It would be easy to believe that The Case for Civility was written in 2017 and published in 2018, rather than being published in 2008. Os Guinness’s discussions of civility, the public square, the behavior of political figures, and the separation of church and state are as much about the current era as they are about the early 2000s. This is a book that thoughtful people would do well to read now.
The public square is the focus of much of this book. Guinness devotes three chapters to the “sacred public square” where the wall separating church and state has been completely breached, the “naked public square,” where the wall is intact, well fortified, and heavily guarded, and the “cosmopolitan and civil public square.” In the cosmopolitan and civil public square the worldviews and ways of life of all people are respected and allowed to inform our participation in that square.
In arguing for a cosmopolitan public square in particular Guinness does not suggest that we abandon the systems of belief and practice that make us who we are. He acknowledges, in fact, that such abandoning is impossible.
To be blunt, there is no universal human language. There is no reason common to all humans. There is no agreed rational consensus of values. There is no scientific and universally valid philosophy. There is no humanity without borders. There is no Parliament of Man or Federation of the World. There is no all-inclusive form of identity that will embrace everyone without exception. There is no final form of universal civilization toward which history will progress. There is no pure humanity beyond complexity, and no unity below all human diversity. All these ideas are utopian longings that die hard. (p. 147)
Those words are hard to read. To all we meet we must say, if only in an imagined dialog, that we acknowledge the freedom of conscience that they must be allowed to exercise even as we exercise our own freedom. We must also acknowledge that there are rights and wrongs in all worldviews and ways of life, including our own. Can we learn from others’ worldviews and practices in a way that affirms the freedom to hold worldviews that differ, sometimes radically? Can we move toward a public square that is part of a “world safe for diversity.” According to Guinness, and as the subtitle of the book states, “our future depends on it.”
Os Guinness is a Christian apologist and social critic. He is a direct descendant of Arthur Guinness, the founder of the Dublin brewery. You can read more about him here.
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