Page 13, 18th July 2008

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Page 13, 18th July 2008 — Battle of ideas
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Battle of ideas

Religious toleration wasn't just the province of the 'enlightened', argues Jonathan Wright All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World by Stuart B Schwartz, Yale University Press £25 When thinking about the history of religious toleration it is tempting to portray exceptional individuals from bygone eras as trailblazers of modemday notions of religious pluralism and freedom of conscience. If someone in, say, 1400 or 1700 said or wrote something that seems to chime in with our own philosophical positions then it becomes easy to suppose that they were voicing some eternal verity about the evils of religious persecution. Sadly, this is a historical strategy littered with pitfalls. It runs the risk of setting up a decidedly Whiggish, triumphalist narrative: all roads begin to lead to our own, ever-so-evolved moral outlook. It also tends to ignore the fact that almost all of these so-called champions of religious tolerance would simply not have understood modem concepts of a "right" to freedom of religion.

In his fascinating new book Stuart Schwartz does sometimes come perilously close to lapsing into teleology. Just occasionally, when his rhetoric gets the better of him, he starts vaguely talking about his subjects as "in their way precursors of our world", or as providing "in some ways the origin" of our modern fixation with religious tolerance. For the most part, however, he strives to understand the deeds and utterances of early-modern Iberians on their own historically contingent terms, not as some foreshadowing of later ideas. In the process he has written detailed, scholarly, but highly readable book which widens out the history of religious tolerance in both geographical and conceptual terms.

As Schwartz explains, almost everyone in earlymodern Europe believed that religious uniformity was a good thing the keystone of social and political order, no less and that rulers had a sacred duty to punish and snuff out religious dissidence and heresy. Any kind of belief in religious freedom or religious relativism was aberrant. Still, dissenters from this cultural assumption undoubtedly existed and Schwartz's book has two crucial things to say about them: they existed among those Schwartz terms the "simple folk" just as often as among educated elites; and they existed in perhaps surprising numbers in Spain and Portugal places often seen as representing the "the epitome of intolerance".

Schwartz is very good at anatomising the different motivations behind seemingly tolerationist outlooks. Some people acted out of common sense suggesting that it simply made for a more peaceable community if those of different faiths tried to coexist or out of selfinterest or sheer confusion. Others a markedly smaller group posited theoretical justifications for some degree of tolerance. Notions of the Christian Church's salvific monopoly were routinely challenged, for instance. The defining Christian idea enshrined in the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church) left some people intellectually dissatisfied. What about all those decent people who had been born before Christ? What of all the new peoples being discovered in the overseas empires of the Iberian powers? Such musings occasionally led to strikingly relativistic or universalist ideas: people were destined to follow the religion that just happened to be dominant where they were born, so perhaps it was possible that, as the recurrent phrase put it, "each person can be saved in his or her own religion".

Again, it would be erroneous to assume that such sentiments are analogous to modern-day pluralistic ideas, but Schwartz makes a very compelling case that they had an important role to play in Iberian culture. He also hammers home the point that such talk was heard at all levels of society. A reminder that histories of religious tolerance ought to move beyond the stories of the great and the good the Spinozas and the Lockes and locate themselves in the wider social milieus in which all ideas have to battle for attention.

Schwartz offers expansive analyses of competing ideas within lberia's different communities, with closest attention being paid to the morisco and converso populations (Christian converts from Islam and Judaism). Perhaps the most important lesson of this splendid book is that historians should listen more carefully to "the practical rationality of common folk in the face of theology". Church leaders would say one thing, but lay people out of principle, or simply in order to live a quiet life sometimes. thought and did something entirely different.




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