Tolerant Plurality, not Plural Tolerance



On October 16, the Polish Embassy in Brussels sponsored a conference commemorating the European Legacy of Pope John Paul II on the 40th anniversary of his election as pope. Among the honored guests, George Weigel delivered the keynote lecture and drew from John Paul II’s philosophy to form a ‘political lexicon’ that addressed the role of the state in contemporary European politics and the limits of its authority over the individual.

In light of the deepening divisive political climate across the globe, point number five of the lexicon was particularly striking because John Paul II distinguishes tolerance from pluralism.

According to Weigel, John Paul II defines pluralism as “a truth-based conversation among people of different perspectives, in which all parties seek the common good.”

This definition may perturb our modern understanding which conflates “tolerance” and “pluralism,” let alone using a phrase like “truth-based” in the same sentence. How can plurality exist under a dogmatic term like truth?

Taking public transportation to Brussels daily has given me perspective to this question in the variety of fashion styles of Europeans taking the train and metro to work. From preppy plaid skirts to black platform boots or the man-bun to the quiff, an international city like Brussels is a multicultural nexus for creativity.

Despite the diversity, there are limits that the human body imposes on this fashion freedom. For instance, there is a greater chance that a professional woman who dresses scantily will not be taken seriously or treated less respectfully.

In such vein, Weigel said that “for John Paul, tolerance meant a mutual exploration of the truths built into the human condition–and the steady, patient effort to teach the twenty-first century world that such truths exist.”

This steady and patient effort convicts every person with the responsibility to explore these truths for him or herself, and as such, is the starting place for an authentic pluralism that is not merely difference. Accordingly, Weigel states that, “The achievement of genuine pluralism is a society’s reply to the word of the Lord conveyed to humanity through the prophet Isaiah: “Come, now, let us reason together….”

Looking up this verse in its entirety, I was intrigued by what followed: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Irrespective of religious background, this verse conveys that authentic pluralism calls for personal reconciliation to the truth. Necessary to “reason together” is for each person to reorient themselves to the truth of the reality before us, and the truths imparting our dignity. These truths – the necessity of meaningful work, a nurturing family, a network of good friends – transcend cultural differences. Just as the example of stylish trends versus immodesty illustrates, these truths delineate a space for flourishing human creativity which affirm those “truths built into the human condition.”

Plurality, therefore, places a demand on each of us to reconcile ourselves to the truths built into our human condition and cuts across political ideology that promotes ‘tolerance’ for the sole sake of difference.

Like an orchestra concert, where the soft-throated oboe sings alongside the trumpet blast or deep tremor of the bass, plurality follows a structure built within nature and thereby has its own playbook.

To live in the truth, as G. K. Chesterton said, creates as order. Just as the brass and strings of an orchestra illustrate that “the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

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By Lillian Quinones, a North America B3 extern based in the WYA Brussels office


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