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The Public Square

John Courtney Murray on Holding Certain Truths

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The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt, but that there is a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence. We hold certain truths, therefore we can argue about them. It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached. In a basic sense the reverse is true. There can be no argument except on the premise, and within a context, of agreement. Mutatis mutandis, this is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological argument. It is no less true of political argument.

John Tyler on Church and State

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The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions… The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid. …and the Aegis of Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free governement would be imperfect without it. ¶ The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Mind should be free as the light or as the air.

Wendell Berry on War, Peace, and Christianity

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But "Christian" war has always been a problem, best solved by avoiding any attempt to reconcile policies of national or imperial militarism with anything Christ said or did. The Christian gospel is a summons to peace, calling for justice beyond anger, mercy beyond justice, forgiveness beyond mercy, love beyond forgiveness. It would require a most agile interpreter to justify hatred and war by means of the Gospels, in which we are bidden to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despise and persecute us.

Sam Harris on Not Tolerating Religious Beliefs

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Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene. There are still a number of cultures in which the germ theory of disease has yet to put in an appearance, where people suffer from a debilitating ignorance on most matters relevant to their physical health. Do we "tolerate" these beliefs? Not if they put our own health in jeopardy.

Early Modern Civil Discourses

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This collection explores the concept of civility in the early modern period. It addresses a range of writings in English and Scottish — among them, conduct manuals, colonial tracts, diaries, letters, dialogues, poetry, drama, chronicles — by English, Welsh and Scots men and women in and about the Atlantic archipelago. It explores the many meanings of civility in the early modern period; it recovers some of the lost associations of civility as well as the complex use of the adjectives "civil" and "barbarous" in cultural and colonial encounters. ~ Product Description

Utopia

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Sixteenth-century classic by English ecclesiastic and scholar envisioned a tolerant, patriarchal island kingdom free of private property, violence, bloodshed and vice. Forerunner of many later attempts. Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future. • "There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato’s Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word ‘Utopia.’ The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point. It’s easy to sum up More’s heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated — overwhelmingly, More’s citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. It’s also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More’s day and the standard of his own behavior. ‘Tolerance’, however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn’t too animistic, and certainly didn’t tolerate the unreligious. This translation from More’s original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More’s neologistic names, like the unpleasant ‘Venalians’ who are the Utopians’ neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It’s a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly." ~ wiredweird at Amazon.com

Dulio, Medvic, Nelson on TV, Style, and Substance

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The problems include limited access to mass media outlets afforded to some voices in our political process; “sound bite” journalism that covers campaign strategy more than policy pronouncements and emphasizes conflict over consensus; and overreliance on the medium of television, the logic of which makes politics “an activity of style over substance, image over reality, melodrama over analysis, belief over knowing, awareness over understanding.” The primary cause of these problems, [Robert] Denton argues, lies in “contemporary news values.” As a business, the media must maintain high circulation (or ratings) in order to make a profit by selling advertising. The incentive to make the news entertaining is overwhelming. But information that is most useful in a democratic system may often be subtle and complex — boring, to some.

Ruth Lessl Shively on Believing in Something

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I have argued that if the ambiguists mean to be subversive about anything, they need to be conservative about some things. They need to be steadfast supporters of the structures of openness and democracy: willing to say “no” to certain forms of contest; willing to set up clear limitations about acceptable behavior. To this, finally, I would add that if the ambiguists mean to stretch the boundaries of behavior — if they want to be revolutionary and disruptive in their skepticism and iconoclasm — they need first to be firm believers in something. Which is to say, again, they need to set clear limits about what they will and will not support, what they do and do not believe to be best. … In other words, a refusal to judge among ideas and activities is, in the end, an endorsement of the status quo. To embrace everything is to be unable to embrace a particular plan of action, for to embrace a particular plan of action is to reject all others, at least for that moment. Moreover, as observed in our discussion of openness, to embrace everything is to embrace self-contradiction: to hold to both one’s purposes and to that which defeats one’s purposes — to tolerance and intolerance, open-mindedness and close-mindedness, democracy and tyranny.

