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Featuring guest John Inazu

John Inazu | Sharing Transcendence

John Inazu thinks there’s a way to live in this world of difference while still being confident and committed to our own beliefs, especially our religious beliefs.


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John Inazu thinks there’s a way to live in this world of difference while still being confident and committed to our own beliefs, especially our religious beliefs.

Description

We live in a world of many different ideas and beliefs and that can make it hard to be in relationships when we disagree about the things we hold most dear. John Inazu thinks there’s a way to live in this world of difference while still being confident and committed to our own beliefs, especially our religious beliefs. He calls this confident pluralism and wrote a book with the same title. In the episode we talk about what that means and how to apply it in the messiness of real life.

  • Originally aired on November 18, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Inazu:

If we believe this stuff, if we’re confident about it, then we would want inquiry into our premises and our beliefs, we would welcome and invite challenge. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have to spend every day of our lives hearing people berate us or make arguments against us. But we should not shy away from those arguments. And I think there’s some parallels there to how scientific inquiry at its best is supposed to work, you throw your ideas out there and you want them to be testable and challenged by the relevant community. I think when Christians can assume that kind of posture because of their underlying confidence, then it mitigates a lot of the anxiety that might otherwise be felt around difference and pluralism.

My name is John Inazu and I’m the Sally Danforth distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

We live in a world that feels like it has been increasingly filled with different ideas and beliefs, and these days it can feel like we must hold to our beliefs with a kind of absolute certainty in order to preserve our way of life. But that makes it almost impossible to be in a relationship with anyone who doesn’t believe the same way. 

I’ve been hoping to talk to John Inazu about this for a long time. I read his book, Confident Pluralism, back in 2018, and thought then that it is really important for the cultural moment we find ourselves in. He describes a way to live in the world that allows for difference and relationship, without sacrificing our commitment to the truth of what we believe and the ideas we hold dear. That’s what “confident pluralism” is supposed to convey. We talk about what that means exactly and some possible objections, and then about how to apply it to the messiness of real life. 

The conversation is especially important to what we at BioLogos have called “gracious dialogue”. In this time of deep division, it has gotten harder and harder to talk with people outside of our own echo chambers about vaccines, or climate change, or evolution and the origins of the world, or the Christian faith itself. John’s work comes from his own conviction and commitment to Christianity, which calls him to find common ground with all people. I hope you find this helpful.

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One:

Stump:

John Inazu, welcome to the podcast.

Inazu:

Thanks so much. It’s great to be with you, Jim.

Stump:

I’m excited to talk to you. The work you’ve done on confident pluralism is really interesting to me and I think it will be engaging for our audience. But before we get to those ideas, we’d like to know a little bit about the person behind them. So give us some autobiography, if you would. Where’d you grow up? What were you like as a kid? Why did you pursue a career in teaching law? 

Inazu:

The last part, totally by accident. I grew up a military brat, so my dad was in the army. We moved around a ton, I think probably 10 times before college, and ended up at college at Duke studying engineering, civil engineering. And quickly realized I did not want to be an engineer. I was there on an ROTC scholarship. And they were paying for school and paying for me to be an engineer. At the time, I’d found a pretty significant Christian fellowship and church and really wanted to stay part of that. So I endured the engineering degree, even though it wasn’t really my cup of tea. And when I got to the end of college, I realized I did not want to be an engineer. And so I went to law school as an escape hatch without knowing anything about the law, just knowing it wasn’t engineering. So I’m one of those refugees from science, I guess.

Stump:  

Because we’re BioLogos. We’re kind of interested in the science angle of things. What led you to engineering in the first place? Were you interested in nature or building Legos? Is that where engineers come from? 

Inazu:

Well, there was a longstanding fascination with Legos for sure. I think it was just the much more mundane sense in which I was good at math and science and people were tracking me in that direction. Early on, I had a high school history professor who told me that he thought my real passions and gifts were in writing and the humanities. He hoped I would one day figure that out. But it took me a while to get there.

Stump:  

Interesting. And what can you tell us about your faith background? You said you discovered this fellowship during college? Any faith tradition in your family growing up before that?

Inazu:

Yeah. As a military kid, we kind of just went to church wherever the local church was near or on the base. And so I was part of all kinds of different churches growing up: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian. And then came to faith through ministry from a Presbyterian Church, and then also the work of Young Life when I was in middle school in high school, and then was part of both Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship when I was in college and during law school. And so that was sort of the progression of growing faith. And then and then after that was pretty involved in youth ministry for quite a number of years. I was volunteer youth leader at my church in Washington, DC, and then on a church staff in Durham, North Carolina, leading the high school youth ministry when I was in graduate school.

