Saturday, March 27, 2010


In the context of American life today the word is intended as an admonition. Be tolerant of the Other. Tolerance is ever more needed not only in the United States, long the home of multiple cultures some of which have refused to melt in this famous melting pot. More and more Europe needs to cultivate this attitude as Arabs, Africans, Hindus, and Turks settle in ever large numbers. In post-war Europe Brigitte and I discovered that you didn’t have to be culturally different to be labeled the Other—even if you were from Europe but had moved. The locals in Bavaria were just as tense about German-speaking Flüchtlinge (the refugees) who settled among them as the French today are tense about Arabs.

I am for multiculturalism provided that, using that phrase, the value of culture is not reduced to a secondary quality, like hair color or mode of dress. I favor genuine multiculturalism, thus the effort to understand other cultures from the roots on up—in order to understand how other people think and feel about reality. Some differences are fundamental and strain tolerance. A good example of this is the Christian and the Muslim attitude toward governance.

In the Christian conception of reality, church-state separation rests on Jesus’ words reported in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In the Muslim culture, religion and governance were fused from the start; Islamic law, Sharia, is at once civil and religious. In that culture living at arm’s length from the secular world is not really an option; such a life is, by definition, a temporary accommodation to a bad situation that, Inshallah, will someday be righted. It’s valuable to know that while dealing with Muslim countries. It produces problems that can’t be resolved by compromise.

At some higher level than the one where we now live, the differences between cultures are transcended. From that level—but we’re not there yet—differences appear like the different portions of the splendid wrought-iron inset I’m showing today. They’re all part of the same design and all connected. Knowing cultures deeply brings that higher design into view.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post.
    Yes, that's what most people going into the State Department believe, I think (and hope), and rightly so. Learn languages, learn about the cultures and religoins, and humor and history... all necessary to understnading peopel with whom you wish to interact effectively.