Rescuing Tolerance

First Things

From: First Things

by A. J. Conyers August 2001
A. J. Conyers is Professor of Theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence).

The notion of tolerance encompasses two quite different ideas. On the one hand it can be understood as an Enlightenment concept hostile to theology. On the other hand it is an attitude with deep roots in the Christian tradition. The former wishes to neutralize the deepest forms of religious conviction, while pretending to befriend the idea of religion in general. I will call this the “Enlightenment doctrine” of toleration. The latter is not so much a doctrine as a practice, one that precedes mature doctrine. It engenders an openness toward what is deeply held by religious believers of every kind—not so much the accidental forms of that religion, but its essence: the deep wisdom which (however incomplete) joins itself convincingly to all that is essentially human and essentially wise, and thus permanently true.

In what follows, I tell the story of how the modern doctrine of toleration rose to prominence. I then explore what it would mean for the Christian community to recover the lost, and often discredited, practice of toleration in our post-Enlightenment age.

Many hold that the doctrine of toleration arose largely as a result of the religious wars that ravaged Europe in the early modern period. These wars claimed as much as one-third of Europe’s population in certain regions. They also drove Europeans to search for greater stability, to adopt philosophies that offered certainty, and at the same time to embrace the relegation of religion to the private sphere of life.

This account of the origins of toleration contains much that is true, but it also leaves much unmentioned. Early modern Europe was not only a place of tumult and stress. It was also a place of emerging wealth, expanding opportunities in trade and manufacture, and immense consolidation of power in the new nation-states.

The emergence of the modern world was characterized by the growth of regional political authorities that gradually eclipsed the local, familial, ecclesiastic, and sometimes informal authorities that governed (and to some extent still govern) public life. From the beginning, the greatest obstacle to this homogenizing central authority was the authority of religion. And by the sixteenth century religion had so intertwined itself with the emerging political powers that it had lost much of its moral authority in the social make-up of Europe. After the massive loss of life in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1648)—wars driven largely by religious controversies—it was not difficult to convince Europeans that religious authority was more a force for social unrest than it was one necessary to peace. The Church, the ecumenical bearer of culture, law, and learning, had now been rent from top to bottom. What once provided the framework of an ecumenical accord could no longer perform the function.

Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes insisted that the goal of social life was to provide peace and security from the life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” No one could do that better, said Hobbes, than one to whom we entrust the sword of government; his is the true kingdom of God, since it is the only route to a kingdom of peace. Theologians could only complicate this arrangement, since they sought a kingdom that might work against conditions required by a world of constant conflict—a world that, in its natural state, could only be one of war of “each against all.” Religion instead threatens the equilibrium of a well-organized state.

Under the guidance of John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and others, a way of sheltering the secular powers of the state from the disrupting influence of religion was hit upon. It consisted primarily in assigning religion to the realm of private convictions, thus preserving for the state the management of public affairs. This arrangement took upon itself the cast of a new virtue. The appropriate response of the state to the competing demands of religious communities is “toleration.” The state could be tolerant because it had ceded religion to the realm of private convictions, and later (especially under the influence of John Stuart Mill) the task of moral philosophy. To state the matter fairly, this privatization of religion was seen not only as a safeguard for the state, but for the religious life as well. But what is not often recognized is that it was quickly being assumed that public life inevitably belonged to the state.

In ceding the private realm to religion, the state was giving up authority over matters it never really governed anyway. Religion, on the other hand, was ceding to the state a domain of social life over which it had always claimed to have some ultimate authority, for it had always claimed insight into the nature of a just society.

It was apparent to many in the early modern period that this was not the only possible arrangement of public and private authorities. The Reformed theologian Johannes Althusius, for one, had seen that society naturally was divided among a number of overlapping and largely informal authorities. These “associations,” as he called them—the family, the Church, the collegium (those who work on common public tasks), the region—each impose certain disciplines upon the individual and demand a certain loyalty. These associations likewise mediate between the person and the vastness of the world outside; they make possible a course of action, and they interpose an authority in a way not possible for the individual. Each association has its own proper sphere of action and authority, its own status, and its own vocation or divine calling. The civil government is one of these. But it is only one of the authorities among a number of different and sometimes competing voices.

What was happening in the early modern period was the rise of a more comprehensive authority. Less and less did other associations interpose between the state and the individual, leaving the individual (or the family, for that matter) defenseless against what Hobbes had frankly described as the Leviathan. One can see the effects of this in the growth of the state’s ability to marshal more and more of a society’s resources in waging wars against other governments. Moving from Louis XIV’s decision to keep a standing army, not heretofore within a monarch’s power, we can fast-forward to the twentieth century where giant states were able to raise and maintain enormous armies, wage wars continually, and mobilize civilian resources on demand. Wars came to require almost unlimited provision from the civilian sector of society.

