On Inter-Religious Dialogue I: Religious Liberty and Tolerance

On Inter-Religious Dialogue I: Religious Liberty and Tolerance June 29, 2007

Ideologues tend to use simplistic-sounding notions as a means to control their audience. For example, they can say something like, “error has no rights.” What would one mean by this? Obviously, it would mean “what you say is wrong, and you have no right to discuss it.” Of course, they obscure many facts, such as the difference between a person who has rights and ideas which do not; error has no rights because error is not a person. While an erroneous idea has no rights, a person has the right to be in error. In saying this, it must be understood what this means – we are discussing the right for someone to hold to whatever ideas they want, not to act immorally. There needs to be limitations as to how one can act, but this is not necessarily related to their beliefs; one who believes the truth can act inappropriately, and one who believes in an error can act correctly. But the right to a belief, and even the right to discuss one’s beliefs, is a right given to persons, and has nothing to do with whether what they believe is true or false.

It seems that ideologues tend to hold simplistic views about the truth, and they really do not understand what truth is, nor that we tend to obtain it through dialogue with others. Anyone who seeks for truth has a right and even a need to discuss with others what they believe; in that dialogue, they can then encounter what others know or understand. Both sides are challenged from this, and both sides are able to learn something new from it. They can see things in a new perspective, and indeed, there will be an opportunity for all sides in a dialogue to help each other overcome each other’s errors in this fashion. Correction, when it happens, is not to be seen as a one-sided benefit in dialogue; it is likely that all sides in a discussion, listening to each other and showing respect to each other, will learn and develop as a result of this dialogue. Truth is established in communion, not by individuals seeking to prove themselves better than everyone else “Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.” Dignitatis Humanae. Vatican translation (Vatican: 1965), 3.

To silence people who hold onto some error is to put a stranglehold on truth, because it would silence everyone. How would one go about determining truth or falsehood, even if one believed that one in error has no right to speak? Truth transcends human abilities to comprehend it; even those who believe they possess the truth, when examined closely, will be found to be holding onto various errors. Ideologues, of whatever persuasion, have a difficulty in accepting this limitation. They will say how “simple” truth is. If others do not see truth the same way, it’s because something is wrong with them. They might not be smart enough to see the truth, or they are just too obstinate to change their minds. Therefore, they have nothing substantial to say, and should therefore not be given the opportunity to say anything. Ideologues believe that silencing their opposition is the best way to keep truth alive.

Christians have had to deal with such ideologues since the beginning of Christian history. Romans believed they had the truth. Great intellectuals such as Pliny, Celsus or Porphyry had no qualms in silencing Christians. They disturbed public order and contradicted the well-established “truths” of the Roman Empire. Pliny, for example, tried to treat people accused of being Christian with a favor: he would ask them if they were a Christian; if they denied it, he let them off. If they did not, he gave them a couple more chances to deny being a Christian, warning them what will happen to them if they were indeed a Christian. If they persisted, he thought punishment was justified because they stubbornly held onto error (cf. Pliny, Letters10.96).

It was in such a milieu that the early Christian apologists such as St Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Tertullian, St Clement of Alexandria, and Origen wrote. They had to contend not only for the truth of their teaching, but for their freedom to believe what was against the norm, and what seemed to the Romans to be a silly, sectarian faith criticizing the truths of Rome. They said that one must judge a person by their deeds, not their beliefs. Even if their words might be challenging to established norms, that should not be enough to convict; only if they have done something truly evil should they be punished. Thus, we see St Justin suggesting that one who is to be charged for a crime should only be charged for real wickedness, and not for the beliefs they hold. “Wherefore we demand that the deeds of all those who are accused to you be judged, in order that each one who is convicted may be punished as an evil-doer, and not as a Christian; and if it is clear that any one is blameless, that he may be acquitted, since by the mere fact of his being a Christian he does no wrong” St Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin. in ANF:1. ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), ch. 7.

Athenagoras continues with this line of thought in his A Plea for the Christians to Marcus Aurelius. After recounting a diversity of beliefs and practices allowed in Rome (and no one can say they were all true), he points out that Christians have been especially ridiculed and punished for their beliefs. His point is clear. If an error in belief is what causes one to be convicted, why then are only Christians being punished? He suggests that there was a considerable amount of hearsay used against Christians, charging them of doing various evil deeds (is this not the way many practitioners of many “weird-looking” religions are treated today?); he counters this by explaining Christian morality and showing it to be superior to the average Roman. If a Christian committed a real crime, Athenagoras believed that they should be tried and convicted: for that crime, not for being Christian. “If, indeed, any one can convict us of a crime, be it small or great, we do not ask to be excused from punishment, but are prepared to undergo the sharpest and most merciless inflictions. But if the accusation relates merely to our name—and it is undeniable, that up to the present time the stories told about us rest on nothing better than the common undiscriminating popular talk, nor has any Christian been convicted of crime—it will devolve on you, illustrious and benevolent and most learned sovereigns, to remove by law this despiteful treatment, so that, as throughout the world both individuals and cities partake of your beneficence, we also may feel grateful to you, exulting that we are no longer the victims of false accusation” Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians. in ANF:2. ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), ch. 2.

