I was unfriended yesterday by someone on Facebook. Then blocked. My crime? Defending the Pope against scurrilous claims. I was not harsh. I was not insulting. I merely asked probing questions about the person's charges against il Papa. That was enough. Booyah, I was outta there. No huge loss, I knew this person not, merely someone who had asked to be friended but that I think is beside the point.
The reticence about making religious truth claims in the public forum is, of course, a consequence of the Enlightenment. Almost all of the philosophers and social theorists of the modern period—from Descartes and Spinoza to Kant and Thomas Jefferson—were mortified by the wars of religion that followed the Reformation, and they accordingly wanted to find a means of controlling religious violence. Their solution, adopted in most of the modern political constitutions, was to tolerate religion as long as it remained essentially a private matter, something confined to the hearts of individual believers. The result of this “peace treaty” was what Richard John Neuhaus characterized as “the naked public square,” that is to say, a political forum stripped of properly religious assertions and convictions. The events of September 11th simply confirmed for many in the West the wisdom of this arrangement. Since religious people cannot defend their claims rationally, the argument goes, the public appearance of religion will always be accompanied by some form of direct or indirect violence.
I have always found the either/or quality of this analysis tiresome: either religious antagonism or privatization; either September 11th or bland toleration. Our problem is, as Stanley Hauerwas put it, that we have forgotten how to have a good argument about religion in public. The most dramatic indication that rational discourse has broken down is, of course, warfare between the disputants. Once conversants have resorted to fisticuffs, we know that the careful process of marshaling evidence, presenting argument and counter-argument, responding to objections, and avoiding contradictions, has been abandoned. But there is another sure sign that rationality has been left behind, and that is the slide into an anything-goes, your-opinion-is–just-as-good-as-minde sort of toleration.
Truth claims, by their very nature, are public because truth, by its very nature, is universal. It would be ludicrous to say that 2+2= 4 for me but not for you or that adultery is wrong for me but not for you. Therefore, if I were to tolerate your view that 2+2 just might be equal to 6, or that adultery is, depending on the circumstances, acceptable, then I have stepped out of the arena of rationality and public argument, and I’ve essentially given up on you. It’s glaringly obvious that the perpetrator of violence is a disrespector of persons, but the perpetrator who "tolerates" irrational views is just as disrespectful, since he’s despaired of reason.
And now just a brief observation about our unwillingness to accept the tougher, more “negative” features of the religious traditions. In a thousand different ways, we reverence choice in our culture. We choose our political leaders, the products we purchase at the store, the kind of films that we watch, the sort of people with whom we associate. And we revel in the wide variety of choices available to us. But there are certain realities that are so basic in their goodness, beauty, and importance that they are not so much chosen as given. Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the Swiss Alps, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the French language, and moral absolutes are goods that give themselves to us in all of their complexity and compelling power. We don’t choose them; they choose us. We don’t make demands of them; they impose a demand upon us. We wouldn’t presume to excise those sections of Beethoven that are “unpleasant,” or those features of French that are too difficult, or those dimensions of morality that are hard to live up to.
Fr. Barron's entire piece is worth your time.
It seems that with the onset of the tolerant police, the diversity cops, the open-minded brigade, we've never been more divided. True unity seems at this point to be something we'll pursue but never catch up to.
What's the solution?
It's out there... isn't it?