What Tolerance Needs to Mean (WPF series)

A couple of weeks ago, I stayed up till 1am talking to a man about religion. Fun times! I was staying over night at a hostel in northern California, and the man I ended up dorming with was into all sorts of religions. He had stayed at a Benedictine monastery for a time, studied under a yogi, taken martial arts with another spiritual mentor, and so on. It was completely fascinating hearing his stories and discussing our beliefs – dialoguing with someone who had the same kind of nerdy enthusiasm for spirituality that I had. I, of course, held to my conservative, orthodox Catholic beliefs. He, on the other hand, managed to piece together a spiritual outlook on life that pulled together something of everything. He had great respect for Jesus, but he thought the Eucharist had simply a placebo effect. He loved the mystical experiences of the monks, but the arguments of the church fathers on issues like Christ’s divinity and humanity left him cold. It was the experience of spirituality that mattered, not the inadequate descriptions of it that theologians write afterwards. He came across as being very tolerant of many religions – finding something good in all of them and feeling he had penetrated their core, gotten to the root of them.

But the next morning, as I ruminated on our conversation, it hit me that the man wasn’t tolerant at all. In fact, he probably showed the greatest disrespect I had ever experienced from one man towards the Christian faith. I don’t mean to say he meant to. And I would rather talk to a man like him than a militant atheist, for example, but still, in a way he showed greater disrespect for my faith than even a militant atheist.

How? Here’s how: instead of seeing Christ for who Christ really said He was in the Gospels and then either accepting Him or rejecting Him, my friend that night acted as though Jesus and Jesus’ experience of God were just partly true, and not really at all in the way Jesus intended it. He showed a kind of benign condescension towards Jesus and His teachings – and then towards the subsequent followers who went on to interpret Him to the rest of the world. It’s the kind of condescension we give children when they think Santa Claus is coming. We love the childlike faith. We adore the excitement and optimism. And we hope one day that they grow up and realize it’s all bull shit.

And my friend that night isn’t alone in his views. This is what “diversity”, “multiculturalism”, and “freedom of religion” mean today. It doesn’t mean that each religious tradition – whether it be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or what have you – has it’s own say, plays by it’s own rules, and is respected for what it really is and really teaches; instead, it means that each religious tradition is looked down upon by the overarching religion of “secularism” and judged accordingly. Catholic institutions can have their buildings and liturgy, but are told that they must pay for free or cheap contraception when it goes completely against the moral fiber of the church. Muslim women in France can follow their religious beliefs all they want so long as they don’t follow their religious belief that says to keep one’s head-covering on.

And of course, what inevitably happens is “diversity” slowly begins to mean nothing. We don’t have strong men and women who hold to their convictions and discuss – even argue – them with vigor. Rather, one view takes hold and bullies all the rest into submission.

In answer to this, the Catholic way is the true way of religious tolerance. I know that sounds laughable, at best. I mean, we did conduct crusades and inquisitions. I haven’t forgotten. But every person looking from the outside at the Catholic Church ought to know that those events and many others served to make the church wiser. Here’s a quote from the Pope on this issue:

“The Synod Fathers spoke of the importance of respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right. This includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.’ A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions.” -Article 255. in Evangelii Gaudium (italics added by me)

In other words, put those hijabs back on, throw on that faintly offensive bumper sticker about the rapture, and stop cowering. I can get behind that! But at the same time, it sounds pie-in-the-sky-ish, too, does it not? Everyone holding hands and singing “kumbaya” together as we celebrate our own violently differing beliefs? I’ll admit, it sounds that way to me. What happens when “manifesting one’s beliefs in public” amounts to flying a plane into a sky-scraper or blowing one’s self up in a marketplace? That’s a very valid question.

But to be sure, in America and probably in most developed countries around the world, that is not the problem. We more often than not sin in the other extreme. It’s disconcerting to hear people in the media speak of fundamentalist Christians with as much disdain and fear as Muslim terrorists – as though there were hardly any similarity. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian myself, but the two could never be lumped together in my mind as being the same kind of “threat to America.”  It’s also disconcerting to hear Christians speak of public schools as though they were dens of the devil and to make sweeping statements about how we need to “return to our Christian roots.” I always want to say, “Whether we were ever a Christian nation or not, we aren’t now, so get over it.”

The point being this: we must make room for everyone to the extent that we can. When someone is forced to sin against their conscience, no matter the issue, we ought to care – even if we think that conscience is ill-informed. Commanding the Catholic church to give free contraception against it’s moral teaching should bother everyone – Catholic or not – just as much as forcing an atheist to attend Mass ought to bother everyone – Catholic or not. Precisely because I am Catholic, I need to defend the right of even FACTS, an atheistic “church” group that meets in a nearby city, to have a fair say in the public sphere.

I feel weird just saying that, but maybe that’s why I’m not the Pope and Jorge Borgoglio is. And maybe it shows how far I still need to go before I become like Christ.

Still, I wonder, what do you think? Am I going too far? Am I not going far enough? Am I reading Pope Francis wrong?


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