CONSENSUS

It is not uncommon for us, when we are considering matters in a group context, to desire to be “of one mind.”  That actually means that we hope all the participants in the deliberating group will come to the same conclusion on some matter.  If all are in agreement, the thinking generally goes, then all participants will be equally committed to whatever course of action is decided upon.  Of course, we are aware that people are not identical in their thinking and that in modestly complex social situations, we are not very likely to encounter situations in which everyone has the same opinion.  The larger the group, the less likely we are to arrive at “one mind.”  Furthermore, we may all be in agreement as to some question, but that agreement might not be actual truth.  These are separate issues – agreement and truth.

Democracy is recognized as one way to overcome potential disagreements, but we all know that democracy is a bit crude in both its methods and its results.  It generally works as to some agreement being reached but can be very hard to implement.  Furthermore, it is often the case that very few parties to the agreement reached will be happy with the actual agreement because of what had to be “given up” to reach the agreement. 

A better method than simple democracy is to engage in more extensive discussions than simple democracy can accommodate for arrival at a joint conclusion.  This form of democracy we often call consensus. In smaller settings, consensus allows for more extensive discussions designed to get at more nuances of a matter than is typically allowed in democracy.  Democracy works toward a solution that requires all to agree because of the process.  Consensus works toward solutions that parties can agree to as to their basic substance.  Generally, we think this makes for more “deliberate” decisions which should be “better” decisions.

Please allow an example.  A jury, as found in a trial setting, is a body to which is entrusted a “finding” in a matter of law.  In a sense, such a body is expected to “find the truth” in some matter of law.  Often, the consequences of such findings are very important to the parties to whatever legal action is under way.  Serious consequences such as large financial settlements are to be influenced by the collective decision of the body called the jury.  At one level, it is very important that the jury determine the actual truth.  At another level, it is very important that the jury follow the rules.  In point of fact, the jury is expected to reach something like a consensus.  In some legal jurisdictions and for some legal matters, the jury is, in fact, required to be unanimous in its findings or the court will cease striving in the matter at hand.  In this setting unanimous findings may require the reaching of a consensus because the facts of the case have been obscured by time and procedure.  Because the people who are components of the jury may vary considerably in their feelings over quite a spectrum of contributory factors, it is often the case that these folks simply disagree as to what the truth is and what to do about it.  Consensus can really matter.  If a more relaxed proceeding is under way with lower stakes, simple democratic voting may be used when consensus cannot be reached.

In essence, consensus is a sophisticated and more thoughtful form of democracy, and that is why it is so desirable in some situations.  Let’s swell the size of our jury from 12 persons, as is the common size in the United States, to 500 persons.  Right away we can see that consensus will be virtually impossible and the cruder mechanism of a vote will be required.  This difficulty is believed to be minimized by the use of a small jury that has a far greater likelihood of reasoning its way through to a conclusion that will suit all its members and make court cases solvable.

Let’s stay with the jury for a moment longer.  From the point of view of a court, the jury is to “find” or even “determine” the truth.  For all intents and purposes, the findings of the jury will be interpreted by the court to be the actual truth and will typically determine the outcomes for the parties to the matter before the court.  But what happens when the jury reaches a careful conclusion that is not the actual truth? That question has been resolved by the doctrine, that except in the most egregious cases, the conclusions of the jury will be treated as actual truth, whether they are or not, even if the actual truth is otherwise known.

In most matters where consensus is desired or sought, the stakes may be relatively unknown.  It may be that “some” course of action is needed and consensus is perceived to be the only way to arrive at a conclusion as to what the course of action is to be.  Even in such cases as these, the ramifications of various courses of action may be quite significant, but not well known, in their totality.  Consensus is often sought among the various stakeholders of the matters under consideration.  If adequate time is available, we will often attempt to get the stakeholders to agree before moving forward.  This just seems more humane than simply voting, as feelings are less likely to be hurt in the process – at least in the outcome.

Mostly, we like consensus.  It seems more well-reasoned; it seems more humane; it seems more likely to be adhered to as the collective entity moves forward.  Even fierce proponents of democracy are often big fans of consensus when it is possible.

Here’s a concern.  Does consensus-finding yield truth?  When it comes to the relationship between what is true and what consensus building activities conclude to be true, we must distinguish between actual facts and opinions concerning such facts.  If actual facts are difficult to discover, the relationship between actual truth and consensus can, in fact, be fairly tenuous.  Proponents of consensus building typically understand that but argue that truth must be discerned in some manner.  Then, when the “facts” are obscure, reaching consensus may be as close to actual truth as is possible, especially if there are parties who desire to keep facts obscure.

Pontius Pilate is famous for, among other things, the question he posed to Jesus, “what is truth?”  An implication of that question, in the context in which it was posed, was that he expected no useful answer.  In fact, it appears he did not believe in actual truth.  In such a world as the one Pilate envisioned, truth was an arbitrary matter.  As such, truth would be constructed to serve the purpose of the one who was deciding what its contents were.  I point this out because this seems to be the state of truth in modern society.  If it has not already done so, truth is in danger of becoming the plaything or tool of some entity that has the power to specify what the entity wants it to be.  When “truth” is simply constructed to match some known facts with socio-political goals, a society can be in a lot of trouble.  In fact, in such a social system, “actual” truth can become a casualty of the truth-constructing process.

This all seems to run contrary to Jesus’ assertion, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and goes on to assert that truth, as He embodied it, was the unique path to the presence of God.  The passage seems to imply that consensus is not the way to get into that presence.  It further suggests that truth may well be a foreigner in most human decision making, especially when the persons involved place little or no value in what God has to say to begin with. Conversely, it appears that the substitution of consensus for truth so obscures truth as to make it seem to be irrelevant in much of human discourse.  The real harm is the assertion that consensus is truth, rather than admitting that consensus is only a substitute for truth when truth is too difficult to ascertain, or too uncomfortable to live with.

This leaves us with the question: can consensus be a pathway into the presence of God?  The secularist will declare this to be a moot question by discounting God.  The committed secularist will insist by default that truth does not exist except in some sort of relative way.  It is, nevertheless a serious question. 

If, as Jesus claimed, He is truth, then He is the personification of truth.  In that case, the relativistic approach to understanding or receiving truth won’t work very well.  Consensus won’t produce Jesus.  There is no evidence of schizophrenia to be found in Him.  Conversely, He seems to have been quite clearly focused – not the product of many opinions.  In fact, the clarity of His focus is often uncomfortable to us.  We sometimes seem to want Him to be a bit more ambiguous, as He would be if He could be produced by consensus.  Then we could find an interpretive consensus that is comfortable for us.

We’re left, then, with a clear path to God by way of truth, or an ambiguous and shifting (and unsuccessful) path to God by way of such human processes as consensus.  It is not at all clear that consensus is as efficacious as is truth in the pursuit of God.  It is clear that consensus is not truth, even in the rare case when reaching consensus may happen to result in a conclusion that is actually true.  Consensus may stumble over the truth, but it is not actually truth.

 

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