Culture shock

By RICHARD N. OSTLING AP Religion Writer Published:

What is truth? Pontius Pilate raised this famous biblical query when Jesus was on trial.

Twenty centuries later the same question arises repeatedly with scandals such as James Freys admitted fibs in a memoir about past criminality.

Oprah Winfrey, whose TV promotions turned Freys book A Million Little Pieces into a best-seller, calls the uproar much ado about nothing. Its irrelevant discussing, you know, what happened or did not happen to the police, she says, while Frey explains that he wrote the emotional truth.

In their timely, clear-eyed book The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars (InterVarsity Press), evangelical authors Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson seek to debunk popular definitions of truth, including:

Truth is whatever I want it to be.

Truth is what I feel.

Truth is what works or what works for me.

Instead, the authors say Truth is what corresponds to reality though not the reality of TV reality shows. They insist that moral and spiritual factors are part of reality, not merely what we perceive through physical or rational faculties.

Conti and Stetson, each of whom holds a doctorate in social ethics from the University of Southern California, lament that belief in objective truths which can be widely shared is under sustained assault from secular liberalism and elite academic thinkers. This postmodern outlook says an individual creates or chooses truth at a particular time. Such relativism is percolating through Western culture.

To the authors, the Wests drift from belief in objective truths about morality, religion and politics involves a culturally pervasive yet intellectually degraded concept of truth that must be eliminated if were to enjoy authentic tolerance.

They complain that distorted ideas of tolerance cast a dark cloud of suspicion over tradition-minded Christians, since permanent truth, irrespective of cultural norms or conditions, is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Though believers in absolute truth are commonly treated as intolerant bigots, Conti and Stetson make the surprising claim that things are the exact opposite, that the contemporary reduction of truth to personal preference restricts toleration and is narrow-minded rather than liberating.

Contrary to what many people think, tolerance needs truth.

The authors are big believers in tolerance, which they regard as essential for freedom, including religious freedom, democratic self-government and defeat of tyranny. But they insist theres no conflict between tolerance and personal and political commitments to truth.

On the contrary, they say, truth is necessary for genuine tolerance and no commonwealth can endure if it insists on the cultural confusion of associating truth with intolerance because all successful societies need shared moral principles.

Secular liberalism cannot provide convincing support for tolerance or any other principles it favors, the book argues, because it makes everything a matter of personal preference or social construction without substance or validity.

The official relativism of secular liberalism can offer no firm reasons why people ought to be tolerant, they conclude.

They acknowledge that intolerant Christians employed forced conversion in centuries past but say Jesus biblical example forbids compelled belief. For Christianity, faith is authentic only when people assent individually, without coercion, they say. Truth needs a context of tolerance to do its work, to be itself.

Actually, secular liberalism also affirms the unconditional truth of its preferred moral judgments, for instance on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and embraces relativism only when its needed to oppose traditional Jewish and Christian moral teachings. Two absolutes and two worldviews are clashing and everyone is an absolutist on one side or the other, they contend.

Speaking of tolerance, the authors complain that anti-Christian censorship and constraint in the name of tolerance are regularly pursued by secular liberals, and cite several recent examples.

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