Friday, March 05, 2010

Book - "Beyond Tolerance" (Gustav Niebuhr)

Title: Beyond Tolerance
Author: Gustav Niebuhr
Published: NY: Viking Penguin Group, 2008.

This is a book that simply has to be written. This is a book on human reconciliation regardless of religious affiliations. The author proposes that true peace and religious harmony must go beyond mere tolerance. In doing so, he puts himself in a position that builds, rather than burn bridges between the various faiths. Niebuhr, a third generation of the famous Reinhold Niebuhr engages various religious persuasions to find a common ground to work together. Niebuhr calls his attempts as a ‘countertrend,’ to seek to find out what different religions are up to, and why. He relates stories from people of different faiths: Rev Dr Martin Luther King (Protestant), Pope John Paul and Dorothy Day (RCC), Malcolm X (Muslim), Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist Conservative), Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen Buddhism) and others. The main gist of the book can be summed up as follows:
"Are you willing to respect others, even work with them, because you believe that is what God wants? That’s a radically different trajectory to follow than the path upon which Bin Laden and his  young followers." (xxx)

Essentially, Niebuhr is asking for religious people of all persuasions to 'nuance' their understanding of religious harmony and tolerance. This means that one needs to be humble enough to acknowledge that no human person can claim total right and absolute possession of Truth. Key to the need to establish 'Beyond Tolerance' is understanding. In fact, the reason why wars have been fiercely fought in the name of religion is because of the failure to understand one another. He quotes the Dalai Lama rather convincingly,

"Religions must dialogue, but even more, they must come together to serve others." (65)
He anticipates a typical reaction from the conservative evangelicals. Thus he includes a quote from Thomas Merton:
"I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless  friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing." (Thomas Merton, p180)
Right on. Unfortunately, the rhetoric is good, but the specifics are few.

My Comments
When I first picked up this book, my concern was about how one can love one another, especially those of a different faith persuasion, without being castigated by members of my faith affiliations. I am familiar with various evangelical circles. I have friends from many different denominations and non-denominational backgrounds. Sometimes, extending a friendly handshake with a non-Christian in the name of religious harmony can spook emotions of some fundamentalists. I find some of the ideas a little too optimistic. For instance, wars may have been fought in the name of religion. The trouble is not the different religions per se. The problem is universal sin, which Niebuhr ought to have pointed his guns directly at. For we battle not against flesh and blood but against powers, principalities and the forces of darkness in this world. 

Niebuhr quotes extensively from non-Christians, especially the Buddhist, Muslims, Roman Catholics and Jews. He left out secularists. He included the conservative sector of evangelicalism but should have portrayed them on a more balanced manner, rather than focusing on a few dramatic negative ones. 

Yet, I find that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I agree with G. Niebuhr with regards to the need to go 'beyond tolerance,' beyond friendly meals and handshakes. I agree with him as well with regards to the need to work on common grounds beginning from the common platform of humanity. Unfortunately, while this initiative is noble, he should have presented a more balanced perspective, from the other side. For example, when he was criticizing the behavior of the Southern Baptists, why not invite one of them to contribute a fuller view of why they choose not to associate themselves with the inter-religious initiatives. By doing that, perhaps, this "Beyond Tolerance" initiative can be more inclusive. As it stands right now, this movement, this proposal, this initiative if not supported by more entities, will not be as effective. Simply put, without including the sizable conservative segment of the evangelical front, or other religions, "Beyond Tolerance" will eventually retreat back to a mere tolerance state.

I like this book, its ideas and the compelling proposition. It is a book that needs to be written. However, it needs a wider audience before establishing a common platform to work together. I strongly suggest a follow-up book that is way beyond "Beyond Tolerance." Maybe a collection of stories that demonstrate how different religious groups have worked together, past, present and future?

Stars: 4 stars of 5.


No comments:

Latest Posts