Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Truth and Tolerance

Back in December, I put up a post entitled “Fools, Holy and Otherwise”, dealing with “true believers” and how they can be of any political stripe, as long as it's radical and revolutionary. In other words, “true believer” and “moderate” don't go together – any more than “true believer” and “silent majority”. True believers are activists, either in the physical sense (joining a crusade, proselytizing, blowing things up, etc.) or in the sense of expressing opinions, loudly and often, regardless of how counter-cultural or unpopular those opinions might be. So in our time, we can count, among true believers, libertarians and anarchists, the far left (or what's left of it, as opposed to garden-variety liberals and “progressives”), the far right (beyond mainstream “conservatism”, which doesn't differ significantly from Neoconservatism), and – obviously – adherents to Islamic fundamentalism and jihad. I should also include the more serious Christian Zionists, even though it's hard to draw the line between true belief and knee-jerk support.  (And when it comes to the Occupy crowd and the Tea Party, I think that's more about mob psychology than any coherent belief system.)

I guess what this amounts to is that true believers are a relative rarity on the current American political scene. What we have instead is any number of people, and organizations, who want to work “within the system”, and an isolated few who realize that the system is terminally corrupt and, basically, doomed (but not without many years, if not decades, of dying pains). Ron Paul supporters were, and continue to be, true believers, whereas political activity in Democrat and mainstream Republican circles is characterized by cynicism, resignation, and hunger for power – and little else. (Power without principles – ah yes, there's the ticket! Expect nothing but great and ennobling things to come out of that combination.)

In any case, in response to the blog post, a correspondent provided an excerpt having to do with the Jews, who were considered a bit of a pain (to the Romans, among others) because of their... we would say “dogmatic clinging”... to monotheism. The Roman emperor (a real person, but a fictitious letter in the novel) says, “In principle, Judaism has its place among the religions of the empire; in practice, Israel has refused for centuries to be one people among many others, with one god among the gods.” Sound familiar? In our time there are three “great” monotheistic religions, but are the Jews, as embodied in the State of Israel, any more willing than ever to be “one people among many others”? So it's about more than monotheism, clearly. And this was, of course, before the rise if Islam, so the quote “no other god has inspired his worshipers with disdain and hatred for those who pray at different altars” could apply, in our time, to radical Islam as well as to Christian Zionism (whose adherents are fully behind the war on Islam being waged by the U.S.).

So my reply to the response was as follows:

      Well, it does seem to be true that polytheistic religions are less "dogmatic", and inspire less fanaticism, than monotheistic ones.  (How do you talk about heresy if you have 1000 deities?)  On the other hand, there are plenty of religious wars and strife involving, e.g., Buddhists and Hindus -- although these may, in some cases, be political and economic struggles in disguise.  If you're contending for power, territory, resources, etc. you may have better luck appealing to articles of religious faith than simply to pragmatic ones; they are more inspiring (in the literal sense). 

      But there's another issue reflected in that passage, namely that of tolerance.  We assume that intolerance naturally goes along with dogmatism and fanaticism -- that they are basically the same thing.  And again, it's true that Buddhists are more likely to "live and let live".  But moderate monotheists tend to respect each others' religions, beliefs, and observances -- hence the term "people of the book", which the Moslems use.  I think the feeling here is that any monotheist is at least on the right track -- that they are closer to the truth than the polytheists, animists, etc. -- to say nothing of atheists.  And behind it may be the hope that a monotheist of another persuasion will eventually see the light and convert to your own.  (Christians -- Catholics at least -- have always prayed for the conversion of the Jews, up until recently when the practice was discouraged for political reasons.)  In any case, there is certainly plenty of "competition" among the monotheistic faiths, including persecution and shunning, e.g. when a Jew or Moslem converts to Christianity.  (When a Christian converts to Judaism, all we can do is pray for them to return to the fold -- that is, if we don't mind being politically incorrect.)  (You'll notice, BTW, that most of the Jews who object to Catholics praying for their conversion aren't particularly religious anyway -- so that gives it away as a political issue.)

