Enlightenment Liberalism or Political Liberalism? Orthodoxy as a Political-Philosophical Problem

25 February, 2024

Pooyan Tamimi Arab was one of the keynote speakers at the international conference “Rewriting Global Orthodoxy: Oriental and Eastern Orthodox communities in a transnational world,” which was held at Radboud University Nijmegen between January 25-27, 2024. The following is the text of his presentation.

Heleen Murre-van den Berg has asked me to deliver a keynote to add a comparative, reflective dimension to the conference, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I’ve decided on a broad reflection on why philosophers see orthodoxy as a political-philosophical problem. I will discuss the idea of orthodoxy in the view of outside beholders, philosophers, who use it as a case to explore the scope of liberalism and the limits of tolerance. To do so, I consider the role of orthodoxy in my short book Why Do Religious Forms Matter? Reflections on Materialism, Toleration, and Public Reason, which was published in 2022.  

I’m not a scholar of Orthodox Christian communities, but this occasion allows me to reflect on the role the idea of orthodoxy plays in my book and in my life as a Dutch-Iranian who attended the Spinoza Lyceum high school in multicultural Amsterdam. Having a philosophy and an Iranian-Dutch background doubly set me up to see orthodoxy as something negative, to see “orthodoxizing” [as it is put by Shahab Ahmed] as undesirable: a behavior to oppose philosophically and politically. Should views and practices perceived as orthodox be tolerated, up to the point of going against compelling state interests like upholding equality, freedom, or health? Is liberalism compatible with what philosopher John Rawls called comprehensive doctrines of orthodox religions; and what kind of liberalism?
Why Do Religious Forms Matter? Published in 2022 by Palgrave Macmillan.
I’m not alone in having this somewhat negative attitude. Martha Nussbaum, in her book Liberty of Conscience associates religious orthodoxy with imposing views, punishing, and thinking rigidly. She teaches the reader about Roger Williams – the 17th century English Puritan famous for coining the phrase “wall of separation” between organized religion and state. To impose an orthodoxy on the inner space of an individual’s conscience, in Williams’ words, constitutes “Soule rape” – a frightening formulation that depicts the conscience as something living that can be irrepairably violated. On the other hand, Nussbaum explains the power of orthodoxy as comforting, providing existential security. But this quickly devolves into illiberal policies: “Americans”, Nussbaum argues more generally, “have a recurring tendency to seek the comfort of orthodoxy during times of stress. Minorities often suffer from these anxious impositions of order.” And yet, it is the same Nussbaum who in her books pleads for tolerating orthodox religious ways of living, especially of minorities, and respecting the equal dignity of all human beings.

This attitude of associating orthodoxy with rigidity, but then also exploring to what extent orthodoxies may be part of the social contract, shows the tension I’m interested in exploring. Such attitudes have a much older history in philosophy. They go back at least to Early Modern times. It’s no coincidence that the Remonstrants who befriended Spinoza and Locke were called the “rekkelijken,” the “flexible.” Their opponents, the Counter-Remonstrants, were seen as orthodox “preciezen,” the “precise.”

Moreover, this tension between those more free of spirit or those more orthodox isn’t a European invention. For example, in the Sultanate of Delhi and in Mughal India, from the 1200s to modernity, Muslim readers of Islamic philosophy and Sufi poetry viewed a rigid religious attitude as straightness: being orthodox was to follow the so-called straight path of Islam. Compare this with Spinoza’s friend, Adriaan Koerbagh, who translated the word orthodox with the Dutch “rechtgeloovig,” being “straight of faith.” In the Persianate world of Mughal India, those who rejected the ideal of a straight path celebrated the wearing of a tilted hat, which symbolized their transgression and their criticism of those know-it-all straight hatters. They read poets like the fourteenth century Hafez, who advised to raise the cup, to drink wine and be well, and warned not to turn the Qur’an into a “snare of deception” [trans. Shahab Ahmed]. According to the Islamic Studies scholar Shahab Ahmed, who discusses Hafez at length, to reduce Islam to orthodoxy is to fall into “a legal-supremacist trap” – the sternness of legality being contrasted with the liberality of those drinkers who don’t take the rules all too strictly and point out the hypocrisy of the all-too-pious. This critical view of orthodoxy is also found in a recent book that I recommend, Gijs Kruijtzer’s Justifying Transgression, on how Muslims and Christians creatively interpreted Laws about sodomy, idolatry, and usury between 1200 and 1700.
And not only liberal philosophers like Nussbaum have this somewhat negative view of orthodoxy: Talal Asad, the postcolonial anthropologist of Islam known for his criticisms of modernity and liberalism defines orthodoxy as more than a set of doctrines and associated practices. Orthodoxy, he writes, is “a relationship of power to truth.” He continues: “Wherever Muslims have the power to regulate, uphold, require, or adjust correct practices, and to condemn, exclude, undermine, or replace incorrect ones, there is the domain of orthodoxy.”

