Among the popular words of our day is “diversity.” Writer and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, who refuses to own a computer, says that diversity is capacity. I experience that truth every time I write a book, plan a conference, or teach a class with others. We all can stretch our minds and deepen our hearts through the contrasting perspectives that we discover intentionally or accidentally.
But what should diversity include? What kinds of “differences” among people and cultures merit our study, understanding, appreciation, and perhaps even adoption?
Imagine diversity in terms of communication, especially the range of people we might interact with during the week. Most of us spend most of our time communicating with those who are like us. For instance, we feel more comfortable communing with people who share our social class, values, and beliefs. We prefer interacting with people who look like us, or at least dress like us.
My college students think of themselves as individuals, but by and large they dress alike. And speak alike. So do the faculty. I always chuckle when someone brings a toddler to campus. Students stand around watching and smiling as if they have never seen a child before. Suddenly their campus conformity is delightfully challenged.
By limiting our discourse with different others, we lack what I call “communicative diversity.”
For instance, Christian worship services tend to be among the least diverse social gatherings if diversity is defined in terms of categories like race and ethnicity. Moreover, Christians segregate by doctrine as well as worship style. Understandably, few church communities see doctrinal diversity in a positive light. The easiest way to avoid being challenged about doctrine is gather together people committed to the same beliefs.
These sorts of religious exclusivism do suggest a lack of diversity. But they also indicate unity. Church historian Martin Marty once said about denominations, “We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them.” Somehow we need unity as well as diversity in order to function as social beings. If our differences are too great, communication is virtually impossible. If we are too unified, we risk becoming complacent or tribalistic, even uncreative.
Most social groups that become too homogeneous naturally split apart as people seek fresh distinctions and new opportunities to grow, learn, and delight. When churches grow numerically, they frequently beget other congregations. Denominations divide. Occasionally they reunite. They accomplish all of this unity and diversity via the gift of communication, which equips them to define what they have in common and what they no longer want to have in common, who they are and who they are not collectively.
So unity and diversity are two sides of social life, the yin and the yang of schisms and reunifications. All groups, apparently because of human nature, go through such changes in their lives as they interact with others. In fact, the struggles over unity and diversity are part of what unifies all people. They are humanly universal aspects of living.
In the digital age, however, diversity is becoming more significant than unity to many people. We rarely hear public discourse about the need for unity. The media are abuzz instead with rhetoric about the need for diversity, such as multiculturalism.
Moreover, it seems that today we tend to view diversity almost “exclusively” in terms of existing differences among individuals and especially groups. We look across geography, from place to place, nation to nation, North and South, for diversity that might enhance out capacity. Rightly so.
Nevertheless, this view of diversity itself lacks diversity. Maybe a fuller, more robust view of diversity should include differences through time, from generation to generation, age to age. In the 1970s the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote a book (Culture and Commitment) about the so-called “generation gap,” arguing that whereas youth used to learn from the elders of their communities the tables were turning: Youth were beginning to teach elders about life (At least we know this is true about many technologies today!). Mead was rather optimistic about this diversity, wherein communication would flow influentially from younger to older persons, not just the traditional direction. But how diversifying is that kind of communication if youth’s life experiences (their own diversity) are fairly limited? Caught up in the anti-establishment attitudes of the time, Mead never really addressed that issue.
Another way of viewing diversity is chronologically from century to century. In other words, we might generate human capacity if we commune with “different” people from past generations. This is what the word “tradition” has tended to mean in English, apart from more recent connotations that equate it with old-fashioned, antiquated, and even rigid cultures. From the Latin, the word suggests something of value that is passed along from generation to generation, people to people. The wise Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton picked up on this kind of age-old diversity when he wrote that tradition is “the democracy of the dead.” Tradition can give the dead a voice in our current discourse. Traditional practices and beliefs can expand our discourse.
Perhaps this age of information should lead us to commune with the voices of the past available to us in the records that they have left behind. Age-old texts offer this type of communicative diversity. When I read Plato or Pascal, for instance, I get a sense (always imperfectly, partly because it’s not easy to commune with the dead!) of what they valued, how they thought, what they believed. I also grasp, however imperfectly, the groups, movements and controversies of their day. Their communication with others in their day becomes a means for me to become more diverse in my day. I might accept or reject their ideas, often after critical discourse with my living friends and colleagues. But I do find nuggets of value in their words from long ago. I am often impressed. Even a bit jealous (no, very covetous) of their minds.
When St. Augustine says that a believer in God should be an “alleluia from head to toe,” I want to contemplate his ancient wisdom. I seek to ponder anew, in the midst of today’s busy and frightening world, what it might be like to be a person of walking, talking, working, playing gratitude. I wonder why I grumble as much as I do. Why I sweat the little things and overlook the cosmic picture of peace and beauty.
Then, with the help of my college librarians who are more linguistically gifted (diverse!) than I am, I discover that Augustine was really paraphrasing one of the ancient Hebrew psalms. He learned from others who were long gone. Suddenly I realize that I am the beneficiary of not only Augustine’s diversity, but the ancient psalmist’s, too. Maybe even King David himself. Of course Augustine was African. What a long, strange road to my own diversity training!
Today I can search many of Augustine’s and David’s writings online. If I have the time. And the commitment to diversity beyond the here and now. Perhaps this is a major calling for those of us committed to communicative diversity.