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Document Details :

Title: The Ups and Downs of Tolerance
Subtitle: An Introductory Essay on the Genealogy of (Religious) Tolerance
Author(s): DE WIT, Theo W.A.
Journal: Bijdragen
Volume: 63    Issue: 4   Date: 2002   
Pages: 387-416
DOI: 10.2143/BIJ.63.4.819

Abstract :
In the Netherlands, the traditional and famous ‘culture of tolerance’ in the past few years surprisingly became associated with the laxity, half-heartedness, even negligence and indifference with regard to serious problems in a multi-ethnic society. For the time being, a polemical use of the term dominates: tolerance as an aspect of our western ‘superiority’ against barbaric fundamentalism. To regain some grip on the – at least in the Netherlands – apparently ‘hollow’, even politically and morally dubious concept of tolerance, the author returns to the genealogical ‘founding forge’ of the term, the civil war fought in the name of religion in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. He demonstrates that tolerance was a key-category in a tiring, centuries-old process during which a ‘Gordian knot’ – the congruence of political power and religious faith – was being abandoned. The historical case-study of the dissident preacher John Bunyan (1628-1688) and the early Quakers in seventeenth-century England shows, that during the Age of religious Discord political, social and religious themes are inseparably intertwined, not only from the point of view of the defenders of the status quo, but also from the standpoint of the religious dissidents and their ‘illegal’ preaching. In the intellectual history (Bodin, Hobbes, Locke) one can witness the birth of the early-modern concept of a minimal, political concept of tolerance. In a negative sense, this was a departure from attempts to uphold or restore the unity of ‘true faith’ by political coercion. In a positive sense it implied the sufferance of dissident faith and religious practices by a political power ‘in order to prevent the worse from happening’. In this process, political power became more and more an autonomous institution, above society. This minimal, political concept of tolerance has been surpassed by the state-sanctioned, juridical freedom of religion. This implies the democratic disjunction of truth and justice, that is, the recognition of an equal, reciprocal right of everyone to live and articulate his or her own truth. This legislation must be supported by a civic and social culture in which tolerance as an ethical virtue is being practiced and cherished. The most exacting form of tolerance is an attitude which tries to overcome the (still polemical) democratic disjunction of truth and justice, in the direction of an ‘oikoumene of religions’ or a ‘fusion of horizons’. But this subtle attitude can easily slip into an ‘idolatry of difference’ and a laissez faire-tolerance, as seemed to have happened in the Netherlands. In the final parts of this introductory essay the author presents the four articles in this thematic edition of Bijdragen: studies on Cusanus, Spinoza and Leibniz regarding tolerance, and an essay on the problems of dealing with alterity. The author concludes with the contemporary dilemma of tolerance. Should the future form of tolerance be based on universalism accompanied with the political neutralization and privatization of religion, nation, culture? Or should tolerance in a globalizing world be fed from particular traditions and sources?