Saturday, August 13, 2016

Volf and the roots of pluralism

Part II (scroll back for part I) (Part III is on hold for the moment, maybe forever, I thought some other bloggers were going to be writing about this chapter, but that didn't materialize)

Next, I'll quote many of the same quotes Volf used when discussing Roger Williams. Williams was a Puritan from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A few of you will remember that was long before the revolution, and even longer before Jefferson ever said anything about separation of church and state, even before slavery, but it is far removed from Columbus too. I think this would have been an amazing century to be alive, to experience the new thoughts forming around how we should govern ourselves.

Williams was the pluralist, an idea that had roots with the Anabaptists, but had little other expression throughout history. He was pluralist only when it came to politics though. He was just as excluvists as his rivals, John Cotton and John Winthrop, when it came to religion. In the end, Williams and his followers were branded the dissenters and were “purged”. A fairly peaceful purging as purges go. They founded Rhode Island. The basis of the exclusivists argument was that people needed to be compelled to follow the precepts of the government or God would be displeased and the government couldn't function. Williams agreed with “Thou shalt not kill”, but said the first few commandments were about human duties to God and that government had no business with them. He did not see this as a contradiction with the idea of being religiously exclusive.

John Winthrop wrote about the “city on a hill” they had created. That city would watch over and govern the purity of religious observance. Flogging and mutilation or even death were punishments for disobedience. This was the state's job. Williams, on the other hand, wrote “The Bloudy Tennant for Persecution of Conscious”, and defended his position.

"Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God."

For its time, this is a radical argument for freedom of conscious. It says there is a marketplace of ideas, and it is with ideas he will fight for his god, not any other type of a sword. If that is not clear, perhaps this excerpt from a letter will help,

"First that forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils. 2 That it denies Christ Jesus yet to be come, and makes the Church yet National, figurative and Ceremoniall. 3 That in these flames about Religion, as his Matie his Father and Grandfather have yielded, there is no prudent Christian way of preserving peace in the World but by permission of differing Consciences."

Or

"It is directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus, his saints and truths, that throats of men should be torne out for his sake. Who most delighted to converse with greatness sinners."

English from 4 centuries ago can be tough, but I'm sure he means Jesus conversed with sinners, so why shouldn't we. When he founded Rhode Island, he put these ideas into his State's Constitution. Historians today agree that he wrote from his heart. His convictions were what he truly felt, not mere means to social ends. He was just as excluvists, religiously, as Winthrop or Cotton. The content of faith as they saw it is what made the difference, not the firmness of their faith.

Or, as John Plamenatz of 20th century Oxford said, "Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith. The reasoning was not, because faith is important we must impose it, but because faith is supremely important all human beings must be allowed to live by the faith that they hold true."

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