This is not so different from Nussbaum, who similarly associated orthodoxy with a certain imposing of standards understood rigidly. In his last book, Secular Translations,Asad doubles down against liberals, including religious liberals, by sharply contrasting “spontaneity” as a Romantic and modern sensibility that goes against “the discipline of tradition.” In this view, it would appear there is no flexibility, no personal spontaneity, in religious traditions. Orthodoxy revolves around power and correctness, while tradition is a matter of discipline. Other scholars such as my colleague Itamar Ben Ami, in his study of radical Orthodox Jewish political thought in the 20th century, warn that Orthodox radical politics can themselves be modern phenomena, even as they use the language of tradition, and they may employ disruptive, revolutionary, methods to achieve their ideal societies.
For liberal philosophers, orthodoxy, understood in these ways, becomes problematic the moment it ceases to tolerate diverse views and practices. The idea of orthodoxy thus becomes a concept applied to all sorts of individuals and groups, some of whom may not even identify as orthodox. As Locke puts it scathingly in A Letter Concerning Toleration, everyone claims the orthodoxy of their faith, “for everyone is orthodox in their own eyes.” This kind of orthodoxy opposes diversity, argues Locke, and is likely to signal “competition for power and dominion.” None of the conflicts which have occurred in the name of religion, Locke contends, are caused by religious diversity; they are, rather, caused by this attitude of not tolerating “diversity,” a term which his work helped popularize. On the other hand, not tolerating the orthodox, might be another form of intolerance. So how can we think about this question in a critical and constructive way?
In my department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, our research group focuses on religion from a material perspective: we study religious aesthetics, for example in architecture, contestations over images, and in violent conflicts.Looking back at my book Why Do Religious Forms Matter?, I think that the idea of orthodoxy pushed me to explore the limits of political liberalism and the focus on materiality helped me to conceptualize this in a tangible way. Seen this way, orthodoxy is an emotional insistence, not just on ideas, but also on certain religious forms, or religious aesthetics.
This view of orthodoxy reminds of the European art historical imagination of Byzantine art. It means to insist on depicting Jesus in a certain way over a long span of time, in contrast with the art history we know of the Western tradition, which has been much more characterized by studying changes of style. Such changes of style were sometimes judged to take place insufficiently among the Eastern Orthodox, who thus came to stand for cultural stagnation. No doubt, these are stereotypes, and philosophers who use the word orthodox in a broad, abstracted way, should do so with caution. That is perhaps also why I only used the word orthodox a couple of times in my book, mostly to describe communities that see themselves as orthodox. Nevertheless, I recognize that the idea of orthodoxy, using the word or not, did influence me greatly.

In my book, I analyze the political philosophies of Early Moderns Spinoza and Locke, and contemporary thinkers Rawls, Nussbaum, and Habermas, to understand what coexisting religious forms are and why they matter. Each philosopher writes about religious forms in a distinct style. Before I say more about their views, allow me a few words of clarification about my use of terms and the material religion approach.

In referring to a religious “form” I mean “a configuration of sensuous material,” as in Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics, to be distinguished from “the content,” an idea or a belief. Material religion scholars don’t see forms as the secondary manifestations of a more universal capitalized Ideal. They pay attention to the entanglement of form and content. Starting in the 1990s, by self-examining the notorious “Protestant bias,” these scholars corrected the concept of religion as comprising more than beliefs. This was done in part under the influence of the twentieth-century “affective turn” in the humanities.

Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, was founded in 2005 and its approach is spearheaded by my colleague Birgit Meyer. Meyer coined the concept of the “sensational form” as a methodological device for focusing on specific, tangible forms as entry points to people’s religious worlds. For her, a sensational form mediates access to what believers call “spirits,” the “divine,” the “transcendent,” or simply a “beyond” that cannot be perceived directly. Mediation bridges the distance between mere form and the reality of God’s and other beings’ presence, which is “felt in the bones.”
Two issues of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief
Sensational forms, as conceived by Meyer, are part of larger “aesthetic formations” that not only produce representations through the imagination but also materially shape ever-interacting and thus ever-changing religious communities. As an anthropologist, she is interested in those communities’ perspectives and what is true for them. From an outsider perspective, the idea of aesthetic formations explains that religious identities are modalities of the forms that communities themselves design. So the Tibetan flag, with two snow lions on a white mountain under a radiant sun, does not just represent a past identity; it also reinforces the very idea of a Tibetan people and the demand for religious freedom today. Scholars of material religion are often interested in the empirical complexity of the use of such specific things, and they predominantly choose interpretive methods that make it possible to convey their meaning.

In Why Do Religious Forms Matter?, I trace this analytic back to the Early Modern period in European philosophy, to Spinoza, who has become material heritage himself.The inscription beneath his statue in Amsterdam across the mayor’s office reminds her that “the purpose of the state is freedom.” If the material-religion approach is rooted in a postcolonial critique of the Protestant bias, as Meyer sees it, I argue at the same time that it can be traced back to those philosophers who discussed the role of religious forms in the relation between State and Church. Spinoza stands out because he developed ideas that the material-religion approach explicitly relies on. Spinoza’s idea that mind and body are one and equal, lays the foundation for his analysis of human affects, which inspired the affective turn through such readers as Deleuze and underpins material-religion scholars’ view of religious affects. Spinoza, famously, turns against the denigration of sensed things and against the supposed superiority of an immaterial mind or soul, radically stating, “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.”
Statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam, made by Nicolas Dings, placed in 2008. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
This theoretical perspective also paves the way to the Enlightenment philosopher’s critique of religious imaginations and associated practices. In contrast to most anthropologists today, Spinoza’s political philosophy is concerned with criticizing the theocratic abuse of state power and changing what is considered orthodox. In the Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1670, he criticizes “superstitious” beliefs and practices as being used to justify violence. To launch these and other criticisms, Spinoza describes theforms all historical religions share, prefiguring scholarship such as Durkheim’s 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which explains how a form of life relies on being made tangible through a definite “material form” (une forme matérielle).

I use an open concept of forms to connect and compare how Spinoza and other philosophers thought about diverse religious forms in shared public domains, highlighting what he wrote about visions, books, rituals, and buildings. The focus on material religion reveals the Early Modern boundaries of inclusion in Spinoza’s conception of a free society.
Spinoza’s approach to religion was objective. He sought to describe how religion functions and what it truly is, simultanuously from the outside as a scientist and from the inside as a critical reader of the Bible. This led him to distinguish religious forms—which serve the role of sparking a community’s imagination – from the truly universal religion—which should lead to charity and justice. Rather than rejecting orthodoxy, his rhetoric is that orthodoxy is a credo minimum, comprising essential divine doctrines, which mark the boundaries of who and what really, objectively, are orthodox. This approach leads Spinoza to see religious forms as non-essential.
Critical as this perspective is, it can also hide power relations and paradoxically lead to positing the importance of certain forms over others—an uncircumcised male body over a circumcised one, pork over kosher food, a sober well-lit church interior over a darker one crowded with statues and colorful wall motives. For Spinoza, symbolic inequality expressed through a hierarchy of forms marking different religious groups could be recommendable for preserving the unity of the society and the peace of an ideal state—as long as diverse religious groups’ coexistence was accommodated. For example, in one train of thought he recommended that the churches of minorities be small whereas those of the national church be large. Moreover, the national churches should be under the control of elite secular authorities, as a kind of proto-civil religion:
“[T]hose who are attached to another religion must certainly be allowed to build as many houses of worshipas they wish, but these should be small, of some definite size, and at some distance from one another. But it’s very important that the temples dedicated to the national Religion be large and magnificent, and that only Patricians or Senators be permitted to officiate in their chief rituals.”

