The Catholic Thing
Open-mindedness: The New Closed-mindedness Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Thursday, 16 September 2010

Years ago when my sister was a senior in high school and I was on the philosophy faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, her religion teacher, a feminist nun, began the semester with the instruction that because no one had the truth about morality or religion, we should be open-minded to everyone’s point of view. After consulting with her philosopher-brother, my sister raised this question the next day in class, “If no one has the truth about morality or religion, isn’t that a good reason not to listen to others? After all, if no one has the truth on such crucial questions, why should I waste my time listening to people who can’t teach me anything?”

My sister was suggesting that open-mindedness is only a virtue if there is something that the mind may acquire that would make it a better mind, just as improving his jump shot would make Kobe Bryant a better basketball player. Assuming that the mind’s proper function is to know the truth, then it would seem that a mind that acquires truth is better than one that does not, just as an improved jumper by Mr. Bryant would contribute to his flourishing as a basketball player. So for the teacher to say that a prerequisite for open-mindedness on theological and moral questions is that one believe there are no true answers to those questions is like telling Mr. Bryant to practice his jumper but that it will do neither him nor the L.A. Lakers any good in the final score.

This posture is everywhere in our public culture. Take, for example, the case of Kenneth Howell, adjunct professor of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois, who was fired (though eventually reinstated) because he had the temerity to tell his students in a classroom lecture and in reply to an email query that the Catholic Church maintains that homosexual acts are disordered, that he agreed with that judgment, and that he could offer arguments for its rationality. This was just too much for the complaining student, who said in his grievance: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.” In other words, it is the public obligation of religious believers to treat their own beliefs as if they do not know them, since to claim that one’s theological tradition or its moral component counts as “knowledge” means that it may even be binding on those who reject it. According to this way of thinking, the Christian errs if he believes that the Apostles Creed is to theology as the periodic table is to chemistry.


That’s why the real question that seems to be lurking behind all the issues and passions that fuel the culture wars is this: Is theology a knowledge tradition? If it is, then certain implications follow. For example, if a Catholic university would never dream of hiring a chemistry professor who denies the periodic table, then it should not hire a Catholic theologian who denies the Apostles Creed. And from this realization, something else follows for our public life. It means that until one can fairly assess the actual arguments offered by the disagreeing parties on a particular issue (such as abortion or marriage) one cannot say for sure that moral views that arise out of religious traditions and linked to one understanding of the human person are more or less rational than those that arise out of secular traditions tethered to another, and often contrary, understanding of the human person. 

It should not surprise us, then, that in recent years the cause of unbelief, especially in the works of the so-called New Atheists (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), has become so fierce and unbending, in some cases morphing into a mirror image of the “fundamentalism” these unbelievers claim to loathe. For if they were to concede that the serious religious believer may have a point on any particular disputed question, this would betray the one unrevisable dogma that holds theological rivals permanently sequestered from the public conversation: secularism is the only deliverance of reason. Consequently, like my sister’s senior high-school religion class, we are ordered by our cultural betters to be open-minded, but not so open-minded as to entertain the possibility that theology could be knowledge. 

Thus, open-mindedness is the new close-mindedness.

Francis J. Beckwith, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he is also Resident Scholar in the Institute for the Studies of Religion. His over one-dozen books include Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009), and the recently released Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010). His website is

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written by John McCarthy, September 17, 2010
To me, this essay gets to the heart of the matter as to why most of us - myself being Exhibit A - fail in our obligation to evangelize.

Not only are we so aware of our own sinfulness, and not only have we come to loathe any type of religious imperialism, but we are all infected with the American belief that everyone's religion is their own private business.

I see no easy way out of this conundrum.
written by debby, September 17, 2010
Jesus is Truth. ALL Truth is in Him.
to John McCarthy,
hi my dear brother. may i be so bold to suggest the following simple remedy to the "easy way out of this conundrum?"
come to believe in God's LOVE.
ok, i hope you are still reading this and have stopped rolling your eyes or feeling sick. i am not talking about a "Pollyanna" or Beatles version of luv- and, just to let you know, i was the one rolling my eyes years ago any time any older woman would dwell on the mercy and love of God. (i was the "baby" of this Rosary group, devotees would weep while praying for what was probably the millionth time they had meditated on the mysteries, me looking at them with a "how can they cry over and over?" now i can barely get through one Holy Mass without welling up with tears over the great forgiveness and longing of God for me....)
i am talking about St. Therese's I Believe In Love spirituality. Peter Kreeft's The God Who Loves You. Erasmus Merkadis's Loves Sacred Order. CS Lewis' The Four Loves. et.,al.
i have come to discover that WHEN WE COME TO KNOW IN THE CORE OF OUR BEING THE ONE WHO IS LOVE, LOVE WHO LOVES US IMMUTABLY, INFINITELY, WITH UTTER ABANDON, ONLY THEN will we be able to truly and fully love all of our neighbors as ourselves, a chief commandment. they may have some private religion but do they know LOVE? are they FREE? would they like to? can i SHARE HIM WITH YOU out of LOVE?
i must. not because of any judgment of the person or even of God.
but LOVE compels me to love in return. and Love always calls the beloved to the highest and the best: Heaven.

