Tolerant by virtue of faith

Searching for religious tolerance

ReligionPhoto: epd-bild/Jörn Neumann Variety of religions as a challenge.An honest dispute about truth would also be a dispute of the interest of religions in each other. Such a dispute might help to alleviate future conflict.

Tolerance and Reformation – the connection of these two notions seems to be so bold that it causes hesitation. The history of the Reformation also marks the beginning of a history of massive denominational rivalry and intolerance against members of other faiths. At first glance, Reformation and tolerance definitely do not fit together. It therefore requires a conscious second glance to put an interaction of the two to the test.

Faith was darkened by intolerance

The Reformers knew that the church constantly needs to renew itself. A continuous spiritual renewal is rooted in the essence of the Gospel and constitutes a fundamental trait of the church. The Reformation anniversary in 2017 therefore offers a welcome opportunity to continue to develop the ideas that changed the world 500 years ago in the 21st century. In view of the destructive, inhuman experiences of intolerance, especially in the 20th century, it became obvious that faith was darkened by intolerance.

Whenever love for one's neighbour falls by the wayside, war is proclaimed instead of peace, and the commandment of protection for strangers is neglected, the Gospel is not "preached right", as the Augsburg Confession demands. On the occasion of the Reformation anniversary it must be asked what "impels Christ" when we look for ways to confess our own faith and, at the same time, respect others who follow a different faith, or none at all.

True tolerance finds its limits in intolerance

What is tolerance? First of all it does not mean indifference, according to the motto that everybody shall become holy after their own fashion. This means that tolerance is an interest in the other person, in the person vis-à-vis, here: in the religion, or the lack thereof, of the other. And tolerance does not mean limitlessness. True tolerance will find its limits in intolerance. Tolerance therefore does not describe a static attitude, but a dynamic, mutual process.

When I think about my faith and about Luther's thesis about the freedom of a Christian, subject to none and at the same time to everybody, I come to the conclusion that I can tolerate the faith of others, especially because I know myself to be at home in my faith. I am saddened by the way how, during debates, verses from the Qur'an are used for ranting against people of Muslim faith. I am no expert of the Qur'an, but as a Christian I am conscious of the fact that Muslims might just as well quote violent passages from the Bible. The question is: am I settled in my certainty of faith, in my own religion? I am convinced that those who are able to practice this in their lives are also open enough to respect that others have different believes, or none at all in a religious sense.

"Those who threaten others can not be tolerated"

Certainly, Jesus' words "I am the light of the world" are a decisive guidance for me. But this does not mean that I can not respect that, for other people, Mohammed is the prophet of God. This does not shake my faith in Jesus Christ. An attitude of faith that does not endure other faiths – and "tolerare" also means "to endure", after all – is rather weak, because it is afraid of the doubts that might be raised when it is questioned. Those who threaten others, with words, violence and weapons, can not be tolerated. This destroys the basis for every kind of dialogue.

"Why should I be interested in your faith"

Three examples that made me think:

1. Those who look at the history of North America recognise how much it is pervaded by the question of religious tolerance. As early as at the beginning of the 17th century, Roger Williams (1603-1683), a Protestant theologian, propagated the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, due to his experiences with the religious wars in Europe. He founded the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for religious minorities – the island was a thorn in the side of the Puritans. But Williams studied the languages of the Native Americans and stood up for fair relations with them. For me, he is an early example for constructive dialogue.

2. During a meal, for which I was invited during Sabbath by orthodox Jews in the U.S.A., the Rabbi who was present there said to me: "Why should I be interested in your faith? You are welcome to believe that Jesus Christ was God's son, but for me he definitely is not the Messiah, and I am not interested in a dialogue about this – what goal should it have?" This left me behind in a rather depressed state – is not the dialogue of religions a valuable contribution to the understanding of the nations, to peace in the world?

