Imagining Religious Toleration: A Literary History of an Idea, 1600-1830
Chapter: Blind or Blindfolded? Disability, Religious Difference, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes
Contributor: Andrew McKendry
Editors: Alison Conway and David Alvarez
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Book Description: Formerly a site of study reserved for intellectual historians and political philosophers, scholarship on religious toleration, from the perspective of literary scholars, is fairly limited. Largely ignored and understudied techniques employed by writers to influence cultural understandings of tolerance are rich for exploration. In investigating texts ranging from early modern to Romantic, Alison Conway, David Alvarez, and their contributors shed light on what literature can say about toleration, and how it can produce and manage feelings of tolerance and intolerance. Beginning with an overview of the historical debates surrounding the terms “toleration” and “tolerance,” this book moves on to discuss the specific contributions that literature and literary modes have made to cultural history, studying the literary techniques that philosophers, theologians, and political theorists used to frame the questions central to the idea and practice of religious toleration. Tracing the rhetoric employed by a wide range of authors, the contributors delve into topics such as conversion as an instrument of power in Shakespeare; the relationship between religious toleration and the rise of Enlightenment satire; and the ways in which writing can act as a call for tolerance.
Chapter Description: McKendry analyzes how conceptions of blindness, and disability more broadly, shaped early modern attitudes towards religious difference, error, and toleration. At a moment when spiritual blindness was regularly considered the ‘natural’ state of fallen mankind, making judgments about the capacities or status of others could be exposed as a kind of “embarrassingly ableist gaze—a secularizing ownership over our bodies (particularly our eyes) that was disabling in the most egregious sense.” While charity toward “the weak and erroneous” could function as a strategically useful forbearance, the ableist privilege this tolerance involves was often impugned in religious writing, generating moments of uncertainty and misrecognition that might offer, McKendry argues, an alternative to the liberal tradition. But such “potentially conciliatory continuities of disability,” he suggests, “are inhibited under the regulatory frameworks of liberalism,” which reformulates religious identity in binaries of conformity and non-conformity, compulsion and freedom—a dynamic staged in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Reading the tropes of disability and ableism as they were developed by seventeenth-century religious writers allows us to better understand, today, “how justice is distributed, how exceptions are defined, and where suffering takes place.” By showing us how seventeenth-century readers framed the nature and implications of disability, McKendry illustrates how to interrogate the epistemological assumptions that subtend our current conceptions of toleration and religious difference
Imagining Religious Toleration is a stimulating and provocative project, one which charts a series of writers and their perceptions of toleration. Its intellectual net has been widely cast so that it will undoubtedly attract all types of readers.
With scholarly voices working across several literary historical periods, Imagining Religious Toleration helps readers rethink stories of toleration. If societies are not becoming more secular as they become more modern, then we need to think again about toleration and religious pluralism, and the essays in Imagining Religious Toleration do just that, providing readers a set of insightful, initial investigations into what we might learn from older, imaginative writing about toleration today and about the role literature might play in sustaining such toleration.