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  • Toleranz und Gewalt. Das Christentum zwischen Bibel und Schwert
  • Robert Bireley, S.J.
Toleranz und Gewalt. Das Christentum zwischen Bibel und Schwert. By Arnold Angenendt. (Münster:Aschendorff Verlag. 2006. Pp. 797. €24,80.)

This highly significant book deals with the relationship of Christianity to the historical development of human rights and more specifically of religious tolerance over the course of Western history. Often difficult and challenging to follow, it rewards the persistent reader with insight and understanding.The author, professor emeritus of church history at the University of Münster, stands out as probably the most prominent medievalist in Germany today even though he is not well known in the English-speaking world. He has been one of the first historians to approach the Middle Ages through the history of religions, and in this book, which ventures way beyond the Middle Ages, he draws frequently on anthropology and on the history of religions.The author has a dual purpose. First, to respond to the many charges leveled against historical Christianity for its record on human rights, based, for example, on the Inquisition, the persecution of witches, the treatment of the Jews, the Crusades.These accusations against Christianity have been made with particular ferocity in recent years in Germany, in the many volumes, for example, of Karlheinz Deschner's Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, and in the popular German press.Angenendt writes primarily for a German readership. His book is not an apology; he admits readily where Christianity has failed. But he [End Page 308] makes clear the gross exaggerations in the charges against Christianity, many of them with their roots in polemics of the Enlightenment, that have been repeated over and over again for centuries. Recent scholarship in particular, he shows, has debunked many accusations, with regard to the Inquisition, for example, and if it has not completely exonerated the Church, it has reduced its responsibility.

Second, and more profoundly,Angenendt seeks to show the Christian roots of European human values; these values constitute a moral capital on which Europe still lives despite widespread rejection of their Christian basis. In support of his argument he cites, among many others, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who in his speech following his reception of the Frankfurt Book Prize in 2001 and again in a famous dialogue with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Munich in 2004 recognized the need for modern philosophy to acknowledge the insights and role of religion and for Europe to draw upon its undeniable Christian past as it faces the future. (Russell Shorto in an article on Pope Benedict XVI,"Keeping the Faith," New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2007, refers to these two statements of Habermas.) Angenendt divides his book into five sections, each of which, he states in the Introduction, can be read as an independent unit. Regular summaries of the argument help the reader to keep track of the main argument despite the many digressions. Throughout,Angenendt draws on an immense number of authors to support his theses, anthropologists and philosophers as well as historians, and he frequently inserts brief comparisons with Islam. One can mention only a few prominent arguments in a brief review.

The first section is entitled "Tolerance and Force (Gewalt) as Primary Human Tasks."There exists, the author asserts, a necessary dialectic between the two, in that force is necessary to enforce toleration. At the center of his argument is the "long history of toleration." Intolerance rather than tolerance has been the normal situation throughout a human history dominated by aggression as described by both Hobbes and Freud.The passage from such a state or primary culture where ethnic or tribal allegiances and conflicts prevail, to a secondary culture where this is no longer the case constitutes a major human achievement, a triumph of culture over nature that must constantly be repeated as is apparent in our own day. For this two developments are necessary. First must come the recognition of the equality of all human beings and with it implicitly of human rights. Christianity has contributed to this by its insistence that every individual, whether prince, prelate, or pauper, whether man or woman, must render an account of his life...


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pp. 308-310
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