For liberal-democratic societies in our time, however, overt symbolic, aesthetic inequalities between religions are highly contested. The examples that come to mind are European disagreements about mosque construction, minarets, and the amplified Islamic call to prayer. Opponents of these forms often argue, “objectively,” that believers should consider them unnecessary. In my previous research on the amplified call to prayer in the Netherlands, I was often asked why some mosques insist on using loudspeakers when most Muslims don’t consider amplification to be mandated by Islam. Why not use private clocks or smartphone applications? While religious freedom is an important principle that should be upheld, so the argument goes, not all forms are or should be considered essential to a religion. Therefore, their public manifestations do not necessarily fall under constitutional rights.
An extreme example is Switzerland’s ban of minaret construction after an internationally criticized referendum in 2009. Few scholars have played devil’s advocate to defend the Swiss law’s blunt singling out of one religion. One such attempt at thinking through arguments in favor of the ban is by the political theorist David Miller. One of his arguments is that minarets aren’t essential to Islam, so why would some Muslims rigidly insist on this particular form?
“Historically, it appears that associating a tower with a mosque did not become widespread until the ninth century, and the building of minarets at that time had more to do with their functions as symbols of religious power than with their role in Islamic religious practice; they were not, for example, regarded as essential for broadcasting the call to prayer… So although, for Muslims, the right to religious freedom must include the right to have access to a mosque―to build one, or to convert an existing building, if necessary―the features that are essential to a mosque are those that allow collective prayer and other rituals to be performed, and a minaret does not qualify for that purpose.”
Miller poses the question in a way that fails to recognize the inequality that manifests as aesthetic inequality between the tiny Swiss community who identify with Islam and the majority that identifies more or less with Christianity as a religion or as shared heritage. Miller unconvincingly describes the Swiss (post-)Christians as “the indigenous majority,” drawing on the connotation of the word “indigenous,” which often refers to groups who lacked the power of self-determination under the yoke of European colonialism—as in, say, when we speak of “Australia’s indigenous population.” Moreover, from the perspective of anthropologists, Islamic studies scholars, and scholars of material religion, his reasoning betrays an essentialist conception of religion. He determines that the beginning of Islam should inform the meaning of minarets in Switzerland in the twenty-first century. He is, in fact, being more “orthodox” or perhaps more “fundamentalist” than the Muslims thought of as not flexible enough, by using an originalist argument about the first mosques.
Miller privileges a religious essence at the expense of what becomes mere aesthetic baggage, describing what in religions is “required” as opposed to what is only “appreciated.” Like Spinoza, who defended the idea of an official religion of the majority, Miller’s defense of the Swiss majority’s right to determine Switzerland’s religious landscapes at the expense of minorities’ right,  does not take as a starting point the experiences and desires of religious-minority citizens themselves—in this case, Muslims, for whom the minarets express equal citizenship.
In contrast with Spinoza, his contemporary, Locke, takes a more relativistic stance regarding religions. Whether one prayes “with or without form,” Locke writes, in the “various and pompous ceremonies of the papist or in the plainer way of the Calvinists,” should not matter to the ruler, who should not determine orthodoxy, since everyone is orthodox when it comes to their own views. Like an anthropologist, Locke takes a subjectivist stance toward religious forms. Our understanding of toleration and equality today rests on this assumption, that these principles are not supposed to preserve religious forms in themselves, but only as forms that matter to right-bearing subjects who deem them important. That is, if the state is to institute tolerance as a civil right—which is a right that citizens intrinsically have, rather than a right that is bestowed on them by the state—then it should restrain from imposing certain forms over others, instead applying a stance of strict neutrality. The answer to my book’s question―why religious forms matter―then, can be found in Locke’s early Essay Concerning Toleration, written in 1667. Religious forms matter because the people who value them find their unique qualities to be irreplaceable. “In religious worship,” Locke writes, it should be assumed that, for religious groups themselves, “nothing is indifferent.” He reiterates this point in the later Letter, giving the example of ritual slaughter. In Judaism, Locke argues, sacrifice is a form of worship that cannot be viewed as indifferent to the essense of that religion:
“Among the Jews the time and place of worship, and the habits of those that officiated in it, were not mere circumstances, but a part of their worship, and if anything in them were defective or altered, they could not hope that their rites would please and be accepted by God.”
“[I]f they wished to sacrifice a calf, I deny that that should be forbidden by law … Whether this pleases God is for the worshippers to consider.”
The Lockean view can be critically compared with contemporary views like Nussbaum’s, who suggest that accommodation―that is, context-dependent differential treatment of religious minorities―is a superior principle of equality, often described as equity. A focus on the Netherlands today shows that accommodation indeed recognizes believers’ deeply felt religious convictions in ways that a strict Lockean perspective cannot. For example, some orthodox Protestants are exempt from health insurance requirements because they believe those requirements contradict God’s providence; and houses of worship were free to hold services despite national health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This may be so, but it is Lockean-aligned strict neutrality on the state level that secures public manifestations of religion. The recent election outcome in this country, won by Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom that has often argued for unconstitutional policies like banning mosque construction, shows that Lockean neutrality, which guarantees equality, can never be taken for granted.
In the Netherlands today, in constitutional practice there is no difference between the construction of a Sunni mosque or an Orthodox church in the city of Rotterdam, or between mosques that use loudspeakers to call to prayer or churches that ring church bells. A reading of legal reasonings, for example by the Dutch Council of State, shows that the principle of neutrality is also crucial to make possible more private practices such as the slaughter of animals according to Jewish and Islamic prescriptions. To reach this conclusion, we must start the analysis by observing how states actually address the challenge of religious diversity and actually deal with the problem of orthodox insistence. Material religion is well suited to this task, as it is par-excellencepractical in that it distinctly answers such questions as: Do mosques get built? Can sheep be ritually slaughtered?
The Essalam Mosque (2010) and the Orthodox Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Rotterdam (2004). Photos from Wikimedia Commons.
A difference between the material-religion approach and political philosophy is that the former’s normative judgments are expressed implicitly through the idea of critique―“critical genealogies,” “critical analysis,” and “critical rethinking,” as proposed by Meyer to further our knowledge and understanding―while philosophy seeks to explicitly justify principles such as “liberty” and “equality,” as well as the idealized governance systems that enable both. In my view, political liberalism can learn much from critical scholars of material religion. A key insight is that inequality can be traced by studying how states exclude certain religious forms or force non-dominant groups to adapt them in ways that benefit majority populations. When excessively regulating the public expression of religious forms, authorities can be accused of attempts at soft intervention in people’s private beliefs—despite political liberalism’s promise that the right to a free conscience is absolute and inalienable.

