4.30.2011

Religious Tolerance

On May 28 of 1453, the Church of Hagia Sophia in the City of Constantinople held its last mass. The city, in it's final days, was torn by internal religious divisions. Much of the mercantile and military population of the city were Italian, particularly Venetian and Genovese. Some of the native Byzantine population were supporters of a union with the Western church. Others, particularly the monks and priests of the city, were in support of a continued orthdoxy to creed of what we now call the Greek Orthodox church. These divisions were not minor theological squabbles, but had shaped the countours of Byzantine history, and in fact, were in part responsible for its downfall the next day. But that night, there was one final mass - it was a mass praying for a miracle. The walls of the city were broken beyond repair after being patched, repatched, and rebuilt innumerable times throughout the long siege of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, the people of the city were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fighting had ceased only because of the encroaching darkness. The mass, for that one night was spoken in Greek and in Latin, the intercessory prayers begged god's mercy and blessing on the Pope in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, and the Patriarch of Constantinople. And all the schismatic groups prayed together, that night.


The next day, this unity, in it's way, lasted on. The Ottoman Turks broke down the walls, and beat back the forces of the emperor quickly, killing the emperor himself in the process. The people of the city, and the soldiers, both the Byzantines and the Italians, retreated back to beneath the walls of the Hagia Sophia, believing in the sanctity of this great and ancient church, and they waited there, sure that God would not let the 'heathens' destroy the sanctity of that holy spot. They were mistaken - the people centered on this spot were rounded up, and sold mostly into slavery. Thus fell the richest city of Christendom.

The irony of this is that the Ottoman empire - the hegemony of middle and near eastern Islam in general, in fact - was, perhaps, in many ways a product of the Byzantine Empire itself. To reduce the rise of Arabian power after the life of Mohammed to any one cause, particularly an external one, is reductionist at best, of course, but it is worth looking at some of the future heartlands of Islamic empire: Egypt, for example, or Syria. During the time of the rise of Islam, a debate had been raging through the Eastern church for some time, regarding the precise nature of Christ (specifically, whether Christ had seperate human and godly natures, or these two natures were one and the same). To us, these differences may seem pedantic - but to the Byzantines, they were cause for rebellions, and for the putting down of rebellions. The monophysites (those who believe in one nature), who were particularly strong in Egypt and Syria, were oppressed with nearly the same vigor that the original Roman empire had oppressed the Christians: heresy was, for both the Eastern and Western churches, a horrifying prospect. So, when the Arabs began to invade Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, many of the people and the clergy there actually welcomed them - because under Moslem rule, they would be permitted to practice whatever brand of Christianity they wished. The Byzantine Army was, to the Egyptians, not a defender, but an enemy, sent to oppress them, and the Arab soldiers were liberators. So the Eastern Mediterranean, which had been the strongest imperial and Christian religious power in the known world, slowly began to dissolve.

Of course, taking any moral sense out of things, one could find many counterexamples to the arguments in favor of religious tolerance. One need only, for example, turn to the opposite end of the Mediterranean, in the Iberian peninsula (which let me warn you ahead of time, I know a bit less about). When the Moors invaded Iberia all the way up to the Pyrenees, they instituted the same reforms that they had registered in Egypt - religious tolerance of the Jewish and Christian faiths (of course, in neither case was this complete tolerance: non-moslems had to pay special taxes and had certain differences in their legal rights, and of course those who believe in non-Abrahamic faiths had no tolerance at all - but still, the fact that their religions were allowed to flourish is worth attention). Spain and Portugal, then, even under the Muslim empire, retained a strong, tightly bound Catholic community. In the end, this is part of the reason that the Reconquista, when the Moors were cast from Spain, succeeded: the Moors had allowed the Christian community to flourish, but the Christian church, internally, had no such tolerance in response, so it encouraged it's membership to remain internally integrated, but culturally separate from the Muslim empire at large. Because the Christians never integrated into the culture of their Imperial masters, their Christian identity became a banner to rebel against them, rather than the banner of a community within a larger community.

It is, in fact, worth remembering that religious intolerance and/or hegemony is frequently one of the driving forces of empire. The United States, for instance, for all its talk of religious tolerance, maintained (an in many ways still maintains) a strong suspicion of faiths outside of mainline Protestantism, to the point where when Kennedy was elected, his religion was one of the major issues against him - or when Mitt Romney ran for president a few years ago. Many of the seeds of Anglo-Saxon America were remarkably intolerant: the puritans, for instance, legislated obedience to many of their dogmatic laws, and the witch trials do not, after all, speak to an open mindedness about religious practices. The Ku Klux Klan was organized not only to fight against the growing power of African Americans, but also Catholics, and much of the anti-immigrant sentiment in America was largely religious fear - there was a plethora of briskly selling polemics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding the 'Catholic Threat' from communities like the Irish and the Italians. In fact, the man who codified religious tolerance into the constitution through the bill of rights was opposed to organized religion on a general basis: Thomas Jefferson. The forces that drove our modern ideas of religious pluralism were similarly born in the 'godless' days of the Enlightenment - before that, tolerance was largely a matter of tolerance for those with a common religious enemy to one's self (Milton, for instance, believed every Christian faith in England should be allowed to practice - except Catholicism - he was Puritan. Queen Elizabeth and King James killed any Jesuits found in England on principle. Catholics repaid the favor, for instance, in the Spanish Inquisition, or the Huguenot massacres of France). 

