France currently finds itself in the midst of a wave of jihadist terrorist attacks, which began with the beheading of a school teacher who, in a discussion of freedom of expression, had shown his students caricatured drawings of the founder of Islam. Having recently read the German Enlightenment thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise—in which a Christian knight, a Muslim prince, and the eponymous wise Jew of the title learn to look past their disagreements over religion—Michael Weiner shares some thoughts on the French situation:
In his play, Lessing offers us an idealistic model of how people of faith might work out their differences by acknowledging our essential equality and shared truths. We have made enormous progress in the last 200 years in easing inter-Christian tensions and granting Jews throughout the West equal rights and respect. But as the world grows more connected, and people of vastly different backgrounds are thrown together, this grand project will become harder to sustain, and demands an infusion of good ideas and constructive action.
Avowedly secular, post-Christian Western Europe was once a bastion of Lessingian tolerance, but a history teacher was just butchered in Paris. I’m not exactly sure how to prevent that, but I’m pretty confident our terrorist wouldn’t have been convinced by [Nathan’s] parable about rings and a rousing speech arguing that deep down, we are all the same.
Unlike Lessing and Enlightenment reformers with big dreams, my instincts tend toward admitting ignorance and setting more attainable goals. It will take a long time before France arrives at the kumbaya moment with which the play finishes. True wisdom would mean acknowledging that this problem is hard and that no matter how enlightened we think our society is, extreme forms of religion will continue to disrupt our hopes for a perfectly peaceful world.