University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

Western Civilization and Religious Faith


4. Such are the factual data which may serve us as a basis to discuss in more general terms the philosophical issues involved in the question of a secular or humanistic common task and religious inspiration. Of course, for anyone who believes in God and in truth, religious division among men is a great misfortune in itself. But it is an historical fact, and in modern democratic societies, in which men subscribing to diverse religious or non-religious creeds have to share in and work for the same political or temporal common good, the body politic must confront this fact in terms of freedom and of equal civic rights for all its members.

A first issue has to do with the very notion of mutual tolerance in civil society. It is clear that without mutual tolerance a democratic society cannot survive. Now what is the meaning of mutual tolerance?

There are people who think that not to believe in any truth, or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakeably true in itself is a primary condition required of democratic citizens in order to be tolerant of one another and to live in peace with one another. These people are in fact the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakeably true, they would feel compelled, by the same stroke, to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their co-citizens. The only remedy they have found to get rid of their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth. That's a suicidal method. And it is a suicidal conception of democracy: not only would a democratic society which lived on universal skepticism condemn itself to death by starvation; but it would also enter a process of self-annihilation, from the very fact that no democratic society can live without a common practical belief in those truths which are freedom, justice, law, and the other tenets of democracy; and that any belief in these things as objectively and unshakeably true, as well as in any other kind of truth, would be brought to naught by the pre-assumed law of universal skepticism.

5. In the field of political science, the opinion which I am criticizing was made into a theory, -- the so-called "relativistic justification of democracy", -- by Hans Kelsen. It is very significant that in order to establish his philosophy of the temporal order and show that democracy implies ignorance of or doubt about any absolute truth, either religious or metaphysical, Kelsen has recourse to Pilate; so that, in refusing to distinguish the just from the unjust, and washing his hands, this dishonest judge thus becomes the lofty precursor of relativistic democracy. Quoting the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, -- St. John, Chapter 18, -- in which Jesus says: "To this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth", and Pilate answers: "What is truth", and then delivers Jesus over to the fury of the crowd, Kelsen concludes that because Pilate did not know what truth is, therefore he called upon the people, and asked them to decide; and thus in a democratic society it is up to the people to decide, and mutual tolerance reigns, because nobody knows what truth is.

The truth of which Kelsen was speaking was religious and metaphysical truth, -- what they call "absolute truth", as if any truth, insofar as it is true, were not absolute in its own sphere. As Miss Helen Silving puts it,{1} the burden of Kelsen's argument (which she herself does not admit) is: "Whoever knows or claims to know absolute truth or absolute justice", -- that is to say, truth or justice simply, -- "cannot be a democrat, because he cannot and is not expected to admit the possibility of a view different from his own, the true view. The metaphysicist and the believer are bound to impose their eternal truth on other people, on the ignorant, and on the people without vision. Theirs is the holy crusade of the one who knows against the one who does not know or does not share in God's grace. Only if we are aware of our ignorance of what is the Good may we call upon the people to decide."

It is impossible more accurately to summarize a set of more barbarous and erroneous assumptions. If it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own, and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence, the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts. In reality it is through ________________________________________________________________

{1} Helen Silving, The Conflict of Liberty and Equality, Iowa Law Review, Spring 1950.

rational means, that is, thorugh persuasion, not through coercion, that the rational animal is bound by his very nature to try to induce his fellow man to share in what it knows or claims to know as true or just. And the metaphysician, because he trusts human reason; and the believer, because he trusts divine grace, and knows that "a forced faith is a hypocrisy hateful to God and man", as Cardinal Manning put it, do not use holy war to make their "eternal truth" accessible to other people, they appeal to the inner freedom of other people by offering them either their demonstrations or the testimony of their love. And we do not call upon the people to decide because we are aware of our ignorance of what is the good, but because we know this truth, and this good, that the people have a right to self-government.

It is, no doubt, easy to observe that in the history of mankind, nothing goes to show that, from primitive times on, religious feeling or religious ideas have been particularly successful in pacifying men; religious differences seem rather to have fed and sharpened their conflicts. On the one hand truth always makes trouble, and those who bear witness to it are always persecuted. On the other hand -- and this is the point we must face -- those who know or claim to know it happen sometimes to persecute others. I don't deny the fact, I say that this fact, like all other facts, needs to be understood. It only means that, given the weakness of our nature, the impact of the highest and most sacred things upon the coarseness of the human heart is liable to make these things, by accident, a prey to its passions, as long as it has not been purified by genuine love. It is nonsense to regard fanaticism as a fruit of religion. Fanaticism is a natural tendency rooted in our basic egotism and will to power. It seizes upon any noble feeling to live on it. The only remedy for religious fanaticism is the Gospel light and the progress of religious consciousness in faith itself and in that fraternal love which is the fruit of the human soul's union with God. For then man realizes the infinite transcendence of truth and of God. Those who place in hell everyone who does not profess the true faith offend their own God in His transcendence and generosity. The more strong and deep faith becomes, the more man kneels down, not before his own alleged ignorance of truth, but before the inscrutable mystery of divine truth, and before the hidden ways in which God goes to meet those who search Him.

