From Tolerance to Acceptance. Towards a New Paradigm of Interreligious Coexistence

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Johann Wolfgang Goethe concisely summarizes the view on tolerance, which I am going to present briefly to you, in an aphorism: „Toleranz sollte nur eine vorübergehende Gesinnung sein: sie muss zur Anerkennung führen. Dulden heißt beleidigen.“ (Tolerance should only be a temporary attitude: it must lead to acknowledgement / recognition. To tolerate means to insult.) (Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, Werke 6, Frankfurt am Main: Insel 1981, 507)

Of course, the notion of tolerance has as many fans as opponents. The United Arab Emirates e.g. labelled the year 2019 as the year of tolerance – remarkably not according to the Islamic hijri calendar, but according to the Common Era calendar beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ. One of the major events, which took place towards the beginning of this year of tolerance in the Arab Gulf, was the visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi, the very first visit of a pope to the Arab Peninsula. The UAE is the only state in the world which has a ministry of tolerance, and it is headed by one of leading figures in the ruling family. (by Prof. Dr. Georges Tamer, KCID-Director)

I do not want to repeat what has been said about tolerance both in the past and in the present. Neither would I describe the challenges the notion has faced and still must face in the here and now. What has been presented in the papers, and which we have been discussing since Wednesday, is more than enough to shed new light on the topic and the various theoretical and practical problems related to it. What I want to do is 1) to deconstruct the concept of tolerance and 2) introduce instead a concept of acceptance. It is a concept based on knowing the other, as the other expects to be known, thereby offering a new way to set the terms for interreligious coexistence.


Towards acceptance of the other instead of tolerance

I share with Goethe the view that tolerance should not be the ultimate stage of interreligious relationships, but rather a transient attitude leading to the acknowledgement, or recognition of the religious other, as the other actually is. From a historical point of view, tolerance has been a useful instrument to assure the existence of minorities, mainly religious minorities, within a society whose majority belongs to a different faith. I would define tolerance as a conscious attitude of a powerful party not to oppress or limit the freedom of a less powerful party, although the convictions of this party are rejected and regarded as wrong. It is thus a negative attitude, based on an asymmetrical power relationship. Therefore, tolerance, as necessary as it is under certain circumstances as a state of affairs that allows conflicts to get resolved, is not based on the conviction that the religious communities involved are equal in regards to their faith and to their right to exist, worship and flourish. They don’t enjoy the same degree of recognition or the same degree of freedom. Tolerance emerges out of a pragmatic decision by the tolerating party, not out of the imminent right of the tolerated to exist. It is a voluntary action by a more powerful party who tolerates a less powerful one. The one who offers tolerance, is eligible to take what has been given, whenever he or she changes his mind. Indeed, it does constitute a commitment. However, it is a commitment arising not out of the basic human right of the other to be as the other actually is. Tolerance is therefore a shaky attitude dependent on the power level of the stronger party. In critical situations, in situations of political instability, the tolerating side usually terminates the state of tolerance against religious minorities, in order to gain the support of radical groups in the majority society. That’s what has occurred at various times to Jews and Christians under the rule of Muslim dynasties. The way in which the Egyptian government under President Sadat had dealt with Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church after the peace agreement of Camp David with Israel is a modern example of rendering tolerance towards religious minorities a matter of power balance within the state. Such an attitude is an intrinsic part of the concept of tolerance which is established on an asymmetrical power basis between a stronger and a weaker side.

Instead of tolerance, acceptance of the religious other is needed. Of course, this represents a higher stage than mere tolerance and is, therefore, much more difficult to reach. But it is the most stable fundament upon which the steady, long-standing and respectful coexistence of different religious communities can be established. However, the central question here is how the acceptance of the religious other can be developed against the background of the claim of the absoluteness of the truth of one’s own faith (Absolutheitsanspruch). How can such an attitude be harmonized with the belief that one’s own faith constitutes the only true faith? How can a faithful person accept the fact that the faith of the others is equivalent to his or her own faith, that it is equally valid and that its followers are equally eligible to exist and flourish, that they, qua believers in different truths, have the same social and political rights?


Faith as a bases of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

So before moving forward, we must ask ourselves: What is faith?

