I’m a Christian intellectual. (I hope that’s true, on both counts). I have a PhD in theology. That’s what I know best. I participate in the Christian form of life, or at least I try to. It provides me with my most basic intellectual tools. This Christian way of thinking is not inaccessible to non-Christian or secular people, but it can sometimes be hard for them to think it worth their while. That’s understandable. We all have to do triage.
Secular progressives also have theology of sorts, as well as a form of life. A friend of mine teaches at Andover and he has described it to me, which isn’t necessary since I was raised and educated at the point where progressivism overlapped with liberal religion. (Ah, for that earlier time when religious was not so nearly a synonym for conservative.) It’s in many ways a highly effective and appealing moral culture that I’m sometimes grateful for, and when I’m not I remind myself that there are aspects of traditional religious culture that I regret as well.
Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, argues that secular progressives suffer from a kind of blindness. They don’t seem to “taste” the full range of moral concerns, if you’ll permit the shift in metaphors from eyes to mouth. I wrote about it in the Public Square last year (“Our One-Eyed Friends”)
There’s another kind of blindness as well. Liberals can’t see themselves as a culture. A friend of mine once quipped, “Liberalism is the story for people who don’t think they need a story.” This is a weakness. It makes liberal progressives genuinely baffled when they met seemingly intelligent, well-intentioned people who look like them but aren’t liberals, which is pretty much the rest of the world.
How do I put it? Secular liberalism is a universal vision that liberals imagine to be the natural condition of man. This makes liberals sociologically unaware. They think their views are “natural.” This is a very strange view given the history of culture.
Christianity is a universal vision that Christians know to be a supernatural possibility that has to be consciously and freely affirmed–and might not be! This makes Christians more sociologically self-aware, by which I mean that we know ourselves to be a distinctive way of being human that can’t be taken for granted.
Judaism is a universal vision that Jews know to be the consummating destiny of all humanity whether or not anybody else knows or affirms it to be so–and in fact the expectation is that they won’t. This makee religious Jews very sociologically self-aware.
It’s the sociological lack of awareness—the liberal blindness—that accounts for the paradox of liberal intolerance, at least to some degree. If you can’t see your identity as in some sense contingent, then you’ll have a hard time restraining the imperial necessity of your convictions.