Beyond Interfaith Dialogue: A Review of "The Global Public Square"
In response to the challenges we face, Guinness draws attention to two extreme competing visions that have been offered as the way forward. This includes two competing visions of public life, the naked public square, which excludes religious expression from public life, and the sacred public square, that tends to provide a preferred position or monopoly in public life to a religious tradition in a given culture (122). In Guinness' view, both of these positions are problematic, and instead he provides his own proposal for a civil public square. This is set forth in chapter 8, the heart of this volume, where the author describes his alternative model:
A civil public square is a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths and none are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, as a matter of freedom of thought, conscience and free exercise, but within an agreed framework of what is understood and respected to be just and free for people of all other faiths too, and thus for the common good. (181)
Guinness connects three key principles to his vision of a civil public square: "[r]eciprocity, mutuality and universality." This involves an application of the Golden Rule to a form of political embodiment in addition to its usual association with the realm of religion. It means that "a right for a Christian is automatically a right for a Jew, an atheist, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Scientologist and for every believer in every faith under the sun as the earth turns" (181). The inclusion of these elements makes for interactions between human beings who have the strongest disagreements over some of the most pressing issues of life, thus working toward a public square that is marked by both civility and diversity.
Some may be quick to dismiss Guinness' proposal as naïve or utopian, but the author is very aware of the challenges, and he is aware of shortcomings of other approaches, such as academic papers, interfaith dialogues, and various civic activities (42). These responses, while conducted by sincere people wanting to make a difference in the world, fall short of having the power to do so. In particular, Guinness mentions common expressions of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, often characterized by a tendency to focus only on commonalities for the common good while excluding any discussion of difference or attempts at persuasion as out of bounds. The author sees these forms of dialogue as deficient. "Differences make a difference, both to individuals and to whole societies and even to civilizations. Those differences are important, and they have to be engaged honestly and debated fearlessly" (186). Guinness draws attention to helpful forms of dialogue, such as "A Common Word" among Muslims and Christians, but argues that dialogue alone "as the solution to diversity dies hard" (Ibid.).
Civility has been the focus of discussion within Evangelicalism in recent years, largely because of the work of Richard Mouw through his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP Books, 2010) and its application in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. Guinness takes this further and addresses civility and its implications as a central element of his proposal. First, he responds to allegations that this involves cowardice as a preferred way for those who do not posses "a refined distaste for the nastiness of differences" (182). This is not the case for Guinness. Rather, for him civility "is a tough-minded classical virtue and duty that enables citizens to take their public differences seriously, debate them robustly, and negotiate and decide them peacefully rather than violently" (Ibid.). In addition, civility is not a "stand-alone virtue" that operates alone, but must be utilized as part of a broader agenda in the service of soul freedom for all. Finally, Guinness does not see a dichotomy between civility and contestation with others. For him, "civility and contest are real, robust and not opposites" (188).
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.