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A Friendship of Tolerance: Voltaire

Tolerance. The word on its own is enough to evoke emotions. We've certainly become a less tolerant society, or it may feel this way. Humankind has a long history of intolerance, and the blood of millions is deep in the soil on every continent.

Did you ever participate in a Lincoln Douglas debate in high school? The format permits you time to make arguments and provide rebuttals. In school, you were armed with material to make your case based on facts, and you had to do your own research and cite your sources. I remember scrambling for data on note cards while my opponent provided their view. The debates were about an issue, not about the person debating. It was to persuade the judge you understood the issue presented and offered the most intelligent solutions.

Oh how far we have strayed from this type of debate in our societies. Right and left are at fault for making the politics about personalities and less about the issues of our time.

I was rereading Voltaire's "Treatises on Tolerance" last week. Voltaire revisits the lack of tolerance in history as he focuses on recent events in his day as a local Huguenot family suffers the intolerance of the Catholic majority in France. The repercussions of the Reformation were endless in 17th-century Europe. In every major city were edicts, executions, and uprisings. Once again, guilt followed both sides, Protestant and Catholic, lest you think your religious heritage is free of blood stains.

The atrocities recounted are painful, and Voltaire's call for toleration should echo in our modern ears.

"The law of intolerance is therefore absurd and barbaric. It is the law of the jungle." - Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance) Penguin Random House UK, Pg 34

Standing by Voltaire's desk in Paris 1.27.24

As a writer about friendship, I began to think about Voltaire's words as they may apply to our relationships with those close to us. How do we build relationships where we show tolerance for others? Tolerance related to different worldviews, behavior, and disappointments. Can we have intimate relationships with those who have an opposite political view, a different religion, a different lifestyle, and define the world and life differently than us?

Yes. But it requires much effort and a deep affection for other people.

Voltaire placed himself in his book in the Christian camp. This was not true as he was very much a Deist, as you may recall Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin were. But it helped in the argument of why Christians are persecuting Christians if the basis of their faith is the example of Jesus.

"I say this in horror, but also in truth: it is we ourselves, we Christians, who have been persecutors, executioners, and assassins! And of whom? Our fellow Christians." - Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance) Penguin Random House UK, Pg 59

He chides the different factions of Christianity and their desire to keep some purer form of the faith alive by terminating anyone who has a different process or view.

"If God is truly the author of our religion, God will sustain it without your help. You know that intolerance produces only hypocrites or rebels - what a fatal choice." - Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance) Penguin Random House, Pg 62

Even in the circles I was raised, we were taught how horrible Catholics were, how intolerant Muslims were, and how other Protestant groups had their pieces of theology off into the heretical. Then with time, I began to meet people in all these circles, and I discovered they were not the demons they were made out to be. Quite the contrary – most of them more moral and thoughtful than me.

I discovered more in common, even theologically, than differences. How could we all be following the same Jesus and be taught to dislike each other so much?

In 1985, I went into a Catholic Church with a friend for the first time for a youth event. I could not tell any difference from a youth event at my Baptist church.

Over time, I would build more and more friendships with people in different religions or of no faith at all. In fact, I found their friendships more stimulating and the conversations more thoughtful.

The Enlightenment was not so enlightened, and its evils persisted into modern society.

How did we get so far from the example of Jesus? Jesus cannot be blamed for the hatred, segregation, rape, and deaths of millions. These all fall on the heads of those possessed by power lust, warmongering, and those who disregard human life and God's creation. Something done in God's name does not make it of God.

We continue to live in an intolerant age. An intolerance against the religious for holding to the idea of sin. An intolerance of people for their desired social constructs. An inability to befriend someone of a different belief, political position, race, and/or sexual preference.

Jesus and his early followers had no issue spending time with those who felt or looked different. In the first century, they would go to share a message of love and hope across the known world at the time. And for centuries to follow, countless numbers of Christ followers would leave home to live and be amongst people very different from themselves.

If you look at the life of Jesus as shared by those around him, and if you read the first church fathers and second-century philosophers, you find Jesus as a tolerant person. He and his early followers were the great liberators of society. He invited women into his circle of friends. He included the blue-collar laborer as well as the executive and specialist in his inner circle. He was among the sick and rejected. He hung out with the party crowd so much he was accused of being a drunkard and glutton. He spent time with Romans who were the persecutors of his society.

The Godman was the living example of a Christian life. A life where you lay down yours for those who persecute you and disagree with you. A love of those intolerant of you, not a returned intolerance and hate for them. How far we have strayed from his love and affection for those around him.

Jesus said, "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:17)

We can offer friendship to those who come into our lives, even if we see the world in dramatically different ways. These individuals may not come into our inner circles, but they should be welcomed into our homes and lives without hostility. They may not accept our worldview, but we can communicate and support them whether they accept or reject the things we hold close.

This is difficult now, however, as the modern world has changed how toleration is defined. To an incredible fault.

We are also not permitted to tolerate another without a full endorsement. Meaning we cannot disagree with a position or choice and continue in a friendship. We either affirm or we are intolerant. We've now redefined tolerance to a place where the word is no longer useful. The modern world does not permit us.

How do we as individuals offer tolerance and affection in our modern age? Voltaire thinks it starts with this, "The great principle - the universal principle of both laws (natural - civil) - is as follows: do not do what you would not like someone to do to you." - Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance) Pg 32.

Voltaire uses the statement from the Book of Matthew, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. 12 'Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets."

Friendship is to extend tolerance of another and appreciation of their individuality. Good friends share their convictions with open hearts and seek to learn from one another.

Voltaire is a great place to start – read his Treatises on Tolerance and discover how much larger your world could be.


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