Breno Martins Campos
Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (PUC-Campinas), Center for Human and Social Applied Sciences, Graduate Program Stricto Sensu in Religious Studies
Bowdoin College – United States – Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Technology in the Digital and Computational Studies department
On the Rubem Alves Institute website, in the section dedicated to the author’s biography, we find the following information: “2014 – Enchanted on the 19th of July.” By coincidence or not, five years after his death, two academic events referring to Rubem Alves took place in Brazil—with important repercussions (mainly due to the related academic production). We mention these as a sign of the relevance of the author’s life and work, even as an object of study in itself. While these may not be the only two events dedicated to the Brazilian theologian and his intellectual production in 2019, they offer a good sample of Alves’s ongoing academic impact and are directly related to this article’s scope and objective.
The seminar Enigmas of Religion: Hope and Liberation in the Work of Rubem Alves took place on March 11 and 12, 2019, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, organized by the Research Group: Language, Religion and Culture of the Graduate Program Stricto Sensu in Religious Studies. In the online invitation published by the university, Ceci Maria Costa Baptista Mariani, one of the organizers of the event, describes Alves as an author who teaches how to live “a religious experience (the relationship with the Transcendent) in a liberating way.” She continues, “Religion for him is a great enigma. Of God, he says, what can be known is the good it does to our body.” As a material legacy of that seminar, Rubem Alves e as contas de vidro: Variações sobre teologia, mística, literatura e ciência was published in 2020.
The second event, Rethinking the Sacred: Rubem Alves and Liberation Theology, took place at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alves’s doctoral thesis (“A Theology of Human Hope”). Within the scope of the general program of the symposium was the founding assembly of the Sociedade Internacional Rubem Alves. The magazine NUMEN, a periodical for studies and research on religion in the UFJF Graduate Program in Religious Studies, published the Dossiê repensando o sagrado: Rubem Alves with texts from the event and articles related to the honored theologian.
With this contextual background, we intend to demonstrate using a small empirical sample that Alves’s work remains alive in the production of many of his heirs, and his works will likely continue to have a significant impact on several academic fields. Our excerpts from events and publications – arbitrary, to be sure – illustrate that, within the limits of religion and theology, the author is remembered almost entirely by the discourse (and ethos) of liberation. We intend to contribute to the study of Alves’s work through the lenses of sociology and philosophy, which support – and simultaneously problematize – contours of repression within religions and religious practices analyzed by the Brazilian theologian. We also hope to flesh out his strands of thought on the opposite spectrum – that of tolerance.
We continue a critical reading of Protestantism and Repression, originally published in Portuguese in 1979 and considered by us to be one of the most sociological works in the Alvesian corpus. We further assess how Peter Berger (and Thomas Luckmann) and Paul Ricoeur contributed to Alves’s thinking in critical interaction with Alves’s own intellectual and personal trajectory, although it is not our intention to offer an accurate biography. Even so, we note the impossibility of ignoring aspects and facts of Alves’s life narrative in our discussion. As the last meaning intentionally attributed to this article, we intend to use the cited references – the sociology of knowledge and hermeneutic philosophy – for a discussion regarding tolerance and the intolerable in Alves’s work.
Winds, Hurricane, and Flights of the Enchanted Theologian
According to the Rubem Alves Institute, Alves published 45 books aimed at children from 1983 to 2009. We venture to say that one of the best known and most read of all is The Girl and the Enchanted Bird (originally from 1984). “This story, I didn’t invent it,” reveals Alves; “I was sad seeing the sadness of a child who was crying a farewell… And the story just appeared inside me, almost ready.” Nothing can replace the full reading of the story, but, according to our intentions, we offer a summary of the narrative.
