Religious Truth and Tolerance in Contemporary Society.

In late November 2010, the British newspaper, The Economist, ran a story in its weekly opinion page for its American bureau. “Lexington”, as the pundit is known, wrote about the contemporary religious and social landscape in the Land of the Free (“One Nation, with Aunt Susan”, November 27th, 2010, p.46). Although the research he used as a springboard for his piece is an interesting addition to the study of religion in society, I want to focus on the article itself. In isolation, the piece is nothing unique: it represents the prevailing spiritual and theological wisdom in the contemporary west. But the fact that it is representative means that it is noteworthy, for it both reflects and reinforces our society’s understanding of religious truth, presenting a challenge to those who (like me) beg to differ. Since this blog is in turn attempting to challenge prevailing views where they depart from Christian truth, the article in question (and the issue that lies behind it) is fertile ground for discursive engagement.

The premise of Lexington’s piece is a recent sociological study conducted by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, who argued that religion is a unifying force in contemporary American society. As our pundit quotes, they argue that religion is like, “civic glue, uniting rather than dividing”. Although that unifying effect has strict limits (it seems that tolerance for people of other faiths does not always extend to Muslims or Buddhists), the article approvingly suggests that acquaintance with people from other religious traditions has beneficial social implications. So far so good. The fact is, knowing people from other faith traditions and religious beliefs is good for social harmony. Of course, there are debates over the balance between individual diversity and the integrity of social and communal norms. But, as Christians, we can agree with the potential benefits (I say “potential”, since they are not always actual) of social interaction between diverse people. Knowing people personally, rather than as ciphers or as faceless representatives of an alien belief system, affords us the opportunity to witness the image of God embodied in others. That is something that all of us – regardless of colour, faith or creed – share, and our getting to know others will help us to realize that. In this, at least, Lexington is on the money (even without the injection of Christian wisdom).

However, things take a decidedly worrying turn when our author conflates social tolerance (“Even though we are of different faiths, and I may disagree with you, I will treat you with respect and dignity”) with epistemological and spiritual equality (“Even though we are of different faiths, we are all on our own journeys towards God, and all of us will enter Heaven”). Indeed, at one point, he says that if one was a Jew, but was well-acquainted with the hypothetical “Aunt Susan”, a Methodist, one would nonetheless “know that Aunt Susan deserves a place in Heaven”. Our sagacious pundit later states things slightly differently, by citing statistics that indicate 9 out of 10 Americans believe that people of other faiths can get into Heaven. Something is amiss.

Such statements of belief are widespread in the contemporary west, and they are as philosophically inaccurate as they are tediously common. There is no reason why tolerance of another’s beliefs should give rise to the belief that they, too, are on the way to Heaven. It’s one thing to suggest that people of different faiths get along and tolerate each other in a social setting – vitally important in any cosmopolitan environment. It’s quite another to then go and suggest, as Lexington does, that tolerance of another’s views extends into the realm of epistemology and truth claims. This is simply not so, and there is nothing compelling us to accept such a claim (Christian or otherwise). In the final analysis, it is a confusion of categories. To use an analogy, my acceptance of another’s Marxist beliefs does not thereby compel me to accept their epistemic equality – relative to my own political beliefs – or that Marxists have a roughly equal chance of building a prosperous society, with a good standard of living, as advocates of free market capitalism do. To suggest otherwise is folly, since once we do that, we throw the whole notion of truth-seeking and discursive engagement out the window. If one belief is as good as any other, then what is the point of civil discourse? What use is there in discussing such matters? I imagine that Lexington would not be so quick to suggest such things if he were referring to political disagreements; why, then, does he accept the provisional equality of religious beliefs? Our pundit may not go so far as to say it, but by merging these two types of tolerance, he effectively inhibits religious disagreement. I mean, if tolerance means accepting the epistemic equality of (in this case) all religious truth claims, then there is very little point in debating their respective merits or whether any of them is commensurate with reality.

I can offer several explanations, but I will save that for the end of this article. In any case, tolerance of another’s views plainly does not mean that one has to agree with them. In fact, tolerance points in the other direction; you don’t have to tolerate someone whose beliefs elicit nothing more than passivity or blind acceptance. Similarly, just because I disagree with the Muslim down the road, and believe that he will not “get into Heaven” if he persists in his beliefs, does not mean that I will not treat him with dignity and civility. Indeed, my openly disagreeing with his beliefs is a mark of the utmost respect and, one might say, love. It’s respectful, since I am treating my Muslim neighbour as a real person who is capable of handling differing views in a mature manner; and it’s loving, since, from a Christian point of view, there is nothing more compassionate than telling another of the way in which God has revealed himself exclusively and uniquely in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Be that as it may, Lexington, in his rush to commend the kind of religious tolerance that flattens out all theological differences, fails to perceive just how real and deep those differences are. Even when it comes to the notion of ultimate hope, he is painfully naïve (and, ironically, comes across as rather “religio-centric”, in his use of the Judeo-Christian term, “Heaven”). Although he may approve of the person who says that people of other faiths can get into Heaven anyway, he seems unaware of just how different various conceptions of ultimate hope actually are. Christians believe that only those in Christ Jesus will take their places in a renewed creation. The Buddhist conception of Nirvana, however, is vastly different. Even if God were not so worried about various religious differences, and only concerned about letting everyone into the great Heavenly rave party, why should we expect Buddhists to fit themselves into that particular notion of “the end”?

