Fish and Millman

To Noah’s thoughtful post below I want to append two quotations from Stanley Fish, who, for all his other failings, is one of the sharpest commentators on the set of issues that Noah raises.

The first passage is from an essay called “Vicki Frost Objects” (from his book The Trouble with Principle) which concerns a legal wrangle between a public education system and a Christian fundamentalist mom who rejected its model of tolerance and open-mindedness:

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

The second passage may be found in an essay Fish wrote some years ago for First Things, an essay which I strongly recommended that the magazine publish but which I also begged I be allowed to respond to. Father Neuhaus, however, insisted on writing his own response, which I don’t think gets to the heart of the matter.

The trouble with Christianity, and with any religion grounded in unshakable convictions, is that it lacks the generosity necessary to the marketplace’s full functioning. Christianity, Mill declares, in what he takes to be a devastating judgment, is “one-sided,” that is, insistent upon the rightness of its perspective and deaf to the perspectives that might challenge it.

I am hardly the first to observe that Mill’s position contains its own difficulties and internal inconsistencies. The imperative of keeping the marketplace of ideas open means that some ideas—those urged with an unhappy exclusiveness—must either themselves be excluded or be admitted only on the condition that they blunt the edge of their assertiveness, and present themselves for possible correction. Willmoore Kendall asks, if a society is dedicated, as Mill urges that it be, to “a national religion of skepticism, to the suspension of judgment as the exercise of judgment par excellence,” what can it say to a man who urges an opinion “not predicated on that view,” a man who “with every syllable of faith he utters, challenges the very foundations of skeptical society”? To such a man, Kendall answers, the society can only say, “You cannot enter into our discussions.” “The all-questions-are-open-questions society,” he concludes, cannot “practice tolerance toward those who disagree with it”; those “it must persecute — and so on its very own showing, arrest the pursuit of truth.”

This is a very powerful argument, and one to which I shall return, but it is not the argument I will finally want to stress, because to use it as a weapon against the doctrine of liberal toleration is to win a debating point but concede the larger point by accepting toleration as the final measure of judgment.

Fish goes on to say that what American Christians should desire is “not an expansion of the marketplace of ideas, but its disbanding and replacement by a regime of virtue as opposed to a regime of process.” But this is wrong on several counts, chief of which is that it fails to understand that the architectonic virtue for Christians should be charity, which, the history of Christendom tells us, has never been well practiced by those with the power to impose a (supposed) regime of virtue. Christians, like everyone else, are most trustworthy when they come to the table with empty hands.