Monday, August 20, 2007

What To Do With Heretics

Truth doesn't depend on the people who believe it. The Protestants who in centuries past killed Roman Catholics, and visa versa, disgraced themselves with murderous conduct, but that speaks to human nature more than to divine revelation, if there be such a thing. So it is with Islam. It is not my faith, and never will be. But it has had gracious and admirable adherents, as it has had foul scum. The thing about truth is that anyone can believe it. Believing in a true thing need not transform anyone. As James (2:12) has said, even demons believe.

We all have observed in ourselves the capacity to know the right thing, yet do what is wrong. That we might believe the wrong thing and act on it as if it were right is practically the same as believing and doing rightly. How are we to know the difference? What objective test is there, for us to choose between Catholic and Protestant, or Shiite and Sunni, or Jesus and Mohammad -- or between atheism and theism? All we have are the inclinations of our hearts, and surely we must all have noticed that the heart waivers?

The inclination is to suppose that those who have chosen a different path are evil, or fools, or at least less intelligent than we are. But there is no difference between the races that cannot be accounted for by the influence of culture. The same bell curve might describe any group in any place at any time. Any shift along its continuum will be due not to native capacity, but to the factors of psychological and peer pressures. Thus, group dynamics tend to make the presiding philosophy more extreme, more fanatical over time. Thus, the more diverse a community becomes, the more isolated its members, not just from outsiders, but even from one's ethnic peers. It seems a troublesome finding, until we go back to the basics. More important than appearance -- color, type of hair, shape of nose -- is thought and behavior. When we are pressed upon and challenged from outside, we withdraw deeper into the comfort of ourselves. This is the level at which we most closely identify -- thought.

Christians call themselves "brothers." As reborn children of God, this would be true. The country club WASP and the toiling Asiatic and the Nubian goatherd all expect themselves to share eternity in the harmony of God's kingdom. They expect the differences of race and culture to pale in consideration of their most meaningful kinship to Jesus. We find the same mentality in American blacks. "Brother." Because of shared color and the commonality of an oppressed past, they are "brothers." And Communists. "Comrade." The cause and the shared fight against the adversary creates a bond more powerful than blood.

How then can we hope for peace? Truth is what we think we believe. It is not possible for us all to believe the same thing, any more than it would be possible for us all to be the same color. Even if we were to mix our genes until mankind assumed the middle-brown skin tone of Adam, Mendel is always there in the background playing his shell game of wrinkled peas. Recessive genes will out, and nature loves heresy. How much more so, the fertile imagination of humanity?

Truth is what it is, regardless of our agreement. But the difference between civilized and barbaric conduct resides in one thing only: in our willingness to be true to what we believe, while tolerating the errancy, the heresy of others. If our belief demands that the heretic be killed, then we strap on suicide vests that we might kill shoppers in marketplaces, or hijack jets that we might crash them into mighty towers, or burn dissenters at the stake.

God talks to hardly anyone. If someone thinks he hears the voice of God, he'd best see a doctor; it's probably a tumor, or some neurochemical imbalance. What we know is that just about everyone who says they've heard the voice of God is wrong. We know this because there are so many contradictions among all these self-identified prophets. So many prophets and so little truth.

Well? Truth matters, and most of the time we have to hear it, rather than think it up for ourselves. We're just not that smart, to think up all the truth there is to know. So somewhere in there with all the chatter, all that certainty of the charlatans, there might be truth. How are we to know it? We start with humility.

It might be possible that we are wrong. We have to be still, sometimes, because truth doesn't always shout. If we want to hear, we should listen. Yes. There it is. If we want to hear. If we want. Because that's all that we ever do, or ever will do. We do what we want. We believe what we want. Always. Even when we do unpleasant things, it's because there is some more unpleasant alternative, repulsing us.

How then can there be peace? Peace is like a child. Not every child is wanted. Just born into the wrong family, I guess. Maybe he was the wrong color. Whatever. What happens when a child is unwanted? Well, it's painful. Maybe you don't know that. Alas, as long as there are recessive genes, there will be unwanted children. That's always. There will never be peace. There will just be some times that are better than other times.

It's a stupid question, of course. How can we save the world? We can't. As long as we think that's our job, the world will get worse and worse. Because our solution -- that we must perforce impose on the world to save it, given that there will always be heretics -- is what ruins it. Every philosophy or religion that demands conformity is Procustes, who demanded that every traveler fit his iron bed -- those who were too short he stretched with his rack, and those who were too long he shortened with his sword.

Nothing is more important than truth. But there is hardly anything that is true, and of those few true things, all of them must somewhere accommodate love. Love isn't a guarantee of truth, but its absence is a guarantee of falsehood. So we have Inquisitions, and Purges, and Killing Fields and death camps, and minor jihads and IEDs. So many forms, and one cause behind it. Whatever else that cause might be, it is not love, and if we cannot think to give it a name at least we can recognize its function. It is a rust-colored iron bed, identified most clearly by the nearby presence of a sword and a rack.


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