Friday, November 12, 2010

Tolerance is a buzzword

"Politically incorrect" used to be the card to play in a losing discussion to color one's opponent as the bad guy. Today "intolerant" has become the catchall missile levelled at anyone dumb enough to disagree with a closely-held pet belief in most dialogues (especially those regarding religion and morality). Postmodernism has completely distorted what the word tolerance used to mean. What follows is, in my experience, how tolerance is defined today:

1. Everyone is free to believe what they want without fear of verbal or physical violence from the public or coercion from the government.

2. Every belief is equally valid and true (if not for you, then for someone else).

3. Every belief should be celebrated by everyone.

I certainly agree with the first assertion. I believe the first concept is one of the founding ideas that formed our country. However, tolerance has been amplified in our day to encompass the second and third tenets as well. Allow me to explain why I have a problem with these two.

Let's start with a proposition that everyone can objectively say is false: 2+2=5. Now, in the spirit of tolerance, I will permit someone to believe that 2+2=5 without directing any hatred, violence, or bigotry towards them. I may tell them they're wrong, I may try to convince them to change their minds, but I will not act harshly negative toward them. However, you will never hear me (or any teacher I want teaching my kids) say "I believe differently, but your belief that 2+2=5 is true for you and valid". And hopefully you will never hear "Furthermore, I think it's great that you believe that 2+2=5 and I support you in such thinking". In this illustration, I can be tolerant (by the old definition) of a view different from my own while still considering it wrong and in need of correction.

Now, if you plug any of the hot topics of today into the above equation (the existence of God, one's personal view of God, homosexual marriage, just war, abortion, divorce, etc.) you see how this quickly rubs against today's definition of tolerance.

Note the implication: we can think and talk objectively about certain ideas (math, science, etc. where one view is the correct one and all others are wrong), but when it comes to the bigger thoughts of religion and morality, we must stay neutral. Neutered. Non-committal. Passive. Spineless. And the only people we should not tolerate . . . are the intolerant. And we'll define that word how we like, thank you very much.

D.A. Carson wrote, "It used to be that tolerance was the virtue of the person who held strong views about something or other, but who insisted that those who disagreed had an equal right to defend their views – the sort of stance picked up in the slogan, 'I may detest your opinions, but I shall defend to the death your right to speak them.' Today, however, tolerance is the virtue of the person who holds no strong views, except for the strongly held view that it is wrong to hold strong views, or to indicate that someone else might be wrong." - Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern World

Please don't misunderstand me, this is not my endorsement to be bull-headed, unlearning, close-minded, and elitist about your beliefs. But neither can I endorse a silencing of the gospel just because it presents the solution to our malady as the only solution. If one believes that Jesus was who He said he was, we must be as exclusive in our message as Christ was in His. This broader definition of tolerance is impractical and unsustainable in the real world. I do not expect to hear any time soon a doctor tell his patient, "I know of a solution to your deadly sickness, but whatever you believe will heal you is a valid belief as well and I celebrate it". I do not expect to hear this from Christians either.

2 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

I thought "politically correct" was the card to play.

"Politically incorrect" was only played by the Red Guards in China 44 years ago, and how many of them will be reading this today.

But this is my favourite description of tolerance, by Fr Thomas Hopko, of St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary:

"Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God's creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence."

Norman Jeune III said...

This is a fantastic quote! A radical ethical expression of the gospel! I'd love to hear him offer a bit of eschatological reflection.