None of the biblical authors offers a comprehensive definition of faith. Neither can such a definition be found in the Qur’ān. In Heb. 11:1, faith is briefly described as “the insurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[1] It is, thus, related to the unseen, to that what cannot be the object of rational knowledge, but can only be hoped for. What is known is not an object of faith.

Nevertheless, in the words of Jesus to Thomas, the disciple who did not believe that his master was resurrected until he examined his crucified body, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,“ (John 20:29) makes a distinction between two types of faith (pistis): faith that results from an immediate sensual experience, and faith which occurs with no concrete knowledge preceding it. Jesus prefers the second type; it is authentic, original faith, insofar as it does not depend on any physical proof.

Regardless of whether the concept of faith I use is based on the Hebrew emonah, the Greek pistis or the Arabic īmān, faith, as it is conceived of in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is, basically, an active human attitude directed towards a being or a subject which can be thought of without being comprehended. Faith is intrinsically connected to confidence. Thus, a person who e.g. believes in God is confident that God exists. It is, furthermore, related to a feeling of safety and security. Faith is not reflexive, meaning that it cannot address itself, but only that which is beyond the mind. Addressing a certain object, faith can be described as a communicative action, based on the conviction that what is believed in is able to communicate with the faithful mind.

An essential feature of faith is that its object is not known to the faithful in a tangible way which can be proven by rational evidence or subjected to scientific rules and categories. The existence of the object of faith cannot be proven in the same way you could prove that “one plus one equals two”. Even if you believe that God exists, you cannot prove his existence in the same way you prove the existence of the person standing beside you. Knowledge based on faith is not reliant on sensual perception or rational proofs, but on intuition; it occurs not through providing evidence, but through belief. The problem with every type of proof given throughout the history of human thought to prove God’s existence is that they all are based on foregrounding faith in his existence. For that reason, they could serve as an affirmative support to faith, without being able, however, to establish it in and of themselves. Making faith dependent on such attempts means, somehow, turning it into a victim of sterile endeavors which do not bring forth any satisfying results.

Faith and knowledge cannot address the same object at the same time. You cannot know what you believe in; and you do not need to believe in that which you know. You believe in God, because you cannot know him; but you know that you are hearing these words, so you need not believe in that. One cannot know and believe in the same subject simultaneously. Faith and knowledge mutually exclude one another in the sense that they cannot address the same object concurrently. Either you know it, or you believe in it. God does not believe in himself; he knows himself.

As the existence of the object of faith cannot be proven beyond doubt, this object can, logically speaking, exist or not exit. For example: it is possible that paradise and hell exist; it is also equally possible that they do not. The possibility of their existence does not exceed or is less than the possibility of their nonexistence. Both possibilities are equal. The same can be said about God’s being. It is just as possible that He exists as that He does not exist. No matter how solid faith is, it cannot grant objective existence to its object outside the mind of the believer. Therefore, faith is infinitely open in regards to its outcome. Its object can turn into the opposite: It can be, or it cannot. The object and its opposite are borne / included in faith. It is ultimately a jump into the realm of the unknown, which is infinite, as Kierkegaard says.

The three monotheistic religions we are concerned with are based on faith. They are established on the foundation of events which cannot be proven, but merely believed to have happened according to canonical narratives. It cannot be proven whether these events really occurred as they have been narrated. They are subject matters of faith. The central object of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that is the existence of the one God, can only be assumed, but not apodictically proven. They are all equal in that they are based on what can or cannot be. They share this fundamental openness, an openness which is their very basic foundation.

Knowing that they all participate in the same adventure of faith, Jews, Christians and Moslems become aware that, on this very basic level of their religious identity, they all are equal. As faith-communities, they are partners in the risky enterprise of faith. Conscious of this fact, they can only accept each other as they are and recognize that they all together actually belong, on this metaphysical level, to the same community, to the community of faith. Although these religious communities believe in different events which play specific roles in establishing their religious identity (Passover, Resurrection, revelation of the Qur’ān), these events, as objects of faith, share the fact that they all escape logical proof. As objects of faith, they lack the ability of being proven beyond doubt.


