A Moneychanger Book Review
The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit
by A.J. Conyers
Pairing a review of A.J. Conyers’ scholarly The Long Truce with Honky-Tonk Gospel may cause some of you to scratch your heads and say, “Well, Sanders has finally and completely lost whatever mind he may have once had.” How in the world could those two books fit together? One examines pop and folk culture, the other investigates the history of toleration in the West. What could they possibly have to do with each other?
Much in every way. Between Vieth and Wilmeth’s postmodern country singers who can’t find truth or objective reality and Conyers’ modern state where all is tolerated except intolerance, there is close kinship. It begs for identification. What is its genealogy? Who gave it birth? How did it grow to overshadow every other virtue and all morality? Beneath these two streams lies some common fountain, but what?
THE LONG TRUCE
Ever wonder why the official defender of diversity, multiculturalism, serves only to destroy all genuine diversity—why cultural differences are all reduced to nothing more threatening than an exchange of recipes? A. J. Conyers, a professor at the Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, has an answer for you. As it has developed for 400 years in the West, “toleration,” has banished questions of ultimate meaning from public life and contributed to consolidating all power in the state. The “toleration” that has emerged contributes nothing to identifying truth among many competitors. Rather, it levels all competitors by proclaiming that no transcendental truth is possible—or worth fighting for. All competing social groups are crowded out in favour of the state.
“[T]he political aim of the state can easily encroach upon the aims of the family, the collegium (such as the artistic community), the profession, the church, the local village, the province. Yet, first the telos [transcendent goal] of these entities must be called into question. That is where tolerance comes in—not the practice of tolerance which is entirely productive of lively community life but the kind of tolerance that essentially demeans the status of groups along with their provincial, familial, or ecclesiastical sense of authority.” (p. 194)
TOLERANCE BUILDS THE STATE, AT THE EXPENSE OF TRUTH
Conyers is not advancing some subtle conspiracy theory. Rather he portrays modern toleration as a mechanism, which naturally increases state power. “f the telos or the multiple goals that govern our actions are fundamentally artifacts of our imagination and will, rather than disclosures to us of what is authoritative, then natural, timeless, and informal [non-state] associations have no necessary authority in human lives. The artifice of human `values’ is well matched by the artifice of the national state. As the inevitability of these associations … is diminished in people’s consciousness, then the state proves to be the benefactor. And we can think of the state as the benefactor without the least conspiratorial implications as long as we keep in mind Bertrand de Jouvenel’s insight that power necessarily and inevitably seeks to increase itself.” (p. 190)
When thought depreciates ultimate values, it simultaneously erodes the authority of social institutions—the church, local communities, family—that guard those values. What’s the outcome? A “bipolar state” where the only two institutions left standing are the all-powerful state and the individual. You don’t need an IQ of 200 to figure out which of those two holds the most cards.
THE GENEALOGY OF TOLERATION
But I’ve raced ahead of myself. In the course of explaining the evolution of toleration in the West, The Long Truce becomes an intellectual tour de force. That should not, however, frighten off the general reader. Dr. Conyers’ helps us understand how the doctrine of toleration has developed. (He writes a sound, clear English sentence that makes sense and for the most part avoids that perversely impenetrable jargon of the academic. However, I caught myself wishing he would not replace quite so many verbs with noun-preposition substitutes. Occasionally he chained up prepositional phrases so that I had to chase tails through the sentence, but these are very small flaws in an otherwise successful and readable style.) He teases out the strands of thought that have justified centralising power in the state and then weaves them together again into a picture we can comprehend.
From Hobbes to Locke and thence to Dewey (with stops at names less well-known) he follows the thread of “tolerance.” We see how Western thinkers, terrified by religious wars which for over 100 years had bled Europe dry, grope for some political philosophy to tame this fearful monster. Their efforts recall Luther’s famous analogy. Humanity, he said, resembles a drunk on a horse. He falls off on the left side and laboriously remounts. Then, trying to correct his previous mistake, he falls off on the right! So how can society avoid bloody wars of religion? Let an all-powerful state impose order on all parties, and never mind truth. The idea of ‘tolerance” unfolds as a practical rejection of ultimate truth, avoiding the issue of final causes.
When you err in plotting your course, a tiny error when you leave port eventually becomes very large. In the 20th century the doctrine of tolerance has brought forth its ultimate triumph: the secular state where ends yield all place to means. Power becomes an end in itself. True, tolerance prevents religious wars, but it also banishes ultimate meaning and breeds all modernism’s malaise: depression, alienation, despair.
“When power becomes … the object of pursuit, as it has increasingly in modern times, we are therefore engaging in an illusion … rather like the proverbial dog chasing its tail. Much effort is being expended, and a chase of sorts is taking place, but the pursuit is taking the dog nowhere. The illusion of a grand pursuit allows us to imagine we are in control of life and of our destiny. And control is very much the issue, when at a deep level we suspect that things are not under control, at least not under our control. This anxiety for control is a form of despair: having found nothing to “rest” our hopes in, we grasp for the lesser things of the created order, just as a drowning man grasps for straws, or a dying man grasps for the most unlikely occult cure. In its outward expression, this despair might take many forms, forms we will recognise in contemporary social problems. It may take the conventional form of depression, resignation, and lethargy.” (P. 219). “n our culture despair may often take the form of [a] pretense of action. It can take the form of rage, violence, and attempts to dominate.” (p. 220—221)
As Mick Jagger used to lament, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” In this modern world, things abound, but without any why. Or we might express the same idea from Psalm 106: “[H]e gave them their desire, and sent leanness withal into their soul.”
