All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World
Stuart B. Schwartz
Yale University Press, 2008
352 pp., $52.50
Religious belief in the 21st century is a matter of personal choice. In fact, belief is hardly different from any trinket purchased at a shopping mall: what you choose becomes good, true, and beautiful simply because you have chosen it. And it can become false when you rue your choice and ask for a refund. You can believe whatever you want, mix and match theologies, argue that ancient taboos within your tradition are outdated nonsense, or perhaps start a new religion if you prefer not to chuck them all. You can also tell pollsters what you believe without fear of reprisal. Belief and consumer confidence are equally open to quantification, with only a small margin of error.
Nonetheless, poll results often surprise us all. Take, for instance, belief in God and the afterlife. A Harris Poll taken in February 2003 revealed that 90 percent of Americans believe in God, but only 84 percent believe in an eternal afterlife. And when it comes to what may lie beyond the grave, 82 percent believe in heaven, while only 69 percent believe in hell, and 27 percent believe in reincarnation. A whopping 51 percent believe in ghosts. Nearly a third of Americans (31 percent) also believe in astrology, along with ancient pagans. And what about the Evil One? Poor devil: only 68 percent believe in him. 1
We tend to take this pluralism for granted, and expect nothing but tolerance from our neighbors. In fact, 80 percent of the students in my freshman seminar recently argued that the most dangerous heresy confronting us today is the claim that there is such a thing as "truth." But how did we get here? What if we were all expected to believe in every tenet affirmed by one church that claimed to speak for God, as was the case in Western Christendom up until the 16th century, or much later in some places? Spain and Geneva might come to mind instantly, along with their notorious watchdog agencies, the Inquisition and the Consistory. How were their noisome fires snuffed out, and how did tolerance win the day?
Stuart Schwartz argues eloquently and convincingly in All Can Be Saved that the kind of plurality we now take for granted also existed in the distant past, albeit more cautiously hidden. Disbelief, indifference, and unbelief have always been an option, he affirms, and so has tolerance, which he distinguishes from toleration. According to Schwartz, tolerance—the acceptance of a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who believe differently from oneself—was practiced in Spain and elsewhere long before actual toleration became a business necessity or a legal reality. The steep and tortuous road to state-supported religious toleration, then, was not built so much by freethinking theoreticians such as Locke, Hume, and Voltaire, whose role was akin to cartographers and engineers, but by thousands upon thousands of ordinary men and women, and a few extraordinary ones, who simply refused to accept all of the theological and ethical norms that their church and state handed to them willy-nilly at baptism, or nolens volens, as the elites of that day would have said.
Relying on the meticulous records left behind by inquisitors from various tribunals in Iberia and its American colonies, Schwartz turns a bright spotlight on men and women who rejected their church's soteriological exclusivity, proposing instead that salvation was equally open to all, as long as they followed their conscience or the dictates of their faith. All of these Inquisition files analyzed by Schwartz involved people who made "propositions," or statements that were contrary to church teaching. Most of the cases concern the then-provocative suggestion that all can be saved in their own religion, summed up in the Spanish adage "Cada uno se puede salvar en su ley."
A very revealing fact is almost lost in translation here, and the key word is ley, or "law." Many of those processed by the Inquisition for their laissez-faire soteriology or agnosticism made no distinction between theology and ethics, that is, between "religion" and "law." In fact, they understood what we call "religion" as a code of behavior rather than as a set of beliefs, and were not only convinced that God offered salvation to all, but that it was offered through ethical norms. Symbols and rituals were a part of God's "laws," and therefore necessary for salvation, but the key element in this pluralistic soteriology was that of faithfulness and obedience to whatever was prescribed by the divine, not the specifics of what was prescribed (or proscribed). In many ways, the tolerant pluralists dragged before the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition were similar to today's Unitarian Universalists, only with a stronger emphasis on the concept of salvation through adherence to a very specific code: they believed in a good and merciful God who could be reached through different paths. Some, of course, had convictions derived from indifference to religion. In any case, for all of these individuals accused of error, "otherness" was not intrinsically evil, much less demonic.