The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America

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This expansive volume traces the rhetoric of reform across American history, examining such pivotal periods as the American Revolution, slavery, McCarthyism, and today’s gay liberation movement. At a time when social movements led by religious leaders, from Louis Farrakhan to Pat Buchanan, are playing a central role in American politics, James Darsey connects this radical tradition with its prophetic roots. Public discourse in the West is derived from the Greek principles of civility, diplomacy, compromise, and negotiation. On this model, radical speech is often taken to be a sympton of social disorder. Not so, contends Darsey, who argues that the rhetoric of reform in America represents the continuation of a tradition separate from the commonly accepted principles of the Greeks. Though the links have gone unrecognized, the American radical tradition stems not from Aristotle, he maintains, but from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. ~ Synopsis

Toleration: An Elusive Virtue

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If we are to understand the concept of toleration in terms of everyday life, we must address a key philosophical and political tension: the call for restraint when encountering apparently wrong beliefs and actions versus the good reasons for interfering with the lives of the subjects of these beliefs and actions. This collection contains original contributions to the ongoing debate on the nature of toleration, including its definition, historical development, justification, and limits. In exploring the issues surrounding toleration, the essays address a variety of provocative questions. Is toleration a moral virtue of individuals or rather a pragmatic political compromise? Is it an intrinsically good principle or only a "second best-solution" to the dangers of fanaticism to be superseded one day by the full acceptance of others? Does the value of toleration lie in respect to individuals and their autonomy, or rather in the recognition of the right of minority groups to maintain their communal identity? Throughout, the contributors point to the inherent indeterminacy of the concept and to the difficulty in locating it between intolerant absolutism and skeptical pluralism. Religion, sex, speech, and education are major areas requiring toleration in liberal societies. By applying theoretical analysis, these essays show the differences in the argument for toleration and its scope in each of these realms. ~ Product Description

An Ethic For Enemies

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The author, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, has produced a work that deserves close scrutiny. The casual reader is likely to conclude that Shriver is addressing, in some flight of fancy, the oxymoronic. After all, political forgiveness seems patently absurd, especially given the history of the 20th century-not to mention our contemporary culture of violence. However, while recognizing that forgiveness is a morally complex concept, Shriver argues that it reaches beyond the realm of the personal to the arena of political ethics. He contends that forgiveness is (or at least should be seen as) an indispensable element in politics and that it is an essential ingredient in our attempt to construct a proper political ethics. Not everyone will be persuaded by Shriver’s attempt to make forgiveness the cornerstone of a political ethic; nonetheless, his argument should not be ignored. ~ Library Journal

Lesslie Newbigin on Liberals, Fundies, and Doubt

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The words "liberal" and "fundamentalist" are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy. From one side comes the accusation that the mind of the fundamentalist is closed, shuttered against the possibility of doubt and therefore against the recognition of hitherto unrecognized truth. From the other side comes the charge that liberals are so open to new ideas that they have no firm commitments at all, that every affirmation of faith must be held only tentatively, and that every dogma must, as a matter of principle, be challenged. There are terms of moral opprobrium that each side employs to attack the other: the fundamentalist is arrogant, blinkered, and culturally illiterate; the liberal is flabby, timid, and carried along by every new fashion of thought. From the point of view of the fundamentalist, doubt is sin; from the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure of intellectual integrity and honesty.

Bertrand Russell on Reasonable Belief

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If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based upon faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting or distorting the minds of the young in what is called ‘education.’

Uncommon Decency

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Richard Mouw wrote this short and simple book a dozen years ago, but it is, perhaps, even more timely today than when it first appeared. The last several presidential elections indicate that our country and our churches are badly divided over a broad range of important issues like gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, the place of America in the world, global economics, health care, and the list goes on. Many people employ a military metaphor to describe our so-called “culture wars.” In a war, to state the obvious, you have friends and foes, enemies and allies, the goal being for Good (that would be “our” side) to defeat Evil (“their” side). Sharp, partisan and demonizing rhetoric about these issues divides us even further. One is left to exasperate with Rodney King, “why can’t we all just get along?” Mouw shows how and why Christians should not only be people of conviction, but people of compassion and civility. We are, he reminds us, to “pursue peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14), and to “show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:2). Civility does not mean we have to like everyone we meet or forfeit our convictions to a relativistic perspective. Rather, it means caring deeply about our civitas and its public life. After defining the nature and parameters of Christian civility, Mouw investigates its implications for our speech, attitudes, pluralistic society, sexual mores, other religions, and leadership in a fallen world. He explores the limits of civility, when there is no “on the other hand.” In his final two chapters he cautions against our tendencies to triumphalism, and trying to usher in the kingdom of God right now, as opposed to appreciating the ways and means of a patient, slow-moving God who loves His creation deeply and longs to redeem it. ~ Daniel B. Clendenin

