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Wednesday, 21 February 2018  | Katherine Abetz

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’)

We Australians are increasingly being reminded that our country is multicultural. The inference is that we ought not to prioritise our Western heritage but to open ourselves out to a broad spectrum of diversity. Anything less than this, we are given to understand, is a relic of imperialism. Such openness often takes the form of a retreat from Christian values. What we forget is that Christianity was born in a multicultural environment and that the conversion of the West was a cross-cultural event. There is nothing particularly Western about Christianity. The Christian Church is world-wide. What is Western is the kind of retreat from traditional values that is being advocated and the new approach to diversity that goes with it.

It is no new discovery that our world is diverse. Many of us would be familiar from schooldays with Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’ which celebrates the infinite variety of God’s creation. Nevertheless we seem to be discovering diversity anew. Sallie McFague writes:

If equality has proven to be problematic in valuing differences among human beings, tending toward universalism or essentialism in its integration of the minority into the majority’s assumptions, it is even more questionable a category to help us live appropriately with other animals. ‘Species-ism’ is not just prejudice against other animals that can be rectified by treating them like human beings; rather, it is the refusal to appreciate them in their difference, their differences from us and from each other that require, for instance, special and particular habitats, food, privacy, and whatever else each species needs to flourish. (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, 1993, 121)

McFague indicates that the Western category of ‘equality’ has placed a frame around diversity which, she says, has proved to be ‘problematic’, even in ‘valuing differences among human beings’, let alone animals. The category of equality tends to put everything (or everyone) in the same box. McFague suggests that we need to regain an appreciation of difference. What she does not say is that we need to rethink our Western tendency to put things in boxes.

McFague’s comment about equality and difference appears in the third book of her series on religious language. Language for God, as she presents it, does not claim to have reference beyond human categories or models. Her remark about appreciation of difference, cited above, is part of her project ‘to look at everything through one lens, the model of the universe or world as God’s body’ (McFague, The Body of God, vii). The human lens or model places a frame around appreciation of diversity in a way that functions differently from the language of Hopkins’ poem.

What happens if the language of ‘diversity’ loses its immediacy? The danger is that it becomes a notional kind of diversity that glosses over differences, especially those differences that do not conform to the ‘moral’ tone of the dominant culture. One of the things that the lens of ‘diversity’ tends to overlook is the possibility that migrant ethnic cultures may agree with each other on some matters while disagreeing profoundly with the new model of ‘diversity’. This is clear in the case of the redefinition of marriage.

The marriage debate has been resolved by recourse to the lens of ‘equality’ at the expense of diversity. It is noteworthy that the media has not asked why certain electorates in Sydney voted ‘no’ in the plebiscite. The lens of ‘equality’ invokes ‘human rights’ but now the rights are competing with each other and religious freedom may go by the board. What becomes of diversity on such a basis?

The old idea of marriage was based on a unity-in-diversity, despite cultural and religious differences. The new idea can only be implemented by what I call ‘uniformity-in-diversity’. McFague states that ‘equality … has tended towards universalism or essentialism in its integration of the minority into the majority’s assumptions’. The trajectory of ‘equality’ has, however, been towards religious freedom, not against it. It would be ironic if this freedom were revoked in the name of ‘diversity’.

The new idea of ‘diversity’ bears more resemblance to a pax Romana than to Western democratic values as experienced in recent centuries. Rome had the habit of incorporating the gods and goddesses of conquered nations. The Roman pantheon might be said to reflect religious diversity. But the pax Romana upheld the supremacy of Rome. The religious diversity was, in fact, uniformity-in-diversity. In the end the emperor was worshipped as a god. To refuse to say ‘Caesar is Lord’ was a political act. Christians suffered for their insistence that ‘Jesus is Lord’. Does the current possibility that religious freedom may be revoked in favour of a state-sponsored uniformity rework the relationship between church and state?

I stated above that the retreat from traditional values is a Western phenomenon. Other cultures may be influenced by this development but it has its roots in the West. By traditional values I include the broad spectrum of agreement about morality in traditional religions. Christianity did not invent morality. It deepened traditional morality. (‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ Matthew 5:42-45). Here is the traditional distinction between righteous and unrighteous (or good and evil) which does not preclude love of enemies. The retreat from traditional values does not explain what is now meant by ‘love’ and ‘hate’. We humans find it very difficult to love our enemies. God is not like that.[1]

The retreat from traditional values is a retreat from the authentication of values and objective truth. It would be more accurate to equate the new interest in ‘diversity’ with relativity as opposed to external truth. But the idea that there is no overarching truth to measure the validity or otherwise of differing views cannot be sustained. Someone must take the role of arbiter if anarchy is to be avoided. Hence the trajectory towards a pax Romana noted above. A retreat from Christian values may sound like an abdication from past imperialism. But if it is to be replaced with anything like a pax Romana the tendency will be more imperialistic, not less. This is a pseudo-abdication.

The conversion of the West to Christianity was a cross-cultural event, as noted above. Renouncing that conversion will not increase our openness to diversity: rather, it will have the opposite effect. The tendency to put things in conceptual boxes stems from our Graeco-Roman heritage, not our Christian heritage. The roots of Christianity are Middle Eastern, not Western. The heritage of so-called Christendom has been a somewhat uneasy mixture, with roots both in the West and the East. If we are serious about ‘diversity’, a first step could be a re-evaluation of that twin legacy.

We are Australians, as we are currently reminded in the debate about the date and meaning of Australia Day. As Australians, we are not bound to follow the example of other countries, particularly European countries. If the interest in ‘diversity’ is not to remain superficial, ought not the discussion of traditions include the discussion of traditional values? In this matter have we seriously engaged the traditional owners of our country?

I began with a quotation about diversity from Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’. I am indebted to Sallie McFague for drawing attention to Hopkins. Despite her rhetoric, her kind of thinking stops short of wonder at what is. She goes so far as to indicate that we have lost the capacity for this kind of wonder, at least in adulthood (The Body of God, 121). That said, she wants to regain the flavour of Hopkins’ poetry, on her own terms (McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How we should love nature, 1997, 58-62). But you cannot pre-package this kind of wonder. I leave the last word to Hopkins.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights of the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’)

Katherine Abetz
has had two articles published in the areas of gender, metaphorical language, frame of reference and moral projection, arising from her doctorate of theology ‘What does it mean for a woman to be created in God’s image?’ She also co-edited Swimming between the Flags: Reflections on the Basis of Union, with her husband Walter, now a retired Uniting Church minister.

[1] But cf the model of ‘the world as God’s body’ in Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 74-75: ‘Evil is not a power over against God; in a sense it is God’s responsibility, part of God’s being, if you will’.

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