Stump: 

Are there any interesting connections between your faith community and science from those days at least conflicts or lack thereof? That’s notable, perhaps,

Inazu:

I think the thing that I most remember, particularly with InterVarsity, was a willingness and an excitement to engage with science and not at all a fear or a concern of what knowledge and exploration would bring but a welcoming of those disciplinary skills and exposure to ideas. And so I did not, I know some kids go off to college and experience a profound clash between faith and science, I didn’t experience any of that. If anything, there was a real affirmation that science was part of God’s created order, and that it would help us better understand who we are and who we’re meant to be.

Stump:

Well keep your professional story going then so you go off to the escape hatch of law school. What did you discover there? And how did that start to resonate with you and become your line of work?

Inazu:

I popped into law school really knowing nothing about it and liked law school well enough, although I wasn’t a particularly good law student and then at the end of law school, because I’d done ROTC in college, I was assuming I was going to be a JAG. And I got a call in late during law school to go work at the Pentagon instead. And that’s sort of a special job as a military lawyer at the Pentagon. And that was really where law kicked in. For me, that was the practice of law, the day to day lived experience and work on litigation where I really came to understand that I liked the law, that I was good at the law, that there were lots of ideas and issues to explore. So I did that for four years and at the end of my time at the Pentagon was thinking as much as I liked this, it was way too fast paced. Everything was so urgent, and had to be done yesterday, and I was much more wired to be reflective and contemplative. And so I thought about going back and possibly teaching, which meant diversion to go do a PhD for a few years. I studied political theory, and a little bit of theology and then ended up teaching law after that.

Stump:

Where did you do your PhD?

Inazu:

UNC Chapel Hill, I like to say a school near Duke.

Stump: 

And now you root for whom in NCAA basketball?

Inazu:

That’s crystal clear to me. I have confusion about lots of things in life, but I’m a Blue Devil through and through.

Stump:

Colin, our producer is very glad to hear that, he spent some time at Duke himself. 

Inazu:

That’s great to hear. 

Stump:

So you’re now teaching law. You wrote this book Confident Pluralism. Do law professors need to write books for tenure and scholarship kinds of things? Or was this a side project of some sort, that you just got interested? Or maybe a little bit of both? Give us some background of what led to Confident Pluralism which was published in 2016, right?

Inazu:

That’s a great question. Most law faculty pursue tenure by writing law review articles, very specialized pieces, not books. And so it’s a bit of an outlier to be writing books as a law professor. People do it and increasingly, people with PhDs who teach in law schools do write books, but it’s not required tenure, it’s not expected for tenure. A lot of people end up not writing books, I love writing books, it’s probably my favorite form of writing. I was very interested in it all along. Confident Pluralism really grew out of my first book, which was based on my dissertation, and that was on the First Amendment’s right of assembly. During graduate school, I stumbled upon the right of assembly in the First Amendment, and realized it had been vastly under-explored, there was lots to talk about, and it became a really fun dissertation project that parlayed into my first book. I was really beginning to write Confident Pluralism or the first contours of it in what I thought was going to be a deeper book of political theory for specialists that was going to be read by just a few people. And I was having a conversation in the early drafting days with my friend, Andy Crouch, who said, the ideas you’re exploring here are going to have broader relevance and is there a way that you can reimagine this book suitable for these larger audiences, maybe non academic audiences? I really took that to heart and thought, how can I write a book that maybe has a few more stories, a few less names and citations, and that’s just more readable, but can still engage readers with the core ideas that I was exploring? That really set down the path of what became confident pluralism? Good?

Stump: 

Well, if you would give us kind of the synopsis of confident pluralism? What’s the understanding of confidence and of pluralism that you’re advocating for here in a package deal?

Inazu: 

I like that, the package deal. It starts with the harder word for people to understand is probably pluralism. Let me define that in two ways just to set the stage. The first is a descriptive term, and it just refers to the fact of difference in our world. We live in a pluralistic society where people hold deeply different beliefs about issues that matter and in our lifetime, short of the eschaton, we’re not going to see those beliefs reconciled. We live in a fact of difference in this world. Some of those differences are fine and make the world more interesting, but some of them are very painful, and Christians especially can’t affirm all difference as good. So we’re stuck with this problem with the fact of difference. That’s one understanding pluralism. The second understanding of pluralism is the political response to that difference. So what do we do with this fact of difference? It seems to me that we can look at the world around us and we can try to control it by force, which some people have done over history. We can withdraw from the world and not engage with difference, which is another alternative. Or we can figure out how to, as I say, in the book, not only survive, but also thrive across that difference. That’s the response of pluralism as a political response, the second definition. And so the idea of confident pluralism, that means we engage with our neighbors, those who are like us and those who are not like us, with a confidence in our own beliefs that allows us to pursue these relationships across difference. And as I say sometimes, that allows us to find common ground, even when we don’t agree about the common good. I think that’s a really important marker to flag here because we’re talking about fundamental divisions that go even to the nature of what the common good is, what does it mean to be a human being? What’s the purpose of our country? There’s massive disagreement right now about those very important questions. And rather than wishing that we could just resolve the disagreement, we need to be able to find ways to pursue common ground.

