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Getting Along, Despite Differences

Getting Along, Despite Differences
We're in a very solemn moment for humanity

By Os Guinness
August 23, 2017

How do we live with our deepest differences? We're in a very solemn moment for humanity.

The last century was the most murderous in human history, and today, in this century, we are witnesses to the horror of yet another genocide, which many world leaders are refusing to name. We're seeing the heartbreak of a tidal wave of desperate, and unwanted often, migrants and certainly in the West, we are living in the heated conflict of -- what is now in America -- 50 years of incessant culture warring.

But as we look at this, you can see the West is weakening, American leadership is faltering, the international global order is being called into question, and one of the deepest issues that is coming up again and again -- how do we live with our deepest differences?

And we have to say, that we who are followers of Jesus, enter this discussion in a mixed light. We are, and there is no question, the pioneers of freedom of conscience and religious freedom. From Tertullian (circa 155-240 AD) and Lactantius (circa 250-325 AD) right down through Roger Williams (1603-1683) and William Penn (1644-1718) and many of the greatest heroes of this issue, they were followers of Jesus.

At the same time, particularly because of the medieval era, we have been some of the perpetrators of some of the worst evils against freedom of conscience.

Take the Inquisition or the notion that error has not rights or terrible forced conversions of our Jewish friends. And today, as a third part, we are the most persecuted faith in the world. Wherever there is persecution -- in almost every place -- Christians are persecuted too. Not alone, but profoundly persecuted.

So this issue: how do we live with our deepest differences, is one that has stakes for humanity and the future, and certainly for the Christian church.

I would just stress three things we need to wrestle with. First -- we need to affirm and appreciate the foundational primacy of freedom of conscience and religious freedom. It's under a cloud today, dismissed as a cover for discrimination, or bigotry or hatred. But it is the first of the political rights. There's no ranking; that would be invidious.

But if you work out the logic of each of the rights Freedom of Association depends on Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech assumes and requires Freedom of Conscience. And when the inner forum of the conscience is respected then the outer forum of the public square can be protected too.

Not only that, it's the key to civil society. If we're not to have states, governments that are over-burdened and over burdening you need to have a robust, thriving, civil society with non-profit organizations all over the place and it is Religious Freedom which is the key to their flourishing.

And, of course, Religious Freedom is the key to social harmony. There has never been any way of bringing together diversity with harmony and yet having liberty. Diversity ... harmony ... liberty -- all three. Some countries have two. Diversity with harmony but coercion. The trick is to have all three and to do it you need to have religious freedom.

The second thing we need is to assess and choose the best modal to lead the world forward. At the moment, there are two extremes. One is the so-called "Sacred Public Square" where some religion is preferred or established and everyone who does not share that religion is necessarily second class and sometimes with life-threatening consequences. There are mild versions and there are server versions like Iran and Pakistan. But that does not guarantee religious freedom for everybody.

The other extreme is the so-called "Naked Public Square" where all religion is strictly excluded. And, of course, again there are moderate versions and there are strict versions like China and North Korea. As you can see, since most of the world is incurably religious that does not provide justice and freedom for most of the world.

The third position is what is called the "Civil Public Square." Where you have public life where freedom of conscience and religious freedom is guaranteed for everybody. And, obviously, they are taught at the same time the so-called Three R's of Public Life -- Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect, so that people know how to differ with the differences of other people agreeably and not violently or coercively.

The third thing we need is to work hard at what it takes to achieve such civility in public life. We need first to see a massive restoration of the understanding of Religious Freedom. It is not freedom for the religious. It is freedom for all beliefs and all world views -- religious or secular; transcendental or naturalistic. It is for everybody.

But not only that, it is not, as the New York Times covered it recently, something to be put in "inverted commas" or seen as a cover for bigotry or discrimination. NO! Far from it, it is the fundamental anchor against which bigotry runs aground. It is fundamental for everybody.

The second thing we need is -- and working towards it -- is a reopening of the public square. Instead of those who would like to drive religious voices out and have an antiseptic cleansing of the public square we need to open all voices to the public square. And the great atheists of today, like Jürgen Habermas (born 1929 - Germany), would argue that when any religious voices are excluded, as certain people in some of our countries are trying to do, that is highly illiberal and not true freedom.

And the third thing we need to make it practical is to renew civic education. Freedom is never the product of law alone. Law is precious and gives us guarantees. But freedom is a product also, and more importantly, of what the great Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) called the "Habits of the Heart."

It's when parents teach their children -- freedom. It's when teachers teach their students -- freedom. That freedom in all its form becomes a habit of the heart and therefore a thriving concern in any country. And many of our countries have seen no decent civic education for the last 50 years.

So here we are with an incredible issue for the world and for tomorrow. In our postmodern world with all the culture warring that's going on, we are seeing the maximum chaos, the maximum conflict, and the maximum controversies. They are disastrous.

Humanity has a stake in this issue. Christians, certainly, have a stake in this issue. I would argue, if we had longer, that there is nothing like the Christian Gospel for giving us the components that provide the answer to these great challenges. But I would just say, at such a time, with such an issue for the world, it would be tragic if this generation were missing. We each have to so think, so speak....and so live in private and in public that it may be said of us as it was said of King David, many centuries ago, he served God's purpose in his generation (Acts 13:36).

And how we live with our differences is crucial to our time.


This Q talk comes from his book "The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity" (InterVarsity Press, 2013)

You can watch a u-tube of this story here: YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWoqc5JhmLo

You can purchase Dr. Guinness's latest book here: Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization


Dr. Os Guinness is a social critic and has authored and edited more than 30 books. He resides with his wife in Northern Virginia

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