The story starts, “Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a bird as her best friend.” It happens that the bird was enchanted; it flew free, left when it wanted, and returned when it missed home. From the places it visited, the bird brought memories for the girl, printed in colors on the feathers themselves. “The girl loved that bird and could hear it over and over, day after day. And the bird loved the girl, and that’s why it always came back.” Still, it always left again because it needed the nostalgia to remain enchanted. One night, when the bird was absent, the girl had “a bad idea.” She decided to imprison her companion when it returned from his trip so that she would not miss it anymore and, therefore, would live happily ever after (as is often the case in fairytales). The cage the girl bought was beautiful, made of silver, and “suitable for a bird that one loves deeply.” As before, the bird arrived, told its stories, revealed its colors, and, tired, fell asleep. The girl trapped it in the cage, careful not to wake it. At dawn, the bird woke up and groaned, “Ah! Girl… what have you done? The spell is broken. My feathers will be ugly, and I will forget the stories… Without longing, love will go away.” The girl did not believe the bird; “she thought it would get used to it.” As time passed, the bird became different; it lost some of its feathers while others turned gray. It stopped singing. The girl, in turn, was bitter. How could she do that to her friend? “She couldn’t take it anymore. She opened the cage door.” The bird thanked the girl and acknowledged that it had to leave for the longing to arrive and for it to feel like returning. Now, the girl is neat and beautiful, longing and waiting for her enchanted bird’s return with wonderful stories from other places.
Before we speculate about the author’s intention, it is appropriate to share some explanations by Alves himself:
This [The Girl and the Enchanted Bird] is a story about separation: when two people who love each other have to say goodbye…
After goodbye, there is that immense void: longing.
Everything is filled with the presence of an absence.
Ah! How good it would be if there were no goodbyes…
Some even think of locking those they love in cages
so that they can be theirs forever…
The Girl and the Enchanted Bird is a story of the separation of two individuals who love each other. Without a doubt, the symbolism Alves describes is plausible – after all, he is the author of the story. However, we do not think it is unreasonable to propose that the story would allow us, by free association, to direct our reflections in another direction: that of the separation between a person and a church that love each other (or have loved each other for a while). In the particular case of this article, we imagine the connection between Alves and the Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPB, in Portuguese). It is useful for our discussion to know that Alves converted to Protestantism in 1945 (the same year he moved with his family from the state of Minas Gerais to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil) and that, in 1953, moved from the city of Rio de Janeiro to Campinas (state of São Paulo) to begin his Bachelor of Theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary (affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Brazil). In November 30, 1957, he completed his studies, and received a Bachelor of Theology.
In the chapter “From Paradise to the Desert – Autobiographical Reflections” in O Enigma da religião, Alves narrates these events in a very interesting way. During his residence and life in the state of Minas Gerais, “I had no awareness of myself, because my world and I merged into one whole” – a world in which everything made sense. When the world offers meaning to life, there is no reason to question or doubt it. But, he continued,
without knowing it – and suddenly – I was expelled from paradise. They moved me to a big city. My “relevant others” dissolved amid the incomprehensible complexity of urban life. They remained “others” but no longer “relevant.” … For the first time, I knew the embarrassment of being different. I became aware of myself.
Becoming religious – in other words, converting from one world to another – was the way Alves found to overcome this anomie: “If our ‘relevant others’ are reduced to insignificance and impotence, there is a Relevant Other who loves us and knows us, whose power is infinite.” More than merely a religious man, Alves confessed to having become a fundamentalist, in the sense of attributing “ultimate character to his own beliefs.” Consequently, he was condemned to attitudes of inquisitorial intolerance against those who differed from him. There is nothing better than a discourse capable of structuring life with ultimate certainties (which free the subject from dealing with the always unfinished reality of existence). “And for anyone who has found this kind of religious experience, the natural path to follow is to become an apostle of its truth. So, I went to the seminary.”
The impact of new winds on Alves’s life, blown during the times of the theological seminary in Campinas, is directly linked to the person and theology of Richard Shaull, a Protestant missionary in Colombia, beginning 1941, and, later, in Brazil,:
We arrived together at the same seminar, Campinas, in the year 1953. I [Alves] was a freshman and was full of certainties. Shaull was a teacher and was full of questions. Of course, I didn’t suspect that soon my certainties would fall to the ground; otherwise, I would have run away. One of the illusions of those who are certain is precisely this: that their ideas will never change, as they are true and destined for eternity.
Once again, Alves makes a point of presenting himself as a fundamentalist – “a knight-errant, convincing others of his truths and persecuting others who think differently” – and, at the same time, a Pietist (a trace of religious identity alien to typical fundamentalism) with a deep desire to live a holy life, more through the expression of emotions and regrets than through the statement of orthodox doctrines. “And perhaps it is due to this – because they are opposite attitudes – the fact that the precarious synthesis in which I lived has finally broken,” he acknowledged.