Stump:

So no matter which side of the political divide a person is on, 2016, the year that this was published, is recognized as a pretty momentous time in American politics. I don’t have the data up my sleeve, but everybody seems to feel like we are more divided than ever since 2016. Some of that, and you make the point in this book, that the increased feeling of pluralism might just be because many of those minority voices have been suppressed for so long, that there wasn’t a true sort of unity in the past but it was just that that had been suppressed for a long time. But given these days that we’re in now, the post 2016 world of America, what kind of reception has this book gotten during these years that feel like have just become more and more divided?

Inazu:

Let me hedge a little bit there and suggest that, in one sense, we may not be more divided than in the past. We can look back to past eras of massive political instability, the Civil War for one, but also the widespread labor and class unrest in the 1920s, or violence in the streets in the 1960s. We’re just not seeing that level of fracture and violence today. So it’s good, I think, sometimes to situate our… 

Stump:

It’s good to be reminded of that.

Inazu:

Right. It could be a lot worse, which is not to say it’s good, but it could be a lot worse. Then I think it’s also really important to say what is different about the present moment, and I can think of many factors, but two, in particular, stand out. One, there is a growing loss of a shared recognition of transcendence in this country, which complicates the problem and the challenge of pluralism. So back in the day, when you talked about working across differences, people assumed a basic transcendent framework, and it usually meant the major world religions, trying to figure out interfaith work. That’s a very difficult challenge. But it gets immensely harder, when you no longer even have the language of transcendence or God or the afterlife to draw people together. And with the significant demographic of nonbelievers, a growing demographic in this world, that complicates the discourse around shared language and shared goals. So that’s one significant change today. The other one that comes to mind is just where we are with social media and the barrage of inputs we get, often in echo chambers, often at rates that far exceed what any of us once experienced. When we were all little kids, we probably got the news twice a day, maybe in the morning paper and the evening news. Now we can get it refreshed every 20 seconds on our social media feeds and that does some work on our minds, reinforcing and re-entrenching ideas. I think those are some unique complications of the current moment. Which then gets to the question that you asked, how has my book been received in a moment? I would say it’s been mixed. I often am asked questions that made me think, again, of who is the primary audience of this book. The audience is and always has been people of goodwill across the political spectrum who are trying to figure out how do we engage with people we don’t like and how do we make this thing work. There are going to be ideologues in both directions who are just going to reject the premise and they’re not going to be interested in the project of pluralism they’re going to be interested in dominating and controlling. Those segments have always been there. And part of the political project of confident pluralism is to work hard to make sure that there are more of us wanting to work this out than not. I think frankly, that’s a growing challenge, as you see people more and more entrenched on their own political teams. That said, I have been encouraged by the reception of the book. At least before the pandemic, when I was doing a lot of speaking on college campuses, and elsewhere, I found that particularly younger, millennials and Gen Z types seem very open to the premise and just the… The younger generations have grown up with the reality of pluralism. So in some ways, it’s not a different lived experience for them to think about. They still have to figure out how to respond as a normative and as a moral matter, but it’s not as foreign and strange to them as it might have been for earlier generations who just weren’t exposed to as much difference in their own upbringing. 

Stump:

I will say personally, that I have benefited a lot from your book. I read it back in 2018, pretty carefully and have quoted it quite often in talks that I’ve given. I want to explore a little bit how it fits some with the work of BioLogos. In a bit, we’ll get to some of the more practical how to how we go about engaging with people that we differ with, but first, just for the benefit of our audience, I want to probe just a little bit more this tension maybe between the confidence in the pluralism parts of this. I’ll introduce it just by saying we do something very similar at BioLogos with faith and science. We have these two forces that might seem to pull you in different directions. But what we say, when understood correctly, it’s not just that they’re able to coexist, but might actually be mutually reinforcing. I wonder if you could describe that sort of surface level tension that people might have between the confidence and the pluralism, and then the deeper harmony that you see between these of how they can be mutually reinforcing?

Inazu:  

That’s a great question. Maybe the key to that, to answering that question, is to hone in on the distinction between confidence and certainty. Which will relate, I think, quite well to scientific inquiry. I think too many of us have fallen into this post enlightenment myth of certainty about facts in ways that most of human history hasn’t understood the same way. What I mean by that is that when we think about our existence in the world — what we do, how we act, what we believe, ultimately, whether we’re religious or not —we’re all acting day in and day out on a kind of faith in something because this lived certainty is typically beyond us. I think Christians can get into trouble when faith becomes claims of propositional certainty, as opposed to confidence in the person and work in Jesus Christ. So I think of confidence for Christians as being able to take that hope and that belief, which is not a kind of relativism. We think this stuff is true, and it matters. And then taking that into this world of difference that frees us from the fear and anxiety or the threat of difference. If we believe this stuff, if we’re confident about it, then we would want inquiry into our premises and our beliefs, we would welcome and invite challenge. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have to spend every day of our lives hearing people berate us or make arguments against us. But we should not shy away from those arguments. And I think there’s some parallels there to how scientific inquiry at its best is supposed to work. You throw your ideas out there and you want them to be testable and challenged by the relevant community. When Christians can assume that kind of posture because of their underlying confidence, then it mitigates a lot of the anxiety that might otherwise be felt around difference and pluralism.