A BIPOLAR DISORDER
But if the individual is not in control, then who is? The “modern doctrine of toleration” has helped establish the `bipolarisation of society.’” “The society that exists easily between the poles of state and individual is a society that has become featureless. It is a society in which `voluntary’ organisations decline, as many sociologists have lately observed in the United States. It has become a `mass’ society. Its mode of existence is a secular one. And the individual in such a society stands more or less defenseless against the demands of a powerful state.” (p. 223)
“The idea of toleration, in the modern sense, calls into question the validity and even the ethical appropriateness of attaching oneself too strongly to the kinds of loyalties and the kinds of transcendent convictions that are the very soul of [socially spontaneous] association[s]. It targets the intractable loyalties, along with the intrinsic disciplines and moral commitments, of the family and the church … It does so not out of a commitment to a certain conspiracy to undo these institutions but out of the tacit and almost intuitive recognition that here are the most formidable barriers to the spreading efficiency of central administration and the centralisation of authority. The passions must be harnessed to the larger agenda and not be distributed and made disorderly in the untidy natural associations that spring up so freely in a society not well organised, nor rational, nor subservient to the goals of commerce and power.” (p. 224)
In the end, nothing is left standing but the state and the individual, stripped of all group help. The result, predictably enough, is a state that recognises all insignificant claims to toleration and ruthlessly crushes all significant claims. In a word, you can eat kimchee or collards, whichever you prefer, but you’d better not try to pray in public.
IF THAT’S THE COUNTERFEIT, WHAT DOES THE REAL THING LOOK LIKE?
Through most of The Long Truce Dr. Conyers examines the perversion of Christian tolerance which he calls “the modern doctrine of toleration.” This leads, however, only to grotesquely Orwellian multiculturalism and political correctness—militantly intolerant tolerance hand in hand with the all-powerful state. But how should genuine tolerance look? In the final chapter Dr. Conyers sketches out for us “the practice of authentic tolerance,” grounded in the Incarnation, humble, catholic, and peaceful.
First (he argues) any genuine tolerance must be founded upon religion, i.e., the struggle for ultimate meaning. Here modern pseudo-toleration has transformed morality from a matter of eternal importance grounded outside space and time to a matter of opinion grounded on personal tastes.
Dr. Conyers founds authentic tolerance on the Incarnation as a fact. If the Incarnation “is real, it means that the highest spiritual aspirations of the human being and the most particular elements of existence are bound together eternally in a community of meaning and purpose. If such a thing is true, then the implications are for all men and women everywhere and for all time. … Toleration in this case does not mean that we all grasp this reality, or even that any of us do so adequately. It means simply that the reality grasps us, comprehending what it means for any of us to be human beings. While we cannot comprehend that which comprehends us, we nonetheless owe a certain loyalty to it. That loyalty includes the humility to listen to others, even those whose honest seeking of the truth takes a different shape than our own … [T]o listen in expectation of hearing truth from others whose doctrine differs from our own is the highest form of loyalty to the insight that we all rely on a common reality, created by the one God who makes himself known in human flesh …(p. 232, 233)
“Here, then we find a practice that recognises the very complicated way God has of making himself known to us in the partiality of human experience, yet always with the aim of leading us to wholeness.
“To enter into such a practice is to enter into the mystery of the incarnation. It is to acknowledge the God-ordained end of human existence—an end not imagined or willed, an end that serves no evasion of the human vocation, but a true end: an end in which we might rest. Which is to say, it is an end that embodies our highest activity and our deepest motivation as human beings.” (p. 234)
The practice of authentic tolerance demands also restoring purpose. “Man finds his telos in God, God finds his telos in man. The twin sense of disparity and unity in the world is found satisfied in community; in the incarnation of God in man.
“The incarnation, therefore, means not only that man finds his chief end in God but God finds his chief end in man. Revelation tells us not only who God is but who we are. At one and the same time it reveals true God and true man . . . The humiliation of God in man is at the same time the exaltation of man in God.” (p. 237-8).”The picture is clearly not simply one of power distributed from on high but power exercised as a cosmic exchange. It is not the love of power but the power of love: God is become man, and that man, the representative of the race of men, is indeed God, so that human beings can participate in all that God is.”
