Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sewell v. Metzger – The Tolerance of Intolerance meets The Intolerance of Tolerance – Part One

Some months ago I was party to a discussion regarding two blog posts. The first was by a luminary among Unitarian Universalists, the minister and writer Marilyn Sewell. (Her post, “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance,” is here: The second post was by our mutual friend, currently my doctoral program supervisor, Paul Louis Metzger. (His post, “Beyond Tolerance to Tenacious Love,” is here: I remember at the time having the nagging feeling that something should be said about the irony inherent in the positions taken by each writer. But other discussions intervened, and I had a strong sense of being “out of my league,” were I to question well-respected, articulate, and (most intimidating to me) published authors.

"Wait, who's out of whose league?" he said.
Now, however, I am, perhaps, less humble, having recently been published in a peer-reviewed journal. (By invitation, no less! But there’s no need to belabor my fading humility.) Frankly, though, I would still consider this as “angels fear to tread” territory, were it not part of an assignment for that doctoral program. I have been asked to comment, specifically, on Dr. Metzger’s post. But in that post he recommends strongly a careful reading of Dr. Sewell’s post as well. In doing so, I believe I have identified what I found troubling in each during that previous discussion.

Metzger’s is the simpler conflict to identify. He writes, “I know of many adherents of various religious traditions, whether they be Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus or Atheists who believe that their views best reflect ultimate reality and that my views are wrong. They are not morally culpable for holding their positions.” I believe that Metzger means that there is no moral failing represented by their contradictory position toward his beliefs. For them to believe as they do is, consequently, to oppose his beliefs wherever they diverge from their own. What is troubling to me is that I keep reading into his statement that they are not morally culpable for the beliefs they choose to hold. And, with that (which is, potentially, my own misinterpretation of Metzger’s position), I disagree.

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger: Tolerant Evangelical
I hold firmly, as I believe that Metzger does, that one is morally compelled to act in accordance with their beliefs. Therefore, in their perspective that Metzger is wrong, those he references are not morally culpable, but merely being morally consistent in the application of their beliefs in “an ultimate reality” that they hold is contrary to Metzger’s beliefs in a differing ultimate reality. But I also hold, as it seems Metzger would reject, that there is a moral component to the beliefs one develops or adopts. Logical consistency, historical accuracy, practical application, and societal implications are all part and parcel of the moral obligations carried into forming our beliefs, as well as those which stem from our beliefs.

It is in this light that I recognize what it is about Dr. Sewell’s post that troubles me. I can fully support her assertion that her beliefs compel her to “reject this tradition” (i.e., “conservative Christianity”) since she believes “those who teach it and preach it are doing great harm, and I in no way wish to be an ally.” Yet only because Christianity represents the dominant cultural influence over the society in which she lives can her position be defended against charges of being a “perpetuation of prejudice and hate,” as she claims against Christians who live in accordance with their conservative theology.

Dr. Marilyn Sewell: Intolerant Unitarian Universalist
In developing her beliefs about evangelical Christianity, she assembles some assumptions and stereotypes that, she admits, directly contradict her own empirical experience of an ongoing friendship with “a professor at a local conservative evangelical seminary” (she means Dr. Metzger). She rightly points out the irony of being “a liberal who is closed, in a relationship with a theologically conservative evangelical who is open.” The additional irony she intends is well-founded, too. She is expressing her intolerance for what she concludes is intolerance, despite her experience of something other than intolerance in those she accuses of intolerance. She cites some distinctly intolerant Christians in support of her claims. But what are we left to make of the intolerance of a Unitarian Universalist? May we make the same broadly sweeping generalizations about her tradition, on the basis of one minister’s attitude? Unitarian Universalism, according to Dr. Sewell, claims to “respect all religious beliefs.” The sole exception, as she explains, is the rejection of the beliefs of those who see a moral culpability in developing and adopting those beliefs as well as for the behaviors that stem from those beliefs.

In the next couple of posts, I will look first at Dr. Sewell’s specific assumptions and stereotypes, and then address the fatal flaw in her argument in favor of rejecting those whose “covert permission is being given to those inclined to act violently on their prejudices.” To be sure, beliefs have consequences (unless they are merely a dilettante’s dalliances, in which case they should not be honorably labeled as “beliefs”). But just as she charges against conservative Christians, there are consequences to the position Dr. Sewell promotes here, and those consequences include their fair share of violence as well.

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