Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quotable: Wilfred McClay, speaking in Turkey, on religion in America and toleration

Tuesday, November 3rd 2015
Professor Wilfred M. McClay, then holding the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, recalled his experience as a U.S. speaker who visited Turkey under State Department auspices in 2006.  His long article, “Liberalism After Liberalism,” in the May, 2012, issue of First Things was mostly a discussion of how the concept of liberalism has changed over time.  Excerpts that relate to his program in Turkey are below.  To my mind, they illustrate the value of the U.S. Speaker program – bringing both expertise and a willingness to go beyond official talking points.  Many Public Diplomacy officers can recall, sitting at the side of a U.S. speaker, hearing "a murmur of approbation" when a member of the audience gave "voice to the very question that, in one form or another, was on everyone’s mind."
In 2006, I was honored to be invited by the State Department to give lectures in Turkey on the American understanding of the separation of church and state. I spoke around the country in a wide variety of venues and met dozens of political and religious leaders. It was an unforgettable ten days, mostly for the experience of encountering raptly engaged Turkish audiences who were, partly because of the peculiarities of Turkey’s blend of Islamic character and Kemalist secularism, fascinated by the American approach to religion in the public square and wondering whether there could be any value in adopting such an approach in their own society. I gave a talk, with variations, on the origins of church-state separation in American history, grounding it in the particularities of American history and making frequent reference to the riskiness of generalizing the American example to include other places and religious cultures. But my audiences almost always would ignore my disclaimers and ask me, usually in the first question or two, whether I thought this or that American practice would work in Turkey, questions I was singularly ill equipped to answer.
One encounter lingers in my mind. It occurred at an Islamic center for advanced study, located on the Asian side of Istanbul, where I was received with both endearing warmth and exquisite kindness by an impressive audience of dedicated Muslim scholars. I gave them a longer and more elaborate presentation, in light of their greater sophistication, and then opened the floor to questions, which went on for an unusually long time and were unusually probing. One woman in particular was especially interested in exploring the concept of religious toleration, and cut right to the heart of the matter. Didn’t I accept the Christian view of the primacy of love? Yes, I said, I did. (I had said nothing about being a Christian, but everywhere I spoke, it was simply presumed.) Well, she continued in a gently questioning voice, how can it be love, for you or me or anyone, to permit another person, someone we love, to believe something that we know to be false?
Immediately a murmur of approbation moved through the audience, and I realized that she had given voice to the very question that, in one form or another, was on everyone’s mind. She then sat down, but her implications were clear. How could any insistence upon toleration be anything other than an illegitimate trespass of the merely political onto the sacred ground of the religious? How could toleration be a fulfillment of one’s faith rather than a dilution of it? Why was this not tantamount to apostasy?
I was not really ready for such a question, particularly since I was clearly being asked to answer it as a representative of Christianity rather than as a scholar. But there was no place to hide, and I could not dodge it without being rude to my gentle hosts. So I answered in terms meant to show that the liberal practice of toleration ultimately was best understood as something grounded in theology and in an understanding of God’s nature and of man’s relationship to God.
In this view, God desires our love, but he wants us to come to him freely and willingly -- not by fiat, not by manipulation, and certainly not by coercion. So he leaves us free, not only to believe but also to err and stray. In fact, the possession of this freedom -- the freedom to give or withhold our love, or our faith, even from our Creator -- could be thought of as an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God. The story of the fall of man, I added, could be understood as a powerful expression of God’s love for us, since he loved us enough to permit us the freedom to disobey and reject him.
So yes, I concluded, that is “how it can be love,” as we understand love, to tolerate error in others. Not because we are postmodern liberals who believe that all truth is pragmatic and subjective, and that no one can be sure of anything at all, so that we must all therefore live in a state of complete epistemic suspension, lest we become fanatics who cruelly impose our subjective beliefs on others. Not because we are Millian liberals who believe in the free marketplace of ideas as the only place where truths can be warranted. Not because we are people of feeble faith who confuse what is politically or socially convenient with what is required of us by God. But instead because the commitment to noncoercion flows from a theologically grounded commitment to the fundamental and intrinsic dignity of each individual person and thus to the necessity of letting that person come to God freely, in a disposition of love, in the manner of God’s desiring.

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