It 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.