      What is the basis for intolerance, by which I mean active discrimination against, or mistreatment of, people of another faith?  At best it can be seen as having their best interests -- e.g., salvation -- at heart.  If I refuse to rent a commercial space to a group of Satanists for their "church", it's not because I'm afraid of the competition; I really think that they are at grave risk if they persist in that way.  On the other hand, the Church has, not infrequently, said that God has a "plan" for the Jews -- tantalizingly referred to in Revelation, but not the one that the Evangelical "Christian Zionists" think, i.e. not that one involving the State of Israel.  (That state, as even some orthodox Jews point out, is a kind of red herring when it comes to salvation history, i.e. it's part of the problem.)  (The Church, as far as I know, has not said that God has a "plan" for the Moslems, any more than for the Protestants, since both can be considered heresies.  The "plan" would be to bring them back into the fold.) 

      What's more common, however, is for intolerance to have, again, a political or economic... or racial or ethnic... motive.  Again, you disguise something as something "higher", or more spiritual, and you get more support and more willingness to make sacrifices.  We tend to forget, in these times, that World War II was, among other things, thought of as a struggle of Christian civilization against the heathen.  (Even though the Germans weren't heathens, the Nazis were.)  And the whole history of colonization, westward expansion, foreign intervention, Manifest Destiny, etc. had this subtext.  It's wasn't only about "America" or about white people, in other words; it was about faith.  And I submit that one reason for our failure in Vietnam and our follies in the Middle East is that this element was missing [although the Christian Zionists certainly see the “War on Terror” as, basically, a war on Islam, and fully approve].

      So what we wind up with is a paradox of sorts -- getting back to the tolerance issue.  If we "tolerate" other religions on the basis of their right to exist and the rights of individual believers, then we are submitting to indifferentism, i.e. the idea that it doesn't really matter, ultimately, what religion people adhere to, or whether they adhere to any religion at all... that their fate is determined not by articles of faith but by (at best) the degree to which they live good lives, are "ethical", adhere to Natural Law, etc.  Or, in the climate of the present time, just being "nice" seems to suffice (and "niceness", of course, includes not being dogmatic, absolutist, sexist, homophobic, racist, etc. etc., and also being "tolerant" and some kind of socialist and/or liberal and/or Democrat).

      But what is indifferentism to the believer?  It would be a kind of exclusivity, like, my religion is essential for my salvation, and the rest of you can just go to hell.  (Does one detect a certain lack of charity there?)  Or, my religion is essential for my salvation, but the rest of you can believe anything you like and it won't matter.  (What sort of philosophical nonsense is that?)  So "tolerance" may have its limits, even for the most charitable believer.  On the other hand, I don't necessarily expect, but I would very much like, my own religion/belief system/observance to be tolerated by others -- by other monotheists, by polytheists, and, yes, by atheists and even liberals and socialists!  (This is a test that the Obama administration and the mainstream media fail time after time.)  So if I apply the Golden Rule, I'm going to give other faiths (or non-faiths) the benefit of the doubt even if I have doubts.  I'm going to trust that God has a plan, the way He had a plan for me when I was walking in darkness.  But for this, one has to balance charity (of the active, or even militant, sort) with patience.  God does not will that any be lost, but He also wills that we each make our own choices.  When one is standing on the sidelines of the great human drama, it's hard, at times, to not jump in and try to change history.  I guess we each have to make our own decision as to when, how, and how often to intervene. 

(end of reply)

It is always, it seems to me, about striking a balance between one's own beliefs – faithfully held – and the need to be patient with those who believe (or don't believe) otherwise. Better to set a good example than to appear “dogmatic”... attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar... meeting people at the point of their need... all notions that reflect this position. Using unmanned drones to bomb people who don't agree is certainly an aid to faith – of the directly opposing and radical sort. Rely on God to judge people according to their righteousness and adherence to Natural Law, but pray for their conversion as well. Even in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas advocated sitting down with the Jews and Muslims to debate issues of faith, rather than using the secular power as a weapon.

For further reading” I can suggest no better source than “Truth and Tolerance” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

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