Friday, June 7, 2013

Intolerant Tolerance - Is Rational Public Discussion Still Possible?

Paul Adams

It was not some goofball but obscure pastor somewhere, but the presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church USA (ECUSA), Jefferts Schori, who recently gave a sermon in Venezuela that has provoked questions such as, Is this the worst sermon ever preached? and (on my part, I admit) Have the Episcopalians in the US gone completely mad? Here are Fr. Barron's comments, delivered not with a rending of garments but with his characteristic chuckle.

Additional commentary by Fr. Barron, who addresses among other questions that of whether such a patently ridiculous and silly sermon is even worth paying attention to:

Other writers have commented on the increasingly bizarre nature of this abandonment in our times of critical thinking or any resort to reason or evidence - and the substitution of intolerant bullying - in the name of tolerance and diversity.  See for example the article by Australian sociologist Michael Casey on "The Puzzle of Intolerant Tolerance" and the interview with him here.

Now D.A. Carson, "a well-known Reformed theologian and exegete," has, in the words of James Kalb's review, "written a clear and well-reasoned analysis of today’s imperialistic tolerance from an Evangelical and classically liberal standpoint.

Kalb explainss,
He tells us that the new understanding of tolerance has meant a shift from accepting the right of others to hold dissenting views to demanding acceptance of such views as equally valid. It thus implies a shift from free discussion of conflicting truth claims to suppressing conflicts by silencing truth claims. This shift, he says, makes the new tolerance intellectually debilitating as well as blind, intolerant, and socially dangerous.
The shift is from a concern with truth and the common good to a radical individualism and subjectivism that conflates diversity as situation with diversity as a principle, that celebrates lifestyle diversity as such.  In this view diversity of family structures is to be welcomed.  We are supposed to talk of "families" rather than "the family," as if the natural family in which the children who result from the bodily union of their married parents are raised by those parents were just one kind of family among many alternatives and preferring it or wishing to promote and protect it were a form of intolerance or bigotry.   Not without reason Carolyn Moynihan calls this celebration of 'family diversity' "the world's most dangerous idea." Gone is the right of the child declared by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N. as recently as 1987 according to which every child has "as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents" (Article 7).

As Kalb notes in summarizing Carson's argument,
The result was a tolerance that looks only to itself, or perhaps individual freedom, as the highest standard. As the author puts it, the current form of tolerance is “largely cut free from both a well-articulated vision of truth and from binding culture-wide moral standards.”
The result has not been a state of ultimate freedom but a tolerance that makes rejection of absolutes an absolute. That, of course, is self-contradiction. As the author notes, the “truth question catches up with all of us,” and secularism has turned out as absolutist and dogmatic in its commitments as any other system. It is more so than most since it denies that it has dogmatic certainties and so feels no obligation to articulate and defend itself against objection. Instead, it relies on the “manipulative bludgeoning” of accusations of intolerance.
The new tolerance thus puts irrationality and bullying at the heart of public discussion. The results are as bad as might be expected. The new tolerance can’t deal with evil, for example, so serious discussion of human life and the public good becomes impossible. That leads to practical problems. The author notes, for example, that the idea of truth is necessary to resist tyranny, giving twentieth-century tyrannies and unpleasant features of Japanese life as examples. Nor can democratic procedures solve the problem. If rational discussion is impossible democracy becomes unworkable, and power inevitably flows upward to manipulative and irresponsible elites.
The author notes that the Christian emphasis on truth makes Christianity intolerant and therefore illegitimate by the new definition of tolerance.
Carson is right about the irrationality of this new notion of tolerance, one which rejects the notion of truth (except in asserting the truth of its own view about truth) and so makes itself impervious to reason and evidence and excludes them from public discussion.  But as Kalb says, there is a need to go further, to a sociological, theological, and philosophical understanding of how it can be that such an irrational, indeed bizarre form of tolerance
 has become so immensely powerful among intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, and well-educated people. More needs to be said of the logic of a modern outlook that views human relations technologically, and identifies what is good with what is desired. For those who hold such an outlook it is  natural to divinize individual subjectivity, which leads to an extreme concern for feelings, and to reject as irrational traditional forms of social organization, which involve sexual and cultural distinctions as well as conceptions of ultimate truth. Put those two tendencies together and the result is today’s politically correct version of tolerance. The author rightly points out many ironies of the present situation. Its ultimate irony, however, is that the current craziness springs from the utilitarian and technological outlook that is now considered so purely rational.
This combination of voluntarism and determinism, of subjectivism and mechanics, was a key theme of John Paul II (e.g., Fides et Ratio; Theology of the Body) and of Benedict XVI (Regensburg Address in 2006; Address intended for La Sapienza University in Rome in 2008).  See also Michael Waldstein's not-to-be-missed lecture on "Faith, Science and Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address" and his marvelous introduction to his English translation of JP II's Theology of the Body.  No-one has better pursued these themes, utterly central to understanding modernity and our current cultural catastrophe, in an accessible or popular (but not dumbed down) way, than Fr. Robert Barron.

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