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toleranceIt is easy to forget that tolerance was not original to the Enlightenment. After all, this is the narrative handed to us by most scholars and pundits.  We forget that during the Reformation entire regions and cities like Alsace, Ravensburg, Lausanne, and Augsburg developed types of bi-confessionalism, where different confessions shared civic power and public space. We forget that tolerance in the West is necessarily religious in its grounding principles. In his book Divided by Faith, historian Benjamin Kaplan summarizes this point: “As a practice, toleration long predated the Enlightenment. Ever since the reformations…Christians in Europe had been finding ways to live peacefully with one another despite their religious differences.”

Thinking of tolerance as a practice, rather than an ideal, allowed it to be much more robust and versatile, because it lacked the absolutist tendencies of an ideology. Our historical myopia toward earlier practices of tolerance indicates just how significantly the Enlightenment narrative of rationalism has severed us from this past and threatens any benefits we have gained and continue to gain from it. When, in our day, thinkers as diverse as Martha Nussbaum and D.A. Carson question the future of current notions of tolerance, it is vital that we begin to reassess our history of religious coexistence. Reviving earlier practices is likely one of the only ways to successfully develop a functional understanding of tolerance in the twenty-first century, as we move to an increasingly integrated multi-religious society.

Today, most people see tolerance as historian Perez Zagorin describes it, “a very basic principle that society and the state should as a matter of right, extend complete freedom of religious belief and expression to all their members.” Zagorin spells out tolerance as an ideal, with which he replaces truth as our intellectual anchor, making this ideal a kind of idol before which all public discourse must kneel. Tolerance is mandatory, singular, and absolute, and it permits no rivals in the public square.

The history of tolerance before this idealization exhibits a much more complex and problematic cultural phenomenon. First and foremost before the Enlightenment, the practice of tolerance was not inherently virtuous. It was, at best, seen as a stop gap, a temporal solution for a corrupted world order that cannot be completely repaired either by human reason or ingenuity. Furthermore, tolerance presented as many dangers as intolerance, because it forfeited social unity and cohesion for the caprice of individual liberty. The thirteenth-century political theorist John of Salisbury summarized this basic notion of compromise, saying, “The best and wisest man is moderate with the reins of liberty … he does not oppose himself to the works of liberty, so long as damage to virtue does not occur.” Liberty was a result of the union between Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor” and his teaching “the truth shall set you free.” In this regard, tolerant practices are not ipso facto virtuous. They only are virtuous insofar as they express a patient forbearance and humility, a recognition of someone else’s (and our own) limitations, placing human beings as the subjects rather than the authors of truth.

Since the individual self was not the progenitor of truth, as it would become in the Enlightenment, and because of human corruption, the cultivation of charity alongside statements of truth was absolutely essential. Any tolerant policies were the fruit of seeing knowledge—religious or otherwise—as something that one discovered rather than produced. Conceived in this manner, tolerance as a practice was, as Kaplan explains, “a pattern of interaction among people of different faiths. It operated, or failed to, on the local level, and had a complex relationship to both ideals and official policies.”

That is not to say that history holds all of the answers. It is important not to totally condemn our own society and blindly praise the past. The pre-Enlightenment Europe was hardly a paragon of peace. It was a world facing unprecedented differences that seemed inexorable. In the Reformation, the universal body of Christ was shattered into dozens of opposing confessions. Once spiritual brethren became heretics, friends and colleagues were pitted against one another, families were divided, and monarchs began creating faith communions of their own. The persecution and violence manifested from these divisions, along with the manufactured theological warrant to justify the bloodshed, must be confronted and confessed. But this is precisely why this period offers us hope.

Amid the outbursts of violence, it is a remarkable wonder that passionate pleas for tolerance continued to be heard from both Protestants and Catholics, commoner and educated, throughout the Reformation period. As Kaplan writes,

Even when Europe’s churches preached intolerance…they also taught countervailing values, like love for one’s neighbor and respect for the law … loyalty, friendship, affection, kinship, civic duty, devotion to the common weal.

The point in looking backward is not to turn back the clock, but instead to find meaningful ways of moving forward in our own search for peace.

