Can the liberal model of toleration save us from violence?
1. That atheological liberalism will not save us from terrorist attacks except by increasing the power of the state
The recent attacks in Sri Lanka have revealed the failure of liberalism -- the political consensus between the Left and the Right that constitutes the status quo of our western political thought. This political consensus has advocated for a model of religious tolerance that is currently breaking down.
The model works like this. In the face of two disagreeing religious groups, liberalism absents itself from the actual theological content of their disagreement and seeks, instead, to simply govern the public, outward actions of those religious groups. The role of the State is not to preach any particular theology, but to squash all public violence and incitement to public violence that blossoms out of any and all theologies. At the heart of its role as a neutral, theology-less referee between rival religions is the idea that “true religion” is a phenomenon of the private sphere. Religious belief, and thus religious disagreement, is only allowed as a matter of personal belief and private conviction. When it steps outside of its proper boundaries, it is subject to the regulative punishments of the State, its police force, its legal apparatus, and its justice system.
The injury of another person is an obvious example of what the State considers an illicit practice of religion, but it would be a mistake to believe that the liberal model is merely concerned with these more obvious types of violence. Refusing to pay taxes, seriously disrupting the market economy, disruptive protest, the use of theology in the realm of legislation, or any other attempt to change the social order is considered the mark of a corrupt religion, one which has become a cult, a terrorist group, a hate-group, or, more generally, an “extremist” or “radical” religion. Here, a religious “radical” is not considered etymologically, as one who lives from the roots (radix) of his religion. Within the liberal lexicon, “radical” religion is religion that has ceased to be true religion, which is only supposed to serve as the motivator of acts that are already in accord with the determined ends of the State (like charity and peaceful co-existence) or at least don’t matter to it (like going to church or receiving the sacraments).
As of yet, Christians have largely taken up this liberal model of tolerance, and not without reason. By paring down religion to the personal, the private, and the socially inefficacious, and by agreeing to increase the power of the State so that it can effectively police the potential transformation of allowed private belief systems into disallowed public actions, Christians in the Western world have been able to live in an age of relative religious peace. Now that peace is breaking down.
One of the fundamental problems with the liberal model of religious tolerance is that it presents no positive argument for toleration, only a negative one. The negative argument is simple enough: “Either you tolerate those of differing religious belief by neither harming them or inciting harm against them, or the State will harm you by fine, imprisonment, or by hunting you down and killing you.” This model is utterly helpless, then, when people become convicted of anything beyond the fear of death (as is de facto true of suicide bombers), imprisonment (as was true of the New Zealand shooter, according to his own words), or fine.
Since “religion” is precisely that part of the human experience which posits supernatural goods worth dying for, and certainly worth suffering for, this impotence represents a massive blind spot within the liberal model. It has forced liberal States to become surveillance states in which citizens -- and indeed, everyone -- are monitored for signs of radicalization. But it makes sense that liberalism is unable to express any kind of alluring, positive argument for religious toleration, because to make an argument for toleration is to make a theological argument. To take an obvious example, if our liberal states were to argue that, contrary to the theological vision of ISIS, Catholics do exist under the dhimmi, or at least ought to receive some degree of the traditional respect accorded to the People of the Book, and as a people who hold Mary with great devotion, as the Koran commands -- then our liberal states would abdicate their detached referee-status which relegates religion to the private sphere and crowns secular politics as the only viable language of the public sphere. They would have to become theological.
Of course, liberalism already is theological. It is a definite, positive, theological position to argue that religion is a phenomenon of the private sphere, rather than, say, a virtue that every man is obligated to develop. It would be more accurate to say that liberal states are highly motivated to maintain the appearance of being atheological in order to maintain the practical superiority of the State over all religion. This practical superiority allows the liberal State to operate as the police, nanny, and referee of all religions -- as the atheological power that can disinterestedly moderate the potential violence of the theologies. If this veneer is lost, liberalism begins to look rather like one particularly coercive theology among theologies. The fact that this is how Western liberalism is viewed by Islamists like ISIS is obvious, who make no Church and State distinction in their attacks. Despite our insistence that religion has attained its pure form as a privately held belief, we are, to them, the Crusader Empire, and to bomb a Church and a hotel seems to hit the same target -- though admittedly, one is closer to a bullseye than the other. Our insistence that we are beyond religion just looks like an particularly lame aspect of our infidel religion.
