No freedom of speech on life's biggest question


Our culture has decided that the declaration of religious conviction is always ‘offensive’, writes JOHN WATERS

I HAVE been fascinated to observe the extent and intensity of responses to last week’s column about the Meeting of Rimini. I have never seen so many posts on a comment thread arising from one of my contributions to this newspaper (more than 80 when the debate was closed the other day), and I have had numerous personal communications on the subject as well. Many, in both categories, were hostile, which didn’t surprise me. Others were broadly supportive, interpreting the article as a kind of tribal statement that they supported.

Both responses are misplaced, and for the same reason: my intention was simply to describe something in which Christianity is neither attacked not defended, but simply embraced as fact.

My references to the exhibition at the meeting about the life and work of Flannery O’Connor, for example, described a great artist who declared herself an artist because she was a Catholic. O’Connor is rapidly coming to be seen among the greatest of American writers. It is possible, I suppose, for the highly secularised imagination of what we nowadays call “the arts” to “overlook” her Catholicism, even to decide that she is a great writer “in spite of” this. But unfortunately she had this inconvenient practice of asserting the intensity of her belief and its centrality to her work. For her, Christ was intrinsic to reality, a presence in the here-and-now. If the Eucharist was merely symbolic, she once told an aghast dinner party, “then the hell with it”. Such clarity, such specificity, is deeply uncomfortable for the cultural imagination of this society now, which operates with such a severely reduced understanding of the meaning of a faith that, by virtue of this reduction, many people imagine we can jettison without cost or risk. The standard hostility to articles like the one I wrote last week is not directed at the Christianity that Flannery O’Connor was talking about, but at a Pharisean corruption, which, being based on sentiment and social order, has latterly invoked an extreme backlash.

It would take many more words than I am allowed in this space to give more than a hint of what this means. I have already published two books on the subject, and note with frustration that some of those who respond with hostility when I touch on these matters have a tendency to assert that I have elided certain questions which, in fact, are dealt with in detail therein.

But there is a particular aspect of this discussion that strikes me as dangerously misleading: the tendency of those who respond negatively to non-antagonistic reference to Christianity to imply that they are doing so out of a desire to “respect” and “defend” other forms of religious outlook.

Thus, when I paraphrased Flannery O’Connor’s belief that Christianity is the only possibility that offers true meaning to reality, many of the responses affected to be deeply concerned on behalf of, for example, Muslims or Buddhists that such a view (which some contributors interestingly attributed to me rather than to O’Connor) was “offensive” and “insulting” to people who did not share it.

If you took such assertions at face value, you might gather that they seek to defend one form of belief against the supremacism of another. But, going deeper, it becomes clear that this is not so, that there is but a momentary, opportunistic “solidarity” with the allegedly beleaguered belief-system, which will dissolve as soon as the “defended” entity seeks to assert the ineluctable absolutism of its own outlook. The Muslim or Buddhist is merely a rhetorical shield for use in a crusade to create conditions in which no “religious” beliefs will be tolerated at all.

What is invited by such interventions is not the “pluralism” or “tolerance” which is invariably implied, but the banishment from the public arena of any form of absolute certitude or specificity about the total meaning of the mysteries that define us. What is elevated, implicitly, is the non-engagement of the self-styled “non-believer”, as though this was a neutral position (rather than one seeking to impose its pessimism on others).

In this, not least because it is a view that nowadays trips off the lips even of Government ministers who declare themselves democrats, there is evidence that a potentially dangerous semantic misunderstanding has acquired the status of objective truth in our culture.

If I were to write an article saying that quantitative easing offers the only hope of redemption for the economy, people might disagree but they would not question my right to make such an assertion or claim that, for example, it was “offensive” to followers of Moore McDowell. At worst someone might outline an alternative proposal and offer reasons why mine was wrong-headed.

Yet, it has been rendered “obvious” in our culture that it is “offensive” to allow anyone to declare a lucid and total conviction about the religious meaning of reality.

Why? Why should there be a suspension of freedom when the question is the biggest one there is?

This trend is not merely unreasonable but deeply ominous, an indication of an incipient totalitarianism that would obliterate the most fundamental freedom there is.

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