In her book Charitable Hatred, Alexandra Walsham argues that charity, which was embedded in popular conceptions of neighborliness and respect, often restrained Reformation tensions. Charity alleviated tension not by sacrificing doctrinal truth but rather by establishing a commonality, and more importantly a community, which was an expression of a much higher and deeper truth than any single point of theology. It is quite fitting that one of the best books to advocate the charity of tolerant practice was a work on missionary theory, Bartholomeo de Las Casas’s De unico modo (The Only Way).

Las Casas was a slave owner in Spanish South America who freed his slaves and joined the Dominican order. He eventually became one the most influential figures at the Spanish court, lobbying against the brutal treatment of the indigenous Americans. In De unico modo, Las Casas outlined a method of evangelism, which has implications for modern practices of tolerance. Las Casas based his ideas on two correlative aspects of Christian thought: the imitation of Christ and the nature of humanity as something created in the image of God. His basic principle was, “There must be no evil inflicted in any way, no force, no punition on pagans who have never had the faith…Those who do the opposite usurp divine judgment. They are forthwith in violation of divine law.” This included the threat of force and any kind of verbal “coercion.”

For Las Casas, to destabilize community and fellowship breached divine law because it threatened individual liberty, an essential ingredient in his understanding of the complete human being. He argued, “A creature with a mind and will has to be drawn through its own nature to what is good.” The bar that Las Casas set for religious tolerance was actually more revolutionary, and ironically more rational, than modern standards. Rather than relativizing truth or promoting a let’s-all-just-get-along model, Las Casas demanded the sovereignty of truth be maintained. But this standard is upheld only when there is an equally absolute expression of charity. The truth must always be presented, but it must be delivered in such a way that listeners “would be able to act on their own initiative.” Even if their initiative is to reject the truth, the bond between charity and truth holds firm, so that the practice of tolerance does not become merely a honey-dipped arrow to woo the unconverted.

Our own policies of ignoring or silencing religious difference, in the hopes of averting conflict, pale in comparison to Las Casas’s challenge. A kind of intellectual and cultural colorblindness has been popularized by thinkers like Richard Rorty, with his description of religion as a “conversation-stopper.” What Rorty and others fail to recognize is that, like the practice of colorblindness toward ethnic and racial difference (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2009), intellectual, cultural, or religious “colorblindness” is much more effective at spreading ignorance and neglect than harmony and dignity. Such a situation leads eventually to a type of cultural suicide where questions of normative values and matters of first importance are marginalized and differences are dismissed, only to be replaced by a sedative of superficial variety. This is what Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind described as “wild rainbows of dyed hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing about what is inside.”

Las Casas would have denounced the pragmatism of colorblindness as well as the idealism of modern tolerance that sacrifices truth in the name of nonviolence. In confronting the reality of cultural and religious difference, practices of tolerances can harmonize expressions of charity and truth in the public sphere. Las Casas recognized the human need for both liberty and community and found in Christ the best model for this harmony. He explained,

Christ knew the human condition. So He fashioned a way of attracting people to Himself … by attachment to Him, compliance with His laws.

Understood as expressions of the imitation of Christ, tolerant practices respect the human conscience as a characteristic common to all humanity and uniting all individuals under the natural law. In Truth and Tolerance, then Cardinal Ratzinger echoes Las Casas’s message, saying,

Liberation consists, not in gradually getting rid of law and of norms of behavior, but in purifying ourselves and purifying those norms, so that they make possible that coexistence of freedoms which is appropriate to man.

Another important work on tolerant practice was penned by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Querela pacis (The Complaint of Peace) was one of Erasmus’s most renowned books. Like Las Casas, Erasmus believed that liberating and charitable tolerance could only be found among people with a common understanding of human nature. “Nature,” he explained, “provided all these arguments for peace and concord.” In the book, Erasmus used a personification of Peace to condemn the recent parade of violence that had blotted the European landscape. Erasmus lambasted the religious divisions that were emerging in Christendom, saying, “What was the sum of his teaching, instruction, commandment, and prayer,” he challenged, “if not … [to] love one another? What did the communion of holy bread and loving-cup ratify but a kind of new concord which should never be broken?”