That the liberal model is breaking down is obvious in our cultural support for religious reform within Islam. Liberal politicians like Emmanuel Macron, who seek a reformed Islam, admit that what is needed is a spiritual and theological shift that the State cannot give insofar as it maintains the appearance of an atheological actor. Put cynically, they need Islam to become theologically amenable to the basic doctrine of liberalism -- that religion remain a socially inefficacious system of personal beliefs. Put charitably, they need the religious leaders of Islam to preach the nonviolent strains within Islam that the State cannot preach without injuring its theoretically disinterested, atheological stance. Obviously, this effort to remain disinterested toward religion while vying for religious reform within Islam has proved largely inefficacious.
Likewise, politicians tend to mask definite theological counterpoints against religious extremists by using a de-sacralized language. When Barack Obama called the Sri Lanka attacks an “attack on humanity” he made obvious reference to the idea that a positive argument for religious toleration can be made through the consideration of many religions as all belonging to one, human family. That this is, at its base, a theological argument, becomes obvious if you press the point and ask: “Why should I care about humanity over and against members of my own religion?” Unless we really believe that we can derive a duty of nonviolence from a consideration of our common biological species (a status that certainly doesn’t have much nonviolent import among other animal species) we have to admit that the only reason “humanity” inspires us to nonviolence is because it recalls a theological concept -- that we were all created by God who “desires not the death of a sinner.” The appeal to a “humanity” that is wounded and offended by terrorism is an example of a theological effort rendered impotent by the necessity to mask the Christian-theological character of liberalism in secular-sounding terminology. I, for one, do not imagine that those willing to explode young people for the sake of a theocratic kingdom are particularly moved by our common species.
Perhaps the liberal model is the best model we have for preventing terrorism: expand the surveillance state, Westernize the world into our belief that religion should be socially inefficacious, and threaten all religious violence with recrimination. But I am beginning to doubt it.
2. That the liberal model of toleration is a bad version of the Christian model of toleration
In New Zealand a Western, post-Christian, 4chan-trained racist kills mosque-going Muslims whom he sees as cultural invaders. In Sri Lanka, ISIS makes friends with some low-budget Islamist extremist group to help them blow up Christians at Roman Catholic churches and several hotels on Easter Sunday. In both cases we see a perverse sense of hygiene at work -- a desire for purity that sees the other as an invasive body at work inside a whole which does not include them, and indeed, cannot tolerate their presence. The fundamental problem with the liberal method of toleration is that, by locking religions into the cramped private sphere, they no longer have any relation to each other, and thus they more easily breed the very kinds of tribalism that liberal states seek to destroy.
Within the story of the world told by the Catholic Church, all other religions exist in relation to Christianity, and all religious believers have a lived relation to the Christian believer. One should not deny that that this is a hierarchical relation in which Christianity is at the top, in the sense that, from the vantage point of Christianity, other religions are understood and loved insofar as they share a common destiny -- conversion to and transformation in Christ. One should not shy away from admitting that a Christian view of things puts Christianity at the center any more than a secular liberal should shy away from the fact that a liberal worldview puts liberalism at the center. Within the logic of liberalism, all religions are understood and loved and tolerated insofar as they adhere, at their core, with the theology of liberalism, in which religious conviction is a purely private-personal phenomenon that has no social efficacy outside of what the State allows.
The Christian idea of religious toleration is based on the fundamentally theological claim that the human person is such a creature and of such dignity that God gives him the freedom to accept or reject His love. God does not desire slaves, but a bride who gives her “fiat” to his loving advance; who gives a reasoned, intelligent, heartfelt “yes” to God and freely conforms her will to his will, as is proper and perfecting of her nature. This is the positive good which draws the Christian towards the toleration of those belaboring under false religions. It is the recognition that God has given everyone the ability to live out the divine gift of freedom to reject or enter a loving relationship with him.
As a consequence of this teaching, the Christian is utterly unable to view the practitioners of false religions as being “other to” or unrelated to the Christian. Rather, the practitioners of false religion, in the very fact of their false practice, give testimony to the goodness of God, who gives them their free will and sets them longing for him. Indeed, practitioners of false religions achieve a kind of unity with the Christian by way of anticipation and orientation — they are orientated towards becoming Christian, and all that is good and true and beautiful in their practice is an anticipation of their future baptism into the one fold of Christ.
Obviously, this kind of theological language is horrifying to liberals, as liberalism is premised on the privatization of the theological. They would see a “Christian meta-narrative” like this as a rude, preemptive “claiming” of other religions for Christianity. I suppose it is — but liberalism does the same.
