Whither Tolerance?

Remember when "to tolerate" meant the accepted presence of differing opinions, joined with the intention of putting up with them, and the people who held them? Don't look now but the thought police of our post-modern world have snuck into the arsenal of meaning and changed it to their liking ... and we're all paying the price.

In her biography of Voltaire, Evelyn Hall coined the following to illustrate her subject's viewpoint. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Long before our day Voltaire was stating two of the foundational elements in our democracy: freedom to speak and freedom to voice opposition to those speaking. 

Today those two freedoms are being systematically eliminated, right before our eyes.

There is a new book out that I highly recommend on the subject. The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson, explores the current societal environment in which tolerance has become acceptance, and the only thing not to be tolerated are those who claim to have the truth.

Carson quotes Robert Bellah (The Good Society, pg. 43-44) who was in turn giving a quote from a recent Harvard graduate:

"They tell us it's heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote yourself to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true."

When applied to morality, ethics, and theology, this is a real problem. Carson sums it up: 

"The problem is bound up with what I have called the new tolerance. In the name of refusing to say that some positions are wrong, this tolerance becomes a synonym for ethical or religious neutrality. It refuses to adjudicate among competing truth claims and moral claims on the ground that to do so would be intolerant. By contrast, the older tolerance - what J. Budziszewski calls 'true tolerance' - actually requires you to take a stand among the competing truth and ethical claims, for otherwise you are not in a position to put up with something with which you disagree. Part of the crises we face in domains as diverse as education, politics, and law, not to mention religion, springs from the decline of the old tolerance and the triumph of the new. For the sad reality is that ethical neutrality - this new tolerance - is finally impossible, but as long as it is pursued it cripples policy choices and abolishes principled choices because it has banished the framework of truth and morality on which true tolerance depends.

Neither the old tolerance nor the new is an intellectual position; rather, each is a social response. The old tolerance is the willingness to put up with, allow, or endure people and ideas with whom we disagree; in its purest form, the new tolerance is the social commitment to treat all ideas and people as equally right, save for those people who disagree with this view of tolerance." (The Intolerance of Tolerance, pg. 97-98).

For those of us who follow Christ, the old tolerance means we will engage courageously and winsomely with those who hold opposing truth claims while never accepting them as equally true. This puts us at odds with the new tolerance, and we had better come to grips with it.

Coming to grips with the new tolerance means ending our fight against the societal hijacking of the term, and focusing our energies on being a prophetic minority rather than continuing to act like a boorish, incensed majority. Face it, every generation of Christ-followers has had to face cultural obstacles to the gospel message and the biblical worldview. Our call is not to whine about it or muster temporal forces to thwart cultural decay. Our call is to courageously and winsomely preach and portray the biblical worldview with the gospel message as its focus. 

So, wither tolerance? Who cares? That battle is over, and now's not the time to pout over the fact that those in bondage to sin and selfishness see us as wrong, intolerant, and dangerous to their way of life. Jesus warned us it would come to this, since men love darkness rather than light, and we're called to expose the works of darkness (see: John 3:19; Ephesians 5:11). 

He also called us to love our neighbors and our enemies so much that we care about the things they don't seem to care about. We care about their souls, and so we pray and live and love and speak, in hopes that the Spirit will awaken them to the wretchedness of sin and the beauties of saving grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

"Image courtesy of winnod / FreeDigitalphotos.net".