An Interview with Professor John Inazu

Dr. John Inazu is a Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion and Professor of Political Science by courtesy. We [the staff of Washington University in St. Louis’ Kairos] sat down with him to discuss his most recent book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, his work at WashU, and his faith.

Pluralism: (noun) a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.

What drew you to start thinking about pluralism?

My first book and much of my scholarship is on the First Amendment and the right of assembly. Turns out, assembly has a lot to do with the nature of private groups and the ability of groups to gather and exist in public settings and to form, in some ways, their own internal norms against majoritarian orthodoxies. My interest in pluralism began with the right of assembly.

In my first book, I was already thinking about some of these ideas and then increasingly trying to figure out how to make them more practically-oriented, outside of the doctrine and scholarship and into our regular lives and specific practices.

If you had to explain this idea of confident pluralism to somebody in three sentences, what’s your 10-second elevator pitch?

Well, I think of pluralism in two ways: one is a descriptive fact about the world: we have deep and irresolvable differences between us, and so the question is, what do we do with them? And the second understanding of pluralism is that we respond to those differences with a framework that allows us to coexist with deep difference, and we have to have both legal and personal practices in order to do so effectively.

How does the sort of pluralism you discussed on a larger scale sort itself out in the microcosm of college campuses?

That’s a good question. In some ways, the college campus is a paradigmatic example of how we can come together across differences in order to have dialogue across that difference in pursuit of common goals. And on campuses, we are here to pursue knowledge and truth and ideas. The more that we allow voices meaningfully into the conversation, the more likely we are to move toward those ends. The college campus is both an example of pluralism within difference and a model for how we might pursue that for the rest of society. I think one key difference of especially four-year residential colleges, is that you have people here in residence, in close proximity to one another, for a sustained amount of time. That facilitates interactions and conversations that you might not otherwise have in life.

You started talking about this toward the end, but how do you think pluralism, as it works out practically, works better and maybe worse on the college campus? Especially, you know, at a place like WashU where there’s a bubble around campus? You have a whole bunch of people who are the same age interacting all the time and you don’t often get out of that.

The give-and-take of our actual differences is such that when we often constrain some of those differences, albeit artificially. At WashU, we can constrain by age; and functionally, we too often constrain by class as well. When we add those constraints, we are able to focus more on our remaining differences. So to take one obvious example, if we didn’t constrain our differences by education and past academic performance, we would not be able to have the same kind of conversations between students that we have here today. That’s one more reason why people need to have basic skills of reading and writing and speaking in order to come here, which facilitates our ability to dialogue across difference. I think there’s a related question though in a lot of elite campuses in our country, which is the lack of ideological diversity that can contribute to an echo-chamber mentality, particularly among faculty. Our deepest differences are not actually surfaced because some questions don’t get asked, and some conversations are skewed too much in one direction.

You purposefully avoid discussing your faith in the classroom. Why do you believe that is important?

I’m not sure I purposefully avoid discussing my faith in the classroom. My goal is to get students to see both sides of hard issues. I think there is a fiction advanced in some circles that teachers can just objectively present our views of the world. I don’t think that’s true because we all come with our normative priors in any number of ways. I’m trying as best I can to set up questions and hard explorations knowing that I have my own normative biases, and knowing that everyone else in the room does as well, and then trying to push the limits of different kinds of arguments. But the purpose of the classroom to me is not for me to talk about my faith or my family or my hobbies or my sports interests–although I do talk about Duke basketball from time-to-time.

Many people believe multiculturalism took a hit with the election of Trump. Would you discuss the relationship of multiculturalism to confident pluralism, and can either of them thrive in the political age of Trump?

The idea that we want to be aware of and sensitive to an increasing array of voices and perspectives seems to me something that will remain important and continue to challenge our prior baselines about who is included in certain conversations and how we reach different answers. That’s a part of the impulse of multiculturalism that makes a lot of sense to me. It has to fit within a wider constellation of values and goals for the university, so it can’t be the preeminent goal or aspiration. Whether any of that can flourish or thrive as you put it, in the current political environment, I’m not sure. In some ways, both the decisions and rhetoric from the administration and the responses from the media seem to ratchet up every exchange. Neither one of those seems helpful to me or very conducive to working towards a more civil discourse across difference. So I think everything has gotten a lot harder, but I think there are multiple parties responsible for that difficulty, including all of us. I think our social media impulses quite irrespective of the election have taken us down a dark path of snark and self-interest.

As a Christian professor, how would you describe the relationship between faith and reason? How do you see your faith working in academia?

I come at questions of reason from a MacIntyrean perspective—meaning the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. Our abilities to think and reason are always constrained by tradition-dependent argumentative practices. Our epistemic encounter with the world and with other people and their arguments is preconditioned by the tradition out of which we emerge to engage the world. One consequence is that all reason is itself conditioned, which is another way of saying all reason moves forward on a kind of faith, whether it’s religious faith or not. That levels the playing field by acknowledging that all arguments, or at least the kind of humanistic arguments you encounter in the university, are conditioned on, and ultimately premised on, a kind of faith claim. It could be faith in God or some transcendent purpose. It could be faith in yourself. We all rely on faith to move forward in reason.

One thing that comes to mind when I think of the integration of my faith and profession is that I want my faith to be reflected in the way I treat other people, including, but not limited to, students and colleagues. That includes people I see around campus. I hope I am willing to be interrupted in what I think is the most important goal of any particular day by something that comes out of left field or surprises me. I think often of the story of Jesus walking on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter. She’s dying, and on the way to her house, he’s stopped by a woman who is bleeding and touches his cloak. He is willing to interrupt his own goals, even his ministry goals, to encounter other opportunities for ministry or relationship. And, of course, Jesus is able to make it all work out anyway.

What have you found difficult in balancing academia and faith? And this might go back to your earlier point about there being less ideological diversity among faculty than students.

I think part of the challenge has been taking the time with colleagues to get to know each other and to form relationships with each other to press against stereotypes. I’m very grateful for my colleagues here at WashU, including the ones who believe radically differently than I do. We share a mutual interest in teaching students and in being part of this university. I think another challenge for me is just reminding myself that I have a set of commitments that come before my commitment to my job. I’m committed to my family, but I’m also committed to my church and to faith practices, which means that, at the end of the day, I won’t be able to devote an unlimited amount of time to my work or other demands of the job. It also means I will spend time doing things that will look odd to other people: whether it’s taking Sunday to worship at church or going to speak to a church group in some other part of the country, which has very little to do with my day job, but is important to my understanding of vocation.

If you had a colleague ask for 3 book recommendations on faith, what would you suggest?

Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. I don’t think that list would differ from my recommendations for a college student, but I would add Andy Crouch’s books. For Christian college students interested in connections between faith and justice, I recommend The Justice Calling by Bethany Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson.

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