Stump: 

So would you say that people who are the most certain, perhaps most dogmatic are also the most fearful of engagement with different opinions? Is that what you’re kind of driving at here? 

Inazu: 

That’s interesting. I mean, when you put in those terms, I think there’s something to it and when dogmatism replaces confidence, then it ultimately lacks that kind of confidence. It does produce a kind of anxiety. I think there’s also just a way of missed opportunity to engage in the world as we find it. So a kind of dogmatism that relies so heavily on propositions and logical argument misses the philosophical framework in which we live. The idea that, for example, you can prove the existence of God to a non believer by just walking them through a classical argument or proof. You know, people tried that in the 1990s. And maybe it worked that I’m not sure, but it definitely doesn’t work in the 2020s. And so when you’re trying to explain or defend faith or give an apologetic for your faith, there has to be a relational investment, there has to be a sense that you’re caring for the person to whom you’re speaking, and that goes beyond just a mere proposition. I think human beings intuit a sincerity that rests in confidence and not false certainty. When there’s a humility toward engagement, an openness to explore ideas in a non instrumental way, I think that can go a long way in how Christians engage with others.

Stump: 

So I’d like to inject another term into this and wonder how you would see it relating to these. And that’s commitment. Because when you just talk about, say, openness to inquiry, and sometimes in science and philosophy, we talk of following the evidence wherever it leads. But there’s another aspect even in scientific theory, just commitment to a paradigm, at least to a degree where I’m trying to use it to help work out what I think about things. Can I have a commitment to my beliefs in that sense, while at the same time being open to other people, to taking criticism? I mean, eventually, we know that people do change their minds that convert out of a religion or into a religion or from one political party to another. But what role does this commitment to my view play when I’m interacting with other people in the way you describe in this confident pluralism way?

Inazu:

Yeah, I really like that word. I wish I would have used it in the book now that you mentioned that. I think it’s a lovely term and what it gets at is, or to me, when I hear that it’s all about an embodied commitment, not just a mental commitment. In some ways, there’s no other option to live in the world, right? Whether it’s pursuing a scientific inquiry, or a faith belief, or anything that we do, we commit to something, we trust, and we move forward in that commitment. Maybe that commitment is revisable based on new evidence, but that doesn’t water down the strength of the commitment itself. And I think being open to challenge means that it makes the commitment riskier in some ways, and that’s probably what faith is, in some part in faith, being open to risk that takes you to the edge of the precipice and makes you realize that you can’t ultimately rely on your own faculties or your own certainty, but you are. We call it a leap of faith for a reason. The only question is, where are you leaping? And to leap into the arms of Jesus seems like a pretty good bet, based on the other alternatives that we have out there.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints. You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the BioLogos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two:

Stump:

Okay, so as you mentioned, one aspect of this is that the differences we’re talking about are pretty important ones. That’s where I think I’m right about something and my opponents are wrong. So these are not just differences like whether the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils are the right team to follow.

Inazu:

That’s a very important difference, too. 

Stump:  

Okay, how about maybe which flavor of ice cream is the better? 

Inazu:

That’s much better, yeah.

Stump:

Rather, we’re talking about things where it’s maybe political differences that have real consequences on how I can live my life or religious differences that are the truth of who is saved and who isn’t, or something like that. And in that vein, you quote early on in the book, Rousseau, this provocative line is so great to get you to react to. Where you quote Rousseau saying, “it’s impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” And the burden of your book is to show that Rousseau is wrong. But if I can play devil’s advocate, Rousseau’s advocate for a minute, isn’t there a kind of reciprocal relationship between my confidence in the truth of my own positions, and my willingness to tolerate different ones. On these really important matters if I’m really confident that I’m correct in this, doesn’t it behoove me to impose that truth on everybody else?

