The speech of the priest from Fransciscans order, the Director of Catholic Radio programme “Mažoji studija” in the international conference in Vilnius “Totalitarianism and Tolerance. Challenges to Freedom”.
Luckily, I am neither a scientist nor some expert, thus I can discuss tolerance only from a practical and particularly personal point of view, no more. Luckily, as the intricacy and complexity of this topic frequently leads a talk or a discussion into an abyss. It happened to me several times, and that is why when I hear the word “tolerance“, I keep thinking if it is possible to fully clarify at least for one‘s own self what attitudes and behaviour it anticipates from you, what is its extent and limits.
At a time when the ideal of tolerance started to appear and kept on living more and more boldly in the midst of fierce inter-confessional Christian fights, its contents were clear and straightforward: simply not to shed each other’s blood. Not to kill or persecute a person just because he has different religious convictions. Not to impose one’s own truth with fire and sword. Martin Luther, the “father” of German tolerance, left us a famous phrase: “Heretics should be fought against not with fire but with scriptures”. True, at the end of his life the great reformer himself strictly condemned any fragmentation within his Church and made anti-Semitic remarks. This proves once again how difficult it is to turn even the most elementary principles of tolerance into an inner stance and coherent practice.
The entire 18th and 19th centuries kept developing and deepening the notion of tolerance. In the Age of Enlightenment, the belief of Prussian king Frederich the Great that every human being has to be redeemed in accordance with one’s way of life is already something much greater than the efforts not to shed blood and fight against foreigners using words rather than fire. The Catholic Church took considerable time till, having refused severe condemnations of the freedom of conscience in the 19th century, it acknowledged on the highest level everyone‘s right to profess and propagate their religious convictions.
Almost half a century ago, the Second Vatican Council solemnly announced in the Declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis humanae: “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits“.
The church succeeded not only in arming with the formal principles of tolerance, but also in seeking that the apprehension of human dignity would stimulate the community of different social groups. The developing practice of ecumenical movement and interfaith dialogue destroyed the walls of animosity and mistrust among different religious confessions, among Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers. Rather than being satisfied with a vague idea of forbearance and reconciliation, the demand to talk and to communicate, to hear and to understand each other increasingly grew. The results achieved in this field were something that even the boldest heralds of tolerance from the previous century could not dream of. One has only to mention the famous Assisi peace gatherings, where the representatives of all major world religions gather for a joint prayer and dialogue. Set up on the initiative of Pope John Paul II, this forum is further continued by Benedict XVI. This year’s Assisi gathering was particularly special as, together with religious representatives, there participated agnostics and atheists. It was as if simply unbelievable openness and the triumph of tolerance.
What else could we anticipate and expect from the word “tolerance”? Where would it further lead mankind and in this particular case – representatives of religions? And what else is missing for the so-called “spirit of Assisi” to be not just a discrete event but a constant attitude, which is neither debated nor asserted, but simply lived? Is this not an illusion, bearing in mind that the four major world religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – keep acknowledging that their religion alone is the only true and just one?
Seemingly, it would suffice for tolerance that the confessors of different religions, rather than fighting, meet, communicate, pray together, share their experience, and jointly seek for the wellbeing of society. Talking of ecumenism or interfaith dialogue, I once found it attractive and just to learn from each other, to expand and enrich one’s own self with the treasures of different religions. From the Christianity of the East we, Catholics, could seek love for liturgy, and from the Protestant Churches – respect for Holy Scriptures, hymns and sermons. Judaism tradition reveals us our roots and also directs us towards thrilling greatness and omnipotence of God. Islam has its unsurpassable mystics; moreover, it radiates the courage, self-devotion and faithfulness. Buddhism, in turn, opens up the depths of meditation and the wisdom of asceticism.
I have noticed all these things in one way or the other, I have realised their importance, in one way or the other, I attempted to know and accept them, while taking part in Orthodox or Lutheran services, reading books, socialising with the representatives of other religions. I would not say that the results were excellent. Everything that I admired and that I tried to master from the treasuries of other religion at the end would remain somewhere aside, feeling odd; it would not become a part of my own self. I envied Thomas Merton whose spiritual writings were soaked with Eastern odours. I envied the lecturer who taught the Holy Scriptures at the seminary and who, at ecstatic moments, chanted Hebrew psalms. And of course – to Francis of Assisi, when he talked to the Muslim sultan in the midst of the Crusades and, as if it is nothing, got as a present muezzin’s horn he himself blew once in a while.
