Pluralism, Nihilism and Restrooms
We’ve reached the breaking point. We’ve each become gods in our own idiosyncratic religions, idols served by congregations of one. The result is a public space reduced to warring imperatives. Welcome to the end, as in the logical conclusion, of pluralism.
I’m talking, of course, about the furor over North Carolina’s legislation involving public accommodations. The law calls, in part, for folks to use public restrooms based on their genders at birth.
Shocking, isn’t it? If you were born a man, you must urinate with other men.
This requirement is decried as a heinous assault on the civil rights of folks who want to be free to declare their own sexual identity. Accidents of birth don’t matter; preferences do. If my birth certificate says “male” but my soul screams “female,” I must, as a matter of right, be free to deposit my bodily waste in the restroom of my choice.
Forgive me if I think of Sodom and Gomorrah.
North Carolina’s “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act” does more than limit restroom use, of course. But the reaction to the restroom provision is telling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, of which I have from time to time been a card carrying member, and whose mission of supporting equal respect for the dignity of all remains a commitment I share, had this to say: The bill is the “most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country.” Really?
This politicization of restrooms hardly seems all that. Once again, the rhetoric of rights has been reduced to farce. Everything now matters, and hence, nothing really matters at all.
There was a time when questions about the nature and destiny of humankind were serious matters, debated in the public square. The world’s religions offered one kind of answer; various political ideologies offered another.
What these debates, these worldviews, held in common was a commitment to there being a right way, a good way, a true way of being in the world. At core, these competing beliefs were forms of monism: committing to one belief meant, of necessity, excluding others from serious consideration as true. There were orthodox and heretics among us.
We’re all pluralists now, committed to the proposition that everything matters, everyone’s road to the truth is valid: diversity is good as an end in itself.
There’s a serious risk that this philosophic commitment is wrong. It may still make sense to say that some things are better than others: excellence matters; health matters; integrity matters. Whatever else the humankind may be, it is distinguishable from apples, tables and chairs.
Let me introduce a notion that will strike some as wildly wrong: it still may make sense to speak of human nature, of souls, of human destiny. Some answers to the questions these topics raise are better than others. Some answers make superior claims to the faith life summons us to place in the world lest we yield entirely to despair or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.
But pluralism won’t have it. If all are entitled to equal respect, then we must avoid making distinctions between and among people. What is sovereign is not something outside the realm of choice; choice itself becomes sovereign — I am what I declare myself to be, no more, and no less.
That’s a species of madness, of course. But it is the madness evident at the end of the pluralist’s rainbow. When we lose the ability to draw distinctions between what is real and what is not, between what is good and what is not good, we succumb to nihilism, where nothing matters. Pluralism becomes nihilism.
I’m not offended by a law requiring people to use restrooms based on their “birth gender.” Candidly, I am stunned that anyone would find such a requirement to be an outrage. A person who feels strongly enough about having come to inhabit the wrong sort of body at birth can always petition a probate court to amend their birth certificate.
I heard Archbishop Timothy Dolan on the radio discussing the North Carolina legislation not long ago. What he said made sense: We’re erecting cathedrals to individual choice.
Put another way, we’re succumbing to something like idolatry, each of us free now to erect the god of our choice, and to demand the right to worship this god as we choose, a right all others are expected to honor. It’s no wonder the country descends into chaos.
Pluralism drew on the intellectual capital of centuries of belief in larger truths. From Ancient Greece came a commitment to reason; from the Church came visions of revealed truths; then came a belief in the liberating power of science to free us from bonds of ignorance. The background assumption was that truth could be known and shared by means of common canons.
In our time, this intellectual capital has been exhausted. We now cannot distinguish good from bad, better from worse — it is insensitive to do so. We’re replaced piety with authenticity, and the result is cacophony. Pluralism was a form of methodological monism, you see — all roads were supposed to lead to the truth. Making this method an end in itself denies that there are truths worth fighting over.
Does anyone read Augustine’s Confessions any longer? Augustine found God hidden in plain view, a reality that, once accepted as an article of faith, transformed him, and set him free. His love of God freed him from love of the wrong things, which is really all that sin is.
Is there a reality, unseen, spiritual, but no less real? It’s now heresy to say so. As pluralism unwinds, and nihilism publicly mocks the obvious, I am reminded of what Paul wrote long ago in a letter to the Church in Rome: “who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”
We clanging pots owe the potter more respect: failing to give it yields only noise, signifying nothing.