It’s not just eschatology that Lexington seems to ignore. He also ignores the very, very different truth claims the various religions make regarding the past and the present; about the current state of humanity, and the remedy for it. Each religion contains within it a distinct narrative. Again, only someone who is able to completely ignore such distinctions, or who believes that religious truth is merely a matter of myth, could suggest that religious tolerance means accepting that all people have an equal shot at Heaven (and are, therefore, all on the right track). Christians believe that Jesus was God “in the flesh”. Muslims, on the other hand, strenuously resist this theological claim as a lapse into idolatry. Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, which signified God’s complete triumph over sin and death, and the commencement of new creation. Again, Muslims deny this claim outright. These are not minor differences on the minutia of religious truth; they are fundamentally at odds in their conception of reality, and the respective solutions they offer to a world in need. With beliefs of such wide variance being propagated (and this is only amongst the so-called Abrahamic, monotheistic religions), it is strange that Lexington should then nonchalantly claim that all will end up seeing God anyway.

Lexington may claim that he did not actually say that all religions are equal. He may argue that he simply suggested that people, of whatever religious stripe, have a chance of entering Heaven, regardless of the very real differences that exist between religions. But this seems unlikely, for as I have stated, only a person who does not think religious and theological differences are important could argue what Lexington has argued in his piece. In any case, his easy acceptance of all beliefs jars horribly with the Christian belief that God is deeply interested in truth – chiefly, in truth about himself and his interaction with the world. For Christians, there is no easy acceptance of other religious beliefs, even as we treat the adherents of said beliefs with the utmost dignity. Of course, our pundit rules exclusivity out of court: “strong and inflexible” is how he describes these kinds of believers. But, given the profusion of contradictory religious beliefs (to which I have already referred), it is difficult to be anything other than exclusive, at least philosophically and theologically. To do otherwise commits one to an insurmountable logical flaw.

There are a couple of other noteworthy points, both of which speak volumes about Lexington’s – and, increasingly, the west’s – perspective on religion and religious truth. First, our author speaks of people “deserv[ing] a place in Heaven…” This claim runs into trouble when one considers the cardinal Christian belief that salvation is by grace. No one deserves a place in Heaven, for as the Apostle Paul puts it, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); it is only via the mercy of God that any of us will escape the pernicious effects of sin and the holy opposition that accompanies it. Proof-texts notwithstanding, that biblical quote teaches an important point: our alienation from God is the inevitable consequence of sin’s hold over humanity. Our only way out of it is, as I have just said, God’s grace and mercy. Lexington’s approval of some sort of inherent right for all to a place in the hereafter reflects the widespread belief in the undifferentiated tolerance of the liberal God. Our pundit may not think that religious truth matters enough to conduct debates over it, but in suggesting that all people deserve a spot in the big bash in the sky means that he has (ironically, it turns out) already bought into specific truth claims regarding God and his nature. Aside from advocating an utterly anaemic view of God, our author seems to have adopted a self-contradictory stance: on the one hand, he seems to think that differences between religions are of no importance; on the other, however, he himself seems to approve of a very specific claim about the divine.

Second, he also approves of the increase in inter-faith marriages as a sign that American society is becoming more tolerant. That may well sound fine for someone who is enamoured with a religious and spiritual potpourri (which, again, leads that person to accept a false notion of tolerance as naïve acceptance), but the sociological literature tells a very different tale. Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing in The Washington Post (“Interfaith Marriages are Rising Fast, but they’re Failing Fast, too”, June 6th, 2010), argued from the literature that inter-faith marriages fail at much higher rates than same-faith ones. Inter-faith marriages may be a sign that people from different traditions are mixing more, but their failure – aside from the grievous harm it does to estranged spouses and their children – reflects the deep-seated nature of religious belief. Some may decry this persistent fact, but in dealing with beliefs of such deep existential import, it seems inevitable that marriages conducted under the auspices of religious pluralism should run into trouble. The only way out of that trouble, whilst still maintaining some commitment to religious pluralism – that is, ignoring religious differences and their impact on every arena of life – would mean divorcing oneself from deeply-held convictions (in some cases), or committing oneself to a philosophical fallacy (in all cases).

The reasons for Lexington’s views, reflecting as they do the views held by many in the western world, are manifold. One might suggest the increasingly pervasive influence post-modernism has within contemporary society, reducing truth claims to personal opinion and reality to an individual construct. Or one might go further back in time, and cite the influence of the Enlightenment project, which relegated religious truths to the status of unverifiable values in a scientific, empiricist age. That split meant that theological truth claims could never be seen as true knowledge; thus, all truth claims in that field had to be treated with equal openness (and scepticism). Lastly, it’s possible that a particularly American brand of civic religion – nice, pleasant, socially acceptable, and founded upon civility and good works – has been woven into the fabric of contemporary thinking in that country, and has found its way into our pundit’s article. All of these explanations are possible, perhaps simultaneously. One thing is for certain, however: as Christians, we can never buy into such claims, no matter how “inflexible” we may appear to be.

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