Inazu:

I was with you until you said the word impose, right? Because that’s probably the ballgame there. With the confidence of our beliefs, we absolutely want other people to hold them. I mean, for me, when I think of my deepest beliefs, I would love for everybody in the world to come to those same beliefs, which is why pluralism for me is not relativism. I don’t think all ideas are good and the same. It matters which ideas we hold, and what truths we are able to understand. So persuasion and the opportunity to explore our authentic and deepest beliefs with others absolutely matters. But I think one key to a firmly held confident belief over something that matters, being able to engage with other beliefs, is the distinction between the people we encounter and the ideas that they hold. We should be able to interrogate and reject ideas, we should be able to label those ideas in moral terms: some ideas are bad, and some ideas are evil, and we should be able to name those. But we should also, especially as Christians, do the hard work of distinguishing people, the image bearers, from the ideas they hold. And when we focus on people as human beings, I think we can usually find that no matter how wrong-headed we think the idea is, there’s something to connect with on a human level with the person holding that idea. In fact, we can often learn something from other human beings. It’s rarely the case that I’m going to encounter somebody, even someone I disagree with on profound levels, who’s not going to be able to teach me anything about my own understanding of the world of faith or what it means to be human.

Stump: 

So the ‘we’ you keep using there is that in this collective sense of a civil society, and what I’m wondering is, what is the extent that civil society should be willing to tolerate falsehoods? I mean, the obvious application these days is with something like COVID vaccines? To what extent do we in civil society… Okay, I totally get treating the people, the individuals as image bearers of people from whom I can learn something. But when it comes to how do we operate as a society now, what are the rules we put into place? To what extent can I tolerate the ideas of these other people if they’re demonstrably wrong, at least in my view?

Inazu:

You’re asking all the hard ones here. So a couple things. First of all, we can start by observing that there is no such thing as a completely pluralistic society, every society is going to set limits and boundaries to the extent of permissible pluralism. So we’re not going to allow for the local chapter of al Qaeda in the name of pluralism, we’re not going to allow for the cult of human sacrifice in the name of religious pluralism. We’re all going to have, in any human society, we’re going to have boundaries. If you’re on the outside of that boundary, there are dire consequences to your intended way of life, or you just don’t get to do it. And if you try, you’re probably going to go to jail. So those boundaries matter quite a bit. Then the harder question, I think is what else is placed outside of the bounds and when we get to contested questions of what is truth and what is observable fact I think we’re in a real bind in our contemporary moment. When we were speaking earlier about what might be different about the current moment, the widespread availability of misinformation and the ways in which just factual inaccuracies can be embedded in people’s understanding of reality to say nothing of the augmentation of those views and positions through video technology and things like deep fakes, right? We’re just on the cusp of how bad this could get. And when you’re contesting with basic facts, it becomes very hard to know where plausible limits are. I think one place to start is to do a bit more work on what we allow for as contestable facts. For people of faith generally, and for Christians, in particular, this means recognizing that facts, some facts that we hold as true and right for the entire world, are just not going to be empirically provable in the same way as other facts. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead matters to me, and I believe it matters to the created order. But it’s not the same as the fact of saying today is Tuesday, or whatever day it might be. Those kinds of distinctions matter and it matters how we talk about those distinctions and it matters how we talk about facts. I think only then can we get into plausible critiques of other kinds of claims. And here, I think, science and public health, and other specialties and disciplines really need to step up to the plate and do a better job of policing the claims of expertise and of having a kind of modesty about what the limits of expertise are. To me, the pandemic has been a great illustration and case study of this there. There is a lot of important science behind what’s going on. But science does not give us all of the answers to the many policy questions that people want answered. When science and in the law is another part of this, the law plays into questions about quarantines and vaccine mandates and those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, when policy takes the influences from science and law and other parts of life, some policy decisions are not going to be black and white facts, and some are, and we’ve got to do the hard work of distinguishing them.

Stump:

So sometimes we make a distinction between ideas that are dangerous to people and those that are just a matter of believing falsehoods. If somebody believes the earth is flat, I don’t know that it’s a danger to anybody. Whereas things like wearing seatbelts pretty demonstrably keep people safer. And this business you just bring up with science, I think is really interesting, because science can show pretty well that on a large scale, the effects of vaccines, say, but those are not deciding policy in and of themselves, because there are other issues. Even for churches right now and the right to come together on a Sunday morning to worship, and whether the safety question of what’s good for people gets mixed up between health benefits and mental and spiritual health? Is that what you’re talking about with science that needs to have a little more modesty in saying that the answer to whether we should all be vaccinated or wear masks or be able to get together isn’t decided simply on the results of a randomized test in drug efficacy or something?

Inazu:

Yeah, I think that’s part of it, or the mantra, trust science or believe in science is not going to give you the full answer to some of the hardest questions. To even take your seatbelt example from a minute ago. Most of us can agree that wearing seatbelts saves lives and as a significant and important safety measure. But that’s a different question than whether seatbelts should be mandated, which is a policy question. I happen to believe they should be mandated. But that takes other factors into consideration, including, infringement on people’s otherwise right to do what they want, and manufacturing costs and all kinds of things. And when we look at most, either restrictions or benefits that come from government, they’re often based on policy considerations that are partially but not completely based in empirics, or in science. And then we all have judgments we have to make. So even, here’s one fascinating to me example from federal administrative law, where there’s a federal regulation that requires agencies to put a dollar amount on the cost of human life so that they can figure out how much a certain policy is going to cost. You’re not going to get the answer to those hard questions just by doing the math. It’s gonna take a lot more than that.

