Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aiming for the Low Slopes: Thoughts On Tolerance and Love

I'm breaking my vows. I told myself I wouldn't write about religion for two months. So far, I've made it three weeks. And yet, here I am again. You just can't read the news the last few weeks and not think about religion. And what I think about, I can't help writing about.

But I'm still going to try to take a more charitable approach to religion; focusing more on its positive than negative side. In this post, I'm going to talk about what might be the most positive aspect of religion: the ideal of compassionate love. The Greeks and Greek-speaking early Christians called this kind of love agape, as distinct from eros (erotic or romantic love), philia (brotherly love), and storge (familial affection). Buddhists called it metta in the first Buddhist texts. Ancient Hebrews called it chesed or ahab. Whatever you call it, it's a central thread in many of the world's religions. Compassionate love is very highly regarded...if a bit more in word than it deed.

Some religions (at least in some scriptures and interpretations) extend love even to foreigners and people of other religions. But you wouldn't know it from watching the news lately. The last few weeks haven't been a great showcase for universal love, especially among the big three monotheistic religions. In the United States, desperate refugee children on the border have been met with compassion by some Christians, but with callousness and xenophobia by others. In the Middle East, Jews and Muslims are once again at war in Gaza, while the Sunni extremists of ISIS are rampaging across Iraq and Syria, killing other Muslims, as well as Christians and other religious minorities, while destroying ancient holy sites.

The failures of love I'm seeing in the news, and my resolution to see religion in a more charitable light, had me reading about love in the different religions. I was thinking I might blog about how love has been seen in various religions, but then I saw that ISIS had destroyed the ancient Tomb of Jonah, a site holy to Jews, Christians, and most Muslims. The tomb was part of the ruins of the ancient city of Ninevah, capital of the Assyrian Empire, which once scattered the 10 lost tribes of Israel. It was around 2800 years old. What's striking to me (beyond the sheer, senseless tragedy of the act) is that Jonah's Tomb was in an area that had been under Islamic control since the 600's AD. This shows just how extreme ISIS is in Islamic history. After all, the tomb lasted over 1300 years under the control of Muslims, most of whom saw it as a holy place and wouldn't have dreamed of harming it.

And now it's gone. And not primarily because of a failure of love, though it certainly was that. This was a failure of something far less lofty: simple tolerance for points of view besides your own. This kind of extreme intolerance is something rather new in Islam. For its first few hundred years, Islam was a fairly tolerant religion---at least for Christians and Jews, who were far better off in Muslim lands than Jews and Muslims were in Christendom. But things have changed, and now some (by no means all) Muslim sects are as intolerant as anyone in history. It's very scary.

All this made me think, "Why focus on something as lofty as love of strangers, when humans haven't even mastered basic tolerance yet? Isn't that like trying to sprint before you can walk?" And then I realized I had arrived at a point of view my Dad has stressed for years. He even wrote about it in a comment on another post in this blog, so I'll let him explain:
Much is made of “love” in religious writings. You know, “Love thy neighbor” and the like. I believe that such passages, if they really came from a deity, were surely misinterpreted. How could an all-knowing creator expect us sorry humans to simply “will” ourselves to love? Love is something that comes to us--overcomes us. 
I suspect the correct translation is more like "tolerance". Tolerance, unlike love, is a choice--something we can force ourselves to employ. With effort we can muster up the self-discipline to tolerate people and ideas which we find objectionable. Once tolerance is achieved; empathy, familiarity, and even acceptance can take hold. These transformations may not always lead to love rushing in. But if we humans could just get to empathy what a wonderful world it would be.
Does that make sense to you? It makes sense to me. In fact, I never quite realized how much sense it makes until this past week. Yes, loving our neighbors is a worthy goal--perhaps even the worthiest goal--but maybe we should start by aiming our sights a little lower. Maybe we should focus more on tolerating those who don't see the world the way we do? Maybe we need to master something basic--like not hating and killing those who aren't in our in-group--before we even think about trying to love them? Baby steps, you know? 

This in-group/out-group thing is the big issue, I think. I don't actually think the scriptures about love in various religions are mistranslations. They generally do translate as love, in the sense of feeling a kind of selfless compassion for other people. It's not that they aren't about love--it's the size of the group they're aimed at.  All too often, they're only talking about loving others in your own group. For example, when Jesus admonished his followers to "love your neighbor as yourself" he was echoing Leviticus 19:18, which says: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself" (italics added). When Leviticus was written, "loving your neighbor" didn't mean just any neighbor. It only applied to your fellow Jews. Jesus took a more universal approach, and even spoke of loving one's enemies, but even he once referred to Gentiles as "dogs" (Mark 7 24-30), so it's debatable how universal his message really was. Some people think Paul was the real universalist, and I think they may be right. In any case, the point is that many religious verses on love may only be talking about loving a select group of people--a much more realistic goal than universal love, certainly, but not one that's very good at promoting peace on large scales.

Still, many religions should get credit for having scriptures that promote love, sometimes even universal love. The problem is that they may also have scriptures that celebrate exclusivity and the killing of outsiders. Similarly, most religions have scriptures promoting tolerance, but many also have scriptures promoting its opposite. So, the big question is not, "What do the scriptures really say?" They really say many different and often contradictory things. The big question is: which verses do you choose to follow? Most of the world's religions can be incredibly loving and tolerant, or incredibly hateful and intolerant. It just depends on what their adherents choose to focus on.

So what should people focus on? Obviously, I think they should focus on love and tolerance instead of their opposites. But I also suspect they should try focusing on tolerance more than love, for the same reason babies should focus more on crawling than running. Universal tolerance is just so much more achievable than universal love. And we haven't even achieved that yet. Not by a long shot.

Edward Compton  Matterhorn
I've started thinking of universal love as being like the Matterhorn. Yes, people get to the top of it, but it's really, really hard, and not for beginners. Luckily, there are lower, more accessible slopes; things like tolerance, forgiveness, following the Golden Rule, and so on. It doesn't make sense to tell people to aim for the peak when so many of them haven't even made it out of the swamps of hate and violence yet. Maybe it would be more fruitful to focus on getting them up to those lower slopes of tolerance?

Maybe. But I know some people will be skeptical about the whole idea of tolerance. I've written all this as though it were universally accepted that tolerance is good, and obviously, that's not accepted at all. Nobody is absolutely tolerant, and that's a good thing, because things, like murder, rape, and theft shouldn't be tolerated. Tolerance has a strangely paradoxical way of undermining itself when taken to its extreme. Should we be so tolerant as to say, "Yes, ISIS tore down that ancient, historic tomb, and is killing people as we speak, but that is seen as appropriate in the context of their particular culture, and who are we to say they're wrong?" What good is that much tolerance, if it lets the intolerant run wild? Philosophers call this the Paradox of Tolerance, and it truly is a paradox. At some point, true tolerance requires an intolerance of intolerance. Strange but true.

So, even if tolerance is an easier goal than love, there are still some big questions remaining. I'll grapple with those in another post. But for now, I'll go back to my Dad's thoughts on tolerance and its limits, because he (and Ogden Nash) said it better than I can.
Of course there are aspects of the human condition which deserve no tolerance. Discernment is the key, and that's the challenge to us all. 
Ogden Nash exposed my own self-doubts in that regard:
“Sometimes with secret pride I sigh. To think how tolerant I am; Then wonder which is really mine: tolerance or a rubber spine?”

No comments:

Post a Comment