Why were such wars not waged in the past? Technology is only part of the answer; the more important part is that heretofore the government simply did not have that kind of authority. Now nothing stood between the individual and the state. The individual was, more than anything else, a citizen of the state. Other associations were being eclipsed by the overshadowing association established so remotely and so abstractly between the citizen and the state. With the results of the French Revolution in mind, Benjamin Constant said that “the interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand.”

The modern doctrine of toleration played a role in all of this. The greatest and most indigestible of all authorities, besides the state, was and in many ways continues to be religion. The authority of religion comes in part from its power to speak authoritatively about those questions that are central to human life: To what end do I exist, act, think, and live with others? To what end does the community of men, women, and children exist? What is truly just? These questions are at the heart of religion. Men and women have been known, moreover, to sacrifice life and property to uphold and to give witness to a particular view of these things. The material world and the temporal life pale in importance when viewed alongside these most important of all human considerations. These transcendent values, drawing as they do upon the deepest and most powerful streams of human devotion, are capable of playing havoc with the orderly pursuit of success in a comfortable and safe life. The sixteenth century—beginning with its religious reform movement, and ending in bloodshed on a vast scale—was evidence of this.

The early modern period faced two grand realities. One was this bloodshed, at the ragged end of a century steeped in religious seriousness. The other was opportunity in the form of increased trade, the exploitation of new colonies in America and new trade routes to the Orient, and the possibility (much of it presented by the emergency of war) of expanding political power.

If the religious quest is the central vocation for humanity—the call to hear what is our place in the universe and the meaning of our existence—then the lure of power and wealth in early modernity served as a highly potent distraction. The doctrine of toleration, it may be said, was the theoretical justification of that distraction. “The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men,” said John Locke, “constituted only for procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.” What are these civil interests? Are they life together for the sake of participating in what is true, just, and beautiful”for which something like a religious vision is needed? According to Locke, “Civil interest I call life, liberty, health, and the indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” This he explains in his Letter Concerning Toleration in order to strategically place religious interests within the jurisdiction of “the inward persuasion of the mind.”

The modern doctrine has therefore obscured what might properly be called the practice of toleration. I decline to call it a doctrine because it is not so much a statement of something true as it is the preparation of the soul for that which is true. It has more in common with silence than it does with discourse. It is the habit of not cutting off your interlocutor before listening to what he or she has to say.

At the end of his writing On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life , Thomas Aquinas wrote, “If anyone wishes to write against this, I will welcome it. For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction, according to the saying: ‘Iron is sharpened by iron’ (Proverbs 27:17). And between us and them may God judge.” Such a sentiment reflects a habit of considerable weight in the history of the Church, and one might say that some of the crowning achievements of Christian thought—for instance, Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae”would never have seen the light of day but for a strong sentiment for a certain openness toward thinkers from other faiths and other philosophies.

It was in overcoming a predisposition in the Church against Aristotle—a pagan thinker, after all—that Aquinas made his contribution. He did so within the thirteenth-century community of thought that was famously populated by Muslim and Jewish, as well as Christian, thinkers. When he takes up the definition of “Truth” he proceeds by calling attention to various important insights into the meaning of truth from a number of sources, not all of them Christian. First he draws from Augustine, who wrote that “Truth is that whereby is made manifest that which is.” Then he turns to Hilary, who wrote, “Truth makes being clear and evident.” Then Anselm: “Truth is rightness perceptible by the mind alone.” Next, without comment on his movement to figures of an alien faith, he quotes Avicenna, a Muslim teacher of the tenth and eleventh century: “The truth of each thing is a property of the being which has been given to it.” And finally he appeals to Aristotle, the pagan philosopher, who says that a statement is true “from the fact that a thing is, not from the fact that a thing is true.”

St. Thomas does all this in a way that clearly marks it off from modern habits. He does not call attention to the fact that he is drawing from a plurality of sources that represent diverse faiths. Nor is there the lazy air of relativism here. Instead we find the resolute pressing forward to an idea of truth that can be common to everyone because it is real for everyone. It is inclusive not in the easy modern way that makes its claim before any effort has been expended to find common ground, but in the more arduous way of the Angelic Doctor whose labors still constitute a wonder of human investigation and literary production. It promotes not a unity that is assumed and goes unquestioned at the beginning, but one that is found at some cost to those who search. As Simone Weil said, “Work is needed to express what is true: also to receive what is true. We can express and receive what is false, or at least what is superficial, without any work.”

This drive toward divine truth is not the same as the acquisition of truth. Josef Pieper pointed out what both the advocates and the detractors of Aquinas often forget, that his greatest work is an unfinished work. In spirit, and as it happens in form as well, it witnesses to the openness of theology that always points to something deeper. It points to truth rather than holding it captive. This habit of thought has deep roots in the Christian tradition and helps to illuminate what is meant by the practice of toleration. It is an openness toward what is true, recognizing that the truth of God is true for all people, and to the extent that other cultures or religions have been illuminated by truth it is none other than the truth of the one God, the God to whom Jesus himself gives full and incarnate witness.