Although he seems to echo Las Casas, Erasmus’s purposes were actually much grander in scale. What he calls “a kind of new concord” was a virtuous unity, or in his words “a conjugal harmony,” between societies, states, and civilizations. By evoking the sacraments of the Eucharist and marriage, Erasmus aimed at something higher and holier than the kind of universal political treaty that other contemporaries, like Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, had in mind.  Erasmus’s concord put into practice the words of the Apostle Paul, “If it is at all possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.” However, like Paul, Erasmus was not a total pacifist, because he recognized that sometimes peace was not always possible in a world marred by evil. He carefully qualified his basic instruction that “Some things,” not all things, “must be overlooked,” in the hope that “such courtesy will encourage courtesy.”

The spirit of Erasmus’s concord is evident in several religious treaties like the Peace of Augsburg, the Edict of Saint-Germaine, and the Edict of Nantes. While many of these concords ultimately collapsed, they essentially presented something unique in the history of tolerance. They granted legitimacy to each religious group within a particular public space, something that modern tolerance cannot even comprehend. When we consider this alongside recent events like France’s ban on face veils in public, Switzerland’s prohibition on minarets, media assaults on Christmas and other religious holidays, and the increasingly venomous manifestoes of the New Atheist movement, it is clear the ideal of tolerance in Western culture suffers from an inflated sense of success. Where modern tolerance does not permit any rival to the authority of rationalism and secular humanism, pre-Enlightenment Europe was establishing policies that permitted and even gave warrant to worldviews which its rulers saw as heretical. Erasmus described this practice as evidence of “true royalty,” which is “the willingness to concede sovereignty.”

Concord was a means of coexistence with religious difference that did not diminish the importance of religious truth in the public sphere. As Erasmus pointed out, concord sustained and promoted the good of the community, because, like marriage and the Eucharist (another metaphor for tolerance that Erasmus employed), concord was essentially communal. Community was as natural as the union between man and woman, for “there is nothing in human affairs which can be self-sufficient.” Moreover, these unions were based on an understanding of self-sacrifice that called on individuals and groups to lay down their priorities, not their liberty, for the civic good. This must be done freely, so that unity and welfare can be maintained, but it must be done in order to preserve the harmony of charity and truth. The charity expressed in concord was not a compromise, at least not in the modern sense of the word. It was an active trust, in which religious difference becomes a public part of the social body.

What concord presents is a formula that allows for the expression and integration of opposing religious views without breaking the peace. It was very similar to what Ratzinger called an “advent dimension,” where ancient religions discover how they coincide with the Christological revelation of the Word. Where Christianity and other worldviews can find true tolerance with one another is in the recognition “that they carry within themselves the dynamic of advent,” providing the potential for not only common ground but also a common purpose and common good. In this way, concord becomes the mechanism for something that liberal tolerance could never provide, a means by which religious and non-religious viewpoints can engage in the public sphere on equal footing, contending with one another in a substantive and nonviolent manner, marrying charity and truth as necessary absolutes.

Eliminating the rhetoric of tolerance is not a reasonable, or even desirable, possibility. However, tolerance must be pulled down from its pedestal as a social ideal. Las Casas and Erasmus demonstrate that the practice of tolerance offers more than its ideal can muster. Practices of tolerance overcome the current stalemate in regard to religion’s role in public life, because they seek a coexistence with religious and cultural difference which transcends the dilemmas presented by our current diminutive understanding of tolerance.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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11 replies to this post
  1. Professor Davis: Thank you for this provocative article, and for referencing Benjamin Kaplan’s book, which I will make a point of reading. I’m entirely in favor of “concord” (and an admirer of Erasmus) but am still a little unclear how it differs from or improves on “tolerance”–though I do prefer the word “concord,” for what that’s worth; it’s richer and more substantive than “tolerance”.

    Tolerance, as I understand it, also “allows for the expression and integration of opposing religious views without breaking the peace,” just as it provides “a means by which religious and non-religious viewpoints can engage in the public sphere on equal footing, contending with one another in a substantive and nonviolent manner, marrying charity and truth as necessary absolutes.” The fact that atheists publish “venomous manifestos” doesn’t seem to violate either tolerance or (depending on how “venomous” they are) concord; theists certainly publish books and tracts that condemn non-theists and non-sectarians to eternal damnation, which seems kind of venomous to me. America’s “public square” is filled with religion, all varieties of Christianity in particular; unless, of course, by “public square” you mean “official government property,” where religion (at least in this country) doesn’t belong. Europe’s struggle with Islam and its public manifestations doesn’t prove that “liberal tolerance” is a dead letter any more than the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe proved that Christian fellowship was dead.

