Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Tolerance or Indifference?
Tolerance or Indifference?
We’ve all seen them: the bumper stickers with symbols from different religions or lifestyles that, put together, vaguely resemble the word, “Coexist.” What are we to think of them? I know a number of people, some of whom are Catholic, who have them on their cars, and simply wish to make the statement that we should be able to coexist with people that are different than ourselves. We should not seek to hate, do violence, or otherwise abuse people who do not share our religious beliefs or lifestyle choices.
This, of course, is the message that we would hope the stickers would relay, and it is completely compatible with Catholic thinking. We are a missionary Church that possesses the Fullness of the Truth, and we seek to share that Truth with others. Yet we uphold the inestimable dignity of every human being, and we hold religious freedom to be of paramount importance. Though we seek to evangelize, we believe that compulsion should never be a part of conversion.
Hence, we have no problem with this preferred message of the “Coexist” bumper stickers. But some people use them to espouse a different message, one that is really not projected by the sticker itself: religious indifferentism.
This message goes like this: All religions are paths to God; they lead to the same reality; and each is suitable for a segment of the population, so we should all realize that the differences are meaningless; and since they are all essentially different versions of the same thing, they are all equally true and equally good, so let’s confine our religion to our own sphere and not burden others with our beliefs.
Sometimes the message that’s intended might even be: All religions are nonsense, so stop arguing over them, worship in private, and let’s get on with building a totally secular culture.
Both of these messages, of course, as Catholics, we have to reject. There will also be times, I think, when we will be called to help others, possibly loved ones, reject them, too.
We’ve all heard or experienced the story: A young practicing Catholic goes off to college, where he or she gets into a certain professor’s class who sells intellectual pride masterfully. “You’re in college,” he says, “too sophisticated to believe in religion anymore. Your parents are nice people, I’m sure, just simple. They were educated by people who were simple. You must evolve beyond that.”
Our youth, who by and large aren’t educated in deductive reasoning or the basic principles of philosophy, are easy prey. They come home on break telling us that truth is relative, all religions are equally true (or untrue), and they have to define reality for themselves.
What are we to do? There are many things we can do, like pray, give them good books that make them think, pray, invite them to lectures and conferences, and pray.
One thing I think we have to be prepared to do, in general, is challenge this cancerous world view that’s spreading throughout the West, what Pope Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Truth does exist. And there are two kinds of truth, subjective truth and objective truth. Subjective truth, being focused on the subject, is relative. The statement, for example, “Rudy is an inspiring movie,” is subjective. That really could be true for me, and not true for you. It depends on the person who makes the statement.
Even morality can sometimes be subjective. Circumstances can sometimes dictate what is the right thing to do. Even the culpability of a person committing an objectively evil act can potentially be subjective.
But there is also objective truth. Objective truth is true whether or not I know it, like it, or believe it. George Washington was the first U.S. President. That was true even before I learned it. It would be true even if I had a strong dislike toward Mr. Washington. And it would even be true if I refused to believe it.
Our experiences of religion may be subjective, but the objective claims made by a religion are either objectively true or objectively false.
In the Gospel this Sunday we will hear Jesus ask His apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” Shortly after, He asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
This is one question we can ask our beloved devotees of relativism. Who is Jesus? History records that He exists. References can be found to Jesus in Christian, Jewish and pagan histories. So who is He? He can not be what so many “enlightened” people claim: a prophet, a good man, a great teacher, a guru.
Jesus does not leave us that option. He forces us to make a choice. He claimed to be God Incarnate. That much is clear. The historical record says that is why He was executed. Jesus called people to follow Him, to be devoted to Him, not just a teaching. Buddha never made the claims that Jesus made; neither did Mohammed. As C.S. Lewis brilliantly fleshes out, Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of the universe.
He also can not be simply what each religion claims Him to be for the followers of that religion. Jesus made objective claims about Himself.
Christians claim He is God become man; Moslems claim He is a prophet sent by God; Buddhists claim He is a man who attained enlightenment; and secularists claim He was a man who had a nice moral code but was just 2,000 years ahead of His time.
He can not be all these things. The Law of Non-Contradiction states that something can not both “be” and “not be” at the same time and in the same manner. We claim Jesus is God. And we are very clear about what that means. There are no new, subjective definitions of God that we use to define Him. We say that He is objectively God. Non-Christians claim that He is not. The two are mutually exclusive. He can’t both be God and not be God at the same time. “God” is a nature, not a title awarded by one’s fans.
We have to help our loved ones see that these basic principles regarding truth are, in fact, true. Once they recognize that Truth can be known, they can begin to seek it. The questions of God’s existence and Jesus’s identity are questions of objective truth. Our understanding of that Truth is what is subjective. Once people recognize that, and can support each other on that journey of understanding, we will truly be able to coexist, and maybe even to grow.
Note: People I know and love with the “Coexist” bumper sticker will read this. Please do not misread criticism into anything I have written.