That the private and public are linked is also argued by anthropologist Saba Mahmood in Religious Difference in A Secular Age, in which she analyzes the position of Coptic Orthodox Christians and Baha’is in Egypt. But my discussion of Locke shows how this isn’t a new insight. It goes back to the origins of liberalism itself, when the modern legal distinction between private and public religion was coined and theorized. Experienced thinkers like Spinoza and Locke dealt with the private/public distinction in their own ways, trying to balance liberty and authority, protecting freedom without endangering stability, while creating the liberal and democratic notions of citizens with civil rights.
Our time, writes John Rawls in Political Liberalism, is the heir to three centuries of thinking about liberalism and democracy; we too cannot ignore the requirements of stability, but we have a better understanding of the difference between enforced stability and a stability that derives from a premise we today consider legitimate. A domain so understood, whether private or public, is bound to the exercise of legitimate power. The idea of “domain,” in other words, is a normative concept and not merely an empirical phenomenon to be studied by social scientists and humanities scholars. The point that religious forms matter then, is also as much normative as it is descriptive, since these forms can exist only by manifesting in private and public domains. According to Rawls, these domains result from the state’s application of the principles it upholds so as to ensure citizens’ basic equal rights:

“A domain so-called, or a sphere of life, is not, then, something already given apart from political conceptions of justice. A domain is not a kind of space, or place, but rather is simply the result, or upshot, of how the principles of political justice are applied”.
And the broad notion of “critique” that scholars of material religion employ presupposes Rawlsian ideas—such as when excessive state control of the private domain is criticized.
Because Rawls is concerned primarily with the relationship between private conscience and public political life, he focuses on language, which bridges the distance from one domain to another. Along these lines arises the question: can citizens of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds express themselves in the way that they value, privately, also in public political life?
So, we need to include in the concept of religious forms different styles of writing, reciting, speaking, orating, or even singing—forms that communicate the beliefs that make up religious traditions and philosophies. These can be called “religious forms of discourse.” In my book, I propose an inclusive reading of Rawls’s ideal of “public reason,” one that assumes that such forms of discourse—religious but also non-religious—are never singular.
Rawls asks how it’s possible for citizens to arrive at a common understanding of each other’s basic rights if they are divided by various religions and philosophies. Should religious discourses be translated into Enlightened secular equivalents, as Jürgen Habermas contends? Rawls didn’t think so. He writes that what matters to him when thinking about the conditions for a truly public reason is not the distinction between the secular and the religious, but the distinction between liberal and democratic regimes, on the one hand, and those that are illiberal and undemocratic, on the other. In his ideal state, citizens using multiple religious and non-religious forms of discourse can learn to relate in more than one way to constitutional essentials. “The forms of public reason,” Rawls argues, “are always several.”
It is revealing that in a biographical letter he wrote shortly before his death, Rawls rejects Spinozist politics as the ground for what he defines as “political liberalism,” which concerns only with the basic structure of a liberal-democratic state and not with a liberal way of life. Rawls writes that Spinoza’s doctrines are too comprehensive, others might say too radical, to be implemented for all citizens. That would exclude orthodox citizens. Also in his book Political Liberalism, Rawls asserts: “In this respect, political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment Liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity.”
