Tolerance and relativism

Three good posts, all Maggie's Farm links:

The coherency of E.J. Dionne's piece surprised me:
The answer lies in embracing a humility about how imperfectly human beings understand the divine, which is quite different from rejecting God or faith.  This humility defines the chasm between a living religious tradition and a dead traditionalism.  We need to admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment.  And those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that over the history of the faith, there have been occasions when “a supposedly changeless truth has changed,” as the great church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it. 
What distinguishes this view from pure relativism is the insistence that truth itself exists.  The Christian’s obligation is to engage in an ongoing quest for a clearer understanding of what it is.  Robertson would disagree with me, but I’d say that we are going through precisely such an effort when it comes to how we think about homosexuality, much as Christians have done before on such matters as slavery, the role of women and the Earth’s place in the universe.
Matt Walsh is one of the many, many people who have run up against the central argument in C.S. Lewis's "Abolition of Man," which also happens to be a central influence in my views:
Believe it or not, even politically incorrect comments about homosexuality have to be excused if we are to believe that baby killing is a moral act. . . . 
I say all of this because my initial intention was to sit down and write about the couple in Washington who just won a 50 million dollar “wrongful birth” settlement.  Brock and Rhea Wuth sued a hospital because their son was born severely disabled. No, they were not alleging that the hospital caused the disability; they alleged that the hospital (and a lab testing facility) did not run the correct tests that would have detected the genetic defects while the child was still in the womb.  Had they been given the correct tests, they would have known that the baby was “defective,” and then killed it.  Tragically, they were robbed of the opportunity to abort their son, so the hospital must pay for the son’s care — for the rest of his life. 
Oh, but don’t judge them:  they still “love” their child.  They wish he was dead, they wish they had killed him, but they still “love” him.  Make no judgments.  Offer no stern words.  They sued a hospital for not giving them the chance to kill their child, but do not think yourself qualified to condemn such a thing.
And finally, Mark Steyn on making everything mandatory that is not prohibited:
Bob Hope, touring the world in the year or so after the passage of the 1975 Consenting Adult Sex Bill:
“I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.” 
For Hope, this was an oddly profound gag, discerning even at the dawn of the Age of Tolerance that there was something inherently coercive about the enterprise.  Soon it would be insufficient merely to be “tolerant” — warily accepting, blithely indifferent, mildly amused, tepidly supportive, according to taste.  The forces of “tolerance” would become intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.


Grim said...

Dionne is himself a Catholic, and so has access to a very coherent philosophy from which he can draw. The question he asks, though, is one he answers in a very strange way.

His initial question is this: "If any given religion and its holy writings can be used to support diametrically opposed conclusions about how to live life and how to approach politics, why should religious faith be taken seriously?"

He later rephrases the question in a better way: "This raises the question of whether the religiously based principles are merely cultural artifacts that we bend to our own immediate purposes."

Now the obvious answer to both questions is that you will most likely find the "serious faith" or "non-artificial" principles by returning to the fundamentals -- things like the actual Scripture -- and studying them carefully, applying them with the bare minimum of interpretation. So it's very relevant just how you translate the original Aramaic, for example, or Greek; it's not very relevant what anyone living thinks about the same things today.

The answer he settles on instead is the one most likely to produce religion that is a "cultural artifact": to adopt a "living tradition" (like a "living Constitution") in which 'changeless truths sometimes change.'

That's the conflict playing out between Fundamentalism and liberal Christian interpretation. It's not really the right answer, I don't think; neither side is right here.

Grim said...

The answer I take to be right is that the connection to the divine is not closed: there is every reason to prefer divinely-inspired wisdom to human, but no reason to believe it can only be found in the fundamentals of scripture. It should be accessible to us through prayer, though conversation with others who are also made in God's image, and through reason applied to creation. You can surely learn about God by coming to know about his works.

That makes relevant both scripture and culture, so long as the members of the culture are grounding this "living" influence in the right kind of way. We should be careful to understand what others who did the same before us believed was right, so that the culture of the moment doesn't influence us especially.

That gives you three standards to check against:

1) Scripture,

2) Whether the argument currently being forwarded is properly grounded,

3) The body of similar arguments in the tradition which were, in their day, properly grounded.

That should give you a result that is far from inflexible, certainly not "dead" in Dionne's terms, but reasonably reliable for those who want to live a good life.

Grim said...

As suggested above by the remark about the "living Constitution," it's possible to ask Dionne's question about why the law should be taken seriously. If the Constitutional law can lead you to diametrically different conclusions about what is right, why should you take it seriously?

I find it odd that he gives the same answer to interpreting the man-made law that he gives to interpreting the will of an eternal God. Here fundamentalism is surely appropriate, because we are free to change the law at any time. You can only understand what the law is at all if it is a set thing that doesn't change on its own. If we don't like what it is, we can alter it.

Not so the divine order!

RonF said...

Back in the 70's Shel Silverstein wrote (and illustrated) an article on touring London that was published in Playboy. In one of the associated illustrations he depicted a poshly-dressed young man who said something along the lines of "homosexuality is tolerated, but I shan't be satisfied until it's made mandatory!"