As equal partners in the same adventure of faith, Jews, Christians and Moslems carry a sense of mutual responsibility towards each other. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the human being has a special position within creation. According to the Bible, created as God’s image, in the Qur’ān as the representative of God, the human being has the task of caring for the world. From a religious point of view, this responsibility lies in the fact that man is aware of his or her own particularity. According to the Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures, the first human beings could no longer hide, could no longer escape the responsibility articulated in God’s words to them because they knew the right answer. They had to take their reality seriously. Likewise, Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot shirk their responsibility towards each other and towards the world because they know what to do when injustice occurs. According to their religious self-understanding as receivers of divine massages, they have the duty to be seriously committed to each other and to the world.


Judaism, Christianity and Islam agree that responsibility is the consequence of human knowledge. Based on this connection, they teach that God rewards people for good deeds and punishes them for evil ones, and that he is just in doing so, because people should know what is good and what is evil. For even after the Fall of Man, God repeatedly turned to humans and made sure that they obtain necessary knowledge. Even those who are out of the reach of God’s revelations have their conscience as a moral criterion, according to which they can be judged. Conscience is intrinsically connected to knowledge.


A pluralistic society requires knowledge of “the other”

In our religiously pluralistic society, our responsibility for the other religious communities grows as our knowledge of them increases. If the Jew, the Christian, or the Muslim knows what his counterpart actually believes in, what authoritative ideas determine his or her view on the world, he or she can no longer remain indifferent towards him or her. For it is not only that knowledge is based on interest; knowledge, in turn, awakens new interest and increases its intensity. Interest in others means, at the existential level, a serious understanding of their being, an engaged participation in it. Without knowledge, this is hardly possible.

The followers of the three monotheistic religions which have common roots and a common history, are committed by their religious self-understanding to advocate each other and other people, wherever and whenever needed. This should be their goal in our plural world. In order to achieve this goal, they must be in a better state of knowledge of each other, as comprehensively as possible. Only mutual knowledge enables them to move from tolerating to accepting each other.

In our digitally networked world, in which gaining knowledge of each other has become much easier than it was before, tolerance must be replaced by acknowledgement and recognition. However, no amount of acknowledgement and recognition can occur without knowledge. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of mutual acknowledgement and recognition among religious communities, inter-religious discourses must be developed, which pursue the examination of the fundamental concepts of religious thought in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a systematic-discursive way. Basic research is needed here in order to establish an archeology of religious knowledge and to make visible the common roots as well as the different developments within and between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which can only be achieved through discursive conceptual investigations of their thought.

Knowledge of the religious traditions of the Other is a crucial basis for the joint formation of ethnically and religiously pluralistic societies. The ignorance of the other religions, but also of the diversity in one’s own tradition, is still enormous, which leads to uncertainty and to enmity. Especially in view of the current situation of the world in which the peaceful coexistence of various religions and cultures is seriously questioned and threatened by polarizing ideologies and actors, it is essential that interreligious understanding be conducted and deepened in a fundamentally theological and scientific way. Well-founded knowledge of one’s own religion and of that of others is the best way to reach a higher level than tolerance, namely the level of mutual acknowledgement and recognition.

The question of the true religion, which in Lessing’s Ring Parable is answered only unsatisfactorily with the apparent advantage of undecidability, undergoes an epistemological turn in this approach. For the goal of the conceptual interreligious discourses is to achieve true insights into important meanings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as their development in the course of history in various contexts. The tolerance of other religions required in the Ring Parable, which, in essence, is based on ambiguity due to the inability to prove which ring is the true one, is raised to a higher level through scientifically based acceptance of the other religions. Knowledgeable recognition allows a qualitatively higher approach to religious diversity than mere tolerance. Thus, the project of enlightenment with the claim to use one’s own mind continues, with the aim of creating peace among the religious communities. This is precisely the concern of the research unit “Key Concepts in Interreligious Discourses” in Erlangen.


Georges Tamer

[1] Cf. 1 Cor. 13:13.


This lecture has been held by Prof. Dr. Georges Tamer at the international conference  “Tolerance and Intolerance as Challenge in Past and Present” which took  place 27 – 29 March, 2019 in Hamburg.