Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tolerance and the Two Kinds of Understanding

If we were to take a look at the movement for interreligious dialogue within the Catholic Church and question it as to the meaning of its existence, its adherents would probably say that the movement was there to promote understanding among members of different faiths. Many would stop there, accept this as an acceptable answer and move on. But ought we to let it go that easily? What does it mean when interfaith promoters talk about understanding? And, most importantly, is “understanding” another religion an intrinsic good?
The purpose of fostering understanding is to build tolerance between persons of divergent religious traditions. I do not have anything against the concept of tolerance, if we mean it in the sense that we ought not to be killing and persecuting one another based on our religious beliefs. From the Catholic side, it is Church dogma that baptism cannot be forced and that conversions must be based in genuine love of God and desire to obey and know Christ. Tolerance is good, in that sense. 

However, tolerance is not the same as acceptance, and the concept of tolerance in itself has a kind of resentful aspect to it. For example, if I say to you that I can “tolerate” your presence at my home, have I paid you a compliment or insulted you? What if I am at your house eating dinner, and your wife asks me how her cooking is. I say, “It’s tolerable.” What I am saying with these statements? Do you see the negative connotation?

I approve of tolerance if we keep this negative understanding of it in mind: when we say we “tolerate” another faith, it is because there is no means of positively getting rid of it (save by converting everyone), and therefore we have to learn to live with it. In a perfect world, we would go out and have converted all of the Muslims and Hindus and pagans and the rest of the motley nations of the earth. But, that has not yet happened, and since we are still this side of Heaven, we must learn to “tolerate” the existence of these other false religions. That’s all tolerance means to me.

But (say the proponents of interfaith dialogue), the more we dialogue, the more we need a tolerance that is based not in simple acceptance of the existence of other religions as an unchangeable fact, but a tolerance that is based on mutual acceptance of religious traditions as valuable in themselves. Again, this word “acceptance” can mean a variety of things. What do we mean by acceptance? I can accept that people believe Buddhism is true. I can accept that there exist people in the world called Buddhists who prefer to live and worship according to a certain standard of belief. But, what I cannot do is accept that Buddhism is correct, or that it is good, or that its adherents are better off sticking with Buddhism rather than Christianity. 

But unfortunately this is exactly what people means when they say that we must learn to accept each other. 

But why should we accept? How does dialogue and understanding lead to acceptance? Here lies the biggest logical error of the whole argument: proponents of interreligious dialogue wrongly assume that just because we learn more about something that we will therefore like it better.

The logical argument runs like this: we need to dialogue with people of other faiths so that we can learn about each other. Once we learn about each other and our beliefs, we will have an understanding of one another’s religions. Once we understand one another’s religions, we will see that they are not that different from us, and that we ought to admire the similarities and accept the differences. If we can learn to accept differences, then we can have true tolerance, and tolerance will lead to a more peaceful world and happy coexistence between religions. 

This line of thought is riddled with flaws. First of all, I would look at the end: a peaceful world and happy coexistence between faiths. Since when is world peace an absolute good? Since when is earthly, temporal peace something that we look to as the goal of our interactions with other religions? What about conversion? What about Jesus' warning that “I come not to bring peace, but a sword?” 

Second, I would disagree with the classic interfaith premise that all religions share so much in common that we ought to just focus on the similarities. G.K. Chesterton said people often say that all religions look different but in reality are the same, but the truth is that all religions actually look the same and are different in essence. All religions have altars, vestments, candles, prayers, holy days, etc. It is the philosophical and doctrinal elements of religions that are truly different, and it is these that can lead one astray. Why converge around similarities in the accidentals if it is the essential that can destroy the soul? 

And finally, why ought we to care about bringing about world peace or dialoguing with people of other faiths at all? World peace is not a good enough incentive for me, because I am not interested in a pax mundi but only a pax Christi. As Jesus said,"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Christ specifically says that His peace is not the same kind as the peace of the world. But that is exactly the type of peace promulgated by the interreligious dialogue crowd.

I think the biggest error in this line of thinking is the idea that just because we understand something better means we will like it better. Since when does getting to know something better mean you like it more? Learning about something can also make you like something, sure, but it can also make you like something less

To use a classic example: prior to World War II, the Allies continued appeasing Hitler when he tried repeatedly to take more land and get more aggressive, as the famous “Peace in Our Time” speech by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 demonstrated. Post-war reflection has come to the conclusion that the Allies appeased Hitler because they did not understand what kind of a man he was and what Nazism was. In other words, tolerance and getting along was the product of ignorance, not understanding (and in this case, it had disastrous consequences). It was only when men came along who understood Nazism for what it was, that Europe found the courage to fight. In this scenario, we could say that a greater understanding of Hitler and the Nazis led to a greater loathing for them rather than tolerance.

A personal example: I have to admit that until recently I knew nothing about Hinduism. Furthermore, I was content to not know anything about Hinduism. Why? Because I know enough: that it is a false religion and that India is a horrible place to live. But recently I read a very exhaustive, 500-page work on India by a secular author. It covered the religious aspects of India, the in’s and out’s of Hinduism, the tradition of Indian philosophy, the social system of India, the doctrines and practices of Buddhism and everything one could possible want to know about the Indian subcontinent. I now feel very educated about India since reading this book, but let me tell you something else: now that I know all about India, I have never been so disgusted with Hinduism as I am now that I have studied it. Understanding did not make me appreciate it. In fact, it was knowledge and understanding that facilitated this. Before, I disliked Hinduism and knew little about it. Now, I have studied it, and find it utterly repelling and loathsome.

So then, is understanding a good thing or a bad thing? Again, it depends on our definition. Too often “understand” is taken to mean sympathize, empathize or even agree with, so that to “understand” Islam is to sympathize with it and feel guilty about attempts to convert Muslims. This is a terrible way to use the word. I will tell you how I think we ought to use the word “understanding”: in a way that denotes complete and intricate knowledge of a thing, the way the Scholastics used the word. In this sense, I hope Catholic come to understand Hinduism. I hope we really “learn” about Islam and find ourselves “understanding” it very well. Perhaps when we have studied Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and all the rest of the demon-worshipping religions out there, we will truly “understand” how wretched they are and how bad the world needs Christ. I could stand for some more of that kind of understanding.

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Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

What you said about 'tolerance' and 'understanding' rings true to me. If one studies another religion and holds firmly to the Catholic faith while doing so, a true Catholic will understand the falsity of that religion. He will only tolerate a false religion in as far it does not have a negative impact on his faith and the society he lives in. A large part of the history of our faith is one of contending with heresies that sprung up in the church (Arianism, Judaizing)and outside the church. (Islam) The 'understanding' of those heresies didn't lead the church to appreciate them, and when they made themselves a danger to the faith, tolerance ended in excommunication and fighting on the battlefields, as in the case of Islam and the Albigenses. The people who want so-called 'tolerance' and understanding' actually want us to roll over and allow ourselves to be walked on. We have pursued this policy for the last 50 years since Vatican II and all we got to show for it is a lot of atta boys and contempt from Non-Catholic sects. Yep, Assisi made us look like asses!

Ben said...

Let them also be introduced to a knowledge of other religions which are more widespread in individual regions, so that they may acknowledge more correctly what truth and goodness these religions, in God's providence, possess, and so that they may learn to refute their errors and be able to communicate the full light of truth to those who do not have it. (Vatican II)