Public reason, which Rawls defines as concerning constitutional essentials only, does not criticize religious or non-religious worldviews. This point in Rawls’s thought contrasts sharply with Habermas’s view. In Habermas’s latest work, the big volumes Also A History of Philosophy and the short book A New Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Deliberative Politics, published in 2023 in English, he considers Rawls’s willingness to enter into dialogue with religious voices to have the drawback that such openness inevitably gives too much space to the dogmatic claims of religions at the expense of philosophical universalism. He thinks Rawls’s willingness to criticize the Enlightenment (aufklärungskritischen Selbstbegrenzung) goes too far in crediting religious worldviews and writes in clear language that the “openness to religious traditions must not diminish the claim to universality of reason compared to the dogmatic truth claim of religious belief,” and that Rawls’s theory “not only goes far towards accommodating the autonomous meaning of religion, but too far, because it does so at the expense of the autonomy of reason.”
Once again, Spinoza plays a pivotal role in navigating the objectivist, universalist, versus the subjectivist, relativistic, perspectives on religious forms. Whereas Rawls’s ideal reminds more of Locke than Spinoza, Habermas, in his latest work, praises Spinoza as a key figure of the Enlightenment, the first defender of secular reason and democracy, whose philosophy of immance contributed to philosophy’s postmetaphysical turn. The Enlightenment, in Habermas’s view, is decidedly anti-orthodox as it divorces philosophy from religious dogmas and, more importantly, religious authorities; at least on this interpretation of the Enlightenment, Rawls and Habermas appear to agree. The Enlightenment further radicalized after Spinoza, and, according to Habermas, is epitomized by the materialists, the intellectual ancestors of scholars of material religion today.
Notwithstanding their differences, Habermas’s recent writings resonate with Rawls’s as he writes that the “growing pluralism of our societies is a matter of the multiplication of cultural forms of life and individual lifestyles,” which is pushing the “general trend in large-scale scoieties for the burden of social integration to shift from the level of socialized lifeworlds to that of political citizenship, whereby integration via citizenship becomes detached from national, i.e., pre-political, ties.” For Habermas, just as for Rawls, liberalism, in its political variant, with or without Enlightenment radicalism, must prioritize civil rights.
To wrap it up: the idea of orthodoxy clearly has many meanings. Scholars of religion will not always be happy about the sweeping statements made by political philosophers, pointing out empirical nuances. What if someone is rigid in their thinking and practices, but not orthodox? Is there a point to philosophers’ usage of this word? I obviously think there is. I argued today that to better understand philosophers like Rawls, Nussbaum, and Habermas, studying the way they deal with the legacy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and how they read thinkers like Spinoza and Locke, helps us to understand their respective answers to the political-philosphical problem of orthodoxy, its insistence on certain religious forms and its rejection of other forms. My personal view is closer to Spinoza and Habermas, who share a religion-critical stance, but I recognize that we cannot ignore the warnings of liberals and postcolonial thinkers alike, who stress the subjective nature of valueing religious forms and ways of life.
In preparing this lecture, a friend of mine reminded me of the words of Adriaan Koerbagh, Spinoza’s friend. I briefly mentioned today that Koerbagh translated orthodoxy as “regtgeloovig” and “regtsinnig,” that is, as following a straight path of faith. That was in his 1668 dictionary with the beautiful Dutch title Een Bloemhof van allerley Lieflijkheyd sonder verdriet, “a flower garden of all kinds of loveliness without sorrow.” In a comment to the entry “orthodox,” he warns:
“Which profession truly is orthodox, no one can say, for each believes their path to be more straight than the other; and each judges the other. How can someone—when all are consumed with love for themselves—reasonably condemn another?”
Koerbagh’s fate was to be accused of blasphemy. He died in a prison of the Dutch Republic, a reminder that liberalism and tolerance were certainly limited in that time that still inspires philosophers today. If Koerbagh, like Locke, was really right that everyone is orthodox in their own eyes, and if everyone does insist on certain forms, it won’t be possible to uphold Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality without tolerating these many forms. Somehow, we’ll have to make the best of living together.