Tolerance and Truth
Let me begin by reminding you of my indebtedness for the content of these blogs to many authors who are much smarter and more culturally aware than I am. I wish I could be as insightful as Albert Mohler, David Wells, and James White, but alas I fall behind these great men in that regard. One of the authors who has written specifically on the topic of toleration and its cultural inconsistency is D.A. Carson who’s book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, is a must-read. Much of my thinking has been shaped by this book and I owe him and others for what you will read below. If you have read this book or heard Carson speak on this topic and anything sounds familiar know that it was probably adapted from his work.
We begin with a key observation. The idea or concept of tolerance in our society has a much different meaning, and significantly different implications, then it used to have. Let me explain. Actually let me summarize Carson as he has observed this shift.
In the past, tolerance was understood to refer to the awareness that there existed other beliefs or ideas, etc. which were different from your own. This tolerance understood that all sorts of people had all sorts of ideas about the world and that it was fine for them to have those beliefs and to express them. There were two fundamental assumptions that came along with this idea that differed greatly from today. It was OK to disagree with someone else’s idea - in fact, it was expected and encouraged - because this disagreement formed the basis of a search for truth.
The reason why you tolerate ideas other than yours was because you believed there was truth out there (objective, universal, accessible truth) and thus any rational discussion between these differing ideas was encouraged since only in disagreement and discussion can we find the truth. This type of tolerance removed the subjective nature of the discussion. What I mean is that this type of tolerance had more to do with ideas than people, or at least there was a recognition that one could interact with an idea - even critique it - without it becoming personal.
Carson calls this type of tolerance a parasitic virtue. There was a bigger system - truth - that people agreed to seek and defend and thus tolerance of contrary beliefs was allowed. It was believed that when ideas interact with each other truth is the result.
Fast-forward to today and we find that things are different… much different. (If you want to know how we got to where we are check out Carson’s book.) In our culture, tolerance means that we must accept other people’s beliefs or ideas as equally valid about which we cannot object or criticize. Disagreement is not allowed. Notice the difference from the past. Tolerance is not about accepting the existence of other beliefs that are open to evaluation in the search for truth. Instead, we must now accept all other beliefs without criticism, truth be damned. This form of tolerance does not allow for critique, or even interaction. All beliefs must be seen as absolutely correct and equally valid. If not, you are inItolerant. To question this perspective of tolerance is to be intolerant and therefore fundamentally wrong and immoral. Tolerance becomes the highest of virtues in our culture.
Lest we think that this is only a problem out there in the world we need to realize this perspective has become an insidious part of what goes on in the church. For example, when someone says “that’s just your interpretation” in response to the meaning of a particular text they do not like, what they are really saying is, “You need to accept my view as equally as valid as yours and not critique it.” In other words, leave me and my interpretation alone. Another example can be found when some appeal, quite in error, to Jesus’s words, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” This appeal is intended to communicate, “Don’t judge me or my actions or beliefs, just accept them as equally as valid as yours even though they may be different from what the Bible demands.” These types of statements are often used in the church in an attempt to get others to accept a contrarian belief without any discussion. If successful for long enough these attitudes will eventually permeate the church so its beliefs and practices will look nothing like biblical Christianity.
So how are we to respond to our culture’s view of tolerance in light of what we have come to understand regarding the nature of truth?
First, Carson is surely correct when he says that Christians cannot have toleration as their highest virtue. A quick glance over our previous blogs that defined and characterized truth and you will quickly see how modern views of tolerance are in opposition to the biblical perspective of truth. We must believe in the Bible as the ultimate truth and not fall victim to our culture’s call for ‘tolerance.’ We must hold tightly to the reality that the most important claims of Scripture are decidedly intolerant and exclusive - the trinity, the person and work of Jesus, the necessity of faith and repentance for salvation, the lordship of God over all things, etc. We will be called intolerant by the world around us for believing in these things but that is just fine. For without a commitment to a biblical understanding of truth we will lose the exclusivity which makes the Christian faith, Christian.
Second, we need to return to the previous way of understanding tolerance. We must move toward the perspective that says “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I allow you the right to say it.” (cf Carson) This type of thinking reflects true Christian virtue. A Christian knows two things. First, that truth is out there and can be discovered. Second, he does not have a full handle on this truth. Thus we balance conviction with humility and invite conversation. When we demonstrate this intellectual perspective we invite into conversation, rather than turn away, those who disagree with us. We need to demonstrate what tolerance is so that others will know it.
Third, we need to recognize the important spiritual dimension to this situation. Robert Rothwell reminds us that sinful people will do whatever they can to avoid the claims of an exclusive God. They will ignore the logic they use in “non-religious” areas of life and attempt to violate the law of non-contradiction by assuming that the contradictory beliefs of all sorts of religions or systems of morality could be mutually compatible. Rebellion will always seek to be ‘tolerant.’
Fourth, we must be willing to do battle over ideas. We need to develop a Christian mind, a worldview that allows us to see all things according to God’s truth. Then, we must be willing to call out worldly ideas that are illogical and irrational and unbiblical. We must be willing to recognize that the call for ‘tolerance’ is actually the height of intolerance. So it must be fought against with all that is within us. We do not give in to the world’s view of things no matter how difficult it may be to stand firm in God’s truth. But we also go on the offensive challenging the strongholds, debaters, philosophies and plausible arguments of this age. (1 Corinthians 1:18-30; Colossians 1:24-2:5; Ephesians 5:11; 6:10-20; 1 Peter 3:14-15). We do so as Christ’s ambassadors with conviction, purpose, and wisdom and in love, humility, patience, and grace desiring the salvation of those we engage more than we desire victory in debate.
The Christian faith is true it will win in the end. This is our ultimate confidence. God’s truth is THE truth. The Bible conveys THE truth. The Christian worldview is THE only worldview that makes sense of the deepest longings and desires of the human heart. So we are bold and we do not shrink back.
Soli Deo Gloria