Ted Byfield: A challenging after-dinner question that had to be left unanswered

Ted Byfield: A challenging after-dinner question that had to be left unanswered

The Culture

I addressed the Edmonton branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society last week an organization I had never previously heard of. It is dedicated to principles preserved for the last 150 years by what in my youth was still known as the British Empire. It later became the British Commonwealth of Nations, and is now known simply as the Commonwealth of Nations. The Edmonton branch were a curious group of about 100 people, gracious, courteous and perceptive, two thirds oldsters and one third people in their 20s, to 40s. But what intrigued me most was an unusual question posed for me by one of the latter group.

I didn’t write it down; I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “Mr. Byfield, if you had to sum up the basis of all your thoughts on society and education into a single sentence, what would that sentence say?” I told him that since his question concerned ultimate realities, my answer would have to be religious, and would be the verse from the Fourth Gospel, often cited by Evangelical Christians: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This, however, did not satisfy my questioner. He said that the trouble with a religious answer is that religion involves conflicts, with each denomination asserting itself as the “True” one. He would prefer that all religious authorities and leaders be studied and a synthesis made of them all that was not (as far as I could understand him) yet another religion.

I did not attempt an answer to this because we were running out of time, and I knew that any further discussion could not be done summarily. So I thanked him for a good question and let it go at that. But I was not happy doing so, because I know his thoughts are shared by many people. True, this is supposed to be a column on education, but religious issues certainly underlie much of the current educational controversy.

Let me make two points. For one, the questioner proposes to make a study of all the great religious leaders — let’s say Brahma, Buddha, Confucius. Mohammed and Christ — and make a synthesis of their teaching. But what would this involve? He would surely retain for his synthesis all those teachings which he regarded as worth preserving, reject all those he regarded as less worthy. That is he would adopt, for example, the duty of society to care for those who cannot care for themselves, or the right of people to express honest opinions on any subject. But he would reject the slaughter of non-concurring “infidels,” or the duty of a wife to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.

But notice what is going on here. When he accepts some practices and rejects others, he must be invoking some standard by which all moralities can be assessed. What the Hindus do here is very good, he will be saying, but what they do there is very bad. This mysterious standard, by which he is judging all the great religions of the world,. must somehow be superior to those he’s assessing. Where does that standard come from, and how does it achieve such overwhelming authority?

This article continues at [Ted Byfield Blog] A challenging after-dinner question that had to be left unanswered

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