Shaull (and the entire theological community he represented) was decisive in yet another paradigmatic shift by Alves. The simple world of Alves and his seminar colleagues – God in heaven (and everywhere), earth as a temporary place to live, heaven or hell as an eternal destination for souls, and the conviction that “the Church had nothing to do with the petty quarrels of men [sic]” – was swept away by the idea that the same word (God) can name the domesticable sacred as well as the wild and indomitable sacred. Shaull spoke of revolution, and the church, in Alves’s conception, became responsible for the here and now because his God was “the wind that comes out through the deserts, raising the dead, and through the cities, whistling in the markets, schools, barracks, in palaces, in banks.” Secularization, for Alves, was no longer synonymous with the death of God – or the end of the sacred – but, rather, that “God escaped from the religious greenhouses [the metaphor being that of an internal and protected garden] that we built and invaded the world.”
In Brazil, instead of the revolution that Shaull saw in various signs of the time, the result was the 1964 civil-military coup. The wind had changed direction – or, better, according to Alves’s theology, were no longer indications of God revealed in the hurricane (according to the image proposed by Shaull) but of other blows. The relationship of the Brazilian evangelical churches in general and the IPB in particular with the military dictatorship is already well documented. According to Shaull himself, in the preface he wrote for Protestantism and Repression, “When the military regime consolidated its power, members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy took a courageous stand against repression. The Protestant churches remained silent; and in some instances, gave the regime their support.” And they began to persecute the internal voices that denounced the regime of exception established in the country.
With the civil-military coup and the establishment of the dictatorship in Brazil, the church’s commitment to social responsibilities changed. The environment of pluralism of ideas was replaced by the “establishment of the hegemony of the fundamentalist model implanted in the Supreme Council [general national assembly of the denomination] of Fortaleza, in 1966” – to reveal that tension and conflict were already established in the struggle for power, domination and hegemony within the denomination.
A Cage for the Enchanted Theologian
As a microcosm of historical Protestantism in Brazil, we cannot fail to consider the complexity of the IPB – as of any other institution, religious or not – and the fact that it has always had to deal, internally and externally, with contradictions. At first, IPB was a church (ecclesial community) capable of offering to the young Alves – a complex individual marked himself by contradictions, like all others – the overcoming of anguish in the face of anomie caused by the loss of his relevant others. Simultaneously, the same and only conversion from the world to the church was both liberation (from the world) and imprisonment (to the church). In a second moment (within the so-called “era of the hurricane,” during the period of influence of Shaull), the IPB represented for Alves an opening to the future as it contributed to freeing him from the protection of fundamentalism. And finally, in a third moment, the same IPB made it clear to Alves that it would not allow the comings and goings (literal or symbolic) he desired and practiced. The coloring of the liberation theologian’s history and stories became scandalous for that ecclesiastical denomination.
“Ah! Girl… What have you done?” the enchanted bird said to his companion, who wanted him only for herself with no freedom to come and go. Alves, in turn, wrote a document for his church, in the tone of a final farewell, dated September 15, 1970. “Ah! IPB… What did you do?” the theologian asked. Here is an excerpt from his request for exoneration (waiver of jurisdiction) from IPB: “I am convinced, theologically, that the community of faith has already emigrated [from IPB]. No legal and power structure can contain it or domesticate it. … Love and truth often compel us to emigrate. … The vocation for freedom is the vocation to emigrate.”
A few years later, already out of IPB, in Protestantism and Repression (the formal object of investigation in this article), following the molds of the Weberian methodology, Alves proposed that Protestantism in Brazil should be divided into at least three ideal types:
- Right-Doctrine Protestantism (abbreviated as RDP throughout this [Alves’s] book). What is its characteristic feature? The fact that it stresses agreement with a series of doctrinal affirmations, which are regarded as expressions of the truth and which must be affirmed without any shadow of doubt, as the precondition for participation in the ecclesial community.
