Jeff Fountain’s Weekly Word – originally published here
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This month has marked the 29th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9) and of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (November 17), two events which catalysed the collapse of the communist system.
In 1989, headlines everywhere announced the unbelievable news that the Wall had fallen. Euphoric crowds celebrated in the streets. The pluralistic free society of the West had won! Marxist regimes in other central and eastern European satellite states toppled like dominoes, and eventually the Soviet Union itself fell apart.
Yet today, less than three decades later, headlines now tell us that it is truth that has fallen.
“In today’s world, truth is losing”, announced The Washington Post. The Oxford Dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as the word for the year in 2016. Since that year, we have watched political leaders rise to power in both North and South America, and across Europe to Russia and Turkey, who brush aside truth as a petty inconvenience.
The words of the prophet Isaiah ring ominously true today:
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and honesty cannot enter. So truth fails, and he who departs from evil (stands for truth) makes himself a prey.
– Isaiah 59:14-15 NKJV
What has happened to turn this apparent triumph of secular liberalism into a climate of fear, uncertainty, polarisation, fake news and mistrust?
In 1991, Lesslie Newbigin warned of the multiple problems of pluralism. While others contrasted free society pluralism with totalitarianism as light with darkness, he wrote: “Total pluralism, in which there are no criteria by which different lifestyles could be evaluated, in which any kind of discrimination between cultural norms as better or worse is forbidden, in which there is no truth but only ‘what seems meaningful for me’, leads inevitably to anomie, to lostness, to a meaningless life in a meaningless world” (Newbigin, L. (1991) Truth to tell,Geneva: WCC Publications, p55).
Marxism, claiming to be objectively scientifically true, therefore claimed the right to impose itself as public doctrine controlling all areas of life, he argued. We have seen the disastrous consequences of a false objectivity and applauded its collapse. Yet, even as the crowds were still celebrating victory in the Cold War, he cautioned of the ‘danger of collapsing into a false subjectivism in which there are no criteria but everything goes’.
Today, truth has fallen to subjectivism. Honesty is shut out. Those who stand for truth are mocked and dismissed. So how do we respond?
On the recent anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I was in Prague with 170 participants of the Together for Europe movement from many nations of Europe east and west, and shared a meditation on lessons from Czech heroes about living in a ‘post-truth’ world.
Jan Hus, burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1415 during the Council of Constance, is honoured in Prague’s Old Town Square by an impressive monument paid for by publical donation during the First World War, to mark the 500th anniversary of his death. A century before Luther, Hus stood up for truth against abuses and doctrinal distortions in the Church of the day. Even as he faced his own death in Constance, he exhorted his disciples back in Prague to ‘seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, adhere to the truth, defend it to the death, for truth will free you’.
On the base of the Hus memorial in Prague is the famous phrase attributed to the reformer, ‘Truth Prevails’. This motto was adopted by the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Tomas Masaryk, and again by the first President of a democratic Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel.
Havel is another Czech hero from whom we can learn about living in a post-truth world. In what used to be a famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, the dissident playwright exhorted his fellow countrymen living under the false scientific objectivity of marxism: ‘don’t live the lie!’In language becoming freshly relevant this time in the West, Havel hammered again and again that truth and love had to prevail over lies and hatred.
Havel was a founding member of the Charter 77 movement whose motto was: Truth prevails for those who live in truth. Imprisoned multiple times for his stand on truth, Havel found himself in 1989 thrust into leadership of the Velvet Revolution and almost carried up the hill into the presidential palace to be the nation’s new leader.
In their words and life, Hus and Havel challenge us in our post-truth world and through our daily lives to stand for truth, to seek the truth, to speak the truth, to love the truth – for the truth will set us free.
The following article came to our attention via MercatorNet
, which stands for reframing ethical and policy debates in terms of human dignity, not dollars and cents or political calculation. They specialise in navigating modern complexities with a focus on human dignity and the family. Cardus Law is a research body that
is particularly interested the role of religious freedom in sustaining an ordered society where citizens’ faith informs a vibrant public debate and where the public and private expression of religious faith helps to shape our common life.
By Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Law, Canada
In a truly pluralist democracy, acceptance of difference must include the right to hold different theological and different ethical and moral positions even when they go against the prevailing spirit of our age. So long as these views are held and advanced peacefully and do not advocate physical violence that would violate human dignity, they must be allowed to inhabit the public space.
We must reject an illiberal totalitarianism that seeks to establish socially correct and acceptable beliefs treating any peacefully held contrary view as deviant and something to be silenced. There must be no totalitarianism of accepted belief or accepted opinion in our country.
