April 30, 2009

Be Serious (Please)

Jim Tonkowich
April 30, 2009

The Church of England’s Michael Nazir-Ali served for fifteen years as Bishop of Rochester. In a column in the Telegraph (UK) entitled “Ignore our Christian Values and the Nation will Drift Apart”, Bishop Nazir-Ali reflected on those years. What he has seen seems to be killing the very idea of Great Britain and can serve as a stern warning for those of us in the United States. He writes:

During that time, I have watched the nation drift further and further away from its Christian moorings. Instead of the spiritual and moral framework provided by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we have been led to expect, and even to celebrate, mere diversity. Not surprisingly, this has had the result of loosening the ties of law, customs and values, and led to a gradual loss of identity and of cohesiveness.

“Mere diversity” as opposed to “mere Christianity” is by its nature content-free. Diversity celebrates the notion that, ultimately, truth is unknowable and so everyone’s ideas and “values” are as good as everyone else’s. You may not agree, but at least that statement is coherent.
The trouble is, as Nazir-Ali points out, that politicians and activists try to build a public life and public morality on the contentless chaos of diversity. This call is incoherent and, in the final analysis, dishonest.

Regarding its incoherence, as Nazir-Ali points out:

Some faiths may emphasise social solidarity more than personal freedom, others publicly enforce piety over a nurturing of the interior life and yet others stress honour and shame rather than humility, service and sacrifice. It may be, of course, that there is a useful overlap among these traditions in terms of values by which to live. It may also be that people of different faiths can “own” many of the values produced by a Christian framework in this nation, but this cannot take place in a vacuum.

Yet it is in the vacuum, we are told, we must to work to create a foundation for society. If truth is unknowable, there is no choice but to create ex nihilo.

On the same theme, Hadley Arkes, the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College notes:

In our own time, “tolerance” and “multiculturalism” begin by receding from the casting of judgments. The New Tolerance disclaims any monopoly on truth, moral or religious, and in fact it disclaims any ground of knowing anything reliably about the things that are right and wrong.

This is where the dishonesty piggybacks on the incoherence. While the New Tolerance declaims any monopoly on truth, it concomitantly claims that monopoly as its own. It is absolutely sure there are no absolutes and has every intention of demanding complete assent to its own inflexible orthodoxy. There is no diversity of values here; there is only lip service disguising a monolithic secular belief system.

Nazir-Ali, ministering in the national church, notes that the threat of disestablishment of the Church of England hangs in the air over just this issue. The church’s future, one politician noted recently, depends on “staying in tune” with the overall direction of British society. Nazir-Ali comments:

The Church is seen as simply the religious aspect of society, there to endorse any change or chance which politicians deem fit to impose on an unsuspecting nation, rather than being the guardian of the Christian tradition which has provided for nearly everything valuable in this country.

And we see evidence of the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. Hadley Arkes writes:

Catholic adoption services in Massachusetts have come to a virtual end, because they will not agree to place babies with gay or lesbian couples. The press has been on, in Massachusetts and California, to compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions or lose public funds and contracts. With same-sex marriage now part of the laws in Massachusetts, those churches that will not recant their moral objections to the homosexual life are churches “not in accord with public policy.” They are candidates for the withdrawal of tax exemptions, or any other privileges they may receive from the hand of the law.

I believe that Joseph Bottum writing in the May 2009 First Things diagnoses the underlying problem. There is, on all sides of the issues, a disturbing lack of seriousness about the ways in which people are using state power to impose their agendas on society. Bottum writes:

From all sides, it seems an astonishing display of fecklessness and demagoguery; must everyone with a bully pulpit play the bully? But the point would remain the same: A great deal of the seriousness in American public discourse has fled.

And it is that lack of seriousness that allows the intellectual fluff of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” to successfully masquerade as the foundation of public life and public morality. Beneath the mask is power—Augustine’s libido dominandi, the lust to dominate that ever marks the City of Man.

Such times demand first that we recognize the diversity ruse for what it is and second that in rejecting we contribute as we are able to the serious business of public discourse as we seek to build a common life for the good of all.


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