The other two are Sacramental Protestantism, whose emphasis is on emotion and mysticism in the liturgy and sacraments, not on the correctness of doctrines, and Protestantism of the Spirit focused on a subjective experience of ecstasy typical of Pentecostal denominations. Obviously, it is the first type of Protestantism that Alves’s book deals with—which, in fact, can be considered the fundamentalist way of being Protestant. As for the RDP, Alves does not propose a discussion that is solely conceptual—which would already be instigating—but, rather, its elaboration proposes a concrete and historically located foundation.
I have drawn my empirical materials from the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. This does not mean that all the members of that Church fit into the type I am describing: i.e., RDP. Nor does it mean that the validity of my conclusions are confined to that denomination. Wherever we find the type, there we will find its characteristics behavior.
Why the IPB, then? In Protestantism and Repression Alves does not explain his personal relationship with the Protestant denomination in question; rather, he explains his choice as follows: “The fact is that in recent years violent intramural conflicts broke out within that organization.” It is therefore from the end of the 1950s until the time of Alves’ research in the 1970s that, according to him, the RDP won the IPB – that is, it gained visibility and abandoned the scruples of becoming totalitarian. As he wrote, “I am interested in that victorious type, in its spirit. It lay hidden in the denomination. When it was challenged by a different spirit, it revealed itself in a series of concrete political acts that ended up squelching dissident voices” – Alves’s statement reveals a power play and a certain tension within the IPB. In the foreword to Protestantism and Repression, Shaull opens his arguments with the following opinion:
Over the last twenty years, incredible changes have taken place in the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. In 1959, on the occasion of its centennial celebrations, this Church was acclaimed as the outstanding success story of Protestantism in Latin America; it was hailed for its vitality, its prospects for continued growth, and for the role it seemed destined to play in the life of that nation. Today, after fifteen years of domination by a small group of reactionary leaders, it has been decimated. Many who once spoke of its great promise now wonder how long it can survive. The word “Presbyterian” now calls to mind the destructiveness of religious fanaticism and repression.
Shaull’s preface reveals two aspects of his personal and political engagement that, even if they do not compromise the text, should also not be silenced. (1) He poses himself as the subject of the history lived by IPB along with a new generation (of young pastors and laypeople) committed to Brazil’s social challenges in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (2) The argument of his text is to warn Protestantism in the USA not to follow the paths blazed by the institution that established itself as the heir of American Protestantism in Brazil, because, for him, American Presbyterianism seemed to flirt dangerously with repression. As we anticipated, the militant character of the text does not diminish its academic strength and relevance, but it does make room for us to present three relativizations. First, IPB has passed its 160 years in Brazil – that is, its existence (or survival) occurred independently of Shaull’s (and Alves’s) projects for it; the question of its social relevance and its attachment to constituted power is another discussion. Second, the fact that the so-called small group of reactionary leaders came to power in 1966 does not mean that group was created or organized that year. On the contrary, it was already present within the denomination and represented significant sectors in its correlation of forces and power. Finally, the attentive reader of Protestantism and Repression has already noticed that all the empirical material of Alves’s analysis was extracted from sources of the IPB itself, mainly the newspapers O Puritano and Brasil Presbiteriano, from the late 1940s to the 1960s, which allows us to consider that the RDP was not in a latent state at the IPB before 1966 but in full activity.
It seems to us that there is a breath of disappointment from Shaull – in addition to praise and recognition by fact and right – in relation to the Alves in Protestantism and Repression. For Shaull, he was more concerned with understanding the modus operandi of Brazilian Protestantism in the past than in showing how it could be in the future. On the other hand, he does not deny that, in the last chapter of Truth and Dogmatism, the Brazilian theologian suggested the alternative form of faith including doubt as an antidote to the RDP. We believe that Alves himself has not shied away from a methodology that would allow his research to also be an intervention – that is, in addition to a reckoning with the past – and that his results would also add interest or conviction that the world can be changed or at least that people can change (from one world to another). Thus, Protestantism and Repression is also a political act. As a heretic, the title attributed to him by the IPB, Alves assumes that he has his conviction, does not give up on it, and hopes that others can also convert to his thoughts and worldview.
