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On tolerance and intolerance in the Middle Ages

Summary

Christine Caldwell Ames asks how people read the same scriptures and come to opposite conclusions.

Summary

Christine Caldwell Ames asks how people read the same scriptures and come to opposite conclusions.

Transcript

It’s hard to tell why – say, with the men who were inquisitors in the Middle Ages – it’s hard to tell, it’s impossible to tell, why their religious faith moved in that direction. That is precisely because we have people at the same time, in the same circumstances, the same context, who for example come to the conclusion that the death penalty is unchristian. In the Middle Ages, there are people who say that it is and there are people who say that it’s not. And it’s impossible to tell why an inquisitor develops along the lines that says, I will hand that person over to be burnt at the stake, I will hand this person over to be tortured brutally in the pursuit of this religious uniformity and in the pursuit of him or her changing his or her mind.

But I think that … it’s wrong to say that it’s a matter of just context. That is, for a long time people explained the inquisition by saying, the Middle Ages was bloodthirsty, the Middle Ages was violent, the Middle Ages was anti-individualist, the Middle Ages was irrational. And that’s wrong. It’s wrong to think of it in that way. But I think that then leaves us with the perhaps even more disconcerting notion, the disconcerting conclusion, that we simply can’t predict when individual people will read, say, scriptures and come to a conclusion of violence and persecution and intolerance, and when other people will read the same scriptures in the same context and come to a conclusion of a celebration of difference and peace.