This is most likely going to be a tough entry to follow, and I apologize in advance for that. These aren’t easy subjects, and to be honest, I’m writing this entry mostly to try to organize my own thoughts on these matters. But please do comment if you see problems or want to make clarifications.A.J. Conyers closes out his book The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit
, with a discussion on the distinction between “the authentic practice of toleration” and “the modern doctrine of toleration”. He analyzes the problems with the latter as focusing on two major issues. First is the Enlightenment’s dichotomization of “public” and “private”, where the former increasingly has become the playground of the Sovereign State and where religion has been increasingly confined to the latter category. Second is the loss of a meaningful way to speak of the telos
of life (what pre-Modern Christian thinkers called life’s “final cause”). The responses to the unthinkable atrocities that were the Wars of Religion–the responses, that is, of both Christian thinkers and unbelievers–were largely reactionary, and thus they ended up merely substituting a new set of problems for the old.
Particularly (to bring in material from other readings I’m doing), the shift from Reason to Will that had already been going on in Christendom in the later Medieval conflicts between “realist-rationalists” and “nominalist-voluntarists” was gradually but profoundly secularized. Let me draw out this contrast starkly for the sake of illustration. In the late Medieval discussions about Reason and Will, the “traditional” realist-rationalist doctrine that Reason was prior to Will became a serious source of dismay for many Christian thinkers influenced by the nominalist-voluntarist view. As the nominalists understood it, the realist-rationalist view was pressed to the point where the very liberty of God was held hostage to the Rational Order formally said to exist in His own mind but practically treated as if it existed outside of Him as a limiting force on what He could do. The nominalist-voluntarists reacted decisively to this over-emphasis upon Reason and declared that God was possessed of a kind of ultimate free will. He was free in terms of His “absolute power” (potentia absoluta) to do anything He wished that would not involve a formal contradiction (such as, to use a modern rhetorical example, making a rock so big that not even He could lift it). The stability of the world and our ability to know it was to be guaranteed by an appeal to God’s covenantal condescension (i.e., His willful activity of making a pact with man). As distinguished from his “absolute power” (potentia absoluta), God’s condescension would operate in terms of His “ordinary power” (potentia ordinata).
As an illustration, consider on the one hand the charge against Medieval nominalism that it led to “skepticism” because Reason could no longer be thought of as giving us privileged and infallible epistemological access to the world. Against this charge, the nominalist Pierre d’Ailly proposed instead that “in God it is the same to will and to understand”. For d’Ailly, although the divine will, the divine freedom from external rational compulsion, could literally do anything it liked, it would not literally do anything it liked. This was because God limited Himself by His gracious covenant with men, which He willed to sovereignly uphold no matter what. On the other hand, five hundred years after d’Ailly the triumph of the Modern Secularist view (parasitically attached to the Christian debates of the later Middle Ages, which the parasite itself calls “the Dark Ages”) is seen in the radical unbeliever Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman shouting that God has died, that we humans are His pallbearers, and that all that remains for us is an attempt to transcend our own finitude via the “will to power”. In a striking reversal of the older realist-rationalist paradigm, secularism has elevated Will above Reason. With no appeal to a transcendent God possible, secularism has thrown everything into a state of utter flux (because all that is left is the immanent individual will). There are many ways that this reversal could be illustrated, but here is one that I’ve come up with in my ongoing work on Medieval ecclesiology’s relationship to the Reformation. Consider that if the problem the Church faced in the high Middle Ages was the tyranny of absolute papalism, the problem she faces in the Modern Age is the tyranny of absolute populism.
To connect all of this back to the first paragraph, the problem of the secular age comes to be seen through the lens of what Conyers calls “the modern doctrine of toleration” as opposed to “the authentic practice of toleration”. This distinction highlights the world of difference between on the one hand bearing with someone who is in error, but on the other hand giving up the ability to say he is in error because one has embraced a “neutral” viewpoint that lets both parties do their own thing in their Private Sanctuary and still get along in the Public Square. The rise of the Modern State came on the heels of the dramatic decline of Medieval Christendom, and, since nature abhors a vacuum, as the Church retreated from her former role in shaping and guiding the culture the State moved in to take up the slack. Even Christian thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke reacted to the horrors of the Wars of Religion and their lesser cousins by increasingly widening the gap between faith and reason. Bayle’s goal, for instance, despite being a Calvinist, was to create a “faith founded on the ruins of reason.” Through this time of transition, guided by men like Bayle, Will (the private) came to dominate Reason (the public).
