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Pluralist society needs religious schools.

It is common nowadays to decry the intolerance produced by the absolute certitudes of nineteenth-century intellectuals, but in doing so their twenty-first-century counterparts should realize two aspects of the contemporary facile recognition of any and every view. The first is that such tolerance is only possible because man has abandoned as hopeless the quest for religious truth; where there is no truth, there is nothing that can require absolute allegiance.

The second is, paradoxically, that this so-called tolerance, in its rejection of religion's claim to possess the truth about God and man, can itself be intolerant and even bigoted, for agnosticism is a complete and comprehensive worldview, as narrow and specific in its tenets as the fiercest Muslim fundamentalism.

Suppose all religions are equally true

Consider, for example, the agnostic axiom that all religions are equally true. It seems magisterial and impartial, wonderful in its universal sympathy, until one examines it more closely. It turns out to mean that all religions are equally false: the Jews are not the chosen people because there is no chosen people; Jesus is not the God-man because the Word was not made flesh and did not dwell among us; and so on. It is not surprising, then, that the agnostic finds in the negations of Buddhism man's supreme spiritual achievement, the touchstone for all religions. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, "[Agnostics] are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism" (Orthodoxy, chapter 8).

Let us suppose for a moment that all religions are "true." Their kernel of truth would then consist of the tiny area of their overlap, which amounts to a recognition that man has an unquenchable conviction that reality is not limited to what can be seen. What this indefinable unknown is the agnostic cannot say. He is sure of one thing, however: that no one else knows what it is either. Even here, therefore, the sceptical tolerance of the agnostic is more pose than reality, for he is as complete in his rejection of religious commitment as an astronomer would be of a geocentric universe.

My claim is simply that everyone, whether he knows it or not, is a proponent of a world view; it follows that everyone will be an apologist (i.e., a defender) in that he will have a view of things to propagate and the means to justify it. Materialism, atheism, and agnosticism are all based on the conviction that one knows the truth, even if, as in the case of the last of these, truth is nothing more than a conviction that no one can know for sure what is true.

But this conviction does not make an agnostic more tolerant than a believer, for each has a specific worldview that requires him to say that the other is wrong. And each can be intolerant, not because he has a worldview--that is inevitable--but if he should deny others the right to hold their views. We have been told over and over again how intolerant religious people can be; we should also recognize the illiberality of liberalism.

What is the difference?

The real difference between the agnostic and the Christian, therefore, is not tolerance and intolerance, for each is "intolerant" in his conviction that the other is in error. Nor does the difference between them lie in commitment to truth, for each believes that he knows what is true about man's condition. The difference lies in the range of the truth they will admit.

The agnostic limits himself to the sureties, or the single surety, that his unaided intellect can achieve. For a Christian the range of truth includes things that go beyond what can be contained in the human brain. In doing so, he joins the majority of mankind through the centuries in accepting the "primordial tradition"--the phrase comes from Houston Smith's Forgotten Truth--the unbreakable conviction that the world of the spirit is not only more real than this world, but also that it can be experienced.

In Christianity, this tradition leads a person to accept, first, the possibility and then the fact that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. And thus it is that Christianity, too, is a worldview, capable as such of incorporating in its system all the phenomena the world presents to the inquiring mind, including agnosticism. For the skeptical conclusions of the agnostic demonstrate that unaided reason, except among the most brilliant and leisured, will not attain the philosophical truth that the world has a transcendent cause and that man's vocation is to encounter, as far as possible, that cause.

True and humane

Given the unavoidability of having a view, it is important that the view one comes to adopt be true or, if that is deemed impossible, be comprehensive and humane. Some sort of witness to the view (evangelization), study of the view (education), and defence of the view (apologetics) whatever it may be, is inevitable. Consequently, effective evangelizers, educators, and apologists should, and sometimes do, share one characteristic: a contagious enthusiasm.

Pentecostal Christianity holds little attraction for me, but I found myself half responding to the fervour of Robert Duvall's portrayal of a revivalist preacher in his film The Apostle. He conveys the exuberance and the conviction that give power to such men. A gifted teacher is cut from the same cloth. Like the wildest charismatic, a real teacher is on fire with his subject and so communicates to even the most indifferent of his students that there is something crucially important about Shakespeare or Newton, Plato or Saint Paul.

The one possible source of such enthusiasms, religious or intellectual, is the truth. That is where the apologist comes in, for only what is true can excite a commitment that nothing can shake or impede. Consider the exorbitant demands that Jesus made upon his disciples: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:26). And yet his disciples continued to go with him. Why? Because they believed Jesus when he said, "I am the truth" (Jn. 14:6).

I have tried to establish my conviction that evangelization, education, and apologetics are universal, in that everyone has a point of view which he willy-nilly proclaims, explores, and justifies. There is no superior level from which the "objective" observer can classify other systems, for his feigned objectivity is itself one more such system. Hence it is not true that Catholicism, in indoctrinating its members, narrows their vision by enforcing a system that eliminates other possibilities. Every view, simply by being a view, eliminates all the others.

Claims to disinterested objectivity disabling

Furthermore, a pretentious claim to disinterested objectivity is actually impoverishing, in that it strips away the riches peculiar to any given tradition in a search for some elusive highest common factor. Catholicism is a large phenomenon, a religion which, by forming mediaeval Europe, stands at the origin of western society. As a wide-ranging cultural fact, Catholicism has a response to every situation; as a religion, Catholicism is a corrective to secularism; as a sector of a pluralistic society, Catholicism has the right and obligation to prepare its members for action in that society. For all of these reasons, Catholicism needs schools and colleges. Admittedly, for many people a simple faith can safeguard their allegiance to the Church in a secularized society, but this faith depends to some extent on a conviction that someone, somewhere, can reply to and refute the contemporary critique of Catholicism. That someone, that somewhere is found in Catholic high schools and colleges.

Pluralism affirms need for religious schools

In this discussion, it is imperative to recall the fundamental nature of a school as a place of learning in which the young, and not so young, are prepared for their role in society. A pluralistic society does not eliminate the need for denominational education; on the contrary, it becomes the more necessary.

Pluralism means honouring the commitment of an individual to a particular group within a larger society in which there is, in theory, no overriding ideology. Hence, if a specific group is to survive, it must be able to prepare its members to act socially in a way that witnesses to its principles. Where these are secular, public schools may serve; but where they are religious, special education is required. Such is the vital service that Catholic education offers the pluralistic society.

Fr. Daniel Callam, a Canadian, teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX.
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Author:Callam, Daniel
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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