Every spring a few of the better high school juniors in Ohio compete in the Ohio Tests of Scholastic Achievement. I imagine something similar happens in many other states. Although I pay attention to such matters only from a considerable distance, I was intrigued to learn about one feature of the English test give to the juniors this year.
The test covers the standard things one might anticipate: spelling, grammar and syntax, reading comprehension. But this year there was an interesting twist to one section of the test in which students are asked to identify mistakes and infelicities of expression. Along with identifying grammatical errors, they were required to find and identify instances of sexist language. Thus they found themselves asked to ponder whether, for example, it would be appropriate to refer in a sentence to T. S. Eliot as a poet and Emily Dickinson as a poetess.
I wouldn’t myself know what to say about such a question other than, perhaps, “do whatever you like.” One suspects, however, that the education professionals who constructed the test had no such laissez-faire attitude in mind. On such matters, even in a postmodern world in which readers may construct a text any way they wish, I’m confident the education pros believe they know the Truth. Diversity of expression-not to mention thought-is not as high on their scale of values as they like to imagine. Indeed, it is disconcerting to think that these are the folk to whom we entrust the task of broadening and enriching the minds of the next generation. And, of course, it helps one to understand why the papers submitted for college courses so often read as they do-full of convoluted “himself or herself” expressions.
While I was in this mood, contemplating the vagaries of our commitment to diversity, I noted an article in our student newspaper. Entitled “Religion Faces Student Hostility,” the article recounted concerns of believing students about the attitude of many other students toward religion. Catholic students complain that they are seen as “agents of the Pope.” A Jewish student comments that the campus is “only tolerant if you fit into the chosen few who deserve to be tolerated.” There are reports of flyers posted listing stereotypes attributed to Muslims and Arabs. Evangelical Christians note how hard it is to express their beliefs when the immediately surrounding culture assumes that an intelligent person would not be Christian.
Such a climate of opinion had also been observed by others, and one senior administrator noted, “I’ve been distressed by the willingness of some people to make pretty prejudicial comments about religion. That seems, to me, to run directly against a celebration of diversity.” Such a statement, spoken surely with all the good will in the world, is useful. It allows a place for religious belief-as well as other potentially unpopular ideas-to survive. But it also invites our reflection. It is striking to reflect upon our need to defend religion in the name of diversity, the reigning value of academic communities in our day.
How well is religion served by such a defense? Well enough, perhaps, as long as we can rely on the character and genuine good will of those committed to diversity, but in the long run this may not be sufficient. To defend religion on this ground, helpful as it may be, will also miss important elements of religious belief. For one thing, such a defense takes the passion and purpose out of religion. It becomes a way of life to which a few people may be drawn-fine if that’s your thing, fine to ignore as well. How could such an attitude exist on a campus where, in fact, quite a few students major in religion and many more take courses in it? Perhaps, I have often reflected, our students are drawn to the study of religion because it seems to offer the big picture, a “handle on the cosmos.” But they would be very disappointed indeed were they to discover that this big picture committed them to anything in particular. Defending religious belief as a form of diversity misses the intense particularity of such commitment.
Such a defense also overlooks the fact that the value of diversity in our culture is itself the product of a long, laborious development in which religion has played a major role. Nor has that role been confined to wars of religion in which we wore ourselves out until, finally exhausted, we were forced to settle for tolerance. Its role has been far more positive than that. It is precisely because every individual is equidistant from God that each must be cherished. It is precisely because faith must finally take root in the heart that it ought not be required or coerced. It is precisely as a possible companion in future beatitude that each person ought to be loved. Thus, C. S. Lewis once wrote:
Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? . . . If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the church triumphant would have no symphony; it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note . . . . Heaven is a city, and a body, because the blessed remain eternally different . . . . For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its vision to all others . . . is also among the ends for which the individual was created.
This image gives a transcendent ground to our invocations and affirmations of diversity. But it does not invite a flaccid relativism which supposes that it is just fine to want to play in this symphony while constantly striking wrong notes. The image is grounded not in a commitment to individual diversity but in love for what is true and good-in which all that is important about us as individuals will be preserved. Indeed, Lewis shows us what a celebration of diversity-if it is really to be festive-must involve. If, by contrast, our commitment to diversity is grounded only in the individualism of self-expression, it will eventually prove unreliable. It will provide an acceptable cover for asserting our own view, though always in the name of diversity, never in the name of truth.
And then others will have to devote their energies to determining whether we commit any grave wrong by referring to Emily Dickinson as a poetess.
Gilbert Meilaender is the Francis Ward and Lydia Lord Davis Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.