Language cannot be thought of merely as the effect of a cause; Alves is addressing some of Karl Marx’s responses to left-wing Hegelians, notably regarding the assumption that the world is sustained by consciousness. Therefore, Alves’s solution to the question is to emphasize that language cannot be taken simply as “the symbolic articulation of material relationships.” For this very reason, Alves recognized the importance of Ricoeur’s philosophy in the truth-based discussion: “Language is both infrastructure and superstructure. It is necessary here to deliberately renounce the scheme of infra and superstructure and face a strictly circular phenomenon in which two terms alternatively are included and surpassed.”
Alves notes, “On the one hand, language cannot be regarded as the thing that sustains the world. On the other hand, we cannot possibly understand its function if we do not realize that language does help to keep the world going.” With arguments supported by the sociology of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Alves assumed that, if our knowledge works, then we suspend doubts about it – which also ensures that things work well and that life is organized in terms of future events. From sociology to theology, Alves claimed that Protestants call this Providence. Hence the importance of religious conversion: “the process of restructuring one’s schemes of meaning and value that can follow upon a crisis.”
Precisely because conversion can structure a subject’s biography, he divided his life into before and after conversion – from anomie to cosmos. But there is no denying that, if taken to the fullest, any language will deliver or reveal its contradictions – which is no different from the language that supports a religious conversion. Hence the importance of a well-built cage, whose door is open only for new birds to enter, never for their departure. The girl needs to be vigilant. Consequently, for the PRD, in the context of IPB or outside it, there cannot be the slightest shadow of doubt when it comes to the statute of truth. Therefore, the sin of heresy becomes the only one that cannot be forgiven because, according to the logic of the RDP, sinners are not willing to change their attitude or to repent, for they are convinced of the truth: “Heretics have not succumbed to fleshly weakness; they have rejected some absolute knowledge and denied its claim to truth, proposing a new truth.”
To those who come out of the cage and want to return to it with news, compelled and affected by the new winds of doctrine (as is said in evangelical jargon to name heresy), putting the whole order at risk, only severe condemnation remains. Alves adds, and “to the infiniteness of the guilt corresponds…the infiniteness of the vengeance: eternal punishment.” As for the primordial relationship between guilt and revenge, the Alvesian argument refers to Paul Ricoeur to say that we face a “matrix of terror.” At least in the RDP, “the claim of purity for revenge” reveals itself to be a God who sees everything and is always ready to punish through the human ecclesiastical agency responsible for safeguarding the truth and the institutional order.
That is to say, it is neither possible nor necessary for a church, as a community of true believers, custodian and guardian of sound doctrine, to live with the heretic and the related heresy, which can jeopardize the entire organization of a religious denomination. The obsession with truth, unconsciously, equates the RDP’s discourse with that of a primordial temptation to absolute knowledge; in other words, the RDP presents itself to those who belong in its circles as the updated voice of the serpent of the biblical myth. To be like God—to know all good and all evil—is what the supporters of the RDP want:
A “desire” has sprung up, the desire for infinity; but that infinity is not the infinity of reason and happiness, as we have interpreted it at the beginning of this work; it is the infinity of desire itself; it is the desire of desire, taking possession of knowing, of willing, of doing, and of being: “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”.
According to Alves, the RDP wished to offer (and did offer) knowledge in such a way that it made faith useless. If everything were known (and in the right way), then there were no risks; but without risks, there was also no faith:
As Ricoeur suggests, it is necessary that we move beyond the circle of endless hermeneutics approximations, which place us on the level of simple comparisons. And this is done by means of a wager (Ricoeur 355). The assertion of faith, therefore, is not “I know that” but rather “I wager that.”
Cages and More Cages
The metaphor of “the church and the enchanted theologian” seems to offer a certain originality against studies published previously about Alves’s relationship with IPB (and vice versa). Even so, we believe it is necessary to go ahead and deepen the innovative character of the present article by investigating another aspect of fundamentalist cages similar to that of the RDP according to the exploratory character that Alves gave to the case of IPB in Protestantism and Repression. Following the inspiration from Alves, himself a reader of Paul Ricoeur (as already indicated in previous sections), the French philosopher is also our intellectual travel companion, in particular, in two of his publications: “Tolérance, Intolérance, Intolérable” from 1988 and “The Erosion of Tolerance and the Resistance of the Intolerable” published in 1996. Our hypothesis for the purposes of this article is that intolerance is nothing but the RDP’s own production and cage as well as those of other doctrinal movements (with ethical consequences), whether religious or not, with a pathological obsession with exclusive or exclusivist mastery of the absolute truth.
