction is one of the strengths of the model.

Obviously, such a model is an analogy, not to be pressed in every direction. In an eco-system, many of the relations between species are those of predator and prey. The food chain is a kind of hierarchy that we have had too much of in human society. There is a ruthlessnes in relation to the survival of individuals that we do not want to carry over. Also eco-systems do not relate to other eco-systems in ways analogous to relations among countries.

The most important contribution of the ecological model is that it provides a vision of unity that does not involve assimilation of all to the norms and values of one culture. It suggests that each ethnic community can be itself with integrity and pride and contribute its distinctiveness to the whole without derogation of the contributions of others and without divisiveness. Its acceptance would set before us a complex agenda that would reverse many of the major trends in today's world.

Because I believe this model is, indeed, the appropriate one for the present, I want to explore what would be required to move in this direction. I am especially concerned with its economic implications. Since I do not believe that the present economic order is compatible with any ideal other than assimilation, leaving the unassimilable aside as mere liabilities, I believe the economic implications are radical.

The main reason that the present economic order is incompatible with the ecological model, or any other genuinely pluralistic one, is that it is based on homogenization. This is built into its theory. All people are understood in terms of the traditional Homo economicus, a rational self-interested individualist who sells labor and buys goods in the market. This is in real tension with Western Christianity, but it is in more drastic violation of all the other religious and cultural traditions. For the sake of economic development, accordingly, the goal is the rationalization or modernization of all societies, and this involves breaking up established communities and overturning deep seated cultural perceptions. In short it requires cultural homogenization.

An equally central part of economic theory and practice is the emphasis on specialization. It is by specialization that productivity is increased; and economic growth depends on productivity, that is, the amount produced per hour of labor. At first, this meant specialization within a community, but the specialization was rapidly extended to communities as a whole. In the United States, instead of producing on a single farm all the food needed to sustain a family, whole states specialize in producing one particular crop. In the Third World whole countries become mono-cultures oriented to export, depending for their food on imports from other countries specializing in other crops. If each specializes in what it can produce most efficiently, there will be more food for all.

Some people celebrate this as "interdependence," and they may even use the ecological model in thinking of it. It is true that fewer and fewer peoples can feed and clothe themselves without importing what they need from others. In that sense we are more and more dependent on one another for our survival. But this means that global interdependence is achieved at the price of making all peoples dependent on those who control international trade. The ecological model, in contrast, pictures local communities as self-sufficient. The interdependence is with those with whom one lives day by day. The ecological model personalizes relationships. The dominant economic model makes everyone dependent on impersonal forces, the rational effort at profit maximization on the part of the great transnational corporations.

The dominant economic model works toward centralization of economic power and homogenization of culture. The ecological model can be implemented only by drastic decentralization of the economy. There are some encouraging forces moving in that direction today, but the overwhelmingly dominant forces are still governed by the long-established economic model.

I speak with a sense of urgency because of what is happening just now in trade relations at the global level. Global trade, and therefore the global economy, is governed by a set of rules known as GATT, that is, General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The present rules were developed as compromises between the advocates of complete "free trade," the ideal that follows from dominant economic theory, and those who felt that nations should have some control over their own economies. These present rules have already given the advantage to the former, so that global interdependence has grown at the expense of relative self-sufficiency at the local level. Still there have been some gains with respect to that goal also. Third World countries have been able to restrict some of the most obviously exploitative practices of transnational corporations. The ideal of self-sufficiency, at least in food, has won some ground.

The United States government in the eighties, however, has been deeply committed to free trade as the solution to global economic problems. It has expanded free trade with Canada and Mexico, and in what is called the Uruguay round of negotiations, it is persuading the leaders of the great trading nations to adopt a new GATT that will outlaw the policies by which nations have defended themselves against the worst effects of free trade. For example, the present agreement allows a country in which there is famine to stop the export of food in order to feed its own people. The new proposals would forbid that as in restraint of trade. Even if that particular proposal is dropped as a compromise, the other provisions will have much the same effect.

Those who would move the world decisively in this direction know that many people would be hurt by the new rules. But they are convinced that in the long run all will be better off since the total production of goods and services will increase. Hence they want to reduce the political force of what they see as short-sighted opposition. To this end they are keeping the negotiations secret. At least one person who has tried to alert others to what is going on has been threatened with prosecution for espionage under the Logan Act. Clearly the proponents of these new proposals know that a great deal is at stake. Even in this country all national or state legislation designed to protect human health, the rights of workers, family farmers, or the natural environment will be subject to being overruled as in restraint of trade. Third World governments will be drastically disempowered.

