the unity/liberty/charity fallacy, or, why augustine was wrong and why it matters

First, a brief editorial: I am adamantly in support of artists and creators earning as much as they can for the fruits of their labor, as well as companies being able to maximize their earnings. I firmly believe a rising tide lifts all boats and that companies have a responsibility to reward share- and bond- holders, as well as employees for jobs well done.

I am also adamantly opposed to the current SOPA/PIPA legislation. Not because I hate big business–remember, I work for The Man–or because I think ‘fair’ means that people pay differently for taxes or are entitled to receive something for nothing; it doesn’t. I oppose this legislation because it is ripe for governmental overreach. Freedoms of speech and to earn a living or make a profit cannot and must not be prioritized in a way that potentially eradicates one or the other, which necessarily includes the until-recently-honored economic principle of laissez-faire, both for citizens and corporations.

So, sailerb, typically a place for opinions, but not for politics, stands with those who oppose censorship as well as those who believe that corporations and industry can, are able to and even occasionally do the right and responsible thing, just like you and I can. Thank you. –b.


“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” — [attributed to] Augustine of Hippo

“It may or may not be Augustine, but regardless of who said it, that person was, at least for the moment, full of crap.” —b.

I’ve touched on this topic before, but never set my cross-hairs on it until today. This phrase–which upon further review, looks less and less like Augustine, because the man was very much a man of opinions–is frequently employed by Christians who are either unable or unwilling to see that their positions are wrong in the face of scrutiny. These same people like to employ other phrases in similar situations: something about ‘speaking the truth in love’, ‘agreeing to disagree’, or, when a person feels particularly attacked, to unleash ad hominems about ‘Christlike-ness’, ‘bitterness’ or being ‘judgmental’.

I think I may revisit each of these respectively down the line, but I haven’t yet decided. For the moment, though, let’s focus on this nonsensical garbadage.

The first and most glaring problem is that if there is disagreement between parties, there is then necessarily a fundamental disagreement on what is essential. We’re letting alone trivialities or barstool debates–questions about governmental systems, most valuable players or greatest records of all time. Ironically, though, the best example of this is found in the Baseball Hall of Fame voting process: there are vast discrepancies between what people think should qualify players for the Hall. There are some of those whom I loathe who waste their ballots by leaving them blank; no one deserves entry because none of them were as great as Ruth, Aaron, Mays or Mathewson. The absence of statistical criteria leaves a vacuum where opinions are able to form, perpetuate and petrify on the system. Then it becomes a rule of men rather than the rule of truth, the pursuit of the favor of the electorate rather than the pursuit of truth and the avoidance of falsehood.

If a Calvinist believes that the spiritual gifts ended with the close of the apostolic era, while a Pentecostal believes those gifts are still active and employed to minister to the world, this is no mere ‘oh, well’ shrug of the shoulders. How God interacts with Christians and the world is a serious question that has to have a definitive answer, especially since the charismata is employed regularly around the world. The same goes for the creation-evolution debate; we can’t have it both ways. It’s intellectually dishonest to leave it alone in the name of unity and liberty.

Moving forward, not only do we have troubles with what is essential, but we claim liberty in the non-essentials while readily marginalizing those with whom we disagree. Bonhoeffer’s ethics of, aptly, unity come into play here: if there is internal disunion, anything subsequent to that initial point of disunion will be fragmented somehow. Hence, Catholics in Central Wisconsin tend to view charismatics as a freakish cult, fringe fundamentalists view Catholics as the Great Whore of Babylon. Advocates for anthropogenic global warming view skeptics with churlish disdain; defenders of the faith view skeptics as irritating gadflies. Notice a trend? The last thing that matters in this situation is what is actually true.

We’d rather hurt others’ feelings–or worse, not hurt others’ feelings–than move together toward the truth. We’d rather build a 51% consensus to crush the 49%. We go after the ivory tower not because it is a detached and isolated place, but because we want the chance to administrate. We’re not interested in liberating the Bastille, we want to run it with brutal efficacy.

And if there is no agreement on what is essential, and we are all-too-eager to put heads to the stump, how is any of this demonstrable of charity?

If we want to truly care for people, we will work toward the truth. Not to lord it over others, but in the understanding that knowledge and understanding is worth pursuing, and that what we learn is able to empower humanity to be better. What is worse: the systems of modernity and its parameters, or the anarchy of opinions and perspectives? One is a guide, the other is, frankly, a straitjacket.

If we want to truly act with humility, we will work toward the truth. The truth empowers us but it does not grant the right to rule over others. Stan Lee, in this respect, was right: great power, great responsibility. It is an insistence on being right in the face of valid and devastating criticism that most clearly demonstrates hubris. There is a difference between being right and being beholden to truth that is more than mere semantics. The one who is concerned with truth will admit when one is wrong; the one who insists on being right will resort to adolescent tactics and ad hominem. (And I admit that I’ve been guilty of both, as we all have.) The most humbling, perhaps humiliating reality is this: not everyone can be right, but everyone can be very, very wrong.

How is it that we’ve never had more access to information and education while having also never been so foolhardy?

So, while it sounds nice–let’s focus on the basics and accept our differences and love each other–this is little more than a pie-in-the-sky kind of glib notion which only serves to underscore and, in some cases, militarize our differences than it ever will do to unify us. For we do not in actuality embrace unity in diversity, we endorse difference for difference’s sake, which will inevitably only tear churches, citizens, nations religions and continents apart. It’s a Missouri compromise, a contentious and anxious sign of things to come, and it’s what happens when opinion is elevated about fact-truth: Division in the essentials, restriction in the non-essentials and, in all things, contempt.

It’s the postmodern compromise, one that is ill-fitting to the man to whom the line is attributed.


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