Let us begin, however, by recalling some observations by Alves himself to guide the development of the argument. He describes the obsession with truth, as in the RDP, according to the premise that salvation—which begins in this life and extends into eternity—coincides with the knowledge of the truth:
RDP assumes that salvation is a function of knowing the truth. It must logically conclude that its knowledge is the truth, that it is an absolute and final knowledge which must be upheld without vacillations or concessions. Doubt is a symptom of damnation. Its discourse and real being coincide, hence it holds a monopoly on truth. It possesses a body of knowledge that is totally objective and absolute.
Thus, for the RDP to offer a safe environment, and one that leads to salvation, its speech must be an accurate description of reality. Being and knowing must converge perfectly in such a way that the RDP is the holder of the discourse that reveals the truths that lead to salvation. The RDP’s cage marks a total security zone in which it is possible to live “in truth”; it also clearly distinguishes an “inside” from an “outside”—and what is outside neither should nor deserves to be experienced. Otherwise, the security of the internal space—and not only for the subject but also for the group—is forever compromised.
Therefore, we are interested, even if briefly, in exploring the fact that, inside the cage the coincidence between being and knowing (represented by speech) is exclusive. Not only is there only truth in the doctrines proposed by the RDP, but also there aren’t, as there cannot be, truths outside the RDP. A question is imposed on the bird-theologian: Why fly if all that is necessary to live well and achieve salvation is in the cage? There is no possibility of finding the truth outside the cage—which, thus, comes to be seen and experienced not as deprivation but as a safe refuge, protected from the outer emptiness (in evangelical jargon, “from the world outside”).
Alves names the inside and outside of the cage, respectively, by the concepts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy (or heresy), according to the assumptions of the RDP, and adds a warning that the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heresy cannot be sustained except by intolerance:
[T]he dark side of this obsession is RDP’s intolerance towards anything it defines as error vis-à-vis its absolute truth. A fundamental opposition undergirds the world of absolute truth: orthodoxy versus heterodoxy, correct thinking versus heresy. And since orthodoxy is bound up with the crucial problem of the eternal salvation of souls, absolute truth must be intolerant. Only doubters can be tolerant. When love of truth is identified with actual possession of the truth, the advocates of truth must be intolerant towards those who have a different way of thinking.
Like bars of a cage protecting the truth that lives exclusively inside the cage, intolerance must be the impermeable protection for the soul of the faithful against the denial of the truth (the non-truth), which is heterodoxy (or heresy). Since the whole truth is inside the cage – and only there – it must be a hermetically sealed space to prevent the movement of non-truths from the outside in. Such movement would only bring impurities to the safe and correctly ordered environment (orthos, orthodox) inside the cage. However, the same cage must also protect its residents against the temptation to move from the inside out. According to the logic of the RDP, wandering in the outer space of heterodoxy is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a loss of life. Intolerance is the material that sustains the closed spiritual environment of the RDP cage. Such material can even be precious, like the silver of the cage in the story of the girl and the enchanted bird, because “at first glance this obsession with truth would seem to be an extraordinary virtue.”
At this point, the contributions of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur to our argument come into the picture in a more decisive way. For our part, we will dialogue in an Alvesian manner with Ricoeur but in a way that Alves himself could not – even if only due to the chronology of the publications. In Ricoeur’s “Tolérance, Intolérance, Intolérable,” we find support for a structural analysis of what we are considering the bars of the RDP cage – and of all other similar cages, as we have already stated. Ricoeur suggests that one should approach the issue of tolerance by means of the exclamation: “This is intolerable!” As a cry of indignation, it helps us think of a crucial distinction in the use of the concept of tolerance. Is the one who shouts the tolerant, outraged in the face of an unjust act (abjection), or the intolerant, who does not accept the difference (rejection)?
