Compromise becomes difficult when truth claims – religious or secular – come into conflict with each other. This is especially true for any political compromise. Actors disagree with each other not only in matters of tactics or strategies but on fundamental principles. The respective actors perceive these principles as mutually exclusive. This disagreement may be two-fold: two or more actors might disagree on the content of each other’s truth claims. I call this a content-driven dispute. Or actors may disagree on the very status of truth claims in political discussions as such. I call this a status-driven dispute.
In disputes which involve truth claims it is not helpful to suggest or demand that truth simply be relegated to a minor place by everyone. Actors with sincere truth claims are unlikely to agree to such a relegation for an extended period of time. For them this would equal the denial of fundamental principles which constitute their own self-image. According to Avishai Margalit this logic is in particular relevant for religious truth claims in politics. For, as Margalit writes, „the religious picture 〈of politics, BC〉 is in the grip of the idea of the holy. The holy is not negotiable, let alone subject to compromise. Crudely put, one cannot compromise over the holy without compromising the holy.“ (in: On compromise and rotten compromise, Princeton 2010: 24).
Are truth claims – religious or secular – therefore incompatible with democracy? Are they incompatible with political compromise achieved through deliberation? I don’t think so. In my view truth claims may in democratic debates be authentically decentred. The metaphor “decentring” points to a practice that enables political actors to acknowledge the truth claims of others without necessarily sharing them. Actors who practice decentring resist the temptation to regard their truth claims as the only ones possible within a political debate. They consider the possiblity that other truth claims than their own may legitimitally exist. Such political actors maintain their own claims but relate them to the truth claims of second or third parties. They no longer regard their claims and their view of things as the only centre possible.
Decentring is in essence a spiritual practice. On one occasion Rowan Williams described this spiritual practice in the following way:
„Religious language in all the historic traditions has built into it certain critical impulses, certain procedural challenges to the finality of its own formulations. This arises not from a ‚liberal‘ sense that we can’t really be sure and we’d better be politely vague, but from convictions about the strangeness of the divine and the dangers of claiming divine perspectives. Orthodoxy goes in tandem with the injunction to the dispossession of all self-centred perspectives, and the language of theology and worship is supposed to enact that dispossession.“ (in: Faith in the Public Square, London 2012: 19f.)
Decentring is a way of life that purposefully ‘steps down’ from pure truth, from the claimed divine perspective into the compromised reality of everday chores and tasks. Political decentring is a way of life that purposefully ‘steps down’ from pure truth, from the claimed divine perspective into the compromised reality of everday politicking. It is the spiritual, inner willingness to engage in compromise also beyond the personal environment.
This cannot be done without a certain element of personal contemplation. Why contemplation? Because contemplation as the prayerful presence in silence, attentiveness, simplicity and loneliness opens the space for fresh ideas and new insights. Contemplation opens one up for other perspectives, for a different world view. Contemplation is the spiritual backbone of any practice of decentring, political or non-political. Again Rowan Williams:
„So we need to live in a world constantly inviting us to contemplation, a world which will not leave us alone, feeding only on ourselves. – a world which delights us and which assaults us by its strangeness, its resistance to us.“ (in: Truce of God, Norwich 1983/2005: 39ff.)
Such a contemplative practice, therefore, needs to be part of any shared moral basis in a democratic polity. Vita conemplativa and vita activa are not to be separated, they belong to each other. Together they implant an attitude of decentring in an individual human being.
I know this seems to have nothing to do with real politics as we experience it every day. There never seems to be enough time for reflection. But for a moment I would like to imagine the impossible possibility that political life is indeed moulded by contemplation, sincere reflection and the shared willingness to decide on important matters together even if different opinions exist.
For contemplation leads to decentring which in turn leads to humility in dealing with different views and opinions. What we need then is for truth claims and political compromise to be moulded together in a shared attitude of democratic, contemplative humility. So even if actors should disagree on the content of each other’s truth-claims, they should – as decentred actors – be able to agree on the necessity of a spiritual, contemplative, humble practice of collective descision-making through compromise; as the best shot we have at attaining a joint vision of the truth at the centre of our common life.
See also Rowan Williams on Decentring.