    Thank you again for the article.

    • Mr. Shifflet,
      Thank you for your thoughts. One of the main ways concord differs from modern notions of tolerance–and this may not line up with your notion of tolerance–is that concord is rooted not in Enlightenment ideology but in religious values of charity and humility. Also, concord is not an absolute good nor is it always possible. Again, this may look a great deal like your understanding of tolerance, and I would suggest that that is because your understanding is rooted in something that is akin to pre-Enlightenment values, and I would applaud you for this.
      As to the demise of liberal tolerance, I did brush over this in the piece because it has been discussed by a wide body of thinkers, most of whom conclude that tolerance enlivened by Enlightenment ideals is on the decline. For more articulate thoughts on the matter, I would point you to: John Gray, Martha Nussbaum, Steven D. Smith, Francis Beckwith, among others.

  2. Article I of the Polish Constitution of 1791 reads:
    “The ruling national religion is and will be the holy Roman Catholic faith with all her rights; converting from the ruling faith to any other faith is prohibited under the penalty of apostacy. Given that this holy faith commands us to love our neighbors, thus to all people of whatever faith they are, peace. from the faith unto them and the care of the government do we owe them and for this reason all rites and religions in the Polish country, and in our laws, shall we defend.”

    I thinks this proves the point of the article, especially when you consider that this constitution was not a revolutionary document, but a codification of political practice that had been common in Poland since the middle ages. It should also be noted that the only enforcement mechanism for violating the prohibition against changing religions was apostacy. Apostacy is the formal nulification of membership in the Catholic Chirch, which for Catholics means you’re outside of the sacraments and thus not saved. If you didn’t believe that, I venture that this punishment was not a punishment at all. People were thus free to leave the Church, but the nation could not leave the principles of its founding which was the source of the rights of individuals.

    Still, I think it is important to distinguish liberty from toletance, as Dr. Frohnen (I hope my spelling is correct?) did in an ealier article. As he pointed out, the etymology of “tolerance” is to bear the burden of other peoples’ vice in the name of liberty and the recognition that the path to an ordered soul cannot be coerced.

    I also recomend watching Hoosiers to see tolerance in practice: notice the difference between the Principles’ tolerance of Shooter (pity and alms) vs. The Coach’s magnanimous tolerance. Neither of them tolerate Shooters’ vice.

    Needless to say, tolerance is certainly not practiced by the heckling minorities.

    • What makes you thing there were no temporal punishments for apostasy? Why would 18th century Poland be any different from 20th century Islam? It is the enlightenment that really ensured freedom of conscience would not be punishable by law. I fail to see how a Jew, as compared to Christian, would be better off under Christian “charity” “concord,” or “tolerance” over having individual rights that enforce tolerance. Another glowly nostalgic bromide from a segment of society that once enjoyed entrenched privilege and misses the good ole days when minorities knew the paternalistic containment of their “charity. “

      • “I fail to see how a Jew, as compared to Christian, would be better off under Christian “charity” “concord,” or “tolerance” over having individual rights that enforce tolerance.”

        Individual rights have to come from something. Christianity offers a source. Materialism (the end result of radical humanism) offers, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “…blind, pitiless indifference”.

  3. Mr. Rieth: “Hoosiers” was and is a great film. I’m not entirely sure that “tolerance” as I understand it means “tolerating vice,” but then I guess that depends on what you mean both by “tolerating” and by “vice”. I come back, as I have before, to the idea of hating the sin but loving the sinner–we tolerate people in spite of their vice (else we’d have to forsake people entirely, including ourselves), but we do what we can to correct that vice and help the people in question replace it with virtue. Toleration, forbearance, forgiveness, repentance: all those things, I think, go hand in hand.

    As to your final point–“heckling” certainly seems intolerant, or at the very least rude, and that goes both for “minorities” and majorities. People shouldn’t heckle: I think we can agree on that.

  4. There seem to me various spheres of tolerance, the largest of which is that between nations; And, that this sphere, like any other, has two parts: personal tolerance and collective tolerance.

    As each person naturally and rightly has a mind of his or her own, personal tolerance is at least part of the foundation for collective tolerance.

