Not toleration but a civic philosophy of reciprocity?


From “A History of Unitarianism; Socinianism and its Antecedents”, Vol. 2 by Earl Morse Wilbur (Boston, Beacon Press, 1945/47, p. 5)

It is intended here, therefore, to present not so much the history of a particular sect or form of Christian doctrine, as to consider broadly the development of a movement fundamentally characterized instead by its steadfast and increasing devotion to these three leading principles: first, complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds or confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition; third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.

From “A Letter Concerning Toleration” by John Locke (first edition, London, Awnsham Churchill, 1689, p. 5)

The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light. I will not here tax the pride and ambition of some, the passion and uncharitable zeal of others. These are faults from which human affairs can perhaps scarce ever be perfectly freed; but yet such as nobody will bear the plain imputation of, without covering them with some specious colour; and so pretend to commendation, whilst they are carried away by their own irregular passions. But, however, that some may not colour their spirit of persecution and unchristian cruelty with a pretence of care of the public weal and observation of the laws; and that others, under pretence of religion, may not seek impunity for their libertinism and licentiousness; in a word, that none may impose either upon himself or others, by the pretences of loyalty and obedience to the prince, or of tenderness and sincerity in the worship of God; I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.

From “What is wrong with tolerance: The ideal of religious tolerance has crippling flaws. It’s time to embrace a civic philosophy of reciprocity” by Simon Rabinovitch

The purpose of religious tolerance has always been, and remains, to maintain the power and purity of the dominant religion in a given state. Most dominant religions in most states today profess tolerance, but they also seem to feel especially threatened. Religious nationalist movements in the United States, Europe, India, Turkey and Israel all want to strengthen the relationship between state identity and the dominant religion. In each case, democratic elections have reinforced the significance of the majority’s religion to the meaning of state and nation, elevating the power of that religion. We can see a rising chauvinism in the mix of Catholicism and politics in eastern Europe today that portrays liberals and communists (often a code for ‘Jews’) as enemies. We can see a similar dynamic in the Turkish celebration of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. And we can also see it in the reemerging influence of Evangelicals in the US, as defenders of ‘religious liberty’ in their associations and businesses, and against ‘Sharia’ – as they imagine it – in the public sphere.


Not toleration but a civic philosophy of reciprocity?

In 1945 Earl Morse Wilbur offered up what he thought were the three defining principles of our, by then four centuries old, free-thinking, liberal religious tradition which are still often cited by us as being characteristic of our particular way of doing religion. As you heard in our readings they are freedom, reason and tolerance.

But, as with all such things, things change and time takes its toll and in the context of our own age and situation they are beginning to look very worn. Indeed, it seems to me that although, as an ideal, the first of them, “complete mental freedom in religion” remains reasonably serviceable (although I strongly resist the idea that any of us is actually capable of complete mental freedom because we are all so deeply and unconsciously shaped by many inherited misapprehensions and prejudices), the second and third principles, reason and tolerance, are in very much poorer states of repair and right now they are in need of some serious and significant reassessment.

Some of you will know that in recent months I’ve spent a fair bit of time reassessing the idea of “unrestricted use of reason in religion” so, today, I won’t explore this characteristic in any detail and will confine myself simply to noting the headline point I’ve been making.

Whilst the use of reason in religion remains absolutely vital it is a fundamental mistake to forget that reason has significant limitations. This is why I have returned on a number of recent occasions to Keats famous idea of “negative capability”. Keats, remember, did not use the word “negative” in a pejorative sense but, instead, to help us see that our potential as human beings is far from being completely defined by what we possess because we are clearly defined as much by what we do not — and perhaps never can — possess. Keats saw that, despite our strong determination to work everything out we continue to need to develop and nurture a very specific kind of active passivity that is a willingness to allow whatever is mysterious or doubtful to us to remain just that. Of course, one can and should at times and in the appropriate contexts probe these things — some of which will, in time, yield to our probing — but the likelihood is that there will always remain things which continue stubbornly to resist rational understanding and with which we will always need to live, humbly and patiently.

Today, however, what primarily concerns me is the third principle pointed to by Wilbur, namely, the “generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.”

To see the problem here it is important to remember that for us the origins of religious toleration lie in the religious conflicts which came out of the sixteenth-century Reformation and continued until the mid-seventeenth century during which the stamping out of heresy became to many people a positive indicator of true religious devotion. Eventually, as much thanks to sheer exhaustion as any deep display wisdom, it became clear to everyone that this state of affairs simply could not continue. However, and this is key, it was always and only the majority religion that was ever going to have the power and wherewithal legally to impose upon the minority religions the then new and life-saving idea of religious toleration.

I do not want to belittle or underplay the role the idea legally defined religious toleration played in the creation of our modern British society, not least of all because, considered retrospectively, to us it seems to have been a necessary condition for the ending of large-scale religious violence in our neck of the woods. The enactment of legislation legally to force upon a whole nation religious toleration has undoubtedly saved millions of lives including many within of our own minority Socinian and Unitarian communities and it allowed us to worship in freedom and without fear of our lives. This should not be forgotten. But this undoubted benefit came with a high cost in the form of the strengthening of the majority state religion firstly via the Corporation Act of 1661, and then the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. Together they insisted that only those who were taking communion in the established Church of England were deemed to be eligible to serve in any public office. In a nutshell toleration excluded us from having any role in the day to day running of our own, wider, civic communities.

