Toleration and Religion in a Liberal Democratic Society by Prof. Andrew Fuyarchuk

2007 Summer-Fall - A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fedelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Andrew Fuyarchuk,  MA, ABD

Toleration and Religion in a Liberal Democratic Society
More than 300 years ago in A Letter Concerning Toleration John Locke argued that religion must be removed from the public table of discussion in order to ensure peaceable living. Since, according to Locke, each religion claimed to be orthodox unto its self, and hence, recognized no authority higher than its own, if left to shape public discourse, religious cleavages and conflict were inevitable.1 The Thirty Years War on the continent and squabbles between Catholics and Protestants over the throne in Britain doubtless influenced Locke’s decision to confine questions of faith to the soul and the private sphere alone and to thereby, within the public domain, tolerate all faiths. However cogent Locke’s views may have been in 1689 they have, as a result of developments he could not have foreseen, contributed to social pathologies which in turn call for a rethinking about the place of religion within a democratic society.
The public space has since the 17th century been shaped by industrialization, urbanization, and related social developments such as consumerism and the migration of mechanistic and bureaucratic processes from the political superstructure to interpersonal relations. The result is indifference toward the expression of religion, and thus, toward moral and spiritual development. The pervasive
thwarting of the spirit contributes to the following
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pathology: feelings of indignation amongst those who experience injustice and a natural desire for revenge. But their thirst for revenge is unlikely to be sated when the aforementioned processes rob them of avenues through which to resolve differences face to face and hence, rob them of self-determination insofar as misunderstandings persist to affect their life. Yet as Nietzsche observed the spirit that has been thus thwarted is not impotent. The impulse to fulfill itself persists and hence, it becomes creative.2 In this case there are roughly two alternatives stemming from the same predicament.
On the one hand, the broken spirit may resign itself toward, and then enthusiastically embrace, the very norms that oppress it i.e., the mundane existence created by a spiritually impoverished liberal democratic ethos. On the other hand,muting the spirit may motivate it to create an “afterworld” wherein there is a complete identification between the victim and god. In both cases, whether refuge is taken in a shopping mall utopia, or transcendentalism, there transpires precisely what Locke had thought would never happen; civil violence, not because religion is a public matter, but because it isn’t.3
Civil violence is a probable outcome of a situation wherein the antagonists are reactionary, and hence, find justification for their existence in opposition to an “other.” The hyper- consumer is indiscriminately hostile toward those of a religious orientation, even moderates, because they exhibit the very values the consumer is attempting to repress, deny, and escape; the religious zealot is likewise antagonistic toward the secularist, even if they are simply buying groceries, because they exhibit satisfaction with a life that
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contradicts the tenants of transcendentalism i.e., “other worldliness.” Nietzsche’s thoughts give voice to the logic internal to both camps, “I am good because you are evil.” Murder and self-destruction are the outcome of squandering a life for an ideal in order to take revenge upon the spirit (others and one’s own) that has been silenced normatively, socially, politically and culturally. The only possibility for peace within this context resides in exhaustion. There may well accrue to the spirit that turns in upon itself a prolonged battle between the impulse to genuinely contribute to the formation of community, and the revenge to which it is reversed by repeatedly hitting a wall of mediocrity until it has simply spent its energy completely. Peace arrives by default.
There are doubtless other pathological conditions, both personal and social, both physiological and psychological, that can be traced to the suppression of the spirit, or what I think of as a divinely inspired life force.4 Yet the picture is not quite so bleak when one considers cultural developments in an age of globalization that are at once disturbing and hopeful for the highest hope. Despite Locke’s attempt to make religion invisible its growth within the public sphere has continued unabated over the last one hundred years. Mosques, churches, temples, synagogues, speckle the urban landscape. In an increasingly multicultural environment pluralist sensibilities, by which I mean the capacity to understand oneself and others from another position, proliferate.5 Locke’s thesis about religion being a source of violence is self-evidently, but nevertheless empirically and verifiably, false. But the deeper question is how to foster dialogue, and thereby make room for moral development, amongst those who have been harmed. In this
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instance, there are two alternatives to consider – redemption through an act of human will, exemplified by Zarathustra, and through faith, exemplified by Christians.
Zarathustra suffers from a spirit that is turned inward against itself because he lives in a society of bourgeois complacency. He attempts to redeem himself from what is smallest, his own feelings of envy and revenge, and their worst manifestation, an attitude of resentment, by accepting them; he says “yes” to the past’s “it was” by convincing himself that “he willed it thus.” Affirming the eternal return is essentially Zarathustra’s way of overcoming “the spirit of gravity.” However, it is unlikely that Zarathustra is successful because his will is not directed toward a transcendent ground. He instead repudiates the latter, I propose, because it entails precisely what the criterion of a rational argument cannot accept – uncertainty and ceding of control to “another” authority. Zarathustra consequently relies solely upon his own will for salvation from his past. In a sense it is rational to dissolve the weight of the past by affirming that he willed it thus; however, in another sense the achievement of this rational act depends upon the capacity of his imagination to forget the fact that the past cannot be eradicated. Zarathustra is thus divided between the competing authority of his reason and fantasy; between accepting what is “smallest” because it is logical to do so, and forgetting that the past, in fact, cannot be changed, except, psychologically or with the imagination, which negates what he knows is true by reason. Zarathustra’sredemptive act is the manifestation of a schizophrenic position that is, not surprisingly, idiotic. But the “dancer’s” life is nevertheless instructive.6 His failure to redeem himself highlights the Christian alternative.
