The Global Public Square?

The Global Public Square by Os Guinness

Reviewed by Robert Hunt

Os Guinness’ latest works begins with a promise to address the triple imperative of belief in the measureless worth of every human being, discovering a way to live with deep differences, and finding a way to settle deliberations and debates in public life through reasoned persuasion. But having laid out this ambitious agenda for world-wide freedom of religion Guinness almost immediately retreats into a series of parochially Western and frequently outdated assertions to back up his claims.

His account of the rise of the concept of religious freedom is simply a rehash of western intellectual history that leaps from pre-Christian philosophers to an almost exclusively Anglo-American view of both the human self and what it means to be free. Indeed, his understanding “soul-freedom” is so thoroughly located in reformed Christian understandings of the soul and self it is hard to imagine how it might be understood outside that frame of reference. He is surely acute enough as a philosopher as to realize that the very meaning of the word “soul” as it morphed out of the Hebrew “nefesh” to the Greek “psyche” and on to “anima” in Latin and finally through old Germanic languages to English can hardly be said to have a simple and untroubled history even in the West! And of course beyond Reformed Christianity the variety of human self-understandings is much much wider.

(I recommend “The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self” by Martin and Barresi or “The Self after Post-Modernity” by Schragg for those interested in expanding their horizons vis-a-vis the West. Any number of basic introductions to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy will give at least a hint of the issues as seen in these two Asian traditions.)

His understanding of religion is equally limited. “For the vast majority of humanity throughout history as well as today, religion has been and still is the ultimate belief that is the very deepest source of human meaning and belonging.” . . . “That simple anthropological fact about religion, meaning and belonging has been reinforced today by history, sociology, and the cognitive sciences.” (p.32) Of course this is not a simple fact. Indeed even a cursory reading from the social and cognitive sciences will reveal how deeply contested the concept and role of religion is, and more so its origins in individual and social evolution. Guinness ignores the reality that the very concept of religion is a Western concept and may not accurately indicate personal and social phenomenon outside the West.

Of course we learn in chapter four and every subsequent chapter that Guinness is hardly aimed at a nuanced defense of freedom of religion world-wide, except in this sense: He hopes that everyone who has the same self-understanding as an Anglo-American Evangelical will be free to flourish in that self-understanding. For from chapter four onward Guinness is engaged in an attack on the new atheism, scientific materialism, liberals who constrain the freedom of conscientious actions of conservatives, radical (by his definition) Islam, communism and its intellectual antecedents, secularism, and often the entire Enlightenment project. From Guinness it is the same old, same old – and apart from more topical anecdotes this book could have been written by any conservative Christian in any decade since WWII. Indeed Guinness might as well be standing on dover beach with Matthew Arnold but for his assertion that the tide of faith is rising, not falling.

The tragedy here is that Guinness cannot seem to see that religious freedom is not just the ability of individuals who happen to possess power and thus agency acting out their deeply held beliefs. It must also be extended to those who have equally deeply held (but different) beliefs but do not possess power and agency.

Guinness gives an account of the Obama administration’s insurance mandate, a mandate that would require an individual or organization that conscientiously objected to birth control providing it for its employees. He rightly points out that this hinders the freedom of Christian business owners and organizations to act according to their conscience. Yet he does not consider that their freedom to act constrains an employee with no power and agency from acting according to his or her conscience on behalf of the flourishing of his or her person and family. And he does not mention the extended and harmful efforts of his conservative Christian allies to deny freedom of conscience to all those persons who are gay, transgendered, lesbian, or bi-sexual. Apparently their “soul-freedom” doesn’t really count. Indeed, they are frequently mentioned as the enemies of religious freedom.

And what of his 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?” (p.180-181) One can hardly criticize this vision, and Guinness prophylacticly labels “cynics” all who do. But his criticisms of the cynics miss the most important point.

His vision depends on two things in addition to civility. It depends on a common public language, a common discourse within which matters of the good can be discussed. And it depends on an equality of power so that persuasion is not merely bludgeoning or purchasing. Post-modernism isn’t necessarily a cynical dismissal of religious meta-narratives. It is the observation that we do not possess a unified discourse, a unified set of presuppositions and values, much less actual linguistic expressions. Nor is the public square the equal possession of all those in a democratic society. It belongs to those with the most money and power. And quite often, but not always, they are conservative Christians.

To say these things is not to be cynical. It is simply to identify the real enemies of freedom and (if you insist on what Buddhists would call a delusion) “soul-liberty.” Guinness looks nostalgically to the founding fathers of the United States for the keys to a society with religious freedom, full diversity, and a robust public square. Unfortunately, while these great thinkers laid great foundations we can no longer build with their tools alone, or indeed any tool set drawn entirely from the Western and Christian tradition. The emergence of a global public square that makes the world safe for diversity will need to arise in a much larger context, and much wider discourse, than Guinness offers or can even imagine.


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