Stump:

Okay, this all sounds great, we aspire to be confident and live in their pluralistic world and to engage each other with graciousness. You admit at the end of chapter one of your book that it’s not going to be possible to fully realize confident pluralism. I’m quoting you here that “reality introduces a note of inevitable tragedy to our attempts to live with one another.” That’s a somber note, particularly in a pre 2016 world, but probably realistic. So what can we reasonably expect in our society and how do we actually achieve it? So we’re moving a little from the theory into more practical tips. We’re coming up on Thanksgiving here, that time when many of us hang out with family members we don’t normally hang out with and have conversations that COVID has exacerbated in lots of different ways. Let’s start to get some practical application of your theory here. How do we achieve this? What can we hope to expect and how do we achieve that?

Inazu: 

Well, so let me start with the most practical advice of all, which is if you want to test this theory out, don’t start with your family on Thanksgiving. Do a couple of test runs with friends and acquaintances. This stuff gets really hard, especially with family and the stakes are high for quite a few reasons. But in terms of in terms of pragmatic ways of living this out, I do think it helps in matters to name some of the limits of this vision, or really any political vision of shared existence. And I write in Confident Pluralism about the need to pursue a modest unity, and that there is going to be an element of tragedy and compromise. And that’s just true whenever human beings try to live together with different preferences and priorities, there will inevitably be a zero sum outcome where there are going to be political winners and losers, and not everybody is going to get the slice of the pie they all want, which means there’s going to be some sadness and regret. Part of politics is figuring out how to navigate those political challenges, keeping them at the level of politics and not transcendence, and then working as best you can to mitigate some of the harms that come when your position doesn’t win. We can run through any number of examples to illustrate the point. But if my preference is free speech, and I get to say what I want, then I might very well say something that you don’t want to hear. And that hurts you in some deep and profound ways. And that’s the cost, the civil cost of my free speech. This happens all the time in our society. Practically, especially for Christians, we might say, how, how do we think about loving our neighbors well, in the midst of this difference? I might have this baseline free speech right in this country. But for Christians, that doesn’t answer the question of how I’m supposed to speak. And how I might adjust my language or even limit, self limit my own right, for the sake of my neighbor. As we think through those questions, that’s one practical way we make greater space for a difference which may well involve a degree of sacrifice. Maybe for an easier starting point, for some people at least, just focus on the low hanging fruit and the common ground activities. Thanksgiving can start with a meal, it doesn’t have to start with the debate, it can start with just talking about the food, or maybe it’s going to a movie together with masks or whatever it’s going to take to get into the theater. To focus on the lived experiences that we all have as human beings. COVID, frankly, has made this much harder. It’s much harder to connect in 2d than it is in 3d and to remember the ordinary times that cause us to connect with other human beings. I think about this a lot in the context of academic conferences where I think those of us who go to these for our professional livelihood are realizing what we already knew, which is that the value of these conferences is often the breaks and the meals and the downtimes and the conversations that are not part of formal presentations, because that’s when we connect with others. And that’s when we humanize people who we might otherwise just be debating on in a panel or in a public discussion. It’s that shared humanity and texture of other people that lets us maintain relationships with them, even when we’re arguing with them in other settings.

Stump:

You give a set of three civic aspirations and then there’s a set of three imperatives. I wonder if you could walk us through these. So tolerance, humility, and patience as the aspirations and how these are related. Then to what you call your imperatives of speech, collective action, common ground, how do these work together, and give us some sort of practical tips along the way of perhaps how we can all get better at these aspirations that we need for functioning civil society?

Inazu:

Sure. So we’ve already talked a little bit about tolerance. That’s the idea that we have to do the hard work of distinguishing people from the ideas they hold. It doesn’t mean that we have to respect and affirm all ideas, it does mean that we focus on the person in front of us and look for common ground with that person. The idea of patience is closely related here, that we can pursue dialogue across difference in the context of relationships, and that we can come back with a willingness to have a second conversation. To ask questions with a goal of seeking empathy and understanding. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to get there. It might be that through patient listening, we discover that our differences are as stark as we thought. And it means that those differences may well limit our ability to find common ground, but we start with at least a posture of patience, that that pursues listening, and empathy. Then finally, the civic aspiration of humility goes back to something else we’ve already touched on, which is that we recognize epistemic limits to the arguments and the efficacy of the arguments that we might make, we recognize that even with things that we know to be true in our own minds, we might not be able to convince others who have been shaped quite differently than we have been. So we engage in those dialogues and relationships with a degree of humility and hold open the possibility that we can also be wrong about some things. Which, again, doesn’t capitulate to a total relativism but just assumes a posture of shared inquiry, in the pursuit of understanding.