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Zarathustra believes that he is a sovereign individual who can save himself. But this is not possible because he is his own worst enemy; he is simply, and obviously, fallible. The pretense of ascending beyond good and evil to the position of the eternal return, essentially a position of objectivity from which he can look down upon himself, is futile. But then again, Zarathustra’s tragic flaw is useful. Contrary to the image that he projects, Zarathustra is a rationalist and a coward. His commitment to reason explains his reticence, indeed refusal, to accept that which is beyond reason. At the outermost limits of the intellect is the unknown and a gift of the infinite. In order to overcome his own past Zarathustra must therefore accept that he can neither understand nor control everything that happens to him, and, that that is good. For the spirit that has been squelched under the weight of mediocrity, “the termite state,” the “satisfait,” “the “spirit of gravity” or the “last man,” the sole route from out of the madness to which Zarathustra succumbs is an act of faith by which I mean placing trust in God’s grace, and living with utter and complete concern for Him. Faith in a transcendent Being is thus the redemptive act that can save Zarathustra from the resentment nourished in a secular society.
In order to restore the fruits of democracy from the depths into which it has fallen by suppressing what is highest about human nature it is necessary to restore the proper relationship between stuff and the divine milieu wherein a vision of hope and moral development replaces efficiency, utility and obedience. The challenges are manifold. At the very least truth is personal and cannot be lived without others, but the impediments to this are socially and
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structurally systematic. Thus is the challenge not to solely to console ourselves in the company of other believers, however rejuvenating that may be, but to assert within the allegedly secular sphere critical self-consciousness and love. Through this two-fold dialectic that includes a negative (critical) and positive (love or nurturing) mode one isremembering “the Real” for which others long irrespective of how much their commitment to mere toleration in Locke’s sense of the word has created amnesia.
1. “For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. Whatsoever any church believes it believes to be true, and the contrary thereupon it pronounces to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines, and the purity of their worship, is on both sides equal, nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople, or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined. The decision of that question belongs only to the Supreme Judge of all men.” A Letter Concerning Toleration (ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus. London, 1991), 24.
2. “It was suffering, and incapacity that created all afterworlds – this and that brief madness of bliss that is experienced only by those who suffer most deeply. Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann New York: Viking Press, 1966), 31. Also, “I say unto you: your self itself wants to die and turns away from
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life. It is no longer capable of what it would do above all else: to create beyond itself. That is what it would do above all else, that is its fervent wish.” Ibid., p. 35.
3. My intention is not simply to depict a “type” but rather, to indicate the concrete and particular cases where the types become manifest. Pim Fortuyn is an instance of someone who idealizes bourgeois culture, and, Mohammed Bouyeri of someone who becomes fanatical about transcendentalism, Islam. Both are portrayed in Murder in Amsterdam. (Buruma, Ian. New York: Penguin Press, 2006). My interpretation of the condition of a resentful spirit joins Nietzche’s psychological insights to the malice and violence between the Dutch and Arabs related by Buruma in his book.
4. Philosophers have spoken of the same phenomenon, a life force, but have not attributed to it the status of “divine” or ontologically distinct from the beings it animates. I am thinking of David Suzuki’s references to “vital force,” John Dewey’s “compulsion” in Art as Experience, and Suzanne Langer’s “impulse” in Mind. Nietzsche of course speaks of“will to power.” It requires a longer argument but I consider these symbols of the desire for life carried by the Spirit.
5. I am thinking of the pluralism that Diana Eck illustrates in Encounter God. (Boston; Beacon Press, 2003). She enriches her Christianity through her intimate experiences abroad with Hinduism yet at the same time, like Hick, attests to the common ground amongst all faiths. (A Christian Theology of Religion. John Hick. Kentucky; John Knox Press, 1995.) There is thus a dialectical movement between one’s own position and that of a transcendent
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“Real” of which one’s own is but one manifestation. Eck and Hick provide a metaphysical ground to the moral sentiments (empathy) urged by Adam Smith in A Theory of the Moral Sentiments, which itself, as Smith was well aware, is congruent with the ethics of late Stoicism (Seneca) and Epicureanism (understanding another from their position and loving thy neighbour as oneself).
6. This is obviously a very condensed interpretation of the conclusion of Zarathutra’s journey. It would require anotheressay altogether to support the argument thoroughly. My intention here is to point out that Zarathustra’s aim to redeem himself is a function of his overblown confidence in his will (courage) as it has been assimilated to reason severed from the Good i.e., objective reason. His denial of the “afterworld” thus has less to do with a desire to “return to the meaning of the earth” than it does with his clinging to the authority of his intellect to grasp the highest truth. When his wisdom flies away with his pride, when his snake and eagle have left him, he has become a forgetful child but this is madness, not because it is innocence and joyful spontaneity, but because his own hubris forces him into a position that is self-contradictory – he cannot accept the eternal return while still being subject, in fact, to the determination of time; he cannot accept the determinism of the return while still being human unless he forgets his mortality, his reason and his pride which is not a return to innocence, but simply folly he chooses. If freedom consists of affirming a contradiction that is moreover existentially impossible then “freedom” is an act of forgetting, for instance, that one has a conscience, lives in a society, with others, with moral obligations and needs. It is completely loathsome.