Liberalism apes the Christian ground of religious toleration, not by asserting the doctrine of the freedom of the individual for God, but a doctrine of public indifference. Whereas Christianity says, “tolerate false believers, because man is free before God”, liberalism says “tolerate people no matter their religious beliefs, because religious beliefs are not a matter of public importance.” All religions are to be treated with equal respect, because all religions are equally unimportant to the public life of the State. This is why, when faced with Islamist terrorism, liberal politicians are forced to make claims to the effect that such versions of Islam are not true Islam, not true religion -- if they threaten the State, they cannot be true religions, because religion has been defined as a system of private belief that does not threaten the State.
Within Christian toleration, the one who believes differently than me still has everything to do with me. He operates within the same drama of freedom and truth as I. This is why, in the language of the Church, there is no conception of my erring neighbor as an “other” or a foreign body. What predominates is precisely their tortuous relationship to Christianity. They are not “other” or “foreign” but apostates, heretics, schismatics, and pagans, the whole host of the heterodoxy in all its vainglory and, one should always presume, earnestness, freely living its once-was and its not-yet in relation to the family of love we call the Catholic Church.
One of the reasons liberalism’s doctrine of toleration is so successful in historically Christian countries is because it accords with the same ends that Christianity has fought to make a part of human consciousness for two thousand years -- “love your enemies.” I may wave “good morning” to my Muslim friend because he is a lost and addled Arian whom Christ desires to return to his Church. I may wave “good morning” to him because his religious commitments are only his own private, socially inefficacious way of determining the meaning of his own existence, while we share our public life as American citizens and market actors. Practically speaking, I wave either way.
But within liberal toleration, the one who believes differently than me gradually becomes the one who has nothing to do with me. His privately held set of beliefs is distinct from mine, and there is no greater unity in which we remain united, besides existing under the same threat of State violence if we should try to harm each other. He is of another religion and the gulf between him and me is infinite.
Insofar as the public becomes amenable to the political theology of liberalism, this isolation of each religion from the other creates a kind of peace. Insofar as I have nothing to do with the false believer and he has nothing to do with me and we both believe this to be the case because we consider our religions as private hobbies having little, if anything, to do with the real world of money and politics -- in which religion is inefficacious -- then we both get along. We buy, sell, and trade without interruption.
Cultural secularization is liberalism’s most successful bid for peace, because it gradually creates a generation that is willing to consider religion as a private interest, unrelated to the interests of others, and ultimately subordinated to the real world of biological life, money, property, politics, and family. This compartmentalized and subordinated “religion” no longer posits goods that demand sacrifice -- and certainly not martyrdom -- because secular, public life is valued as a higher good than one’s private, religious life. This transvaluation of values ensures that the State’s superiority over and governance of religion remains effective. It forestalls the possibility that religious believers will believe and act beyond the fear of death, imprisonment, or fine, in the light of goods that the State cannot threaten, i.e. “do not fear the one who can harm the body, fear the one who can harm the soul.”
In speaking with a Muslim friend, I have realized that this is the great strength of American culture. He bemoaned the fact that in the space of one generation, faithful Muslims who migrated to America began to consider Islam as a sort of cultural artifact, and have become willing to violate the Koran for the sake of their political and economic life, which are now seen as the true “highest goods” for which all else is sacrificed -- they sell liquor and lottery tickets to keep businesses open, dress immodestly and neglect their prayers.
This may look blase. In fact, it is the peace that liberal theology has forged between the religions — the peace of public indifference achieved through the subordination of religious values to market values. Such religious believers, habitually convinced that their religion is a privately held set of beliefs with no public or social efficacy beyond what the State allows, do not argue, do not fight — and certainly do not blow themselves up. The State can effectively manage believers whose ultimate commitments are biological life, public respectability, secure sources of income, and college degrees from good schools for their children. It cannot effectively manage those whose ultimate commitments are “the will of God” and “his kingdom.” Thus, a crucial part of the liberal project is to argue that no one should have a “dominant end,” that is, a purpose, or a goal “to which all other ends are subordinate.” John Rawls, liberalism’s great apologist, considers having a dominant end “as irrational, or more likely as mad,” which clarifies the role of “Westernization” — it is a therapeutic work which heals the mad of their madness by subordinating the dominant ends posited by religion to the multiplicity of goods provided by liberalism.