3. During the 25 years of my activities in the committees of the ecumenical movement, I have experienced that I became more and more Lutheran the closer I got to know other denominations. The experience of the other has strengthened my consciousness for my own. At the same time I respect that a Russian Orthodox believer or a Roman Catholic practice their Christianity in a different way and have different access to the religion we share. The broad spectrum of faith, which is already laid out in the Bible, shows itself in the variety of confessions. Time and again, the economical movement has made visible a kind of "theology of friendship", which grows through personal encounters and is able to behold the differences as something positive.

The goal of unity: "reconciled variety"

"Reconciled variety", a notion that, for the Lutheran Churches in the dialogue of ecumenism, describes the goal of unity, might also be apt for the search for a theological concept of religious tolerance: To love and live one's own, to respect the other, and to reconcile both in a way that makes it possible to live together. A notion thus defined might be expanded in view of people without a faith, by respecting them as "different" and not as being in deficit from the outset. In a secular society, this is an aspect of increasing importance. Conversely, it is of course a precondition that religious people are met with the same respect. In the secular society it often seems to be necessary to demand this.

Of course I know the objections that might be uttered against each of the three examples. At first: what about the command for missionary work in Matthew 28? But to go out into the world and to spread the Gospel means exactly this: to show that I live my faith with joy, that I find strength for life and support in it. When this comes across as inspiring, convincing and contagious, others will wonder whether it might also be their way towards God, or with God. Where it comes across as contemptuous, and where I act arrogantly, intent on keeping my distance, the religious conviction I share will not appear to be very inviting.

It is time that religions defuse conflicts

I also hear that"they" (mostly meaning the Muslims) are intolerant, violent, stirring up hatred against Christians and persecuting them. The persecution of Christians is indeed a highly charged topic, and our sisters and brothers in faith everywhere in the world need our solidarity. But it is absurd to equate all Muslims to a small percentage of fundamentalist, violent, ideologically deluded perpetrators. In every religion, fundamentalism misleads. I, as a Christian, do not wish to be identified with many statements that are made in the name of the Christian faith during the campaign before the American presidential election, just as little as faithful Muslims want to be identified with Islamist preachers of hatred.

To provoke hatred and fear is, and remains, an aberration in every religion. There is no "we" and "they", but people of different faiths, and non-religious people, who must implement their deep convictions of freedom, tolerance and responsibility in such a way that a life in peace and justice becomes possible for all human beings in this world. Thereby reason is the best advisor against seduction, ideology and fear.

The "dispute about the truth"

During all this I like to have an intense "dispute about the truth". It is a dispute of the interest we have in each other. I can not conceive the understanding of the Roman Catholic church; Russian Orthodoxy appears to me to be too rigid; I strive to comprehend Judaism; many things in the Islamic faith irritate me; Buddhism remains alien to me. But I am interested in the faith of others, and I believe that it is decisive that religions remain in dialogue with each other. All too often, intolerance and dogmatism have poured oil into the flames of political and ethnic conflicts. It is time that religions become a factor in the process of defusing conflicts, because they know a tolerance that does not want to violently destroy differences, and because they understand themselves as creative energies that want to, and are able to, shape our world and the future in a humane way.

For me personally, Jesus Christ remains the way, the light and the life. This is my certainty of faith, which I am happy to live in the community of my brothers and sisters in faith, which I practice in the world and celebrate in worship. It is my freedom, in which I am subject to none. It is especially because of this that I can respect the fact that other people believe differently, or not at all. This is my freedom, in which I am subject to everyone. And in the end I can leave it up to God how this mystery of the different religions will once be revealed, beyond this time and this world.


The text "Tolerant aus Glauben" ("Tolerant by virtue of faith") as been published in "Schatten der Reformation". Das Magazin ("Shadows of the Reformation". The Magazine) (DIN A 4, 79 pages), available as PDF download. It can also be ordered free of charge at the Church Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany: Kirchenamt der EKD, Herrenhäuser Str. 12, 30419 Hannover, e-mail: jessica.fischer@ekd.de ).