Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond ToleranceSo when, exactly, is tolerance a bad, or at the very least counterproductive, thing? Former New York Times religion writer (and current Syracuse professor) Gustav Niebuhr sets out to answer that question in Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America , a far-ranging overview of the work that’s gone on in our recent past toward fostering religious understanding and cooperation.

At some point early in our education, we’re told that the United States was founded in no small part by religious dissidents, and on the basis of religious freedom. What this manages to overlook–though Niebuhr, thankfully, does not–is that this freedom was most likely to be extended to one’s own, but not as much to those who believed and worshipped in a way that was different from the rest of the community. As with other freedoms we cherish (see last week’s reviews of Commager and Lewis on the First Amendment), our religious freedom has long been a work in progress.

Somewhere amid all this research and development, among all the intramural squabbles among the various Christianities that flourished in the new soil of the New World, and between the fits and starts of schisms within schisms, a Christian consensus of sorts started to emerge. That consensus didn’t often–well, to be honest, didn’t usually–take in other religions. Beyond Tolerance is driven by the efforts, from America’s earliest days, to rectify that error.
This is where tolerance starts to fade into the background. Tolerance doesn’t mean–or shouldn’t, at least–that the discussion and dialogue that takes place should be at someone’s expense. If someone’s petitioning for tolerance, the person or people being petitioned is generally understood to be giving something up, or compromising something that’s somehow dear to them.

It also isn’t syncretism, an attempt to come up with a vague and mushy universalism that’s the religious version of a Garth Brooks song. Syncretism tries to be all things to all people, and in the end only satisfies those who’ll be satisfied by nearly anything. The result ought not to be a watering-down, but rather a period of enough calm that allows muddied waters to settle so we can see more clearly what lies beneath. 

So something interesting starts to happen when we leave behind the idea of mere tolerance and allow both sides to bring to the bargain what made them unique, and retain these qualities when they go their separate ways. When all is said and done, both parties often find their beliefs strengthened on their own terms rather than being compromised. 

Respect starts with the realization (to borrow a phrase from Brad Hirschfield) that “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.” If we can resist, or move beyond, the urge to proselytize, we stand to be rewarded not only with the social transaction itself, but also in finding our own beliefs validated and deepened. We need not to be threatened, in other words, by others’ beliefs and practices. Different thinkers and theologians have come to this realization in their own times, and own words, down through the ages: John Paul II, King, Ghandi, Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton are among the better known of those who’ve made this kind of dialogue both possible and lively, but Niebuhr pays no less attention–indeed, pays the bulk of his attention–to those less known to everyday people.

They’re as different in their approaches as they are in their respective theologies. Buddhist monks, Catholic clergy and laypeople, Protestants carving out islands of dialogue in the midst of what’s stereotyped as the Bible Belt, Christians protecting Jews giving aid and comfort to Muslims in conversation with Hindus… As it turns out, it’s a lively bunch.

The forerunner of a lot of today’s interfaith work, the Parliament of the World’s Religions that took place in Chicago in 1893, laid some of the groundwork for current interfaith efforts, but took place in a much different climate. Both at home and abroad, the need–or urgency–of interfaith dialogue becomes every day more apparent. On September 11 (which, not coincidentally, bookends Niebuhr’s travels and his narrative) our eyes were opened to the consequences of religious intolerance. When it happens elsewhere, whether “elsewhere” is Kashmir, Algeria, Paris, Berlin, or London, it’s easy enough to overlook; we realized rather belatedly just how shallow and dangerous that luxury was, to disastrous effect.

Niebuhr’s book isn’t without shortcomings. All this talk of dialogue begs the question of what communities outside the religious conversation might take from the process when it comes to opening dialogues on such thorny issues as race and immigration. Moreover, the book’s spirit of inclusiveness sometimes leaves it with a Cliff’s Notes sort of feel; you’d sometimes like to hear more of the story, learn more of what resulted from one or another of the dialogues Niebuhr describes, but those details are absent more often than not. Taken for what it is (or at least appears to be)–a means not only of chronicling a conversation, but also of starting one–this is, however, a good starting point.

Especially given that it’s discussion, rather than tolerance, that we need more of. Tolerance is a noble idea, but one more often honored in the breach. It’s an ugly word when you get right down to it, and it’s an idea that, however noble, somehow manages to come up short when the time comes to put it into practice. While the idea of tolerating other cultures, religions, and ideas sounds lovely, there’s a whiff of condescension about the whole thing; it’s easy to tolerate something, after all, that doesn’t much challenge (much less threaten) what you might think is the best way of doing things. It carries also a hint that we’ll only allow you to be you, or to express yourself, to a certain point but no further; if that line–however fuzzy it may be–is crossed, you stand to be rebuked in no uncertain terms. In other words, it’s the kind of benign neglect that suggests that those being tolerated had better know their place. In the process of cataloging and chronicling efforts that go beyond tolerance, Niebuhr makes a passionate case for the kind of deep understanding that can only be born of fearless dialogue, debate, and mutual respect.

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