Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Peace in the City

Every time I see the “COEXIST” bumper sticker, I get mixed feelings. Like a face illuminated by flashing lights coming from different angles, it presents me with a rapidly shifting series of wildly different aspects. As sure as it looks beautiful at one moment, it looks menacing the next; then the clever ingenuity of the use of the various symbols as letters shines out briefly, followed by an inane and ridiculous fake smile. The idea that people of different faiths could live in peace sounds wonderful: we could learn from each other and accept the various faiths’ leadership in keeping the world moral. But then sadly we know from history and from the newspaper that the world’s religions don’t in fact get along peacefully. So does the sticker, apparently calling for drastic change, suggest that all the religions are fundamentally flawed? Is it for or against religion? I can't tell. Someone (a quick Google search says it could be anyone from Dostoevsky to Charles Schulz) said, “I love humanity; it’s people that I can’t stand.” And this sticker seems to say something equally contradictory: I love the idea of religion, but I can’t stand any of the particular instances. These thoughts quickly pass from my mind, though; in the end I see the sticker as simply pointless since it doesn’t actually say any of these things but only asks for simultaneous existence, which will continue with or without the driver’s approval.

Augustine was the most respected Christian teacher of his time, and his words still inspire and inform both Protestant and Catholic theology. (They may well still inspire Orthodox and Nestorian theology as well, but I don’t know enough to say.) In reading book XIX of The City of God over the last several days, I kept thinking that if the lay members of today’s Church still read and followed the saint from Hippo, the Church would look quite different. The most striking difference might be that the Church would acknowledge the leadership of an African. But close behind would come a reasoned understanding of the value of other religions and their philosophies and a desire for peace between the earthly city and the city of God.

Everyone wants peace, Augustine says. Animals want peace between body and soul: in other words, freedom from pain and want. But in addition, rational animals, i.e. humans, desire civil peace and peace of the soul itself: a "well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action." Where the Christian differs from other humans, he explains, is in living toward a goal of eternal peace and directing all earthly good toward that transcendent goal. But we all want earthly peace, and the Church should logically desire civil harmony with its culture. Augustine spends a lot of words in the first several books of CoG outlining exactly what was wrong with Roman culture, so it’s not like he’s asking his readers to pretend the evils of the world away. Unlike the empty cant of today, Augustine’s position sees tolerance and judgment as entirely compatible. Disagreement we will have with us always, but conflict, he says, should arise only when the religious law directs a Christian to worship a false deity. Otherwise, Christians should not scruple about any custom, law, institution, dress, or manner of life directed toward earthly peace and may even conform to them so long as they are not indecent.

Coincidentally, I also read in just the last few days a passage in Chesterton saying something very similar. When someone says all religions should be equally free, Chesterton points out, he can’t logically and consistently mean all religions. He actually means "that given a society with a common morality about most important things, anyone must be allowed to promulgate, by the ordinary activities of that society, his own version of the origin or sanction of that morality." In other words, just as Augustine says, people of different faiths can live together in harmony so long as they agree on moral customs that lead to civil peace. But what Augustine only briefly alludes to in book XIX and what the bumper sticker – perhaps simply for lack of space – doesn’t say at all, Chesterton spells out with a pointed example: when someone espouses a religion that demands the sacrifice of babies, the cooperation and equal freedom of the faiths must come to an end.

Chesterton then warns that certain factions of modern western civilization are in fact arguing for the return of baby killing, thus upsetting the moral harmony. With that note, in the interest of civil peace, I will leave the reader to decide whether Chersterton’s warning had any foundation in his time or any pertinence to our own.

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