This shift resulted in the pursuit of power above the pursuit of understanding. For will is the purpose to make things happen, and thus it naturally allies with power, the ability to make them happen. As encroaching Modernity fell upon and devoured the ruins of Western Christendom, the only answer to the widespread chaos caused by runamuck Will was, ironically, the re-imposition from the outside of Reason–common standards that everyone would adhere to so as to maintain basic social order. The agent of this re-imposition of Reason turned out to be the only force capable of coercing men to do anything: the Secular State. The State exercised its will, its power, and restored order–but at a terrible price that we Christians are only beginning to comprehend.
That price is a “mass culture” premised upon the tacit agreement of everyone who partakes in it to “tolerate” others. It is important to understand that in this sense “tolerate” does not mean merely “agree to get along with” (this is not necessarily a bad thing), but instead “agreement with the will of the guarantor of the culture”–meaning, the Secular State. The State is the only true wielder of a “free will,” and thus ofpower, in our age. All other potential wielders, such as the family and the Church, have been stripped of their ability to obligate the “free” individual. In order to keep its power the State must actively discourage competition. Thus, the State has a vested interest in avoiding the topic of authorities outside of itself–religion for example. It has a vested interest in using its power to constantly propagandize everyone in its territory with materials that foster final allegiance solely to itself. The major exception to its silence would be, of course, where it is necessary to issue some “legal” pontification about the “self-evident truth” of the “separation” of Religion and State–which inevitably and conveniently favors only the State.
Hence, in a world where all talk of the telos, the goal, the final end, of finite life under the sun has been relativized, locked up inside the realm of the “private” sphere, it is correspondingly true that all talk of societal and ethical and rational order has been trivialized, cut down to fit the mass culture that is the only possible inhabitant of the “public” sphere. The cultural movers and shakers constantly educate us in lessons that subtly reinforce the idea that “God is conspicuous by His absence.” And after all, there only two truths in this world, “death and taxes,” and both truths are under the control of the State. Amazingly, we Protestants are generally speaking pretty happy with this way of life so long as the State allows us to have the freedom to preach our “doctrines.” We will accept the State’s understanding of “toleration” in the Public Square and its corollary of the confinement of our religion to within the four walls of our own homes and churches. “My country ’tis of thee / sweet land of liberty”, we sing without really understanding that the cost of our “liberty” is more than the shed blood of our military men fighting to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Speaking of American political philosophy, it is interesting to note (as many have) that the “God” who is so prominently mentioned on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance, and so flippantly invoked by politicians when they are courting the otherwise despised “Religious Right,” is not the Triune God of Holy Scripture. America’s God is, rather, a Unitarian entity who propagates a vaguely nondescript “monotheism” that is, oddly, quite comfortable allowing a “polytheistic” right of each man to ‘worship Him in his own way.” This brings to mind Conyer’s remarks on the dangers of portraying Christianity as merely a “monotheistic” religion:
Thus, “religiously motivated political monotheism has always been used in order to legitimate domination, from the emperor cults of the ancient world, Byzantium and the absolute ideologies of the seventeenth century, down to the dictatorships of the twentieth.” [citing Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), pg. 131] By contrast, the doctrine of the Trinity has acted to prevent and expose the excesses of monotheism. For, by virtue of the Trinitarian nature of God, the significance of God’s unity is shared with his diversity. In answer to the question, “What is real, the unity of things or the diversity of things?” the Trinity answers both. In political terms this might be asked by questioning whether it is the larger, centralized nation that makes up people, or is it the local, the informal, the organic associations. Tutored by a strong, principled monotheism (such as Islam, for instance) we might be persuaded to answer in favor of the more comprehensive political body. Taught, however, in the school of Trinitarian thought, we might be persuaded that both the local and the national, both the particular and the comprehensive, have their distinct and significant roles to play. In a word, Trinitarian thought prepares us for thinking of society in terms of distributed roles, separation of powers, and a federalist view of social associations. [A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001), pg. 212]
Note that Christianity is not merely “monotheistic”, but is Trinitarian monotheism. This makes it presuppositionally impossible for the Christian to divide his loyalties in the way that the Secular State commands in its doctrine of “toleration,” and thus, this means that the Christian simply cannot afford to accept the public / private dichotomy that drives the entire Modern project. The Christian cannot follow John Locke’s dictum that in the New Testament era there can be no such thing as a Christendom, for to make this concession is fundamentally to concede autonomy to the Secular State–and thus to indulge in a process of making Christianity the slave of the State.