The history that we, as Americans, are taught in school, paints the victory of religious pluralism as the result of the brave souls who stood up to the Catholics in the Reformation (and of course, their followers who founded America, something also not entirely true). The image we have is of humble Martin Luther bravely tacking his principles up on the church door in opposition to the established authorities of his time. Luther and his peers were anything but tolerant - Luther frequently referred to not only the pope but even rival Protestant reformers such as Zwingli as devils, demons, and deceivers. Many of them returned the favor. In fact, both the reformation, and the counter-reformation of the Catholic church, is little more than a history of rival varieties of religious intolerance attempting to move larger and larger parts of the world into their own camp of followers.

All this, of course, makes it sound as if religious leaders are, in herently, cruel and hateful people. This isn't true at all, in my opinion. My reading of, for instance, Luther, was that he spoke so virulently against the Pope, and his many rivals, simply because he believed they were deceiving the people - Luther was strongly concerned with the peasantry over the faith of the few rich (not that he was without imperfection in this), and the thrust of many of his arguments against catholicism in particular were that it took advantage of the simple faith of common men. He believed, I would argue, that intolerance was his godly duty. Indeed, forgetting our preconceived biases for a moment, if we knew, for a fact, that a particular religious doctrine would lead people to go to heaven, and that any other doctrine will lead them to an eternity of suffering, one can imagine how all other faiths would be, in a cosmic scale, the very definition of evil. If one is entirely sincere in one's attachment to any of these faiths, it is not difficult to argue that torture is far less an act of cruelty than heresy - torture ends, hell does not. 

Therein lies the rub: our natural instinct is to believe that any new religion would naturally have a tendency to believe in tolerance - after all, they are suffering the effects of intolerance, right? They should be able to sympathize. On the contrary, though - and even today you see this in new religions (we call them cults, now), which are quite frequently very separatist and intolerant - the fire of a new idea burns as much as it warms. 

Counterexamples to this, then, become interesting to me. The Roman Empire, for instance, was (until later in it's life) remarkably religiously tolerant (we think of it as otherwise, largely, because it's intolerance was aimed at those who eventually wrote history). More than one child in school has boggled at how the Roman and Greek pantheons match up so nicely. In fact, the city of Rome had significant religious practices in the worship of Egyptian gods, as well - the Cult of Isis was remarkably popular, for example. The Romans, basically, would move into a new area, and take the Gods that were already there and either add them to their own pantheon, or absorb them as new manifestations of existing gods. The only early example of restriction of religious principles that I know of (and there could be more) would be against the cult of Bacchus - the cult of Bacchus, in its religious practices, is reported as trying to enlist very young men, and then having wild orgies, that would spill out into the streets of the city in the middle of the night. Compared to our current restrictions on practices like, say, Polygamy in the privacy of your own home, this isn't exactly extreme. 

In fact, the problem that they had, first with the Jews and later with the Christians, was that theologically their faiths were incapable of 'tolerance' - the idea of monotheism was anathema to the early Romans, because it presumed that Yahweh, or the Trinity, were the ONLY gods, that all other gods were false, that worship of them was unacceptable. A polytheist was able to enter into the larger religious life of the empire. A monotheist kept themselves separate from it. The God of the Abrahamic faiths is, in the words of the Old Testament, a 'Jealous God', one who was unwilling to accept the idols of those who believed differently, even if he was worshipped alongside them. 

Is polytheism, then, naturally more tolerant than monotheism? I don't know. I don't think so, necessarily. I think, rather, that the idea of universal truth, applicable to all, is difficult in terms of tolerance. And at some level, truth (particularly the kinds of truths otherwise unavailable to us) are what we look for from religion - the search fro unknown truth, for the revelation of mysteries was the root of the most ancient mythologies, and still presents the core of many of the most sacred acts of religious groups today. 

Where does this leave us today, then? I don't know. People have dreamed of a harmonious future without conflict - in particular religious conflict - for a long time. But its notable that most of these dreams either have a society with a single, omnipresent faith (take, for example, the medieval idea of the Kingdom of Prester John, or Sir Francis Bacon, or the pre-Christian world in the Mists of Avalon, though it hardly admits this to itself), or a society in which religion has dissapeared, o r at least seems to have lost its currency in everyday life (the Federation in Star Trek, for example, or the dream future of the Marxist-Leninist thinkers, or Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins). Utopia is not, in our minds, a process of finding ways to live with our differences, but rather, finding a path to a glorious, harmonious homogeny. I think this is both an unrealistic and horrifying proposition when followed to its logical conclusions (after all, most Dystopias seem to have a religious or anti-religious hegemony as well).  There is no harmony in a world of belief, unless it is forced down people's throats (As it has been in history, more than once), there is only controlled bubbling in the simmering pot of conflict. There is, unless you suppose some divine intervention, no future in which people work out these differences, unless they are worked out for them, or they cease to care about or lose faith in the absolute existence of the answer. I'm not sure the latter is the right answer, either (or a sustainable one. I think current American history speaks to this). 

5 comments:

Trisha said...

It is remarkable that you think about all of this - and write it up - in your spare time. :)

I think you make a great point about our visions of utopias being the result of conformity rather than an acceptance of diversity; this is an unfortunate idea to plant in people's heads. I truly hope - and am naive enough to believe - we will one day be able to accept divergent and even contradictory religious beliefs. A wonderful world where atheists and polytheists live next door to Catholic priests and have lunch with pantheists in harmony.

How that is supposed to come about is entirely beyond me.

Trisha said...

And a comment because I forgot to click the follow-up comments.... :)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trisha - I think that's the paradox - religious diversity means accepting all religious beliefs, as they are. But the impediments to religious harmony in many ways are embedded to religious belief - so either you must be intolerant to intolerance, as it were, or you accept that there will not be harmony. As frustrating as it is, I think the second is the only option. Utopia, like heaven, is powerful because its impossible, I guess.

Chris said...

I think you mean 1453 there in the first line, not 1853.

Jason Gignac said...

Mr Chris - Yes, thank you, my error! :D