Unless you have been a Rip Van Winkle, you know that we are living in an extremely complex culture, particularly in western North American culture. Our society is dominated by the ideology of pluralism and beliefs that “ideas do have consequences.” There have never been more choices on the religion assembly line. In the U.S. there are more than 150 organized religions. When we add all kinds of other religious groups or movements, the number mushrooms even higher.
Paul Chamberlain, a teacher of apologetics and ethics at Trinity Western University, is well aware of this dynamic. He understands that we are being pressured more and more to keep our religion to ourselves and not attempt to impose it on others, to buy into the idea that one religion is as good as the next and no one actually exclusively represents the truth. Chamberlain correctly assesses that bringing up either religion or politics in public is a risky business – in most cases we are told that it is simply not politically correct. It may suggest that I am right and you are wrong and that conclusion does not win friends. We simply have to learn to be tolerant of other people’s views.
You’ve heard that statement, “We simply have to learn to be tolerant of other people’s views,” however, tolerance is a concept that has undergone much transition today. Early on tolerance represented the idea that though you differ with me, I am willing to tolerate your ideas. And, although you may tolerate one another’s differing ideas, it was acceptable to attempt to persuade them to your side. Today, to be tolerant and remain politically correct has come to mean that I cannot assume that you are wrong and I am right – we simply have different views and I must approve your views regardless of whether they are right or wrong.
Chamberlain uses a dialogue between “Michael” and “Isaac” throughout the book. Isaac represents a new member of a university fraternity house, a traditionalist, and a moral thinker. Michael is seasoned member of the fraternity and speaks with Isaac on the day following 9/11. Michael challenges Isaac to reconsider whether good and evil are real categories and, if they are, are they merely determined by one’s culture? Maybe morality is simply a personal matter, which if so, should not be assumed to apply to others universally. Then there is the question about God. And what about evil? Is there a universal concept of God or evil?
Chamberlain demonstrates there are those who insist on being “politically correct” and tolerant, who believe there are no universal concepts applicable to all – except for one qualification. The one universal absolute that does transcend cultures, individuals and societies is that “tolerance is the supreme moral virtue.” That is true for everyone. It is a bit like the relativist insisting there are not absolutes except that there are no absolutes. Michael challenges Isaac’s right to impose his moral values on others. Isaac responds with the certain need for a point of reference, which Michael challenges.
Chamberlain expands this idea to talk about how new technological developments have brought great dilemma to the scene. If the definition of tolerance and political correctness are in vogue, then who’s to say that embryonic stem cell research is wrong, or euthanasia or abortion? On what basis can we say that lethal injection is wrong to end a person’s suffering? Therefore, Chamberlain says that our society is morally confused. With all the conflicting viewpoints, how can we reach real conclusions about these or any other topics?
Throughout this book, as issues are raised and Isaac is challenged to rethink his traditional moral approach to things, one begins to feel a sense of frustration, even hopelessness, to be quiet and live our lives, hold our beliefs and allow others to do the same. However, Chamberlain believes that it is possible for us to make a difference in this moral morass. The final chapter has several suggestions that we can apply in an attempt to challenge a person’s moral values while respecting their right to hold to them. He uses examples from history to point to people who have stood firmly in their beliefs and made a great difference. To do so does requires “careful strategy”.
The bottom line is that we should not hesitate, if we are well-informed and aware that we cannot force our views on others, to be social activists, fighting for what we believe to be right and not capitulating to those views that we believe are wrong and destructive. Adults should read this book. Students should carefully read it, and study groups can benefit from working through the eight chapters.