Ricoeur breaks down the denotations of the concept of tolerance according to three sociopolitical contexts: the state, cultural institutions, and religious and theological institutions. In each of these potential milieus and contexts of intolerance, a different type of cage is revealed, which needs to be distinguished and analyzed. The French philosopher warns of possible genus confusion since it is necessary to ask, “[W]hat is valid in the sphere of the constitutional right [State] also applies to mentalities and cultural traditions? What if the term [intolerance] doesn’t change in its meaning, or even loses its applicability, once extended in terms of religious practice and theological reflection?” The Ricoeurian analytical framework, therefore, provides us with a matrix with the three contexts in which the tolerance-intolerance dyad manifests itself – state, culture, and religion – and two forms of tolerance-intolerance: abjection and rejection.
Ricoeur suggests an analysis of tolerance at the state level according to the political philosopher John Rawls’ concept of justice, which emphasizes the need to maximize the possibility of minorities’ expression, characterized by their socioeconomic situation, worldview, or religious beliefs. Therefore, we return to the question of the truth in a very different way because, according to Ricoeur, in the institutional scope of the state, what is at stake is not the truth itself but the arbitration between conflicting claims. Ricoeur expands his account of tolerance in relation to dialogue with Rawls at the state level. For him, the most influential arguments and debates on tolerance were developed at the cultural level, mainly in the context of the Enlightenment, as a reaction to the religious intolerance of the previous period. Through a long and painful historical process, tolerance becomes an option to let others be different or think differently from us. For Ricoeur, it is essential to recognize that the case is not the same as the annihilation of convictions – which would bring the argument closer to absolute relativism. On the contrary, the conflictual consensus of tolerance on the cultural plane arises from the rejection of a pathological impulse – possibly, but not necessarily – linked to the will to impose one’s convictions on others. The drama is established because, by accepting a worldview different from our belief, we find ourselves faced with the possibility of ignoring the difference between true and false, and “that would be to give equal rights to truth and error.” The vertigo of the possibility of us being wrong becomes dread of divergent thinking, which threatens our identity. It is at the threshold of the precipice of conviction that we must choose between tolerance and violence.
The recognition of one’s freedom mediates the maintenance of our convictions and the acceptance of different thinking. Such recognition leads to the fundamental category of respect for one’s decision at the interpersonal level, which is the counterpart of justice at the institutional level. The risk of this domestication of the urge to impose our conviction due to the respect for others’ thoughts is that of relativizing our own thought. This seems to be one of the essential points for understanding religious intolerance, especially in institutionalized forms, such as the RDP case. For Ricoeur, the answer to the point of balance is in the formula of “conflictual consensus” as it makes room for the recognition of the other – that is, consensual points are sought, but the consensus remains conflictual, an index that the convictions have not been dissipated in relativism that can destroy convictions “from within.” It is intriguing to consider the feeling of fear that accompanies the possibility of losing our convictions on a personal level, just as it is interesting to replicate the same exercise in the case of religious institutions where the fear of losing community convictions may take hold due to the recognition of others’ convictions. Still, on the cultural level, Ricoeur names the intolerable act as one that abstracts itself from the sphere of mutual respect for disrespecting one’s freedom.
Underlying this dilemma of tolerance and the intolerable is the perception of a doctrine as either truth or conviction, which opens space for the other to be different and choose other convictions even if they are distant from the conviction of the group to which one belongs. This dynamic is a transformation that, for our understanding, has a direct impact on the structure of the cage by replacing the impenetrable metal of intolerance with the volatility of a simple nest of straws and sticks, which remains a common space but is now delimited by shared and celebrated convictions. The price to be paid is the risk of the fragility of those convictions.
What about religious and theological tolerance? One of the two parts of Ricoeur’s answer is hermeneutic in the sense that the symbolic source of the Bible, whose literal reading is the basis of the RDP, is always open to new interpretations – which should awaken tolerance for alternative meanings that are manifested at the institutional level of the plurality of ecclesial communities. It is a horizontal dimension of tolerance on the theological level that must be complemented by a vertical dimension, born from the recognition of God as the Absolute Other, who is always beyond our rationality and our certainties. The recognition of our limitations when it comes to the divine Mystery should corroborate the acceptance of different perspectives that are found in common practices, such as charity, in a sense not far from the conflictual consensus on the cultural plane. On the religious plane, the intolerant is intolerable.