6. To sum up, the real problem has to do with the human subject, on the one hand with his rights with regard to his fellow men, and on the other hand with the vicious inclinations which derive from his will to power. The error of the absolutists who would like to impose truth by coercion comes from the fact that they shift their right feelings about the object, from the object to the subject, and think that just as error has no rights of its own and should be banished from the mind (through the means of the mind), so man when he is in error has no rights of his own and should be banished from human fellowship (through the means of human power).

Similarly, the error of the theorists who make relativism, ignorance and doubt a necessary condition for mutual tolerance comes from the fact that they shift their right feelings about the subject, from the subject to the object, and thus deprive man and the human intellect of the very act -- adherence to truth -- in which consists both man's dignity and reason for living.

They begin, as we have seen apropos of Kelsen, with the supreme truths either of metaphysics or of faith. But science also deals with truth, though in science the discovery of a new truth supplants most often a previous theory which was hitherto considered true. Well, what will happen if human fanaticism takes hold of what it claims to be scientific truth at a given moment? Suffice it to look at the manner in which the Stalinist state imposes on scientists its own physical, biological, linguistic or economic truth. Then, shall we conclude that in order to escape such shameful oppression the only way is to give up science and scientific truth, and to take refuge in ignorance?

It is truth, not ignorance, which makes us humble, and gives us the sense of what remains unknown in our very knowledge. In one sense only there is wisdom in appealing to our ignorance: if we mean the ignorance of those who know, not the ignorance of those who are in the dark.

Be it a question of science, metaphysics or religion, the man who says: "What is truth?" as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race. There is real and genuine tolerance only when a man is firmly and absolutely convinced of a truth, or of what he holds to be a truth, and when he at the same time recognizes the right of those who deny this truth to exist, and to contradict him, and to speak their own mind, not because they are from truth but because they seek truth in their own way, and because he respects in them human nature and human dignity, and these very resources and living springs of the intellect and of conscience which make them potentially capable of attaining the truth he loves, if some day they happen to see it.

To say tolerance, moreover, is not enough. For tolerance has a merely negative connotation. The right word is friendship, or love, brotherly love. Only love, which is a positive force, can really enforce tolerance in human life. It's a fateful delusion to substitute skepticism for love.

The conviction each of us has, rightly or wrongly, regarding the limitations, deficiencies, errors of others does not prevent friendship between minds. In such a fraternal dialogue, there must be a kind of forgiveness and remission, not with regard to ideas -- ideas deserve no forgiveness if they are false -- but with regard to the condition of him who travels the road at our side. Every believer knows very well that all men will be judged -- both himself and all others. But neither he nor another is God, able to pass judgment. And what each one is before God, neither the one nor the other knows. Here the Judge not of the Gospels applies with its full force. We can render judgment concerning ideas, truths and errors; good or bad actions; character, temperament, and what appears to us of a man's interior disposition. But we are utterly forbidden to judge the innermost heart, that inaccessible center where the person day after day weaves his own fate and ties the bonds binding him to God. When it comes to that, there is only one thing to do, and that is to trust in God. And that is precisely what love for our neighbor prompts us to do.

Love for our neighbor, or the friendship of charity, does not merely make us recognize the existence of others, -- although as a matter of fact here is something already difficult enough for men, and something which includes everything essential. Not only does it make us recognize that another exists, and not as an accident of the empirical world, but as a human being who exists before God, and has a right to exist. Love for our neighbor springs from our very faith, and it helps us to recognize whatever beliefs other than our own include of truth and of dignity, of human and divine values. It makes us respect them, urges us on ever to seek in them everything that is stamped with the mark of man's original greatness and of the prevenient care and generosity of God. It helps us to come to a mutual understanding of one another. It does not make us go beyond our faith, but beyond ourselves. Faith in God is the root of neighborly love. And neighborly love is the core of genuine tolerance.

<< ======= >>