C. Wess Daniels on Plurality 2.0

This piece is part of an on-going blog series called Plurality 2.0 (watch video here). Full schedule of guest authors throughout April and May is available here.

C. Wess Daniels is pursuing a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena California on issues related to contemporary culture, missiology and the Quaker tradition. He is a husband, father and has recently been called to be the pastor of Camas Friends Church in Washington. His blog is called gathering in light, he is a contributing editor for QuakerQuaker.org and he twitters as well.

The Convergent Church After A Fragmented World

wessPluralism presents a problem with authority, but that’s not the whole picture. Even more than a pluralistic world we live in fragmented worlds. Like a hand-spun vase shattered into hundreds of pieces, some pieces are jagged and others smooth, some are big while others are simply shards. Our fragmented world is unequal, uneven, and potentially unsafe. Pluralism, what we might call “pluralism 1.0,” is a fairly domesticated concept. It is shaped by the undertones of capitalism and modern-liberalism, which assumes individual choice and a neutral space from which to judge truth claims. Jonathan R. Wilson writes:

Pluralism…describes a world of competing outlooks, traditions or claims to truth. It pictures a culture made up of coherent, integral communities, traditions, or positions that can be clearly differentiated from one another. Although they disagree and may often be in conflict, where these disagreements are located and why they arise are generally clear to everyone. (Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, 1997:27).

Wilson goes on to argue, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre, that this view of pluralism obscures the real situation which the church faces, in fact, pluralism paints a pretty picture to cover up the far more troubling reality beneath the surface. Our culture is not simply pluralistic, it is shattered into hundreds of pieces. Wilson says our lives “are lived piecemeal, not whole.” Whereas with pluralism there are competing coherent (and equal) authorities the more accurate picture is that even these authorities and traditions are broken and uneven.

But if this is the case then what are church traditions to do in such a culture?

There are a number of ways the church is responding to this fragmented world: first, there are those who either act as though the vase hasn’t shattered, or try to force all the pieces back together with lots of tape and superglue. A second way people respond is to guard the pieces and try, through whatever means possible, to avoid any positive attempts to restructure reality. A third option, what I’d like to put forward, are those who, sticking with the imagery of the hand-spun vase, gather up whatever pieces (of their traditions) they can find and use that material to create a new hand-spun work of bricolage (and what I’ve called Remix elsewhere).

More to the point, the church needs to engage culture by recreating spaces rooted in the wisdom of our own tradition(s) that form alternative ways of living in our world. The first two options do not succeed in this act of creativity. The first group wants to live in a world the way it was, the second group hopes to keep the world as it is, but it is this third group that seeks to live in the world as it should be.

This is why I am a big proponent of groups like the Anglican “Fresh Expressions,” Presbymergent and the Quaker equivalent, convergent Friends. These groups, along with at least some others in the emerging church, seek to create something new out of the remnants of their tradition, rather than give into the ideology of capitalism: pluralism is capitalist insofar as individual choice between equally valid entities remains our highest right. Instead, in convergent Friends parlance, the church needs to be “conservative” and emergent, or conserve whatever pieces of the tradition handed down to use we can gather up, all while producing new, contextual expressions of faith.


  1. says

    This post gets to the heart of the underpinnings of the Episcopal-based community I was a leader of in Scranton, PA. We took the name Peacemeal (http://.peacemealcommunity.org) and had an off-and-on practice of including a time of “Gathering the Fragments” during our house church-ish weekly community meal and liturgy. We invited people to bring in examples of encounters with the Divine in their daily life to share with one another, whether it was in film, music, poetry, nature, dishwashing, or whatever. We liked the play on words in our name, acknowledging that we were coming together bit-by-bit from scattered originating points and joining around the Table of Peace. There were only at most 3 confirmed Episcopalians in the community, whereas the rest of us came from Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, conservative Baptist, Anabaptist and even Hindi and Muslim backgrounds.

    Peacemeal moved in December to meeting just monthly and now faces the relocation of the founding Episcopalian husband (theology professor) and wife (priest) team to Austin so that Scott can take an Ethics position at Seminary of the Southwest. Now that we’re in Chicago, who knows what shape the community will take, or if it will have a natural death.

    Thanks for a great post, Wess, and for hosting this series, Adam.

  2. says

    Wess (and Adam)…good stuff.

    With regard to the second option:

    “A second way people respond is to guard the pieces and try, through whatever means possible, to avoid any positive attempts to restructure reality.”

    If one understands both the fractured nature of our lives and the desire for coherence as phenomenologically fundamental, then there can in fact be a moment of creativity in thinking and living in such a way that resists the first in the name of the second such that letting the pieces lay and living within the cracks can be a positive and creative (and necessary and hopeful) activity. It would depend to some degree on what one thinks causes this fractured state. I might be inclined to answer this eschatologically with a name, Jesus, rather than with a intellectual narrative about modernity.