In my own life I only had two experiences when a foreign religious tradition almost miraculously became a part of my own self. The first time it happened when I served in the Soviet army in the city of Tikhvin, not far from Leningrad. Our division performed construction works. We were moved from one object to the next. At that time we worked in the village of Khvalovo, several tens of kilometres from the barracks. We had to tile some roof; it was winter, cold, windy, in brief – no fun. On the outskirts of the village there stood an Orthodox church, ruined and deserted, as was customary in Russia of that time. I kept glancing at its grim tower, thinking that we look alike over here. Once, having sacrificed my lunch break, I trudged through the snow towards those ruins. Inside, weathered frescoes and faces of unfamiliar saints glanced at me from the remaining walls as well as a broken cross sticking out from the snow. My head was spinning, someone as if chanted on High, and before I realised I started to pray out loud in Lithuanian, Russian and Latin. Even in the most magnificent cathedrals later on I have not experienced this flow of divinity. There, in a ruined and abandoned Orthodox church, my Catholicism acquired the most unusual and precious experience, which is still alive and which I could not call upon anywhere else.
The other memory is also from Russia, West Siberia. While I lived there in exile, I was released for medical treatment to the town of Kolpashevo on the bank of Ob River. It was a Sunday in summer, there was a church in the town, this time not ruined but functioning, thus I went for the service. Probably three or four years I had not stepped in the house of God; everything seemed like a dream. I pushed my way through the crowd of worshippers until mindful stewards stopped me and warned that this area is for priests only. I wanted to kiss them and all the foreign people who were there, praying in a foreign language, performing a ritual unfamiliar to me, suspiciously looking at my kneeling and Catholic way of making the sign of the cross. I loved everything around me. This was the house of my soul, the most real one, seemingly, belonging to you for centuries.
Why should I share these personal and maybe sentimental memories in a serious conference? Is there anything in relation to the topic of tolerance, apart from the fact that the action takes place in an Orthodox place of worship while the speaker is Catholic? More than once I have attended a service in an Orthodox church, both in Vilnius and elsewhere, but these two occasions were unique. Of course they took place in a particular setting: winter, misery, loss of home, other losses and longing. Such things always work. However, it is this context that prompts me today in which direction could religious tolerance move and how truly polite forbearance or only occasional ecumenism and interfaith cooperation can grow into real solidarity, blessed unity of the children of God.
Uneasy times are awaiting Christians. We will become, and some have already, marginal in contemporary societies. There are discussions about Europe tired of Christianity. I am citing an article of an English Jesuit John McDade: “We have said too much to Europe, and Europe does not want to hear any more from us, and that is a psychological condition that is very difficult to address. How do you re-evangelise the culture that has become deaf to the spiritual experience that gave it birth?” Later the author predicts that the experience awaiting Europe is analogous to that of Jewish community during two thousand years of Christian Europe. That means being on the outskirts, being an underground culture, which nevertheless is able to keep enriching every human being.
The principle of religious tolerance, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue reaches the peak of its theoretical formulation in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Nothing more can be added to that. After that, it seems to me, there are only two ways: a beautiful and cultivated way of forbearance and collective socialisation or the way where love is sought for. Not rhetorically, but rather in the most actual sense (at least in Europe) Christianity is becoming the “little flock” and is deliberately pushed by the Devine into the way of love and finds the basic premise for this love to set and to hold – its smallness and weakness. Religious conflicts of all times in one or another way are related to the role of “big brother” and pretensions but today this simply does not have any possibility to persist. Most likely it is a sign and a gift of Heaven itself.
Collective social tasks, struggle for common good and cultural activism build different relationships but neither is love. Only marginalised and having realised their vulnerability Christians can truly lovingly dash into each other’s embrace. The same applies to the representatives of other religions. With no fear to loose their identity and betray the truth. At the end, all the religions remain with the same truth – to witness God and to maintain an open space for Him in today’s world. Like never before, we are in need of each other.
I will not claim anything original by admitting that I do not like the word “tolerance”. It is too bland, careful and obscure for me. I have not obtained anything valuable from it by trying to understand and appropriate spiritual treasures of other religions from the perspective of “elder brother”. Only when life circumstances have robbed and downgraded me, there flashed what truly became recognition and acceptance of the other. It became a hint about unity that occurs and goes through love. It is wonderful, that your religious identity is not claimed in return. As we all know, there, in love, the notion of “foreign” simply disappears.