An example of this early practice is found in Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165), who came to the Christian faith by way of Stoicism and Platonism. For him Christian faith is the “touchstone” of truth. He believed that the identification of Christ as logos in Scripture opened the way to understanding even pre-Christian philosophies as bearing a measure of truth. Explains historian Henry Chadwick, “Christ is for Justin the principle of unity and the criterion by which we may judge the truth, scattered like divided seeds among the different schools of philosophy in so far as they have dealt with religion and morals.”

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) provides another witness. Like Philo on behalf of Judaism more than a century before, he incorporated the best works of Hellenistic literature and philosophy in his own Christian teaching. The writings of Clement that remain to us contain more than seven hundred quotations from more than three hundred pagan sources. At the same time, it was perfectly clear that Scripture was his authority. His arguments would explore the world of Homer or Heraclitus, but then he would resolve the issue beginning with the words “it is written.” Thus his thought was not syncretistic, but synthetic. There was, for him, a “chorus of truth” upon which the Christian might draw. This alternative source did not replace Scripture, but it illuminated its pages. All philosophy, if it was true philosophy, was of divine origin, even though what we receive through philosophy is broken and often almost unintelligible.

All truth, Clement would argue, is God’s truth. In his Stromata ( Miscellanies ) he wrote, “They may say that it is mere chance that the Greeks have expressed something of the true philosophy. But that chance is subject to divine providence . . . . Or in the next place it may be said that the Greeks possessed an idea of truth implanted by nature. But we know that the Creator of nature is one only.”

While Clement’s Alexandrian tradition had enormous influence on the Church, the tendency toward a tolerant habit of thought was not found in Alexandria alone. Gregory of Nazianzus (330–389), whose ministry ranged from Athens to Constantinople, argued for the universality of the knowledge of God, who is “in the world of thought what the sun is in the world of sense; presenting himself to our minds in proportion as we are cleansed; and loved in proportion as He is presented to our mind: and again, conceived in proportion as we love Him . . . pouring Himself out upon what is external to Him.”

An advantage that ancient and early medieval thinkers had in imagining the “openness” of Christian theology to alien thinkers is one that tends to elude modern people. The Aristotelian idea of form allowed for an understanding that was not confined to individual things. Form corresponded well to the Christian idea of divine logos and the Jewish idea of Dabar (“word”) or of law. Such ideas were largely abandoned through developments in late medieval and early modern thought. As Louis Dupré has written, “Nominalist theology had thoroughly eroded the notion of form . . . . Christians had used this Greek notion for constructing their own synthesis of nature and grace.” This same notion was indispensable to ancient and medieval thinkers. Basil the Great (c. 329–379), another of the Cappadocian Fathers, expressly uses this approach in arguing for the co“equality of the Spirit with the other persons of the Trinity:

Therefore, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit perfects rational beings, completing their excellence, He is analogous to Form. For he, who no longer “lives after the flesh,” but being “led by the Spirit of God,” becoming “conformed to the image of the Son of God,” is described as spiritual.

In modern times, when nominalist presuppositions undermined the perceived connection between form and matter, the earlier understanding of a higher connection among different ways of thinking and believing was also lost. Thus modern people found themselves incapable of tolerating alien thoughts other than by saying that all opinions are of equal value, since they merely illuminate the mind of the individual doing the thinking. Or, to put it less starkly, modern thinkers confined certain kinds of thought—religious and moral thought specifically—to the realm of the private. By contrast, Augustine could understand that his earlier Neoplatonist books taught him something about God, even though that knowledge was incomplete: “In the same books I also read of the Word, God, that his birth came not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God. But I did not read in them that the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us.” And he continued to comfort Christians who were conscience“stricken about intellectual “meat offered to idols,” writing, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” Toleration, which in this premodern sense means listening rather than speaking too quickly so that one might rightly evaluate what is said, was seen by St. Augustine as the normal habit of a Christian mind:

And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him! And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians . . . . For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now.

It is not true, of course, that first millennium Christianity was tolerant in any thoroughgoing manner. A famous example of a dissenting voice was Tertullian, who objected to all this philosophizing by asking trenchantly “Quid Athenae Hierlsolymis?”—What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? This hostility toward other philosophies and beliefs can be found throughout the history of the Church. But it is also the case that a tolerant habit of mind was an important part of the picture prior to the rise of nominalism in the late medieval period and the subsequent loss of the capacity for synthesis. It is important for us to see that the diminishing of such a powerful tool as toleration came not with the “dark ages” as popular myth holds, but with the dawn of modernity. If we are to regain true tolerance, we must begin by recognizing the difference between its authentic practice and the poor substitute that has risen to prominence in the modern age.