I hope this helps you see that from its very beginnings our idea of religious toleration was conceived primarily as a one-way relationship between the tolerating and the tolerated, a relationship which explicitly attempted to keep tolerated minority groups outside of full membership of the dominant, majority group.

It is also very important to note — although in passing today — that this model of religious toleration was then exported to many places around the globe thanks to the expansion of the British Empire into north America, India, Australia and huge parts of Africa and the Middle East between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries.

But notice I said a moment ago that an attempt was made promote religious toleration by using this legal and, quite literally, divisive model. I say “attempted” because we now know that on the ground the legal division created between the majority and the excluded minorities, though very real, was never as watertight as many people (sometimes on both sides of the divide) hoped it would be. Instead, it was always a leaky affair and this allowed, albeit very slowly, a process of creative religious, social, political and cultural exchange to occur between the majority group and the minority groups which, over time, radically changed everyone in some fashion or another. As time unfolded the exchanges became ever more widespread and increasingly dynamic and this, in turn, meant that the division became ever more leaky, so much so that when the Test Acts were finally repealed in 1828 and 1829 very little public comment or protest was made. This was because, by then, the division — or at least massive sections of it — had simply dissolved away to almost nothing. 

Now, in what might at first seem to be an outrageous non-sequitur, many of you know that I am very interested in ghosts, not because I believe in them but because when they are explored as cultural constructs they help reveal to us what is haunting and, therefore, unhealthily and, even apparently spookily, still shaping any given culture or time.

I mention this because it seems to me that although the legal division set up by the Corporation Act, the two Test Acts and the Toleration Act of 1688/1689 has dissolved or died, its ghost, still bearing the name and ghostly memories of seventeenth-century “Toleration”, continues unhealthily to haunt us.

By this I mean, often without realising it, we are still tending to frame our contemporary relationships with other religious minorities primarily, not in terms of reciprocal interchange, but in terms of one-way relationships between the tolerating and the tolerated which, by default remember, attempts in some fashion to keep tolerated groups outside full membership of the dominant, majority group.

As a minority, liberal religious tradition the major difference for us between the seventeenth-century and now is that, today, we consider ourselves to belong to (or are at least completely integrated within) the majority group. This means that we, along with many others in the majority, can now all too often and too easily, fall prey to seeing ourselves as the insiders who are in need of protecting ourselves from dangerous outsiders. In today’s increasingly unpleasant and febrile national populist context, these dangerous religious outsiders are, for the most part, not the kind of minority Christian groups such as was our own, but minority groups from other religions with Jews and Muslims being singled out as particularly problematic.

This developing situation, frankly, scares me witless not least of all because we know where this kind of thing can lead and, alas, does seem to be leading once again.

As a minority religious group ourselves which still has in certain congregations and individuals a long institutional memory it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to speak out as best we can and say that the seventeenth-century conception of toleration didn’t work — at least not as its devisors thought it would — because the central pillar upon which it rested — namely a putatively clear division in the civic world between the majority insiders and the minority outsiders — never could work. This is because there is nothing in reality — whether conceived in scientific of cultural terms — that is not, ultimately, porous and leaky. It is because of this leakiness that despite attempts to stop it occurring there is only and always occurring religious, social, political and cultural exchange in the civic sphere. One can never hold this tide back — as wise old King Cnut knew. Given this isn’t it about time we as a community laid to rest the ghost of seventeenth-century toleration and began to encourage amongst us the development of a new conception of toleration that is, from the outset, an explicitly porous and leaky concept?

As Simon Rabinovitch, an assistant professor of history at Boston University who has written on this subject notes, it needs a new name because the ideal of religious tolerance has been shown to have crippling flaws. For him this is an indication that we are entering a “time to embrace a civic philosophy of reciprocity”.

The need for this kind of exchange is particularly pressing at the moment because we find ourselves in a rapidly developing situation where “one set of ideals (for diversity, pluralism and exchange) is being challenged by another (for intolerance or, at best, a return to a highly contingent tolerance)” and this, in turn means that “a space has opened for a new civic philosophy” — that of reciprocity.

Rabinovitch feels that for this concept to develop further we need to begin “to teach it, study it and write about it” and this address is simply my own first, tentative and exceedingly modest contribution to the project. But, most of all, he thinks we should all be talking about it in a way that helps shift us “away from a binary vocabulary that counters intolerance with calls for tolerance, and toward a discussion of shared histories and mutual obligations.”

Rabinovitch begins to draw his own essay to a close by pointing out that in The Constitution of the French Second Republic which was “enacted during the wave of democratic revolutions known as the Springtime of the Peoples, which swept through Europe in 1848” we find “one simple article that grants no right or power to either the state or the people. Article VI states only: ‘Reciprocal duties bind the citizens to the Republic and the Republic to the citizens.’”

Rabinovitch then concludes by stateing his feeling that

Reciprocity makes this claim but goes further: the more we acknowledge what reciprocally binds each group to the society, and the society to each group, the better off we will all be.

I can’t help but feel he is right. It is, surely, time to lay the ghost of seventeenth-century religious toleration to rest and begin, instead, to conceive and bring to birth new and creative way of being together in our differences, namely, a civic philosophy of reciprocity.


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