In the first section, Ong discusses the issue of pluralism in contemporary society, asserting that pluralism is not a negative condition for the world but, in fact, a positive one. Although some people think of pluralism as the corruption of an ideal from the past--when "everybody" had the same religion or the same perspective of the world--Ong believes that no Christian can reject pluralism on this basis. In fact, because Christianity is based on the idea that all people should hear the Good News, Christians should be enthusiastic about pluralism.
Yet Ong understands why, particularly in the medieval period, Christians were not terribly excited about seeing diversity among the people they lived with: the medieval period did not have the highly developed state of communications that we have today, nor did the medieval mind use quantitiative thinking as the contemporary mind does. It is only in the last 500 years, Ong explains, that the conditions of peoples' lives and their frame of mind allowed them to even think about a pluralistic world. But now that people can think in pluralistic terms, they must; not to embrace pluralism is to be inhumane.
In the second section of the article, Ong asserts that because we live in a period where we have a highly developed form of communication, we can no longer avoid confrontations between different lifestyles; in fact, we must engage in dialogue, whether we want to or not. It is through the concept of dialogue that Ong wants to discuss the relationship between religion and the state. A concept which comes out of Hegel's dialectic, dialogue possesses two qualities which Ong finds especially important in terms of church-state relations: a personalist quality and a sense of direction that is not always conclusive.
In terms of the first quality, Ong believes that current church-state relations are based on personalism, for the earliest separation between church and state occurred when the Romans agreed to be loyal to the Roman government but refused to give up their devotion to their own personal God. In addition, this personal quality is expressed in the church-state tension because this tension exists in the lives of individuals, who must decide how to be loyal to both church and state on a continual basis. Furthermore, the personal quality of church-state relations emerges because the church is communal, placing emphasis on public worship and prayer.
In terms of the second quality of dialogue (a sense of direction not always conclusive), Ong believes that the church-state relationship is neverending and that it is impossible to separate the two once and for all. Ong cites examples of people who have tried to separate the two entirely (such as Peter Ramus and eighteenth-century visualist thinkers), but he asserts that they did not succeed because the relationship between church and state cannot be understood in only a visual way. The relationship is much more personal, concerned with the "I-Thou" relationship of an individual and God, and it is much more dynamic and progressive than visualist thinking acknowledges.
In the last section of the article, Ong asserts that while the church-state relationship cannot be understood simply through visualist thinking, that does not mean that it cannot be understood at all. In fact, if one thinks of the relationship as dialogic, one realizes that the relationship focuses on communication between people. The state, for example, has become increasingly focused on respecting the individual; yet, at the same time, it has become more depersonalized over time, and that depersonalization process spills over into secular life. Nevertheless, Ong points out, people still find ways to make a depersonalized existence more personal: by adding a "personal touch" to machine-made products, creating positions in the business world that focus on personnel, and following a personalist philosophy in their everyday lives.
The personalist philosophy that people follow in their everyday lives not only develops only once large numbers of people inhabit the earth and when a highly organized society exists but also tends to take on religious tones. Still, the religious sphere continues to express a more personalist voice than the secular sphere, particularly within the Catholic Church. The church focuses not only on the interiority of individuals; it distinguishes between an external forum and an inner conscience, letting people who have committed crimes in the external forum remain in good standing because of their inner conscience.
Given these differences, Ong asks the question: how can individuals be loyal to the state? While individuals usually think of themselves as loyal to the state because of a certain set of principles, Ong believes that individuals more often base their loyalty on people who run for political office than on principles, such as a party's platform. Because people do base loyalty on people rather than principles, Ong concludes that any discussion of church-state relations must take this into account; it is through the ongoing dialogue between church and state that democracy is best realized.
While this article continues themes begun in many of Ong's earlier articles,
it specifically refers to "The Jinnee in
the Well-Wrought Urn" when Ong discusses the tendency of people to
be loyal to people rather than principles. In "Jinnee," Ong explores
why people respond to a piece of art because of its creator rather than
the object itself. Here, he seems to be saying something similar
about people's responses to the church-state issue. We are always
looking for some human connection when we interact with seemingly