Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Exclusive Tolerance, Pt. 1

After the inter-faith panel discussion was over, he caught me and we had a quick and spirited conversation about something I said.  “When you say that, you exclude me,” he said.  At one point I responded to a question about unity in my church by paraphrasing Paul when he said, “Here [in the church] there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.”  The panel I was on was brought together to talk about issues facing the family, issues we all basically agreed upon, but this one comment caught a Jewish psychiatrist as unnecessarily exclusionary.

His reaction is educational for me.  I, as a Christian who holds to exclusive truth claims, need to learn how to hold to the truth wisely and at the same time address this kind of reaction to what I believe.  Is it bad for me to exclude anybody?  Was I really excluding anybody, given the topic of that afternoon’s conversation?  Can I still work with him (which I might get a chance to do) on things we agree about while maintaining my set of particular beliefs?  Is it really up to me to defend the notion of holding to “exclusive” beliefs (whatever that means)?

In order to address his concern, I think it is necessary to address a current and powerful idea about belief that seems to be in the air we breathe.  This idea has two complimentary components: 1. The only really acceptable belief is that if you do good things you are OK, and, 2. Anyone who believes a person needs to hold to a particular set of beliefs to be OK is hateful.  By “OK” I mean morally or religiously OK, as in either “saved” in its religious connotation, or “morally good” in a general cultural connotation.

This Janus of a belief is an intellectual poison.

The first face is, seemingly, a very kind and tolerant belief.  After all, it purports to allow all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds "in" as long as they hold to some general sense of morally good behavior.  The truth is far more ugly than that, however.  The problem starts with determining who gets to say what is morally good in this general and vague sense.  For instance, the Christian faith has a very strong historical and philosophical sense of what a good moral life looks like, and yet many significant components of this point of view are not only left out of our modern sensibility, they are outright rejected as morally destructive.  In the place of these "traditional values" are offered a plethora of modern ideas of moral goodness, none of which ultimately cohere or withstand a great deal of scrutiny, but which have the one virtue of being believed by a fair number of influential and powerful people.  We have, thus, a coerced moral opinion holding court in culture with no particular ability to support itself with robust philosophical or historical defense.

So, if we have to make a determination of who gets to set the moral norms and enforce them, we are left with a couple of general options.  The first would be a belief in and pursuit of what is actually morally true, and secondly, an imposed set of moral norms decided upon by the current set of the culturally powerful.  The enforcement of either option is determined by the nature of the option.  In the first, reality enforces itself over time, and in the second, propaganda and power become popular tools.

By the very nature of things, any view of the world that is not dependent upon reality for the truth of its claims will need to use tools like power and propaganda to spread its gospel.  If cultures set norms, the only way to enforce those norms is for culture to become so overwhelming that it silences and marginalizes dissenters.  It really doesn't matter how congenial their story sounds, or how open-handed the reasons sound, in the end if the value of a set of moral claims is based in a cultural consensus, the only way to maintain it is to enforce it.

This is not to say that those who have made extra-cultural appeals have never used coercion.  Quite the contrary.  But they don't need to, and the cultural relativist does.

Secondly, it is simply true that we are all trying to convince others of something (or everything) we believe.  Some of us are proactive about it, others not so much.  But in honest discussion we are all positing a set of ideas we think true, or at the very least better than other ideas, and we would be happy if others felt the same way we do.  But, "Wait," you say, "I simply want people to get along and follow a simple moral code where they do what they like and don't harm anyone in the doing."  And plenty of people believe something very much like that, and do so in the spirit of getting along.

Do you want me to see things that way, or not?  Even if your claim is, on the surface of it, a claim for toleration of belief and action, it is a particular claim on how you want me and others to believe about what others believe.  You are exclusive in your tolerance.  But, that's OK.  There is nothing wrong in holding to a set of beliefs and wanting others to see things that way.  The hypocrisy creeps in when you hold to exclusive claims and then claim you are the only one who doesn't.

So, claim #1 is as exclusive as any other claim.  It just does not recognize it, and thus creates an intellectual and moral barrier between the believer and the truth of the matter.

Claim number two is even more insidious - it proactively creates hate-filled divisions between people.

1 comment:

“Messenger to the Thoughtful" said...

Thank you for an informative and gracious response to the one-way toleration that is dominant in post-Christian culture.