    There always is struggle to know the right boundaries of any tolerance which one adopts; Though, some tyrants and would-be tyrants, and many cronies of either, reject the principle of personal shortfalls in understanding, by favoring the ugly god of personal confirmation bias. Victims of others’ deep tyranny do not say; ‘I think, therefore, I am.’ Rather, they say, ‘I’m condemned, therefore, I am.’

    In any case, another’s mind is theirs for very good reason: it’s not one’s own.

  5. The full range and depth of worldly benefits for observing the humble sacred Truths seem always to eclipse those Truths. This is how powerful the Truth is. This also is how humble the Truth is.

    I think that struggles as to the right boundaries of tolerances partly consists in knowing when a particular truth’s humility or power is being over-emphasized or under-emphasized. I suppose that often such struggles hinge on a common ‘secular’ ignorance of the form of the Truth, as, for example, when there is an impression that the form is trivial or even unjust.

    Of course, the form of Truth without the Truth is oppressive, to say the least. But, this in no way invalidates its form; it re-emphasizes it. The consummate marriage act has a form, and its form is inherently present with its truth. This, despite that that form can be so divorced from its truth as to make that form into one of the most unjust acts imaginable: rape in which the victim not only is so traumatized by the rape itself, but by being convinced that the rapist is telling the truth when, in the midst of the rape, he says that what he is doing is what love really is, and that, despite that he is a stranger to the victim, he even is the victim’s husband, and that everyone thinks he is right in so saying and doing. So, it is admitted that such an unjust act, rather than invalidating the form, cannot help but re-emphasize the natural mutual necessity between that form and its original, and only, Truth.

    So, the sacred Truths are so humble and gentle as to make possible the divorcing of the Truth from its form, for some tyranny’s sake that would use that form for the greed which is personal confirmation bias. I think Isaac was rightly tolerant in that event about which he pleaded in Genesis 26:27. That plea is the 720th verse.

    Concerning 720: Six days was the work of Creation; Twenty-four hands the measure of each day, from sunset to sunset (not for primitive agrarianism, but for the common denominator of the sun’s light in re-balancing the cursed microbiological world). In 144 hands (720/twelve twelve’s) of the human measure of time was the world made, and it was very good. Now, human history is marked into the two hands of Christ, and both the day and the night are known to him. The Father’s will be done on Earth as it is done in heaven (360+360=720, in which 720 is the number of all power, and of the King of kings).

  6. I think this good tolerance is related to being ‘salt in the world’, if not equivalent to it. A little salt in a bland land makes food taste better, though food in general is the principle object. It seems to me the spiritual analogues to salt and food are personal ‘conversation’ and truth respectively.

    Christ said that if this salt has lost its ability to make the food of truth more attractive to those in desperate need of that food, then the salt is thrown out (he made no mention of throwing the food out). What good is truth to anyone who, though being in possession of it, and though benefiting directly from it, do not so live as to make the truth seem worthy of consideration to anyone who lacks it.

    The Pharisees lived the personal benefits of keeping the Law, but they so kept it as to reclassify anyone as sub-human who either did not keep it or who failed to keep it so to-the-letter. I suppose this is the origin of the oppressive legal ‘hedges’ which the Pharisees added to the Law to ensure that the ‘sub-humans’ who struggled to keep the Law would no break the Law: ‘If you feel tempted to steal, then God will that you amputate your hands to ensure that you never fall-short-of-the-glory-of-God-by-stealing’. Salt worth the name does not poison the food, because anyone who knows poison is not going to want to eat it through the poison.

    No foreigner is desperate to repatriate to a City State which has insane regulations for foreigners. No one begs for a charitable dollar by way of a million paper cuts. No one seeks to learn a new language which is presented to him within an impenetrable shell of grievous babble.

  7. The paper has the ring of classical liberal studies ,learning, or teachings of conservators, akin to National Review or Ayn Rand’s Individual social philosophy! It is provocative, to say the least! It is humbling, to note our predecessors civil social norms! It reminds me of a Gay conservative adult entertainment entrepreneur’s, comments on gay marriage tolerance! “Progressive” demands,for the simple, civil social golden rule standards of private civil social unions,fit into proprietor’s business partnerships and limited liability corporations! This reminded me of his actual tolerance for fellow conservatives, old school, mutual tolerance of classical liberal practices, as opposed to “Progressive” intolerance!

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