In his play Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) re-tells the ancient parable of the three rings.
The story is set in the 12th century, during the Third Crusade. It incorporates a discussion between the Muslim Sultan, a Jewish sage, and a Christian Knight Templar.
The Muslim Sultan asks the Jewish Sage, “What theological law do you regard as the best?”
Nathan responds by telling his parable.
A man owned an opal ring of great beauty and, reputedly, of magical powers. The one who wore it was beloved by God and by human beings. It had been passed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial.
The man had three sons, each of whom he loved equally. To each of them he promised, at one time or another, the ring. As he approached his death, he realised that he could not fulfil his promises, and so he had a jeweler make up two perfect copies of the ring. On his deathbed, the man called each son and gave him one of the three rings. Only after his death did they realise that each of them had a ring. They began to argue about who had the original, magic, ring. But the identity of the true ring:-
- Was undemonstrable
- Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable the one true faith.
In order to resolve their dispute, they consulted a wise judge, who advised:-
- If each of you in truth received his ring
- Straight from his father’s hand, let each believe
- His own to be the true and genuine ring.
The brothers should stop quarreling, and each live as if his ring were the original.
Lessing’s parable, then, calls for religious tolerance. The three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are so similar that each group can go on thinking that their religion is the true one, while allowing others to think that their religion is the true one, while focusing on living good and virtuous lives.
The parable does, of course, have some rather ridiculous elements that are needed to make it ‘work’. Firstly, the father foolishly promises to give each of his three sons the one magic ring. Not a very godlike thing to do. Secondly, the parable presupposed that we, the readers, know exactly what the father has done: he has produced fake rings and has deliberately kept his sons in the dark. Thus, the parable engenders dogmatic tolerance. Thirdly, the original ring turns out to be indistinguishable in its effects from the two copies. There appears to be no power inherent in any of them; all that counts is the their adherents imagine that their ring has power.
The parable continues to have great appeal today, although we would have to posit many more than three rings (religions). It stands over against the older, active, form of tolerance, which assumes that truth is out there, and the best way to uncover it is by courteous debate among those who may disagree. The parable asserts that truth (at least, religious truth) is unknown and unknowable, and that the best way is therefore passive tolerance, ‘live and let live’, on the assumption that all truth-claims are equally valid.
Interesting, though, to note how intolerant this new form of tolerance really is.
Based on D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, pp6-12.