In reflecting on issues of tolerance and forgiveness in religion, it is difficult to not take into account humanity’s long, and usually unfavorable, history on the subject. From ancient times to the present, in fact, it seems that a defining element of humanity itself is an inability or unwillingness to allow others to hold different beliefs. Even worse, convictions in the absolute rightness of a faith have been used, time and time again, to subjugate whole cultures and/or brutally oppress others. The pattern is unchanging in that, no matter the tenets of love and understanding within the dominant faith, those holding to it consistently deny those very tenets. In short, in my estimation, mankind’s history of religious toleration is far more one of relentless lack of toleration. No matter how deeply people tend to think they adhere to the principles of their faiths, they usually ignore those principles to challenge – or suppress – others, and religious toleration has long been a rare activity.
That said, I feel compelled to take issue with the concept of religious toleration itself. It seems to me to be a kind of authority no person or group has the right to manifest. To tolerate translates to permitting, and permission must come from authority. Given the inherent faith people have in their own religion as being the true one, such authority cannot exist unless religion is subverted into political or social power, and the most powerful then is allowed to dictate “truth.” The parable of the rings in Boccacio makes this plain, as Melchizedek expresses a truth in the problem of identifying the “authentic” ring: no matter the faith, the believer cannot comprehend the possibility that another faith could be correct. Put another way, this is a truth that is undeniable, and yet is also unacceptable to most. There is a kind of logic to this, I admit, in that real belief must render ideas of other belief untrue. I personally have no issue with this; faith demands this kind of complete commitment. What people cannot or will not do, however, is accept the simple reality of the ring parable. In questions of faith, different realities must coexist at the same time, as each has the right to be considered the truth. It may be that this reality is beyond normal human comprehension. It defies the laws of physics, in a sense, in that different elements are occupying the same space. At the same time, it appears that the mere presence of another belief is allowed to transform the religious into the social or material, and people then use whatever is at their command to assert their perceived, greater claim to “truth.” Lack of understanding then breeds intolerance, and this is all the more disturbing because, again, most faiths are based on ideologies of love.
Turning again to humanity’s history in religion, I see no likelihood of this pattern changing. If laws are altered to forbid persecutions of others, there is then tolerance. That does not necessarily equate to acceptance, however, and acceptance is what is crucial. It is also a remote possibility in real terms, or one only marginally in evidence. This then makes me consider forgiveness in a different light. More exactly, as humanity is so insistent on being intolerant of, or barely tolerating, other faiths, it becomes clear to me that forgiveness is the only way different faiths can somehow be true to themselves and to others. It is a kind of inverted equation, in that forgiveness, when it happens, is the reaction to intolerance. This may be, however, “as good as it gets.” When forgiveness is granted, everything changes. The persecuted religion gains power and prestige because it is rising above the dominant, intolerant one. More importantly, all concerned are drawn into the core of the essence of their faith. The reaction of forgiveness then eclipses the intolerance because essential values are, no matter the oppression or circumstances, dominant. It may well be that this “backwards” process is the only way that the impossibility of reconciling different faiths can happen. Equally interesting to me is how forgiveness here takes on a power far beyond the passive.