Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Just remember: It ain't necessarily so

By Leo Sandon
Reprinted here with permission from the author

Today's column deals with three commonplace propositions deserving the critical skepticism that the character Sportin' Life voices in George Gershwin's folk opera "Porgy and Bess." My own version of the lyrics might be "it necessarily ain't so," but Ira Gershwin's phrasing is, well, subtler. And probably less jarring.

First proposition: "We are in an inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and _____."
Fill in the blank. "Islam"? "Muslims"? "Islamists"? "Islamofascism"? The problem is that these words refer to different things (though I'm not clear what "Islamofascism," an apparently neoconservative coinage, actually means). Islam is not a monolith. Various Islamic groupings are themselves pluralist in character.

There is serious dialogue occurring within these groups and between various Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Those critics who continually insist that moderate Muslims should denounce extremist Muslims, that Muslim immigrants in the West must define themselves, should listen up.

The vast majority of Muslims, including those who are religiously conservative, do not support the violence extolled by extremists. And the extremists don't control even one of the more than 60 Muslim-majority nations.

Interfaith religious conversation also is happening throughout the U.S. It just doesn't receive close media attention. A culture clash to the finish is no necessary scenario.

Second proposition: "Same-sex marriages threaten the stability of traditional marriages."
This one is being polished up for the 2006 and 2008 elections. My question is the one asked by conservative columnist David Brooks: How can vowed mutual commitment in any relationship between two persons, including gays and lesbians, do anything but strengthen the social bond? Isn't it obvious that their responsibility to and for each other contributes to a more responsible society?

I have difficulty imagining how a same-sex union affects a traditional marriage at all. The basic factors threatening traditional marriage are heterosexual adultery, no-fault divorce, socioeconomic forces that batter many nuclear families, and a culture increasingly characterized by the avoidance of personal commitment to anything.

Third proposition: "Not believing in absolute truths creates a destructive relativism."
This argument goes that, if one doesn't believe in absolute truth, belief in moral absolutes is also impossible. Then we slide down the slippery slope to teaching the moral equivalence of all values, on to an "anything goes" relativism and, finally, to social chaos.

Not necessarily so. The choice is not between absolute truth and no truth at all.

Relativism need not lead to nihilism (“a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless"). It's possible to be a relativist as far as human understanding is concerned but still believe in truths and still have values.

The counterargument to those who rail against the evils of relativism goes like this: Human understanding is finite. We don't have access to absolute truth because we're not equipped to appropriate it. Truth for us is pluralistic in nature. But that doesn't mean we can't experience truth. Just not absolute truth.

It's still quite possible to believe, for some of us on the basis of perceived revelation, that there is an Absolute. We name the absolute God. But God alone is absolute; everything else, including all our knowledge, is relative.

"Relative" here does not mean that we have no truth; we just don't have the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The truth we have is real, but partial.

As with truth, so with "the good," with values. We can trust our experience of the good and affirm its objective reality. We have sufficient truth and commitment to a hierarchy of values to enable us to live faithful and morally responsible lives.

You're not required to be a believer to experience truth and goodness. Secularists have their version(s) of this argument and can testify that relativism doesn't necessarily mean nihilism.

My list actually is longer, but my editor wants me to stop here. For starters, then, the above assertions aren't necessarily so.

Leo Sandon is professor emeritus of religion and American studies at Florida State. E-mail him at lsandon@garnet.acns.fsu.edu.


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