The New York Times

The Week in Review

February 3, 2002

The One True Faith: Is It Tolerance?

By THOMAS CAHILL
ONCE upon a time, there was a religion whose adherents thought it to be the only true one. Because their God wished everyone (or so they thought) to believe as they did, they felt justified in imposing their religion on others.

Toward those who refused to bow to the "true" religion, these true believers took different tacks at different times. Sometimes, they hemmed in the infidels (as they were called) with civil disabilities, limiting their license to practice their own religion, forcing them to listen to propaganda and otherwise restricting their freedom; at other times they became more aggressive, burning holy books, smashing sacred statues and even engaging in wholesale slaughter of infidels men, women and children as if they were rats carrying plague.

The religion is not Islam but Christianity, whose dark history of crusades, inquisitions and pogroms lies not as far in the past as one might prefer to think.

What changed Christianity? How did Christians learn the virtue of tolerance? Centuries of bloody religious wars and persecutions finally convinced most Christians that there must be a better way to organize society, a way that did not involve quite so many burning bodies, human charnel houses and corpse-strewn battlefields.

The slow germination of this revolution in consciousness can be dated at least to the 18th century, toward the end of which a country finally emerged America that officially refused to play the old game of whose religion was true, and took a generously agnostic view of religious truth: you may believe what you like, and so may I, and neither can impose belief on the other.

Is there an essentially different dynamic at work in Islamic countries that keeps them from arriving at the civic virtue of tolerance? The forces of the Enlightenment that exalted tolerance in the West were given their impetus by the European wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in which Christian was pitted against Christian wars over points of doctrine that must have looked exceedingly abstruse, even absurd, to non-Christians, who could see only similarities between the warring systems. One might well wonder if this Enlightenment would have emerged with such vigor had the battles involved Christian against Jew or, more exotically, against Muslim or Buddhist or Zoroastrian. Protestants and Catholics had to learn to be tolerant of one another of different forms of Christianity before they could learn to tolerate those whose religions were non-Christian.

In a similar way, the Muslim world is more likely to develop the virtue of tolerance as it surveys the hopelessly diverse ways in which different communities and peoples have responded to the core insights of Islam. What do Turks have in common with Taliban, or Wahhabi Muslims with Sufis? Very little, it would seem at first glance. What do Sunni Muslims have in common with Shiites? If non-Muslims can see similarities, warring Muslim factions can often see only deadly differences.

The West should not allow itself too many congratulations on its vaunted tolerance. In Northern Ireland, Catholic children are still unable to walk to school without hearing vile epithets hurled at them by foul-mouthed adults. In Britain, a Catholic may still not serve as prime minister or sit upon the storied throne of Edward the Confessor. The Vatican, for its part, first blessed tolerance as a civic virtue a scant 36 years ago at the close of the Second Vatican Council. Prior to that time, the official Catholic position was little different from that of the mullahs of Kandahar: when we are in power, we will impose religion as we see fit.

This new Catholic blessing of tolerance which took the form of a declaration that religious liberty is the right of every human being was made possible chiefly because of the life and work of two uncommon human beings. The first was the courtly Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who was able to reinterpret Catholic political theory to give theological primacy to freedom of conscience. Not incidentally, he was a 20th-century American, deeply in love with American political ideals.

The other was John XXIII, the pope who convoked the council with the express aim of bringing the teaching of the Catholic Church up to date. John lived his life as a man of tolerance; he hated using religion to divide people from one another. Many historians today consider him the greatest pope who ever lived, a man beloved by people of all kinds throughout the world. As he lay dying, his secretary read to him from mountains of sympathetic letters. One correspondent wrote, "Insofar as an atheist can pray, I'm praying for you." Hearing this, John, despite his pain, smiled with delight. For him, the common bond of humanity was all that was needed for profound friendship and understanding and a little humor always helped.

Each of the great religions creates, almost from its inception, a colorful spectrum of voices that range from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion, because of its metaphorical ambiguity and intellectual subtlety, holds within it marvelous potential for development and adaptation. This development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the development of the universe, but it runs almost inevitably, it seems from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace.

The tolerant Islam that in the 15th and 16th centuries let the Jews of Spain, expelled by Catholic tyrants, find homes in Arab lands has not disappeared. The peace-loving Islam that in the seventh and eighth centuries protected the world's oldest portrait of Jesus from destruction by Christian iconoclasts has not been erased. These humane responses are living seeds, a little buried perhaps but capable of a great flowering.

The bloodthirsty Judaism of the Book of Joshua, in which God commands the Israelites to put all Canaanites, even children, to the sword, is hardly the Judaism of today, except perhaps at the extreme end of its spectrum in the followers of someone like Meir Kahane or the religious fanatics who encouraged the assassination of the peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. But in the same period as Joshua, or soon thereafter, when Gideon builds an altar in the desert to replace the altar of Baal, the god of thunder and war, he calls the new altar "Peace Is the Name of God." And the Christianity of 13th-century Europe a time of bloody crusades and inquisitions, when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed that complete subjection to him was "utterly necessary for the salvation of every living creature" is very different from the Christianity of John XXIII, who wrote in his diary that "the whole world is my family."

At the extreme end of the Christian spectrum there are still intolerant bigots, as well as deranged militants who shoot up abortion clinics, but they are now far from the mainstream. And even in the 13th century, Christianity could bring forth an utterly pacifist figure like Francis of Assisi.

Over the ages, each religion learns with many steps backward and sideways but, finally, with more steps forward that it must find a way to live with its "heretical" offshoots and with other religions. It can't have the whole world (as Boniface VIII imagined), except in love (as John XXIII intended).

For Islam, seven centuries younger than Christianity and nearly three millennia younger than Judaism, to achieve such a relationship it needs a distinguished theoretical peacemaker like Courtney Murray and a warm-hearted, iconic peacemaker like John XXIII. If such figures emerge, they would stand on the shoulders of great theologians and saints who came before them in the rich tradition of Islam.

In fact, Islamic peacemakers are already at work. There is, for example, the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who speaks repeatedly of the fruitlessness of violence and points to the irreducibly Judaic roots of Islam. Such people exist not just among the Palestinians but in countries throughout the Islamic world. At present, they may appear to be lonely voices but not more lonely than Courtney Murray and Pope John once were.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company