Recently, I have been reading a book called Finding Common Ground by Tim Downs, and the second chapter makes an excellent point about tolerance. Because this is such a fundamental divergence between Christian thought and cultural American thought, I've decided to devote this essay to expanding on this topic, contributing my own musings on the notion of tolerance. Most of us are already familiar with this subject, as it is a common theme in our culture. We are, after all, a diverse society, and we have to be accepting of other people in order to maintain unity. Yet, how far should tolerance go? And more importantly, how is the Christian to be tolerant of others if Christianity, by its very nature, is exclusive from other world views?
Downs gives us a traditional definition: "The word 'tolerance' simply means 'sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own.' By definition, to tolerate someone implies that you do not agree with his views, You're simply willing to indulge them."1 This is certainly a good virtue for free societies like the US and various other cultures. After all, we Christians are called to love our neighbors, even if we don't agree with them. Jesus went so far as to exemplify this love by a parable featuring a Samaritan. (For those not familiar with that day and age, Samaritans were detested by Jews because, among other things, they refused to worship in the Temple at Jerusalem.) Certainly, Christians have fallen far short of this ideal in the past, and in some sectors of society they still do. However, many recognize that we should tolerate another person's right to disagree, as we hope they will respect ours.
Sadly, that is just not enough for our culture. Downs goes on, "It [the above form of tolerance] has been angrily rejected in favor of a more open-minded "positive tolerance," which could be defined this way, 'Tolerance is the posture and cordial effort to understand another's beliefs, practices, and habits, and to accept them as equally valid approaches to life'"2 To simply grant other people the right to exist is still seen as being intolerant, because by golly! we shouldn't act like we our beliefs are better than anyone else's.
From a casual look, we can see some problems with this perspective. First, it is self defeating: once the tolerant person, by this definition, criticizes someone who disagrees with him/her, he is holding his view of tolerance to be superior to the opponent's position. In other words, the tolerant person has to be intolerant (by one's own definition) of exlusivistic views. Second, it is evident that not all views are equal: consider the Heaven's Gate cult. You may remember that they, "committed mass suicide in March, 1997 claiming they were shedding their 'earthly containers' in order to enter a spaceship they said was trailing the tail of the Hale Bopp comet."3 The person who holds to the postmodern definition of tolerance, in order to be consistent, has to confess that this cult's belief was as correct as his own beliefs. Yet, most people will likely say that Heaven's Gate was a dangerously mistaken cult. Third, this novelty of tolerance isn't applied consistently in practical matters: if a teacher said, "gravity is caused by invisible green fairies which pull things towards the ground," even the "tolerant" person would laugh him out of the classroom! It seems we are only supposed to be tolerant of "religious" views, for some odd reason.
But upon closer inspection, we see that this view of tolerance is quite dangerous. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, an unforgiven sinner is in grave danger of Hell. Christianity is viciously exclusive, in that no one is saved apart of Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). Yet, many people refuse to believe in Christianity, under the belief that, since "all views of God(s) are equal," they are fine believing in whatever world view they ascribe to. Yet, what if Christianity is true? (Granted, Islam is also as exclusive, and one could ask, "what if Islam is true?" However, this diversion is besides the point: how does the Muslim's claim to truth help the case for novel tolerance?)
Even from a religiously neutral, secular perspective, the view that all beliefs are equally valid cannot be tolerated. The Heaven's Gate cult was an excellent example of why it is dangerous to consider all views as equal. Beliefs often lead to actions, and actions always have consequences. Some people, as a result of their beliefs, will do harmful things to themselves, others around them, and society as a whole. Clearly, it is imperative that even the non-Christian stand against such beliefs, should they be false.
Consider the hypothetical situation that a group of engineers believed that the gravitational constant was actually half of what science says that it is. For those who can't remember back to high school physics, that would mean that in their view, objects on earth (like cars and trucks) would actually weigh half of what the rest of science says they weigh. Now, would you drive over a bridge designed by these engineers, knowing it can support only half the weight it should be able to safely carry? If you valued your life, you'd be intolerant of their view on gravity!
Certainly, we are living in an ever-increasingly diverse society, here in the West. Certainly we want to have respect for others who disagree with us. However, one can be tolerant (by the old definition) of other belief systems without being tolerant (by the new definition). It is evident that one can disagree with another without getting hostile, or even violent. It is evident that, if we value our freedom, we ought to value the freedoms of others. However, this does not mean we must assent that other beliefs are equal to our own. That kind of tolerance is illogical and dangerous. The Christian and the non-Christian both should, as participants in a diverse society, to critique and even refute this kind of tolerance wherever it is expressed. The stakes are too high (especially for the Christian, since novel tolerance is diametrically opposed to Christianity). Don't be afraid to offend other people. I don't mind if you step on my toes, as long as you don't stomp on my feet.
Notes and Citations:
1. Downs, Tim. Finding Common Ground. 27. Moody Press, Chicago. 1999.
2. ibid., 28.
3. "Heaven's Gate." Apologetics Index. June 10, 2004.