Location and Friendship: Toleration’s Inadequacy

My brief post on philosophical location and my series with Jonathan discussing Horowitz’s Indoctrination U have gotten me thinking about intersections between epistemology, theology, ethics, and politics. Unimpressed by Lockean conceptions of toleration, I’m going to attempt to say why we Christians should still engage agnostics and such with a genuine spirit of civility (note that I did not say love–I’ll get to that later) for the sake of our vocation as Christ’s people on earth.

Toleration: The Historical Background

John Locke, famous both for his formulation “Life, Liberty, and Property” and the underlying philosophy that undergirds that conception of human rights, wrote “A Letter Concerning Toleration” in 1689. He begins by criticizing those among the sects (i.e. those who believe that some forms of ritual do not please God) who would aggressively proselytize Christians of other sects but ignore the vice and immorality in their own communions. (Admittedly, he wrote in a time when the meaning of “to proselytize aggressively” might involve an Inquisition or a Thirty-Years’ War.)

He then advances to his thesis, namely that civil government should be interested in civil things only, and that the violence of which a magistrate has a monopoly should come into play only for civil goods and never for “religion”:

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another.

(text available at link above)

As a suggestion for governing pluralistic cities, this is not bad as a negative suggestion. Governments, when enacting and enforcing laws, should not do so with conversion of the governed in mind. Later in the piece, Locke delineates some of the implications of such an idea in the realm of civic life:

Secondly, no private person has any right in any manner to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church or religion. All the rights and franchises that belong to him as a man, or as a denizen, are inviolably to be preserved to him. These are not the business of religion. No violence nor injury is to be offered him, whether he be Christian or Pagan. Nay, we must not content ourselves with the narrow measures of bare justice; charity, bounty, and liberality must be added to it. This the Gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us. If any man err from the right way, it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee; nor therefore art thou to punish him in the things of this life because thou supposest he will be miserable in that which is to come. (text available from link above)

So the implication of Locke’s central idea is that citizenship and confession can and should remain separate, that no citizen should do another citizen harm because of confession. (Interestingly, a century and a half earlier Erasmus had argued that Christians should not do other Christians harm because of citizenship, but that’s for another time and another dispute.) Telling in this block of text is that Locke locates the reasons for such not only in the gospel but also in reason (a loaded word in any Enlightenment-era text) and in “natural fellowship.” In other words, for Locke’s argument, the three do not present any significant tension, and any violation against reason is, by implication, likely also a violation of Gospel.

Toleration: Modern Developments

I take so much time explicating Locke’s argument not because this piece is about politics but because, as often is the case, modern social philosophy has to some extent internalized and socialized what Locke seems to have limited to the functions of civil government and actual coercive power. His argument sounds so modern because this document is one that defines modern “religious” sensibility: while Locke would have civil governments tolerate differences between faith traditions (not a bad policy; it worked relatively well for Cyrus’s Persians and to some extent the Republic’s Romans), modern toleration would extend that spirit of toleration to social interaction and even into individuals’ minds: as long as there’s a basic civic morality, modern sensibility seems to dictate, one should not worry so much about the content of one’s neighbor’s confession.

Not coincidentally, such appeals often point on one hand to exemplars such as Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and on the other to one’s own neighbors in support of their movement towards social toleration. If they do good things, and if they do not confess as we confess, the argument goes, then the content of confession must not have much to do with goodness.

In the next post in this series I will discuss good Christian-theological reasons why we should admire folks like the Dalai Lama and our Muslim neighbors, but for now I do want to talk about toleration’s inadequacy theologically. That Locke’s political suggestions addressed real problems I do not deny, but his solutions do not solve the problem of coercion, and as the twentieth century bore out, they did not solve the problems of violence; they merely move its locus.

If a city moves the responsibility for ordering violence (as opposed to chaotic violence) from the Inquisitor to the Investigator, there’s still a human being authorized to do violence to people who resist the city’s order. Paul in Romans is wise enough to note that such an arrangement is simply part of living in a city, but by no means does he hold that either kind will always be just or always be unjust. (He more than likely wrote the letter when Nero was Caesar and Pontifex Maximus, after all.) Instead he notes that Caesar bears the sword for an express purpose and that Christians ought to submit to that sword-bearing authority. Paul, the apostle to the nations, echoes Jeremiah, the prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5–the half that doesn’t get quoted on anti-abortion bumper stickers), in advising submission to a wicked government. The submission is important, but so is the form of that submission. As Dwight noted, in Jeremiah 29:7, Jeremiah’s oracle calls on Israel not only to submit negatively to Babylon but positively to work for its shalom. Likewise Paul exhorts Christians in Rome not only to live peaceably with one another but also to pursue hospitality and to bless those who would persecute (Romans 12:13-14). Their role in the city was not to be a passive conviviality but an active love of neighbor and even enemy. (For those not as familiar with the text of the New Testament, exhortation towards those virtues is not original with Paul.)

Paul’s instruction seems resonant with Locke’s until one considers that while Locke writes of government and religion as separate, Paul writes to a community-within-a-community, a Christian ekklesia inside of the Roman imperium. What Paul, as an ancient Palestinian, recognizes that Locke, as an early modern Scotsman, does not, is that government and religion do not name two separable places but two sets of practices. In Locke’s imagination one can be a citizen and have a religion; Paul recognizes that states are not content to be other than gods. Moreover, in counseling submission even to a tyrant such as Nero, Paul recognizes that only Christian practice offers the hope for genuine love of neighbor; to replace Nero’s state with Constantine still leaves one with Caesar. The state wields the sword, and it will always die by the sword. For divine love, we must be more than conquerors.

Toleration therefore is not a concept neutral to religion but assumes from the start that government is ultimately more important than church. Locke’s essay admits as much: if any “religion” steps outside the lines that civic law enforces, Locke argues, the full force of its coercive power should bring order back. The entities stay the same, but the relationship flips. Such an arrangement is not inherently bad from a theological point of view, but it is still Caesar and thus inadequate for genuine goodness. In the next section I will discuss Christian civility, how being Christian for the sake of Caesar looks different from tolerating religion as a citizen.


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


5 thoughts on “Location and Friendship: Toleration’s Inadequacy

  1. >I am sorry, you have to go to my home site. But, I did not want to take advantage of posting it here without your appoval.

    Posted by Strong Tower | November 26, 2007, 1:44 am
  2. >Never mind. Just found your wordpress blog.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 26, 2007, 1:35 am
  3. >Incidentally, the newest post I saw at your blog was dated November 12. Have you posted at a site other than the one to which your profile links?

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 26, 2007, 1:33 am
  4. >Certainly an absolute separation is impossible, and my point with this series is that either the state or the church is going to locate the other, philosophically. The next part of my essay is going to focus on how Christian theology can locate statecraft within its own grand narrative.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 26, 2007, 1:25 am
  5. >I responded, kinda. It is found at my blog. If you want I’ll post here, but it is quite long. I can sum it up like this:You cannot separate religion and the state.

    Posted by Strong Tower | November 25, 2007, 5:22 am

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