  3. says

    @Josh – thanks for sharing your example – it sounds like a wonderful practice and community you’ve been a part of. I really like the whole “peacemeal” thing that’s great!

    @Dan – thanks, yes, I see what you mean about the second option. My thought is there is no need to rush into the third here you are correct. However, when I read your suggestion it seems more in line with what I’m arguing for than what I think the second option holds. Partially because if you make some claim, even that we ought to wait and live creatively in the gaps, what we’re basing that claim on isn’t simply a “pluralistic” truth but a particular claim a community seeks to advance. In other words, my thoughts on the second option is that it is one I see held by classic liberalism, the new age movement, unitarians, and even the more pop culture version of this Simon Critchley calls “neo-liberal militarism,” which is exemplified in the documentary on environmentalism by Leonardo DiCaprio. That is withdraw into oneself, live responsibly by consuming the right things and find inner-peace because that’s all that can be maintained there is no collective/communal response or claim to be offered.

    However we phrase it or where we position this creativity may be here nor there, but your point about it being rooted eschatologically in Jesus is right on. This is what I was alluding to when I said, “this third group that seeks to live in the world as it should be.” What I think is important, based on what you said, is that a) this community is eschatological, b) it is making particular (truth) claims (those fragments), and c) it is interpreting this truth and community in a missionary (contextualizing and bricolage) kind of way.

  4. says

    This is hard for me to follow because I am still stuck on your most basic premises. You might classify me as one who “acts as though the vase hasn’t shattered” because I am not certain how you can tell that there ever was a “vase”. What would a non-shattered vase look like to you?

  5. Ben Gemmel says

    Wess, I don’t understand the abstractions. Is the construction of the world as “fragmented” supposed to mean something, or is it just a setup for your argument for renewal of old traditions?

  6. says

    Hi Rae and Ben – thanks for the comments. Sorry I wasn’t a little clearer on the vase point. Yes, it’s an illustration for tradition, or authority, or whatever came before modernity and pluralism. Prior to that we had, for better and for worse, one the religious authority in the church, but with the advent of the Enlightenment religious authority was relegated to the backwoods of society with the split between secular and sacred spaces. Pluralism rolls out of this, really it is one religious attempt to justify our equally valid claims in a changing world that is now challenging these bifurcations. Without developing this all the way out I was doing as Ben suggested and just setting up an image for my argument of a renewal of traditions after this fragmentation. Now that we can no longer go back (nor would many of us want too!) to a singular authority (non-shattered vase) what now?

  7. Ujang says

    Hi Wes,

    funny thing is I got here from an ebook on how to make money online..:D

    never mind. I live in a country where most of us proclaim ourselves of Muslims. However, most of us also live far from what the religion has told us to. Pluralism has become a big problem for a country as big as Indonesia where most of us couldn’t even finished our elementary education.

    It is a very difficult thing for us to accept the fact that there are people who think that there are other Gods than our God. However, thank God that I don’t share the majority’s idea. I’m a Muslim and I believe in my religion and at the same time I respect other people’s believe.

  8. says

    Interesting and a couple of thoughts:

    1) The image of a shattered vase is fascinating because it assumes a certain homogeneity of religion and culture that was somehow broken. Some might go so far as to say that the origin from this is in the tower of babel narrative. Be that as it may, I am not convinced that such homogeneity has existed except for the whims of a powerful elite that would force ideology down the throats of the citizenry. Even then revolution tends to have been lurking which speaks to at least an underground plurality of belief.

    2) Pluralism is not new. It is one of the very unique aspects of American culture. That is to say, the American Enlightenment was for the freedom to believe whereas the French Enlightenment results in the freedom from belief. Many have argued that the secular sacred split of social function in America is what has empowered religion to remain a stable constructive force in society.

    So I am not sure that “fractured” can be considered a well founded analogy with what we mean by plural – at least in the US – since the notion of any sense of homogeneity is, I think, more myth and ideological than what social reality suggests. I do think there are other constructive options, but I digress.


  9. says

    Cultural plurality and diversity of opinion is a part of the human condition.

    What I’m not seeing here is…well…how the whole Jesus thing factors in. It’s certainly implicit in some of the Quaker assumptions that underlie this post. But, dang it, it’d be great to hear that less as a subtext in a socio-ecclesiological discourse and more right up there where you can see and touch it.

    But maybe that’s just me. Whichever way, this is good, thought-provoking stuff!

  10. says

    HI Drew – thanks for the comment. I appreciate the critique you’re adding here and I would agree with you that there has always been an amount of heterogeneity in our world, it would be rather ridiculous to claim otherwise. My vase illustration may or may not work for you that’s fine, it’s an illustration to make a point, not to encompass all of human history.