It is not by sheer accident that freedom of religion or conscience appears as the first fundamental freedom in s. 2a of the Charter. If a citizen does not enjoy the foundational freedom to live and exercise religious beliefs both publicly and privately, and to have this freedom vigorously defended by all of our institutions, then we cannot build a truly pluralist and diverse society where difference is viewed in a positive light.
A true pluralism must embrace and enable difference, but not simply a subset of differences that may be permitted and emboldened by a given set of elites at a given moment in our history. This is an illiberal pluralism that embraces a closed secularism where the state imposes values and dictates what religious beliefs are publicly permissible.
To paraphrase a prominent Catholic bishop:
Democracy has many merits, but it does not determine the truth.
The freedom to practice one’s deeply held religious faith both publicly and privately is a freedom that implicitly advances and supports this true pluralism by protecting and continually upholding difference. To champion religious freedom is also to implicitly accept that there are those in our common life who will hold and will promote beliefs, theological and philosophical, moral, and ethical, that many of us will vehemently reject. And that’s okay. It is the proper role of the State to ensure that no one religious belief system, or for that matter a secular belief system, dictates what one must believe and what one must do.
All faith communities along with political and ideological communities must commit to inhabiting the public space in peace. They must commit to engage in activities that have as their ultimate goal the promotion of human flourishing, recognition of human dignity, and an acceptance of different beliefs co-existing in the public square.
Freedom of religion or conscience is essential in the development and defence of a diverse society where human beings are able to flourish and have their dignity acknowledged. How then does religious freedom reveal human dignity? Freedom of religion relates directly to the metaphysical need of every human being to freely contemplate and adhere to beliefs that answer these questions: “Who am I? Who am I in relationship to you? Who am I in relationship to the country and world in which I live? And, who am I in relationship to God, or to a particular philosophy to which I choose to adhere?”
It can be argued that these questions define the relationship between religious freedom and human dignity. If our concept of freedom is purely one of economic, social, and/or political freedom divorced from this existential freedom then our participation in society will be frustrated. How we understand ourselves in a metaphysical sense cannot be divorced from our political, social, and economic selves. Indeed, in most of the world religious faith defines political, social, and economic action. All of these freedoms speak to human freedom itself and its defence so as to enable human flourishing.
If Muslims, Christians, Sikhs or Jews…are constrained in living out their faith through practice, they will become increasingly marginalised and our society will be increasingly atomised. The marginalisation of people of faith and the diverse beliefs they profess can have two consequences, both of which hamper the further strengthening of our common life:
- Firstly, such a marginalisation impoverishes our public debate by pushing out valuable perspectives drawn from deep wells of religious tradition. In so doing, people who profess these traditions will view themselves as being undervalued within our political life, and the religious beliefs they deeply hold as being unworthy of public consideration. Their ability to full exercise their citizenship is diminished as a result.
- Secondly, as people of faith and their communities feel increasingly vulnerable and believe that they can no longer participate in the common life due to unreasonable constraints placed upon their faith and conscience, they may choose to check out of mainstream society altogether. While this may allow them to live their faith and support their faith-based institutions more-or-less independently, it represents a grave loss to our common life and is essentially a failure of our political society to embrace these citizens.
The State that acknowledges and respects religious freedom as being intrinsically linked to human dignity is a State that upholds true religious freedom. It respects the sovereignty of religious bodies and faith communities to exercise faith freely and in good conscience in both public and private lives. Likewise members of all faith communities must respect the values of our liberal democratic society, in particular, the rule of law exercised by the state insomuch as those laws are just, do not counter the moral law, and are ordered towards the common good and the flourishing of all members of society.
A true pluralism respects disagreement, often profound disagreement, between people of different faiths, ideologies, and backgrounds. In building our common life we must seek to build a society in which people flourish and are able to live their lives of faithfully, both publicly and privately. In building this common life there must be the space to differ and not to defer, to have the freedom to live a public faith and not be driven to privatise one’s faith in order to be accepted in the public square.
A liberal democracy needs to be strong enough in its embrace of the rule of law, freedom, and human rights to guarantee that religious differences and differences in belief more generally – differences that often have sharp edges – can exist.
A liberal democracy protects and opens wide the public square for these disagreements to exist. The public square also beckons us, calling us to meet each other there, in our differences and our diversity, and to there encounter our shared humanity in solidarity with one another.
Andrew Bennett is Senior Fellow at Cardus and program director for Cardus Law. Reproduced with permission from Convivium.
Copyright © Andrew Bennett.
Convivium means living together. It is an online space that brings together citizens of differing convictions and religious confessions to contend for the role of faith in our common life.