PLEASE! forgive any offense. love compels me to encourage you, my brother, who already loves Him, to sit in the lap of Love and dwell there. then you will find yourself "rescuing the perishing" as the old Protestant hymn intones. (i can still hear my grandfather's off-key voice booming out that song in the little county church, scaring every bird and animal within miles away!) you won't be able to help it. it won't be an obligation. it will be a light that shines that no darkness can overcome.
written by jason taylor, September 17, 2010
Debby, that's not an easy way out of this conundrum. The reason it is not is that we can be only a reflection of God's love. And it is our limited ability to reflect God's love that itself makes it a conundrum. Without it we would either only care about winning the argument(in which case we would press it with no fear, but also with no courtesy) or we would only care about avoiding the argument(in which case we would not care either about courtesy or about the eternal fate of others). It is God's Love that makes it a conundrum.

Now it is not a conundrum to God. But none of us are God.
written by debby, September 17, 2010
hi jason!
a conundrum is a puzzle, a riddle, a question or problem.
and God is Love IS the answer.
now, is God a question, problem, etc.? well, maybe. but not when you KNOW Him. can you explain Him? not really. but you can know Him. and i'm not even talking about reflecting His love.....these may be frustrating nuisances. i am sorry if i do not explain myself well. it's just that in the last several years of my life, after having on one level or another a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" since i was 4 years old, both as a Protestant and now almost 30 yrs a Catholic, i can tell you that evangelism, both verbal, apologetic style, and non-verbal, life-witness style, has gone from black and white to color. and i haven't stepped into OZ.
i am finally living-in the deepest place of my soul-the truth of LOVE.
this alone has transformed my outlook toward all peoples. whether He chooses to shine thru me like a stained glass window, appear only to those who are looking for Him-like a rainbow is apparent to only those who look up after the rain, or simply be a match in a cave is entirely up to Him. it's His light after all, to do with as He desires.
This i know.
His Love is all that never fails, conquers all, and casts out fear.
i am positive that if more of us who do believe, begged for deeper belief, chose to live and move and have our being in Love, the sharing of Truth would be more natural and less intimidating.
this is all very personal while at the same time being universal. which is why our Lord often addressed the crowds and then turned to the individual.
"I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the POWER of God for the salvation of all who believe...." Romans 1:10
He is Life and everyone longs to really live.
God Bless you!
written by Howard Kainz, September 17, 2010
Well, how did the nun respond to your sister's question?
written by Billy Bean, September 17, 2010
As I eagerly devoured this essay, a vague sense of gratitude reminded me that I had overlooked the by-line. Who could have produced such a cogent and delectible piece of prose? Oh. Francis Beckwith. I should have known.
written by Michele Coldiron, September 20, 2010
"For the teacher to say that a prerequisite for open-mindedness . . . is that one believe there are no true answers. . . "Francis Beckwith is helping his sister combat relativism. The idea that there are no answers to questions means on the other hand that every answer is valid. This poor teacher is merely the result of someone growing up in the TV age listening to reporting where opinions are equated with fact.
My father was a well known professor, and in his later years could scarcely watch the television without wondering rhetorically why they always seemed to choose the person on the street to wax on the problem of the day, such as how to close a burst pipe 4,000 feet under the ocean, or how global warming would affect us. . . We have been educated for years to think that there is no truth out there, and that the guy buying a hot dog knows as much as a meteorologist.
Now even the experts are suspect. What have we wrought? This is a slippery slope leading to anarchy, but the way back is the promotion of education that knows there is and searches for, truth. In order to find this truth, one must believe in faith. Thus the adjoining of faith and reason.
written by Christopher Lake, September 21, 2010
John McCarthy,

One way out of the conundrum which you describe, although not necessarily an "easy" way, is for us to remember the Catechism's teaching in #848 that "the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."

Given that "the Church" includes both the hierarchy *and* the laity, and given that Vatican II, rightly understood, placed a strong emphasis on the role of the laity in the world, *we,* as the laity, should be playing a large role in "the evangelization of all men." ("men," obviously, understood to include women here)

Hell is real. It is still officially taught by the Church, and it always will be, even if some priests who fear men more than God will not preach about it. As long as Hell exists as a possible reality for those who do not know Christ, we should want to evangelize them-- out of *love* for them, as people who are made in God's image.

According to the teaching of the Church in the Catechism, it *may* be possible for a given non-Christian to go to Heaven. It *may* be possible. There is no *guarantee* of Heaven for non-Christians though-- not at all. Do we truly want to hang their eternity on a "may"? Would that be true Christian love toward them on our part?

Should we not want to tell all non-Christians the Good News about Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and who can and will lead those people to Heaven who trust in Him and follow Him?

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