Stump:

Let me come back to the tolerance one, just for a little bit, before we go to these imperatives. Is there something different these days that makes this distinguishing between the person and the ideas more difficult perhaps than it used to be given the way identities are wrapped up in the ideas? So if Black Lives Matter, it seems pretty hard to say I can consider your ideas wrong, but still value you as a person if blackness is my identity, if that’s part of it. Or you think of the LGBTQ community where, for a long time, the Christian position was thought to be love the sinner, but hate the sin. And people in these communities respond with hold on. How can you separate my identity, who I am as a person, from these things? Is that different these days than it used to be? Or does that create a problem for this methodology you’re advocating for here?

Inazu:

It certainly has the potential to complicate it. So I think you’re right to name the potential challenge here. An added layer of the challenge is when the idea that is held or perceived to be held by another person is seen not only as wrong, but as evil. When we make that jump from wrong and misguided to evil, it becomes much harder to separate that idea from the person, particularly when, as you said, that position or viewpoint is directed at me as a human being are at the core of my understanding of my own identity. So I think there are some shared premises that have to happen for these conversations to work. One of them is we have to be able to set terms of saying we’re going to agree that we are all human beings and that we are all able to benefit from the rights afforded under the Constitution. So people who say, because of the way you are or the color of your skin, you don’t deserve these rights, or you’re subhuman, those people really aren’t in the discussion or in the universe of pluralism that I’m describing. It’s just not going to be possible to find that mutual tolerance in those settings. Now, I still think for Christians, there’s still the imperative that you pursue everybody, including your enemies, including the people who hate you as image bearers. Now, that’s hard, I don’t have great answers of how to do that. But in the practical, working out of politics and pluralism, we at least have to have a shared understanding of who we are as human beings and citizens.

Stump: 

Okay, let me prompt you here for each of these imperatives, then, to give a little explanation of what you’re talking about. Or maybe you want to talk about the imperatives as a whole and how they fit within the model?

Inazu:

Yeah, I think what I mean by the imperatives are just how, what are some ways in which we work out these aspirations of tolerance, patience, and humility in our own day to day lives. I start with this idea of speech, and we’ve already mentioned it briefly. But because in this country, we can say almost anything to almost anyone, that gives us a tremendous amount of power and a tremendous amount of responsibility in how we speak to others. So I suggest that we, especially when we’re dialoguing with people who hold views differently than ours, that we avoid what I call the conversation stopper in the hurtful insult. We don’t just throw out labels against people we don’t like to delegitimize them as people, but we engage with the ideas. And here, again, scientific inquiry at its best models this well. It says stick to the arguments and focus on the evidence, not the person who’s making the arguments. Then the hurtful insult, the idea that we should just, this is kind of kindergarten, but avoid name calling and avoid saying things that make people feel bad. And that’s hard.

Stump:

This is quite the insight you’ve come up with here.

Inazu: 

I know, years of study and reflection for this one. But in some ways it’s funny, because although it is seemingly more obvious, it’s also one of the hardest ones for people to implement. Especially when the response is, hey, this word doesn’t mean that to me. I’m just saying this because I grew up saying this, and you have thin skin if you’re going to be hurt by this. I think what I’m trying to suggest in the speech imperative is that our posture should be different, and that we should be open to listening from someone who says, actually, the way you use that word, or that label really did hurt me. Then to reconsider why that might be the case. If we can change our speech patterns, it doesn’t mean we capitulate to everything everyone wants us to say, but it means an attentiveness to that posture.

Stump:

Is that what you mean by living speech? What you say in the description of this speech imperative? “Living speech, even in the midst of real and painful differences can be one of our most important bridges to one another.”

Inazu:

Yeah, that’s part of it. I borrowed the term from the legal scholar James Boyd White. But I think where White is going with this is the idea that our words can construct realities for the people around us that can be either harmful or life-giving. And that we should pursue those kinds of words that aren’t dead or destroying, but actually breathe life into people around us. Here, again, we’ve got a lot of resources in the Gospel for this kind of language, both in the person and example of Jesus, and also thinking of the book of James and other places where we are admonished about the power and possibilities of our words. So that’s speech and then the second one. 

Stump:

Collective action. 

