‘Arguments for the sake of Heaven’ demand a culture of civility

November 15, 2003
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Published in The Times, 15th November 2003

One of the great phrases of our time — made famous by Samuel Huntington — is “the clash of civilisations”. But the real clash, it seems to me, is within, not between, civilisations and creeds. That’s where the great battles will be fought, on whose outcome the 21st century will depend.

Almost every faith today has a fault-line running through it, and it is getting wider by the year. On the one hand are the modernists who argue that religion (or ethics, or cuIture) must be of our time: relevant, contemporary, going with the flow. So, environmental ethics are in, traditional sexual ethics are out. Empowerment, yes; authority, no. For moral judgment, substitute the right to self-esteem. As the late Allan Bloom put it, the first command has become: “I am the Lord your God who led you out of the land of Egypt: relax.”

In the other camp are the conservatives, who see modernity as a profound threat to all they hold holy: sex in place of marriage, a cult of the body instead of the soul, a worship of now where there were once intimations of eternity. The pilgrim has become a tourist. The word “service,” which once meant serving others in love, now means being served by others for money. For them, contemporary culture is shallow and materialistic — in a word, decadent. Modernity is not a god to be worshipped but an idol to be overthrown.

As for those in the middle, life is like that scene in one of the old movie classics where the guests at a party are dancing on a floor that covers a swimming pool. Someone, a little the worse for drink, decides to liven things up by pressing the switch that makes the floor divide and retract, and those in the middle find their feet moving further and further apart until at last they fall into the water. There is no stable middle ground any more.

This is a recipe for disaster. It is not that people once loved their neighbours, were generous to their enemies and sang God’s song in perfect harmony. The best kind of past is the past that never was. The difference between then and now was that there were at least rudiments of a shared language, a public culture, a common vocabulary of virtues and ideals. People disagreed, but they argued.

They appealed to shared words and texts. There was an etiquette of debate. Courtesy — that half-forgotten virtue — required that you listen to those who differ from you, addressing the argument rather than abusing your opponents.Rudeness was a vice, not a prelude to a career in the media.

Disagreement is essential to the life of any group. But there is a theology of disagreement. Judaism has a lovely ancient phrase, “arguments for the sake of Heaven”. A civilisation is a conversation scored for many voices.

But that means an active commitment to preserve the protocols of public debate. It means not shutting out the voices of those with whom you disagree. It means modernists not calling their opponents fundamentalists, and conservatives thinking twice before calling the other side heretics.

This is not a call for politeness. It is the recognition that in a world larger and more complex than our imagination can compass, humility is more than a virtue. It is an imperative. It doesn’t make headlines. It isn’t even fun. Unless we can create, within each of our faiths, a culture of civility and respect, we will fail the challenge God is setting us now.