Of course, the administration cannot implement the agreement without congressional approval. Here lies the hope of those who believe that the homogenization of the planet and its control by a few economic interests is a disastrous end to human history. We know that trying to solve the problems of the planet by speeding up economic production will not work, since the environment simply cannot survive this kind of pressure. The unimpeded pursuit of general economic growth, directed only by market mechanisms, is suicidal. Some of us believe that with time to organize and make the case, Congress could be persuaded to block these agreements.

Probably the administration thinks so too. Their passion for secrecy suggests as much. Further, they have arranged with Congress that it will have no authority to amend the agreements. Instead it will have to act within sixty days of receiving the proposals, and a simple majority vote for or against is all that Congress is allowed. This vote may come this fall, while our representatives are preoccupied with elections.

As you can see, I have decided that it is not appropriate to speak abstractly of pluralism at a time when the possibility of developing healthy pluralistic models is about to be lost, perhaps forever. I suspect that most of you have regarded agreements about international trade as too technical to be of interest. I hope you will become interested. I fear that the destiny of the planet is about to be irrevocably decided.

If these final steps of homogenization and centralization are avoided, and if we can retain some room to experiment with other models, how would this work out? I propose that in our country, more and more groups should develop relatively self-sufficient local economies with an agricultural base in family farming and an industrial base in small factories. It has been shown that a quite small community, say ten thousand people, can produce most of what they need, and indeed do so in ways that retain healthy competition. Some of these communities might be ethnic, and ethnic values might dictate the amount and kinds of goods that were desired as well as the way they were produced. Others would be multi-ethnic, and could experiment with ways in which small communities could be enriched by diverse contributions. All would aim at sustainable relations with the natural world. I am not suggesting that these communities would not trade with one another. Most of them should and would. But this trade would be free in a sense in which what is called "free" trade is not.

Let me explain. A few centuries ago most countries, and even most regions within countries, produced the necessities of life. They were then free to trade or not to trade with others. When they chose to trade, they did so because this could improve the quality of their lives. Europeans could survive without spices, but by exchanging their surpluses for spices, they could enjoy their food a great deal more. When the exporters of spices acted voluntarily and received in exchange goods that enriched their lives, both sides gained by trade. This trade was truly free.

But the legacy of colonialism, and the effects of the neocolonialism of contemporary trade policy, are quite different. A country that can no longer feed itself is not free not to trade. It must sell its products at whatever price others will buy in order to purchase food at whatever price others will sell. Its only freedom is to choose between this exchange and starvation. To call this trade "free," as is normally done, is a travesty. Truly free trade can be restored only as local communities become relatively self-sufficient. Obviously this will also be a greatly reduced trade, requiring far less fossil fuel and contributing much less to the Greenhouse Effect. But here we are emphasizing that it will be a form of economic life that will allow people of different cultures to express their values in what they produce, how they produce it, and how they live.

My greatest sense of urgency is focused on this ecological model. But there is another model of pluralism that also seems to me to have relevance to our thinking of the future of this nation. It could be called the evolutionary model to complement the ecological one.

In interpreting the world of living things, evolutionary models have played a large role. They have been dangerous. When applied to human society they have been used to justify the survival of the fittest, meaning by "fittest," whoever survives in the military and economic competition. In relation to the natural world, they have led to depreciation of simpler organisms and preoccupation with the latest and most complex products of the evolutionary process.

Nevertheless, evolution is a fact, and its focus on cumulative change producing desirable results is not wrong. The ecological model by itself abstracts from all of this and can support a quite static world view. The ecological model, when abstracted from possible negative uses, provides us a way of thinking of e pluribus unum that avoids taking one extant culture as normative or just leaving the many as many. Still it suggests that each of the many remains internally unchanged. In this model the cultures are not modified by their relation to one another.

What I am calling the evolutionary model works best if we think of the evolution of the eco-system rather than of the evolutionary emergence of a new species. Here the assumption is that the healthy functioning of the eco-system brings about positive changes in the species that make it up. In the context of human society, it means that different cultures can learn from one another and be enriched and transformed by what they learn.