In another text, the French philosopher defines tolerance as “a personal and collective virtue, which is the result of an asceticism in the exercise of power.” He proposes a scale that suggests interesting analogies regarding the construction of cages of intolerance. At the most basic level, we only support differing views because we do not have the power to do anything else. We cannot, for example, bring the other by force into our cage, nor can we prevent the other from existing. Next, at the first intermediate level, we disapprove of others’ flights. Still, we make an effort to accept them and respect the fact that they want to fly even if we still maintain our belief that the cage, or the nest, is the right place to live. At the second intermediate level, tolerance ceases to only passively accept that the other can fly somewhere that is, at best, dangerous and, at worst, harmful and deadly. The attitude shifts to an active tolerance, recognizing the possibility that the other’s conviction may also be part of a nest built on the tree of truth. The flight may be worth it but we are still convinced that our nest is a good place to be. Finally, there is the level at which we are convinced that all cages and nests are illusions, including our own. Thus, tolerance ceases to exist because convictions disappear.
It would seem that an interesting key to understanding the attachment of the RDP to truth is the failure to recognize the intermediate levels of tolerance. The simplification of the dualism between truth and perdition prevents cages from becoming nests (in an immense tree of truth) because nests are always in danger of becoming illusions.
With expectation and some measure of security supported by empirical assessment, we can say that the studies of Alves’s work are an immense field and are only at the beginning. The disciplines devoted to research on the author’s thinking are diverse—theology, religious studies, education, literature, philosophy (even with the resistance of some philosophers), politics, psychoanalysis, and so on. Congresses, symposia, and seminars debating Alvesian themes have taken place all over Brazil, the country of origin of the theologian of Hope and Liberation, as well as in other places in the world. In the introduction of this article, as paradigmatic examples, we cited two events in 2019 with subsequent publications. In 2020, other meetings were already held to discuss Alves’s thoughts and legacy. Here, at least, three directions were pointed by the winds for this article’s final considerations.
The first is to assess whether Alves was right or wrong in publishing Religion and Repression about 30 years after the launch of Protestantism and Repression, keeping the previous text in full with only the title changed and—it is true—adding a preface entitled “Thirty Years Later.” Religions are institutions that claim to have placed the enchanted bird in a cage. They do not realize that the creature in their cages of words is a “stuffed bird.” In the text, Alves tells us that he lived in a cage of words for many years—and he enjoyed being imprisoned—but a lot has changed, and we have already dealt with biographical aspects of Alves in the previous sections. The remaining question concerns the following:
The temptation of absolutes is a universal characteristic of the human spirit. We all want to own the truth. In order to have the truth, it will have to be caged. To cage the truth, it is necessary to cage freedom and thought. I believe, therefore, that the conclusions of this book go beyond the limits of Protestantism and can be applied to other religions. These are the reasons why I suggested changing the original title, Protestantism and Repression, to Religion and Repression.
Methodologically, could the author transform an ideal type, the RDP, into religion as a whole? Moreover, theologically, could he state that every religion and all religions are cages that imprison? We believe that this may not be the case, but this debate is left for another occasion.
The second possible direction, inspired by Alves and Shaull—one that is simultaneously epistemological, theological, and political—would be to try to understand what the joining and engagement of IPB intellectual, theological, and political cadres in the current Brazilian federal government of president Jair Messias Bolsonaro means to IPB and the political scene in Brazil. However, it may be more prudent to allow time before we pin down the significance and risks of this flight of leaders of the denomination in question out of the cage.
Finally, in the third and last direction with which we chose to end this article, we want to recover here an opinion of Louis Schweitzer:
If we are going to react [against fundamentalism], we need to be careful not to reproach people who don’t think like us. … Certainly, we will have to oppose, but always patiently reach out for dialogue, so that, in our thinking and in our practice, we do not become the image of the other reflected in the mirror.
Given that we consider ourselves neither dogmatic nor intolerant, we merely wish to point out a risk that the Alvesian community may encounter: that of creating a cage around itself, however beautiful it may be. We must understand ourselves belong to a nest, fragile, in the immense tree of knowledge. In conclusion, we must accept even those who like to jump from branch to branch; when they return, they are beautiful and colorful. An “Alvesianism of the Straight Doctrine” would be intolerable (in the sense of abjection).