Walt Whitman and the Dim Dhimmi:
Logic & Rhetoric — By Joe Carter on June 21, 2007 at 1:14 am
Truth, Tolerance, and Non-Contradiction
On Sunday mornings, Rev. Ann Holmes Redding puts on the white clerical collar of an Episcopal priest and stands for prayers at St. Clement’s of Rome Episcopal Church in Seattle. But after noon on Fridays she dons a black hijab and kneels for prayer with other Muslims in the Al-Islam Center.
Redding, who will begin teaching the New Testament as a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University this fall, claims to be both a Christian and a Muslim: “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both.”
Despite the fact that the tenets of the two faiths are irreconcilable, Redding doesn’t feel she has to resolve the contradictions. As she tells the Seattle Times:
People within one religion can’t even agree on all the details, she said. “So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam? At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That’s all I need.”
My first reaction to reading Redding’s quote was to think of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As you’ll recall from your high school literature class, Whitman’s paean of narcissism contained the oft-quoted line,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The reason that Whitman could–using the language of poetry–make such a claim is because he was–using the language of philosophy–an idiot.
I do not mean this as an insult, or even as a counter-insult (for Whitman has been insulting our intelligence and aesthetic sensibilities for over a hundred years). Rather, I mean it quite literally. To embrace that which is true is an intellectual virtue; to embrace that which is known to be in error is an intellectual vice. In deciding to embrace real, not just apparent, contradictions, Whitman succumbs to one of the most egregious of intellectual vices: choosing to be willfully stupid.
Regardless of how large he may be our how many multitudes his massive ego may contain, the fact remains that contradictions are contradictory. If I claim to believe both that “A is A” and “A is not-A” I am either lying or being willfully stupid. Either way I am claiming to believe at least one thing that I know must, by logical necessity, be false.
Redding takes a similar approach in claiming that it is possible to embrace both Christianity and Islam. While she rejects such orthodox Christian beliefs as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, she believes that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. This belief is, as she readily admits, in conflict with the teachings of the Quran. When it is pointed out that she has violated the law of non-contradiction, Redding responds, “That’s something I’ll find a challenge the rest of my life.”
Of course there is no “challenge” in reconciling the two views since they are completely incompatible. The matter is not one of challenge but of impossibility. The law of non-contradiction is non-negotiable. Just because one wants to feel that the two religions are ultimately compatible does not make them so.
It would be easy to dismiss Redding’s unsophisticated beliefs as the confusions of a rather dim dhimmi. But this Episcopalian Muslim is representative of the muddled understanding of pluralism that pervades American culture. We are expected to sing with Whitman, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume,…”
Beliefs that are deeply held should be respected, not because they are necessarily true, but because they are held by humans made in the image of the Triune God. That is why tolerance, particularly religious tolerance, is a virtue. But it is no longer enough to be tolerant of people’s beliefs. We are now expected to “assume” what the other believer “assumes”, even when their beliefs are contradictory. This is particularly true when the beliefs fall under the quasi-religious tenets of secularism.
Take, for example, the claim that we live in a completely material universe that created us quite by accident, without design or purpose. The universe itself–from the atoms to the quasars–bears no intrinsic teleology or purpose. While I believe this assertion is false, it is not inherently illogical. What makes it illogical is when people who hold this view add to it the claim that despite this natural fact, human life can have a purpose. Though the universe is unable to create meaning we are able to create meaning for ourselves…despite the fact that we are but mere matter within the universe itself.
How they are able to create something that exists nowhere in the universe is never explained. Indeed, it is inexplicable and contrary to the very meaning of materialism. Yet the apologists for this view will hedge, like Redding, by saying, “At the most basic level, I understand the two contradictory positions to be compatible. That’s all I need.”
The problem with treating such emotive claims as respectable is that it is intolerant of truth. There is no neutral ground between logic and illogic. Once we say that beliefs shouldn’t be judged on internal consistency but on how they make us feel, we abandon the ability to know and defend truth.
Truth is incompatible with non-truth, which is why we must reject all self-contradictory claims made by others and root them out of our own belief systems. In rejecting contradictory thinking we accept an uncomfortable truth: true tolerance sometimes requires being intolerant of willful stupidity.