There’s a lot of theory-driven jargon here in Robert Orsi’s “Painted into a Corner by the Blood of the Lord.” But if you plow through all the fretting about scholarly commitments to “plural ontological realism,” you’ll get to the plainly stated crux of the matter: “We need new ways of thinking about how to live with, and against, ontologies as threatening to our common life as this woman’s is, before she kills us all.”
The person whose deadly “ontology” is the subject of this rumination is blithely headed to a mass-gathering at a white evangelical church, confident that she needn’t worry about covid-19 because, she says, “I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.” Orsi is torn. On the one hand, as a scholar, his role is to try to understand religious perspectives, not to evaluate them. On the other hand, as he says, this lady’s religious perspective is gonna get a whole lot of people dead.
Pluralism makes life together tricky, but it’s preferable to any alternative of enforced conformity and uniformity. I advocate robust pluralism because the only other option is to expect the Spanish Inquisition.
Orsi’s “plural ontological realism” means recognizing the empirical face that different people are going to have vastly different ideas about what’s real and about the meaning of that reality. And if all those people are not free to hold such different ideas, then they (we) aren’t free at all. As Justice Kennedy notoriously put it: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If that liberty doesn’t include all the wacky notions that we humans in our glorious diversity choose to believe, then it won’t work. Start setting boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable and you’ll set in motion an abounding bounding that will have us all in bondage.
When Anthony Kennedy wrote that infamous “mystery passage” in 1992 as part of the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he was harshly criticized by culture-war conservatives for endorsing what they called “moral relativism.” That was a big bogeyman for culture-warriors in the ’90s, when they were positioning themselves as the standard-bearers of “absolute truth.” By that, of course, they meant the absolute, authoritative truth absolutely and uniquely accessible to them and therefore wielded by them with the certainty that, they said, ought to entitle them to absolute authority. (When people start talking like that, you can always expect the Spanish Inquisition, because that’s the necessary next step.)
In the quarter-century since then, those same culture-war conservatives have come to love and embrace what they used to deride as “moral relativism,” weaponizing it into their constitutional right to be permitted to do whatever they like just so long as they claim to be sincere. Thus, for example, a retail chain has the “religious liberty” to deny its employees access to health insurance based on the corporation’s sincere religious belief that birth control does something it undeniably does not do.
But in any case, Kennedy’s argument didn’t really have anything to do with “moral relativism” or with any of those highlighted passages in the culture-warriors’ Francis Schaeffer books blaming all the world’s ills on his caricature of Kierkegaard. It had more to do with that fact Orsi describes as “plural ontological realism” — the recognition of the simple fact that different people believe different things. That means some of us think that we’re right and that everyone else is wrong. More than that, it means most of us think that we’re right and that everyone else is wrong. And also that we’re probably right about everyone else being wrong, but wrong about ourselves being “absolutely” right. Certainty belongs only to inquisitors, and we certainly don’t want them. We can’t have inquisitors and consider ourselves free.
None of this suggests that we can’t know anything, or that we can’t work to ensure that what we believe is more true, more real, rather than less so. We can test our beliefs — perhaps test everything, and hold on to the good.
I believe, for example, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. I can’t prove that, and I’m afraid that I’ve observed and collected a great deal of data that casts grave suspicion on this particular “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe,” etc. That evidence has forced me to amend this belief to better conform to reality. I would say, perhaps, that the long moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but that it can’t be relied on to bend itself.
I want to test my beliefs and to amend them when necessary to better conform to reality as best as it can be ascertained. I like to think that my willingness to do that might encourage others to do so as well. That’s certainly what I would recommend to that dear woman whose concept of existence, of meaning, and of the universe has led her to conclude that she is immune to viruses due to her being “covered in Jesus’s blood.” I would plead with her to seek out a better understanding both of viruses and of atonement. (“Better” here meaning, a closer approximation to reality to the extent that such is available.)
This is part of what it means for us to live amidst our fellow humans in the inevitable murk of plural ontological realism or ontological pluralism or whatever it is we want to call the fact that we don’t all believe the same things about reality, and that we’re all surely at least partly wrong, perhaps in big ways, and that none of us is able even to know which bits are the ones we’re wrong about. That all means we have to accept and accommodate the human existence and human liberty even of snake-handlers and others whom we’re pretty sure are dangerously mistaken in their beliefs.
Alas, Orsi’s Lamb-bloodied neighbor presents a thornier problem than snake-handlers. Snake venom is deadly, but not contagious. Her dangerously reality-defying beliefs can’t be accommodated as easily because they don’t only endanger herself and others who share those beliefs, they endanger everyone. There’s a big difference between “Your beliefs might get you killed” and “Your beliefs might get other people killed.”
Which brings us back to Orsi’s point: “We need new ways of thinking about how to live with, and against, ontologies as threatening to our common life as this woman’s is, before she kills us all.”
One part of the solution here seems to be making a clear distinction between “the right to define one’s own concept of existence” and any claim to the right to define everyone else’s concept of existence. The distinction, in other words, between the sacrosanct freedom to believe whatever it is you choose to believe and the claim that this freedom entitles you to impose those beliefs on others.
This isn’t a terribly difficult distinction to comprehend, but we Americans tend to be confused on this point thanks to all of our mythology about the Pilgrims coming here to enjoy the “religious liberty” that gave them the personal freedom to outlaw Catholics, hang Quakers, and slaughter their new neighbors.