“Therefore, power is never understood unambiguously and directly as some kind of achievement or possession, but always paradoxically: “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Power is truly exercised as it is given up. Humiliation and exaltation go together.” (p. 238-9)
To recover authentic toleration we must escape and discard modernism’s “doubt, fear, and mistrust,” i.e., its profound and pervasive pessimism. We admit that a fallen world often should be feared and mistrusted, but the Incarnation gives us reason to hope and to trust in the “good God who created men and women for good things.” (p. 241)
“The Incarnation announces the accomplishment of reconciliation between God and man. It therefore announces the essential goodness of the creation. It is not something to be feared. One’s efforts to know the world are in the end fruitful, even if not in the present. And human beings are not intended to live in deadly conflict, but in the bonds of love and friendship.” (p. 241)
A TOUR DE FORCE
The Long Truce is not just “food for thought”, it’s a veritable banquet. Although it sounds like a subject that would challenge any one’s ability to pay attention (not to mention concentrate), I found myself enthralled in The Long Truce. I had to ration my reading sessions, or I would have neglected everything else until either I starved or stank.
What captivated me so? Dr. Conyers has assembled here a tour de force of the last 300 years’ intellectual history (Geistesgeschichte, the Germans call it.) I kept thinking of the Chinese proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.” How many connections he made for me! I cheerfully confess I have until now resisted the temptation to dip into Hobbes or Locke, having tried to read John Owen and other contemporaries. Let us graciously say that my enthusiasm for that period was somewhat wan, important though it be. But Dr. Conyers renders them both fascinating and relevant. When you understand Hobbes, you can understand Brittany Spears or Punk Rock or even the American empire. They begin to make sense, if not aesthetically or morally (perish the thought!) at least developmentally, in the necessary logic that leads from bad beginning to disgusting end. There remains a multitude of other ideas that Dr. Conyers’ treats, but somewhere I have to end this review.
HOW DO YOU LIVE WITH HERETICS?
What Dr. Conyers does not treat, but where his subject inevitably leads, is How do you live with heretics? After all, if you genuinely do believe in certain transcendent, absolute truths, then logically you must defend them. If truth is indeed true, then logically the community of just men has a right to defend themselves singly and severally against error. How far does that extend? To exile? Execution?
This intrigues me for two reasons. The most difficult dissension does not arise between pagans and Christians, because, frankly, most pagans just believe silly things, easily shown to be silly. No, the sharpest and most dangerous dissension exists among Christians in their three great divisions, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. The theological gulfs between them cannot be breached. Protestants are forever trying to convert Roman Catholics, and vice versa, and the Orthodox won’t commune with either of them. How can these three competing visions peacefully live together in a single civil state that remains Christian without persecuting one group or another? Both Hobbes and Locke reflect the exhaustion that had overtaken Western society after the wars of religion. The history of those times, as if still a living memory, continue to incite Christian people to distrust and hatred. Without giving up the truths we believe, how do we live together?
Nor is this a merely theoretical question, if we aim at a Christian civil government. If the purpose of civil government is to punish the wicked and reward the just, we have to know how and where to draw the line between the two?
Another face of toleration intrigues me. What does society do with the irreconcilable individualistic heretic? Here I don’t mean someone who adheres to any recognised group of Christians, but the ultra-individualist who, perversely enough, is the stepchild of the modern doctrine of toleration.
You might ask, How does a religionist descend from a doctrine of anti-religion? We can trace that back to a perversion of Luther’s insistence on the importance of individual conscience. Luther certainly did not understand his reliance on conscience as a rejection of all authority and a solipsistic exaltation of personal judgement. Although he thought the Church needed reforming, he never thought we no longer needed the Church. However, that’s where these people end up today, setting themselves up as judge and jury over every doctrine of Christianity, every institution, and everything else, including the Scriptures themselves.
It appears self-contradictory at first, but on closer examination you will find that these ultra-individualists are indeed kin to the postmodernists. After all, if we merely construct for our own personal use everything we call “truth,” as postmodernism does, then isn’t their truth as good as anybody else’s? This is the ultimate democracy of opinion—my opinion is as good as your opinion any old day, an all authorities (past and present) be damned.
These people are contentious and stubborn in inverse proportion to their correctness. The wronger they are, the louder they scream, the harder they scratch. Ignorance casts not the least shadow of shame upon them; upon no subject do they lack an instant, definitive, and dogmatic opinion. And stubbornness in a bad belief, I have to say, is not perseverance but perverseness.
Now I understand that in this Revolutionary age nobody thinks he needs to submit to authority—at least, until the authority sends a thug with truncheon to trounce his head. At some point, however, we must submit of our own free will and cheerfully. Not everything is worth going to the stake for, and if we are not willing to throttle back our own hobby horses, human society literally becomes untenable. Then too, some controversies are in the end merely questions of expediency. Often the chief test of our loyalty to our principles and to the group that defends them is how far wrong the group can go before we abandon it. Lee and Jackson, for instance, were Union men, but both fought for Virginia. Blood is thicker than water.
But I’ve wandered off point. At issue is, what does a community do with the obnoxious, stubborn, and thoroughly heretical fanatic? This is not a merely theoretical question. I promise you, either these people are very common, or my path has crossed an extraordinary number of them randomly.
But then Dr. Conyers didn’t promise to resolve every question of toleration, only to show us its history and modern outcome. In that he has succeeded remarkably well.
Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN 1-890626-36-8. 266 pages with end notes and index.
Originally published September 2001