John Perry Barlow on Freedom, Tolerance, and Fear

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It seems to me that elsewhere in America liberty is far more a matter of law than practice. The Bill of Rights is still on the books and they’d have a hell of a time putting you in jail for just saying something, but how free are we? Whatever the guarantees, I believe liberty resides in its exercise. Liberty is really about the ability to feel free and behave accordingly. You are only as free as you act. Free people must be willing to speak up … and listen. They can’t merely consume the fruits of freedom, they have to produce them. This exercise of liberty requires that people trust one another and the institutions they make together. They have to feel at home in their society. Well, Americans don’t appear to trust each other much these days. Why else would we employ three times more lawyers per capita than we did in 1970? Why else would our universities be so determined to impose tolerance that they’ll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony? Why else would we teach our kids to fear all strangers? Why else have we become so afraid to look one another in the eye? We have come to regard trust as foolishness and fear as necessary. We live in terror that the people around us might figure out what we’re actually thinking. Frankly, this America doesn’t feel very free to me at all. What has happened to our liberty? I think much of the answer lies in the critical difference between information and experience. These days we view most of our world through a television screen. Most of our knowledge comes from information about things, not experience with them.

Justice Anthony Kennedy on Liberty and Defining Meaning

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Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.

The Williamsburg Charter on Civil Discourse

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Recent controversies over religion and public life have too often become a form of warfare in which individuals, motives, and reputations have been impugned. The intensity of the debate is commensurate with the importance of the issues debated, but to those engaged in this warfare we present two arguments for reappraisal and restraint. The lesser argument is one of expediency and is based on the ironic fact that each side has become the best argument for the other. One side’s excesses have become the other side’s arguments; one side’s extremists the other side’s recruiters. The danger is that, as the ideological warfare becomes self-perpetuating, more serious issues and broader national interests will be forgotten and the bitterness deepened. The more important argument is one of principle and is based on the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant, defenders of free speech have been censorious, and citizens of a republic based on democratic accommodation have succumbed to a habit of relentless confrontation.

The Williamsburg Charter on the 1st Amendment

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Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution’s greatness, and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles. In particular, we call for a fresh consideration of religious liberty in our time, and of the place of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses in our national life.

Jerry Gill on Dialogue and Taking Truth Seriously

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As I understand it, a dialogical posture is one that takes the matters of religious reality and truth so seriously as to require extreme openness to and growth toward them, as well as radical sincerity and commitment to them. Thus, all sides and aspects of an issue must be
explored with humble thoroughness, and whatever is deemed worthy of commitment must be incorporated into one’s life with integrity.

C.S. Lewis on Scrutinizing Christianity

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Others may protest that intellecutal discussion can neither build Christianity nor destroy it. They may feel that religion is too sacred to be thus bandied to and fro in public debate, too sacred to be talked of — almost, perhaps, too sacred for anything to be done with it at all. Clearly, the Christian members of the Society (Oxford Socratic Club) think differently. They know that intellectual assent is not faith, but they do not believe that religion is only ‘what a man does with his solitude’. Or if it is, then they care nothing for ‘religion’ and all for Christianity. Christianity is not merely what a man does with his solitude. It is not even what God does with His solitude. It tells of God descending into the coarse publicity of history and there enacting what can — and must — be talked about.

Concepts of God

Go Using terms acceptable to each religious tradition, Professor Ward considers the doctrine of ultimate reality — God — within five world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. By closely studying a definitive, orthodox writer in each tradition, Ward builds a series of "pictures" of God and uncovers a common core of belief. "An invaluable introduction to the religious traditions which have helped shape human culture through the ages. Indispensable lot a comparative religions library."

Finding Common Ground

Go In a world that’s growing more hostile to the gospel, what can Christians do?  How can we communicate with our unbelieving friends and coworkers in a way that won’t seem pushy, intolerant, or judgmental? In a world that’s heard it all before and no longer seems to care, where do we begin? By sowing. In Finding Common Ground, Tim Downs reminds us of the forgotten biblical art of sowing and shows us practical and effective ways to: Bring up spiritual subjects with busy and distracted people; Use secular movies and book to talk about biblical ideas; Overcome prejudice and stereotypes in our listeners; Keep open doors of communication with even hostile opponents; Move everyone we meet a step closer to the gospel. ~ Back Cover