    I think one thing that I am assuming is that there was, at least in the west, a certain level (if unmeasurable) of homogeneity during the pre-enlightenment times. Yes there were plenty of dissenters, I’m a Quaker after all and know that history fairly well, and the Anabaptists before them, and plenty of other voices as well. But by an large the dissenters (in the West) still operated within a Christian subtext. Beyond this, how people went about making truth claims was rooted within the context of traditions (religious or otherwise) and those communities that formed people to live rightly.

    In our times this role of tradition, and the formation of practice through virtues has radically changed and been challenged: This is an underlying premise of Alasdair MacInytre’s in his three key works in the 80s where he outlines the fall of the virtue tradition in the west. I am sure you have plenty of understanding about what postmodern means and the challenges it presents for truth claims, traditions, the role of authority and community, etc so I won’t go into that, suffice it to say that movement toward the postmodern signifies a break, a shattering, of what went before it. So while there has always been dissent, heterogeneity, and what have you, I think we’re in a different situation now insofar as even our traditions no longer are fully coherent.

    I am thinking directly about Quakerism here. It started out as a vase, if you will, which had plenty of cracks in it (dissenters within the ranks) but wasn’t shattered, did not have trouble making claims to truth, until the last 150 years or so. I can point to the history events that brought the shattering about, but the point is that post this break within the Quaker tradition we are now faced with the question as to what to do with a 400 year old Christian movement. Do we abandon it because what we have are a bunch of pieces of a tradition, or is there a way forward where we might reconstruct this? That’s what I’m asking, and attempting to do.

    For point number two, again plurality the way I think you’re using it still assumes certain common characteristics, languages, traditions that now cannot be counted on. The debate about whether the sacred/secular split was ultimately for the church or against it is one that is hotly debated and one I cannot do justice to. My influence on this subject has largely been William Cavanaugh’s whose reading I think is largely a convincing reading of the situation. That is that the state has set itself up as a counter-ecclesiology and silenced the church in order to do it.

  11. says

    Hi David – Fair enough.

    Hopefully some grace will be allowed for a post that was meant to be only 400-500 words, not everything can be covered in such a short span whether a developed history of dissension in the West or a theological development of Jesus’ attempts at renewal in the 1st century. Mine was the first post, I assume the next 27 will fill in the gaps and correct my mistakes. Also my guess was that most of Adam’s readers know something about Jesus and a short discussion about what’s going on with Quakers would be more illuminating.

    That said, Jesus is the model of which my third option is largely based. Jesus worked within a tradition, that was in his time under duress, possibly even fragmentation, and worked to rebuild it through a process of reinterpretation, subversion and mission (the way I’m using it here).

    Thanks for reading.

  12. Stephen says

    Thanks for the post, I appreciated your thoughts and was really interested to hear how different faith traditions within Christianity have converged upon emergence so to speak. I am relatively new to the ’emergent’ discussion, so it was interesting to hear it is not just a conversation happening among non-denominationals etc.
    I like the image of the broken vase, though not perfect in every way as you have suggested, I do think it is a valuable image. I serve a church of 100 in a small town the majority of members over 60. Many want the world to be like it was in the 50’s and 60’s. They get angry when people don’t want to go to church and get offended at the idea that not everyone wants to raise their kids in Sunday School. It is almost this attitude of “well we opened the doors why aren’t people coming in?” It goes back to the 50’s when almost everyone just went to ‘church.’ Society was reforming after WWII and people wanted to be a part of service clubs, neighborhoods, and churches. It was this one aberration in time where the church didn’t have to do much “going out” because everyone was “coming in.” I think the culture has shifted away from that and there is a fragmented society, one not so obsessed with ‘belonging’ in the sense of clubs, organizations and even churches, as well as fragmented insofar epistemology, authority etc. Sometimes it is hard just to show that the vase is shattered let alone what to do about it next.
    I get that some may say there never was a “Vase” etc. I get that but I think even in people’s life times certain things were whole. The community I serve now was very homogenous with practically everyone going to church, being white, being patriotic, being of a certain background etc. That is not the case anymore and many have not accepted it, and some have but are unsure how we exist as the church in the community now that our environment has changed. And that is what we’ve been working on, so I thank you for your thoughts and images which have helped me think about these things.

  13. says

    Good stuff, Wess. I love Ujang’s comment:

    “I’m a Muslim and I believe in my religion and at the same time I respect other people’s believe.” Would that we all learned how to distinguish between mutual respect and universal acceptance!

    As to the vase debacle, my sense is that sociologically/ecclesiology speaking the vase is an illusion: religion as a human construction is necessarily subject to interpretation. On the other hand, “the truth is out there” and all earnest spiritual sojourners are stumbling in available light toward the fullness of all knowledge, and insofar as our Creator has a dream for “us,” for humanity and community, there is indeed a vase. Maybe the biblical imagery of a clay pot spinning on the wheel is a more hopeful illustration? A vase yet to be fully formed, still in the process of being created?

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