"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The intolerance of the tolerant society

The medieval era, we are told was wildly intolerant and brutally conformist. Examples are always made of Galileo, or Luther, or some "reformer" who had to flee persecution that would take his life. Now, we assure ourselves, we are more civilized.

So why are we so easily outraged when public figures do not conform to our personal ideals? Why are we so easily upset when some situation arises that pits our most cherished notions against each other? Why are we so inflexible that we soon start drawing lines between what should be and what will be, and declaring all those on the "wrong" side of the line damned to perdition, and useless besides?

Part of that is politics, of course; and in that sense, 'twas ever thus. But we especially like to denigrate public figures, especially religious ones. We hold such people to an impossible standard, and maintain an "either/or" position toward them. We are quite puritanical, actually; or what we imagine "puritans" to have been. In truth, we are far more intolerant than the Puritans ever were; or the Calvinists, or the medieval church, for that matter. Today our motto is: "Make one mistake, and you pay for it the rest of your life."

Take that link on the left, to the "Dante's Inferno Test." Rank yourself according to what you have ever done, and you soon find yourself damned to one of the circles of hell. But is that it? Is that all there is? One mistake, one false step, and no redemption? Dante was not so intolerant. "As I was in life, so I am in death," one anonymous shade tells him, in the 7th circle. The people Dante damns, in fact, are damned for their lack of love, not for a simple sin, a single incorrect act. The whole basis of his afterlife is the medieval basis for existence: Love one another. The emphasis was on the simple commandment of Jesus, in John's gospel: "A new commandment I give you. Love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another."

Not so simple, of course, and the medieval mind did not take it simplistically. But it did take it as a life course, not a spurting passion, a sudden warmness in the loins or the cockels of the heart, here then gone, the sudden ardor of adolescence or the basis for a happy and settled marriage. It was Ovid who saw love as destabilizing and threatening, and primarily a matter of lust. It was the medieval mind that understood love as the path to accepting, caring about, and ultimately focussing on, not the self, but the other. The damned in the Inferno are not there because of one misstep, but because of a mis-choice. They did not choose to love; and the more they chose self-love over love of others, the deeper into the inferno they descend, until finally the most condemned are those who most aped love and concern, but turned it to their own ends through fraud, which Virgil tells Dante is most condemned because only humans are capable of it.

So the damned in Dante's metaphorical hell range downward slowly, based on how poorly they tried to love each other. But we are harsher. How much someone's conduct conforms, at any given moment, to our ideal, or the ideal of our community, determines whether they rise or fall in our estimation. Dante fearlessly plunged cardinals and popes into his Inferno, but not because holy fathers and bishops were supposed to holier and better than the laity; it was because of what those individuals had done. Their positions did not make them pure, or better; perhaps only more responsible. But their place in the rings is determined by what they did, not what role they played in society. "As I was in life, so I am in death." Dante understood, it is who you are, that matters; from that stems what you do.

And what you do is played out over the course of a lifetime, and depends more upon your behavior toward the others you know. That is the room for repentance in the scheme. Self-serving mea culpas would be meaningless; it is the true change of heart that matters. And that change of heart is only manifested in actions. "It is not what goes into a man, but what comes out of him, that matters," Jesus said. And when what comes out is directed toward love for neighbor, for other, that will outweigh, ultimately, all other considerations. And when that direction becomes the ohne warum, well, then you have achieved the ne plus ultra of the saints.

You would almost be Beatrice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:12 PM  
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