Thursday, September 09, 2010

John Locke's theology of toleration in the public square

John Locke wrote a letter in 1689 to propose a theological treatise on toleration among those with different religion as well as those without religion. That letter is now famously known as 'A Letter Concerning Toleration'.

The context of that letter is the immediate period after the Protestant Reformation. Western Christianity which was once held under the power of the Holy Roman Empire has been democratized. Various kings and princes around Europe, with their new found political authority derived from theological diversity, have waged wars among themselves and against Rome.

It was through a series of peace treatises known as the Treaty of Westphalia that these kings and princes obtained sovereignty for their own territory and hence stopped the wars. Locke's theology on toleration is conceived in this post-Westphalia period, about 30 to 40 years after the emergence of sovereign states around Europe, to promote hospitality in this new reality consists of diverse religiosity.

Locke started his letter with a theological defense for the concept of toleration:
"I must need answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church." (Emphasis added)
That is an obvious theological statement.

In the first two paragraphs, Locke included citations of Luke 22.25, 32, 2 Tim. 2.19, Rom. I, and Gal. 5 to make his point. He then wrote:
"The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light."
Locke was not embarrass to be explicit with the Christian foundation of his political thoughts. He viewed his own thoughts on toleration as a theological polity. He outrightly stated that his ground for humans' virtuous living is derived from 2 Tim. 2.19 and Luke 22.32, to which after citing the latter passage he wrote, "said our Lord to Peter," (emphasis added) stressing his religious affiliation to Jesus Christ.

There is also an instance where Locke stated unambiguously that his thoughts on politics and public issues are shaped and validated by the Bible. He charged his interlocutor's ideas as invalid because he couldn't find them in the scripture, "I could never yet find in any of the books of the New Testament."

Locke also mentioned about the separation of the church's affair from the state's affair in the letter. Here is what he wrote:
"I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other."
He went on to give theological justification and reasons why there should be a separation. Locke has also delineated further the differences and parallels between church and state in his '"On the difference between civil and ecclesiastical power, indorsed excommunication," dated 1673-1674, in The Life and Letters of John Locke: With extracts from his journals and common-place books [UK: Henry G. Bohn, 1858], p.300 onwards).

Although Locke did not make explicit references to Martin Luther's theology of the two kingdoms (which Luther, an Augustinian monk, adopted from Augustine), there are significant similarities between the former's and latter's theology on the relation between the church and the state.

It is probable that Luther's theology was so prominent in Locke's time that it provides the intellectual milieu for Locke to develop his theology along Luther's thoughts. (See Philip Michelbach and Charles Arthur, ""He jumbles heaven and earth together": John Locke, Martin Luther, and Political Theology." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference, Chicago, USA). Luther's theology of two kingdoms was so prevalent and well recognized that James Madison, a political philosopher and the fourth President of the United States, wrote in his letter to F. L. Schaeffer, dated 3rd December 1821, acknowledging Luther as the one who "led the way" in articulating the concept of separation between the church's affair from the state's. (James Madison, Letters and other writings of James Madison [USA: J.B. Lippincott & co., 1865], p.242.)

John Locke's theological polity was so steeped in the Christian tradition that he announced that the denial of the existence of God would make the order of social polity senseless and arbitrary. Therefore atheism is a threat to social order, according to Locke. Even so, Locke maintained that we have to be tolerant to the atheists as long as they do not dominate others with their atheism:
"Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated." (Emphasis added)
In John Locke, we see a Christian whose religious thoughts and values are being presented for the consideration of the society in the public sphere. The theology of tolerance, the theology of stability of social polity, and the theology of separation between church and state are all identified by Locke to be grounded on Christian tradition in 'A Letter Concerning Toleration'.

Locke is also famous for his treatise on human equality in his work titled 'Two Treatises of Government'. His theology on human equality is the basis for his critique against Robert Filmer's defense of divine rights of kings. Commenting on this work, John Dunn, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge and an authority on Locke's thoughts, wrote:
"Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may not appear in person in the text of the Two Treatises but their presence can hardly be missed when we come upon the normative creaturely equality of all men in virtue of their shared species-membership.[...] In seventeenth-century England, if the gospel could only be forgotten (which it pretty readily was), there were no problems at all about justifying inequality. [...] (As for giving reasons, our social structure will do that for us.) At the biological level the axiom of equality is whole inert socially, and in pre-industrial Western civilization it could hardly be a conclusion of sociological reason. Far from being extrinsic, the theology was the sole possible significant locus for equality."
(John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969], p.99-100. Italics original, bold added)
Jeremy Waldron, Professor of Law at the New York University, expounded in great detail John Locke's theology on human equality in his 2003 book titled 'God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought', published by Cambridge University Press.

The next time a secularist tells you that there should be a separation between religious values from the discourse on public issues, you may tell them that that view, together with the view on human equality, tolerance, and social order, are themselves religious, at least as we have inherited it from John Locke's theology.

It is simply self-defeating to disallow religious values to be presented in public discourse, when that dis-allowance itself is based on religious value, rooted in theological reason.

At least John Locke was clear and consistent. He was explicit with his theology on the church and the state as two entities divinely ordained to serve two theological ends. As Locke has argued, when one denies God, one simply has no basis for social order in its tenets of tolerance, human equality, and appropriate governance.

Hence the actual matter lies on discerning which religious values should be allowed and which not? If allowed, why so? If not, why not?

This would be a proper, not to mention wiser and tolerant, approach than to simply shout, "Bar the secularist!" or "Bar the fundamentalists!" If only both militant secularists and militant anti-secularists know the real world and its history. That will save them from embarrassing themselves in the public space.

1 comment:

Ramanathan said...

Locke's Letter has been much on my mind too. Any thoughts on who might be Locke's counterpart in Islam?

Locke was responding to post-reformation divisions in the church, soon after the formulation of the Westminister Confession of Faith.

Would the Sunni-Shia divide qualify as a similar period in Islam?

Much has been said in history about how Islamic scholars were deeply into philosophy - how they preserved, copied/translated Aristotle, etc.

I wonder how the teachers of Islam responded to 'disunity' amongst the ummah - long before Locke.