To borrow some phrases I sharply criticized in my entry Secularism, Sacralism, and the Christian Antithesis, II, Christ is not to be worshipped in an “off the street place” while “tolerating” the idol who stands in the Public Square. On the contrary, Christ must be enthroned in the Public Square as well as in the private heart, for to paraphrase J. Gresham Machen, “There is no area of life that Jesus Christ does not claim and demand ‘Mine’!” This means that whatever our responsibilities to Conyers’s “authentic practice of toleration,” we cannot accept the modern “doctrine of toleration.” Born in the fires of the destruction of the Christendom that was, it has sucked the life right out of the public witness of Christianity and even now prevents us from working on the Christendom that will be.
I’ll end this entry with a couple of quotes from Conyers that hopefully will give the “big picture”:
[The dream for a comprehensive solution on the level of the created things] eventually disappoints because one finds that the problems that created oppression on the local level exist at the more comprehensive level as well. But because power has become both greater and more remote, the oppression it brings with it inevitably becomes more difficult to remove. At the local level people whose character is more likely to be known to us oppress us. As the centers of power become further removed from us, they act upon us in a more impersonal way, but also–because the machinery that makes it all possible is bureaucratic in nature–in a more inflexible way. We are saved from the personal animosity of the malicious neighbor only to to be delivered into the hands of the indifferent, faceless, nameless, unknown functionary–or else the celebrity ruler who we only think we know. The anonymity and abstractness of the whole process fixes us all the more firmly in its grip.
At the conceptual level, what makes this process possible is the steady conversion of society, over a long period of time, but at an accelerated rate in the twentieth century to the notion that social life is framed by a national government at one end and the autonomous individual at the other–the bipolar vision of society. It is a vision that serves the interests of centralized power. [A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001), pg. 222]
…the very character of modernity has accorded tolerance the status of a secular virtue. It is a virtue inasmuch as it strengthens a certain predisposition toward life together. It is secular in that the predisposition it strengthens is one of postponing or diverting the quest for meaning that is an essential component of social cohesion and the forming of groups or associations. Religion, of course, is what we call that quest, along with the practices and habits of the heart that it engenders. The religious impulse is strong enough to bind people together, and also strong enough to set them at deadly odds with each other.
Toleration, as we modern people have defined it, is the decision to replace that quest [the religious quest] with one both practical and material in nature. Thus, it actually lessens the binding authority of community life, an authority that makes subtle appeal to manners, traditions, group sanctions, and respect for elders. At the same time, the ersatz virtue [of tolerance] increases the need for organization, authority exerted from outside the group, formal laws, as well as emphasizing the protection of abstract “rights” that are divorced from what the living community calls the “good.” In recent American culture, one need only take note of the lessening authority of the family and the increasing role of government policy to get a sense of what this means at the street level. [Ibid., pg. 226]
But since the working out of what is “good” is difficult at best in any context, it becomes increasingly difficult as the opportunities for power and wealth expand the horizons of possible social organization. The organized community (the state) outstrips the natural community which is organic in its growth and development, growing out of forces and needs that are internal to the life of the group. The organized community’s size and the fact that it is actually constituted by external authority makes commitment to an ecumenical concept or what is indeed the summum bonum, the highest good, all the more difficult to maintain. For while an idea of the good is clearly essential to the organic community, it is not strictly necessary to the organized community; for the organic community grows out of its purpose, but an organized community reflects its alien authority or its formal principle. At the same time, economic and political opportunities thrive on efficiency, while the philosophical and religious questions take time. Conflicts are expensive, not often productive of wealth, and are probably unresolvable in the short run. Modern people have elected efficiency and the superficial accord of common pragmatic goals rather than the protracted struggles for ideals, which have all too often, historically, erupted into violent conflict. It is easy to see why toleration is often the virtue of the middle class, the class that values above all comfort and safety. It is also the virtue that the elite most wish for the middle class to have, making the business of ruling all the more efficient and profitable. [Ibid., pp. 227-228]