As I am thinking of this model, it does not mean that one culture is assimilated into another or that their differences will disappear. Each culture will continue to be that culture. But a culture is not static. There is not an ideal form of the culture somewhere in the past which is to be forever preserved. Cultures change and grow, and one of the main causes is encounter with other cultures. These encounters are often destructive, but they need not be. A culture with sufficient confidence and rootage in its own traditions can adopt and adapt from other cultures in creative ways. As several cultures learn from one another, there are growing elements of commonality among them. But because that commonality emerges from divergent histories that remain alive, there is no homogenization.

With respect to cultural pluralism in the United States, I am subordinating this model to the ecological one. The assimilative force of the dominant culture is so great that few minority cultures are in position to learn from it without being absorbed by it. The immediate need is to strengthen the basis for a healthy pluralism. But one of the reasons for calling for such a healthy pluralism is that it provides a basis for growth and transformation on the part of each community. Out of such growth can come elements of unity that are not now present in any of the ethnic groups.

IV

What do these models imply for the church? They certainly imply that the church should support and nurture self-esteem in all of the ethnic groups that take part in its life. The church is already doing much in this direction. It gives visibility in leadership positions to representatives of diverse ethnic groups and includes their voices when decisions are being made.

Nevertheless, giving leadership to representatives of ethnic groups is not enough. Indeed it has its ambiguities. Almost inevitably, when members of nondominant ethnic groups are given high offices in the church, they are expected to act very much as holders of that office have always acted. In other words, the very ways we have of honoring ethnic groups works towards their assimilation into the dominant inherited pattern.

Critics speak of this as co-optation. They are not wrong. But when they imply that this a conscious strategy deliberately adopted by the majority in order to disempower the minority, they usually are wrong. I believe that the present leadership of the church is genuinely committed to ethnic empowerment but lacking in models other than assimilation and separation. To give leadership in the church is a form of assimilation. To form ethnic congregations tends to be a form of separation.

The ecological model would encourage a measure of separation at the congregational level but would then emphasize patterns of relationship among these congregations that are currently rare. The structure of our church brings congregations together at the district and conference levels, but it does not encourage networking of congregations with one another. If congregations of the dominant ethnic group seek out congregations of smaller ethnic groups, asking their assistance as well as offering help, the contribution to self-esteem, and to the building up of healthy pluralism, will increase.

We also have opportunities to contribute to self-esteem and support cultural pluralism in relating to ethnic groups outside the church. Some of these ethnic groups express their ethnicity and strengthen their cultural heritage through the traditional religions of their cultures. Appreciation for other religious traditions has grown dramatically among Christians, and this has already led to growing self-esteem among participants in these other traditions. Most of the initiative for relationship with these groups still lies in Christian hands, and many local churches can take such initiative. It may be even more important that when other religious groups approach us we respond positively.

Perhaps the most difficult place to strengthen the self-esteem of persons from other cultures is when they are part of the local congregation itself. The assimilative force of such membership is overwhelming, especially if there are only a few members of the ethnic group in the congregation. Indeed, assimilation is what they may want. If so, it would be absurd to discourage it or to make them feel guilty for this desire. The task then is simply to support self-esteem in this process. On the other hand, if they want to maintain separate cultural identity within the predominantly Anglo congregation, we can create opportunities for them to discuss this project with other members and teach the congregation about the values of their distinctive heritage. But realistically they must accept the fact that the congregtion will have the character of the dominant group.

The situation is different in the much rarer case when the congregation has no dominant group but is itself genuinely pluralistic. Here is an opportunity to experiment with both the ecological model and the evolutionary one. The ecological model suggests that diverse services of worship be offered to express the ethnicity of the several groups, although there would also be special occasions to celebrate the unity of the whole. It would suggest that the several groups accept diverse roles that all see as complementary and mutually supportive, serving one another.

The evolutionary model would allow a measure of separateness but would see the goal as evolving a form of worship that would be different from that of any of the traditions involved, yet fulfilling of the deepest concerns of each. Dialogue aimed not only at mutual understanding but also at mutual transformation would play a major role.

V

I began by suggesting that the church has the possibility of modeling for the larger society some healthy pluralistic patterns. I hope that I have suggested ways in which, to some extent, we are already doing that. I hope also that by offering models of what we are doing at our best, I can encourage that behavior. I do commend the ecological and evolutionary models to you, if both are used with due caution and the recognition of their respective dangers. I especially ask that all who affirm cultural pluralism sound the alarm about the new and critical threat posed by proposed new trade policies. While the church is modeling healthy models, it must ask that the government not take actions that will block their implementation.


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