The earliest Christians had to work to establish toleration in Rome, and indeed, under St Constantine the Great, they got it. Christians had not worked merely for the toleration of Christianity alone; they wanted toleration in general. This is why St Constantine did not, in his conversion, silence non-Christians; he was guided by Ossius, Lactantius, Eusebius, and other Christian advisers to proclaim religious liberty in Rome. This did not mean the state needs to fund all religious groups (as the Donatists were to find out), nor did it mean a religion needs to tolerate all possible views as being acceptable within its own boundaries (so Christianity itself did not have to tolerate those who stand against the Apostolic Tradition as Arius was to find out), but it did mean that the state itself should be tolerant of a diversity of religious beliefs, and people should be tried, not for their religious beliefs, but only according to the deeds they have done.

We know that such ideologues are not to be found in the past alone. We have seen it in modern times, and it does not have to be related to religious beliefs, as McCarthyism showed us. Often, however, ideologues mix political power with religious overtones, such as the kind we see coming out of the Middle East. Many in power over there hold onto a specific version of Islam as the truth, and they declare, like all ideologues, that only their tradition has any rights. Of course, it must be understood that Islam, like Christianity, is filled with a variety of beliefs and positions, and political ideologues do not actually represent the majority position in Islam (currently, historically, theologically, or philosophically). Political ideologues in Middle Eastern countries must not be confused by non-Muslims as representatives of Islam as a whole (even if many Christian ideologues want to suggest this is the case). They are only representatives of their own personal faith; indeed, it is a faith which is often formed in the rejection of other forms of Islam more than anything else. Pope Benedict wants religious freedom, as is proper, in Middle Eastern countries and believes this would help serve as a foundation for peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims. However, many Christians think this works one way. We should be given freedom over there because “we have the truth” but Muslims should not be given such freedom in Christian lands. They want religious freedom for Christians alone, no one else; what, truly, differs them from their Muslim counter-parts?

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa saw how divisive religion can be, and how easily it is used to justify unseemly acts. He did not, as a result, reject religion. While many used religion to generate such violence in the world, it was only through abusing religious principles that such violence could be justified. For example, he pointed out that, “All who either inflict or suffer this persecution are motivated only from their belief that such action or passion is expedient for salvation and is pleasing to their Creator” Nicholas of Cusa, De Pace Fidei. trans. Boris Jakim (Minneapolis: Arthur J Banning Press, 1994), ch. 3. The road to hell is paved with good intensions. While it is good to desire the salvation of others, it is never good to depersonalize those same people you want to save to justify your actions to them. In his important work, Nicholas said that there was need for inter-religious dialogue and gave an outline as to how he thought this dialogue could go. He believed dialogue should be used to overcome religious hostility and work for peace. Throughout the work, he constantly shows his Christian faith: he believed that Christianity contained the fullness of truth, and in dialogue this would be discovered by others. Yet, there are many questions as to what he sees will happen in that dialogue. For example, he believed that other religious traditions were, at their heart, reflections of the Christian truth, and so were not extraordinarily different from the Christian faith in their essence. While he hoped dialogue would develop a one world faith based upon Christianity, he also saw that this faith would still hold a great diversity of religious rites based upon the traditional values and practices of the different religious faiths. Because of this, many question what he means, was he an inclusivist or a pluralist? Such questions miss the point and fundamental importance of the work: we are called to engage in respectful dialogue with people of other religious traditions, and in that dialogue peace can be had. That dialogue requires respect and toleration of the other because it is only through that respect we can get someone to dialogue with us.

Indeed, we can see a history of such dialogue and with it respect (and disagreement) with non-Christians throughout Christian history. St Justin Martyr called Socrates a Christian before Christ, because he “followed the Logos.” St Thomas Aquinas read Arab philosophers; while he disagreed with their religious beliefs, he nonetheless held them in high respect to dialogue and debate with them – and indeed, would often quote Arab philosophers when they favored one of his beliefs. Tolerance does not mean accepting error, or not responding to what one perceives to be an error, but dialoguing with the person who holds such an error, to show them respect as a human person even as you would want them to show respect to you (especially because they would view you as being in error, as well). “The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” Dignitatis Humanae, 2. Religious freedom is a right which must be acknowledged: when it is suppressed, we find that violence and hostility occurs. Here it would not be religion but its unjust suppression that is the cause of violence, because it goes against the fundamental dignity of the human person that a human will, in such a situation, fight back, acting as if in self defense.

Tolerance is not about the rejection of truth, but by providing the means by which people can discover it in their lives. It is only in mutual respect that dialogue can really take place. And this dialogue is vital for the future of humanity because it will help counter the religious violence and bigotry we see coming from people in all religious traditions. “We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity. The defence of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization” Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Journey to Cologne on the Occasion of the XX World Youth Day (Vatican: 2005).

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