The other day I received a phone call from my ferox mater, asking me if I wanted to contribute to an endowment that is greater than the gross domestic product of possibly half the nations on earth. I declined.
"May I ask why?" said the young lady.
"Well, your school stands against everything that I hold most dear. I'm a pretty traditional Roman Catholic."
"But why do you say that? My roommate is a Roman Catholic, and I'm a Christian, too."
At that -- and wishing to get off the phone, because it was suppertime, of course: "You have a man who advocates infanticide occupying an endowed chair of bioethics -- and you invited him to assume that chair precisely because of those opinions."
The reply, not at all defensive, was priceless. With a smug lilt in the voice, and the deep ineducability that comes from being told, for years, that you are better and smarter than silly people who think, for example, that killing your month-old child is a reversion to barbarism, "Princeton likes to encourage the airing of all opinions."
I answered immediately that that simply was not true. If I were a young untenured professor at Princeton, and I spoke as frankly as I do in class at Providence College, they would boot me out the door -- though more probably the Bible-believing Roman Catholic doesn't get in the door in the first place. Back in the days when I attended (when Princeton did not have Touchstone's own redoubtable Robert George), diversity of opinion was merely forty shades of red. With that, the conversation was over.
But when I thought about it later I saw that I hadn't given the best answer. Princetonians do not have open minds about embezzlement, wife-beating, child abuse, or treason (well, not about the first three, anyway), nor should they. If you have an open mind about cruelty, that is a sign of your moral corruption. That Peter Singer has an open mind about killing your "defective" child after a few weeks' trial run -- after you've decided that, alas, the yoke of care is heavier than you had supposed, so that you just have no choice but to let little Tim go, probably with a lot of nice flowers and a word of consolation from a minister of the First United Church of Moloch, may he bless us every one -- says little about infanticide and a lot about Singer, and about Princeton.
Yet even that is not the best answer. The purpose of an open mind, says Chesterton, is to shut it on something true. And that shutting the mind upon truth opens us up to possibilities, or to further truths, that we had not suspected before. It is in the quest for knowledge as it is in matters of love: just as no one can wholly love another who keeps an escape hatch open, who considers it possible that not-loving might be a better option, so the relativist or the indifferentist keeps all doors open by neglecting to enter any of them. He prides himself on a radical opennness which is really refusal and timidity. But to him who knocks, it shall be opened. Enter that first room of truth, enter it without the constant glance backwards that keeps your feet fixed close to the door, and you will find that this is a mansion that never ends. Why, even to enter without retreat the humble door that says "Thou shalt not murder the child of thy loins" will lead to wonders, if you have the courage to follow.