3. That without christianity those who reject unity through liberalism do not fall back on unity through conversion but work to attain unity through violence
There is a genuine desire for unity in the human heart, and unity can only be achieved in two ways -- by the destruction of the out-groups, or by the conversion of the out-groups into the in-group. Christianity, because it is evangelical, faces the out-groups with a desire for their conversion. Once Christianity is radically privatized by the theology of liberalism, there is no more desire for their conversion. This seems to be the current position of the Catholic Church which, having heard that the powers of this earth have gone off “converting all the nations” in favor of “leaving all the nations alone to their private beliefs” thing, has toned down its eucumenical and evangelical desire “that they may all be one.” But where religion provides no clear, evangelical direction to the desire for unity (being after all, a merely private belief), people who desire unity and peace turn, quite naturally, back to the first method of attaining it: to the destruction of the out-group. “If they won’t join you, beat them,” or, more to the point, “if the ideology of liberalism that has been fed to you since birth has thoroughly negated the idea that all mankind are destined for unity in Christ, and that it is your duty to work for the conversion of false believers into the one fold, then, upon seeing the unrelated Other causing disunity and difficulty, shoot them in their mosque.”
The return of racial and nationalist violence is an obvious example of how, when Christian faith declines, the desire for unity through conversion takes on a perverse form as a desire for unity established through the destruction of others. This is particularly obvious in those who would justify violence against Muslims for the sake of preserving European civilization. “Europe” only exists as a unity insofar as it was once a unity of Christian belief. Now that the unifying fact of Christianity has become a cultural artifact, it leaves a merely geographical-historical unity of people who happen to share the same spot under the same laws. This ephemeral unity is increasingly being grounded with the myth of a common European racial unity, or by a European cultural-linguistic unity that has nothing to do with Christianity. Within these new “unities,” out-groups are not convertible into the in-group. There is no chance of conversion. One either is or is not of the race, the tribe, or the shared culture. Muslims can only be seen as invaders.
Within the writings of the New Zealand shooter, it becomes obvious that his self-professed troubled relationship with Christianity is precisely this -- Christianity desires a unity of believers through the conversion of the nations. The shooter’s vision of a unity of race through the destruction of “invaders” is a perversion of the Christian desire for unity of mankind through the conversion of unbelievers. This perversion is made possible by the liberal subordination of religion which leaves room for “race” and “tribe” and “culture” to take its place as that which truly makes men who they are. The less an evangelical relationship towards others is a genuine possibility, the more violence we’ll see from those who desire a genuine unity of people, rather than the mutual submission of people to the threat of violence from the state.
As for violence from Muslims, it would hardly amount to a prophecy to acknowledge that this will continue, and increase -- though not for quite the same reasons as racist and nationalist violence from the post-Christian West. Islamic violence increases under the hegemony of liberalism for the rather simple reason that Muslims are very often not liberals. And if one is not a liberal, one does not see liberalism as it describes itself, as the true narrative of human existence, but as it is -- a Christian heresy which preaches the subordination of religion to the private sphere. There is something deeply idiotic sounding about ISIS claiming to have scored a point against the Crusaders by bombing hotels, until one realizes this point. If liberalism is a Christian heresy, a perverse attempt of achieving the peace of Christianity by means of the subordination of religion, then the influence of liberalism, from its westernizing spread of market capitalism to its secular preaching of religious pluralism, is simply a Christian empire seeking dominance by other means. ISIS do not believe the atheological postures of liberalism, but bomb it precisely as an aggressive, foreign theology. We live in an odd age in which our enemies do not believe that we have truly left Christ, and so they kill us as Christians, while we do not believe Christ enough to love our enemies, and so we kill them as invaders.
From an orthodox perspective, our violent age can be best described as the encounter of two heresies, each equally wrong about who God is. On the one hand, there is Islam, in which God does not grant the human race the freedom to choose to cooperate with his will, only the command to submit to his will, inscrutable and alien as it may be. On the other hand, there is liberalism, a Christian heresy in which God becomes unnecessary, insofar as humanity already possesses by nature everything they need to be righteous. Both are attempts to create a unity of all mankind through violence — liberalism through the legitimate violence of the State and Islam (according to the theology of ISIS) through the establishment of a universal caliphate. To limit this violence, we should sharpen our dull calls for “humanity” and “tolerance” against the rock of the Church, that school of love which provides the only true, positive reason for toleration and the unity of all mankind — God’s will that all might be saved. We should work to convert both heresies to Catholicism, a mission which the martyrs of Sri Lanka have already undertaken by the shedding of their blood.