Inazu:

Yeah, and this is really hard. This is tricky for me. It’s the part of the book that I think is least thought out or fully thought out. It’s what we do, when we need to elevate our influencer voice by combining with people around us. Human beings do this all the time. We know that the group speaks louder than the individual. We know that the individual worker doesn’t have as much influence as the labor union and the individual consumer doesn’t have as much power as the boycott and the individual protester doesn’t have as much power as the group protest. So there’s a significance and a value in getting people together to express and even to work for change together. But within the vision of confident pluralism, this gets complicated when we direct that collective action against our fellow citizens. If we decide to boycott Jim’s podcast because of what you said last week, that has consequences that are coercive in nature. That might not reflect very well, patience, humility and tolerance. And sometimes that’s important for us to pursue. There are some examples from the Civil Rights era where there really were boycotts needed to effectuate change in the private sector that was not happening under the guidance of law. So I don’t have a complete aversion to this kind of collective action. But I do want to suggest that there’s a posture of engagement that should cause us to reflect and think pretty carefully, before we use collective action against our fellow citizens, especially when they’re operating as individual people and not representing official positions or influence.

Stump:

This one in particular, brought out to my mind another potential tension in here that as you know, this goes kind of against the value of rational persuasion, we’re not able to convince people just by putting arguments out there, and so are resorting to something else. And I think I was reading your book at the same time I was reading the book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, are you familiar with that? 

Inazu:

Sure. 

Stump:

Shows pretty conclusively that most of the time, we’re not using reason to make our decisions, but just use our reason to justify or rationalize what we’ve already decided on. Does this throw a wrench into your approach here, if we most of the time aren’t operating or at least making decisions based on these rational means anyway? Because I mean, you’re kind of pushing for us to use calm, rational, persuasive methods as opposed to bigger guns or louder voices. How do you reconcile that with this view of ourselves that seems that we don’t really operate that way most of the time?

Inazu: 

So let me maybe suggest that the divide is not between rationality and bigger guns, but the middle ground of persuasion encompasses more than just rational argument. We are persuading others with our words, but also, we’re persuading emotively, and we’re persuading others with how we live our lives. That’s part of what it means to be human. It’s one reason, and this is a little deeper in the political theory, but it’s one reason that there are kinds of Rawlsian and other constraints on public discourse that I just don’t think work with who we are as human beings. Part of what I want to encourage is that this persuasion as an alternative to coercion is not reduced to mere rationality, but is asking us to bring our whole selves and our whole lives into the conversation. Sometimes that means sitting down and exchanging words. And sometimes it means singing or showing people what worship is or something like that.

Stump:

Good, that’s really helpful. Okay, thirdly, the common ground imperative.

Inazu:

Yeah, this is sort of at the end of the book. And I think the idea here is just to suggest some examples of where there really can be common ground across deep difference. Part of my concern with the current moment is that we’re not very good at telling the good stories. We focus on all of the national disarray, and we talk about how Congress is broken, which certainly seems true. But we need more of the stories, especially at the local level, where people do pursue effective common ground across difference and not just a feel good Hallmark story, but the common ground that can really effectuate change at the local level. The common ground that can come together to work on issues like human trafficking, or the repair of local school districts, or the kinds of things that benefit especially the torn areas of the social fabric or the least of these. That will mean for Christians partnering with people who do not share our beliefs, and partnering with organizations who are otherwise at odds with us. But it’s imperative to pursue that common ground, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of those around us.

Stump:

The very last word in your book is hope. You list it as an additional aspiration to tolerance and humility and patience as a civic virtue. You don’t give it a lot of space in here, though. I’m wondering do you encounter much hope in public spaces today? And are you yourself hopeful?

Inazu:

Thanks for picking up on that word. I am hopeful. I do actually wonder, and this is a serious question, whether hope is a peculiarly theological virtue. One of the reasons I didn’t attend to it very much in this book, written for people who have no particular faith. But to me hope is about the object of my hope, which is not the same hope that everybody shares. So I do have hope for that reason. I also have a kind of more modest confidence in the people I see and knowing that we’re here for the long game. That we as Christians don’t think in terms of election cycles and we think in much longer terms and there’s hope in that vision as well. I will say that I co-authored a volume after Confident Pluralism with Tim Keller and that was explaining some of these ideas in more distinctly Christian terms. Tim added a fourth aspiration to humility, patience and tolerance, and that was courage. I do like that quite a bit. I think courage is part of this courage rooted in hope, and the object of our hope is even better.

Stump:

What’s next for you? Any more books on the works?

Inazu:

Well, I think just trying to get through teaching during COVID is the current challenge. But I am starting to write again, and I think increasingly, the focus on storytelling and engaging people with stories is going to be increasingly important. So I hope to be able to do that in the coming years.

Stump:

Well, very good. If we see something like that come out, perhaps we can talk to you again, sometime. I really appreciate the conversation. I think it’s super important, and really fruitful for the BioLogos crowd as we talk quite often about gracious dialogue with those with whom we disagree. So just appreciate so much, John, both your work and coming on and talking to us today.

Inazu: 

Thanks, Jim. It’s been great to be with you.

Credits:

BioLogos: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

John Inazu

John Inazu

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.  He teaches criminal law, religion and law, and various First Amendment courses. He writes and speaks frequently to general audiences on topics of pluralism, assembly, free speech, religious freedom, and other issues.


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