Monday, April 28, 2008

A Letter Concerning Toleration (John Locke)

It's pretty well agreed that the principle of religious liberty in American tradition is founded on the thinking of John Locke. It really helps, in understanding things, to go back to where an idea got started, because that determines the thinking even of people who have no idea where their thinking came from.

For instance, when I read Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion some years ago, I saw that Calvin made sense about a lot of things. but I found one subtle error in his thinking - he failed to distinguish between weakness and sin. In his work, it looks like a small theological booboo. But the consequences for the Calvinist tradition have been disastrous. The cruel severity, contempt for weakness, and admiration of the rich and successful that plagues all Calvinist societies quite obviously got its start right there. For instance, the slave systems of Surinam, South Africa, and the United States were more consistent and relentless in their denial of the humanity of their slaves than, say, that of Roman Catholic Brazil. The inclination of American Protestant religion to despise the poor and the weak - figuring that they are poor because they are sinners and that the strong and worldly successful are virtuous - clearly grows out of Calvin's original mistake.

No marvel that the spiritual and godly preacher in American Christianity wears fancy clothes and drives a nice car, and is paid good money by his big church with a fancy building, while the one that lacks these things is despised. It's a lot easier to discern our errors today and why we're so deceived when we see just where we got them.

Returning to Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, I never realized that there is some solid theology there, which today's American Christians would do well to ponder, who pray for the success and safety of violent aggressors who supposedly defend us from the Muslim bad guys by murdering people in other people's lands so that imperial America can subdue them to its will and rob them to feed its insatiable lust. Consider this:

For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith - for everyone is orthodox to himself - these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ. Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good will in general towards all mankind, even to those who are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a Christian himself. "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them," said our Saviour to His disciples, "but ye shall not be so." [Luke 22:25] The business of true religion is quite another thing. It is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force, but to the regulating of men's lives, according to the rules of virtue and piety. Whoever will list himself under the banner of Christ must, in the first place, and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices.

Read the whole letter here:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Whoever will list himself under the banner of Christ must, in the first place, and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices."

Yep. This seems an obvious point, but is entirely neglected by most of us. Powerful post.


5/03/2008 6:32 PM  

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