My book manuscript, tentatively entitled Toleration in Apocalyptic Times, examines the use and abuse of apocalyptic rhetoric in early modern debates regarding toleration. Many theorists of liberal democracy fear that apocalyptic, millenarian, and ‘other-worldly’ religious groups are incapable of supporting or sustaining the liberal norms of toleration and openness. These concerns have only strengthened in the face of recent resurgences in apocalyptic rhetoric among the religious and secular alike. My work, however, examines the evaluates the generative dimensions of apocalyptic imagination. While apocalyptic expectation may lead to destructive ends, for many early modern thinkers, apocalyptic ideas lay at the core of their commitment to toleration. My study of apocalyptic theology and religious toleration in early modernity offers new insights into the relationship between confidence, hope, patience, and the practice of toleration.
I trace this thread through three cases illuminating the dimensions of conflict and comity between apocalypticism and liberal toleration. Following chapters that frame the central issues of time, faith, and historical direction in political theory, I outline three accounts of millenarian toleration, from the spiritualized restorationism of the ‘Digger’ leader Gerrard Winstanley to John Bunyan’s use of divine retribution as an assurance of the inevitability of justice. A third chapter, published in History of Political Thought (2021) discusses the role of hope in Roger Williams’ defense of toleration.
In the final chapters of my dissertation, I apply the lessons of history to pressing problems confronting liberal democracies today. My work emphasizes the importance of narrative views of history to the confident practice of toleration, as a belief that things will be righted in the end sustains the difficult work of toleration. Yet while apocalyptic rhetoric has an enormous power to motivate political reform, it can equally give rise to abuse, discord, and strife. The early modern proponents of toleration, facing the millennial fervor of their time, repurposed and redirected eschatological themes to support religious toleration, disestablishment, and the liberty of conscience.
There is little reason to think that apocalyptic language has lost its power in the modern world. From the still-potent theological convictions of conservative Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups to the secular apocalypses of climate change or ‘the end of democracy,’ we live in a world steeped with apocalyptic rhetoric. However, like the early modern defenders of toleration, we are faced with a choice: will we find the strength to persevere in the practice of toleration, or will we succumb to our worst impulses?
My research often considers the types of virtues, values, and institutional arrangements that are conducive to the practice of toleration — and ultimately, to cultivating political communities where we face each other as equals. In the future, I intend to further examine the role that inequalities of wealth, status, and opportunity affect our capacity to develop the virtues and practices of tolerance as individuals and communities. I find that classroom discussions often generate new ideas and directions for scholarly inquiry, and this direction of my future work has been shaped by teaching undergraduate course units and non-credit seminars on inequality and wealth in early modern Europe, the Gilded Age, and the present.