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Tolerance vs. The Demands of Love (Gil Dueck)

One of the unfortunate features of the blogging world is that many interesting posts/discussions disappear into cyber-oblivion as soon as new content replaces them on the front page.  To address this lamentable reality, I have thus decided that from time to time I will drag out the odd blog post from the basement (my own, or someone else’s) and give it the opportunity for another look, another round of conversation.  

The following piece on tolerance was first posted by Gil Dueck (Instructor in Theology at Bethany College, and my twin brother), on October 27, 2005 on his regrettably now defunct blog.  Given the recent events in Norway, the ongoing evolution of religio-political dynamics in Western Europe (and elsewhere), and the all-too-frequently deplorable nature of online discourse, it seems to me that this topic has only become more relevant in the intervening six years.


The unique moment that we exist in is one characterized by varying opinions concerning the best approach to the “religious question.” Divisive arguments on any number of hot button topics (often issues of morality) are increasingly framed around ideals of inclusion and, particularly, tolerance. At first glance this is a very healthy development. Dialogue, particularly religious dialogue has too often been characterized by attitudes of condescension and superiority. It is a needed correction to call for tolerance. Jesus, after all, loves the entire world, no matter how poorly his followers pick up his lead.

But increasingly it seems that we are placed in an either/or relationship with respect to tolerance or intolerance; exclusion or inclusion. Either we prioritize tolerance and inclusion or we prioritize intolerance and exclusion. I am convinced that this is as false a dichotomy as I have seen in recent memory. Part of the problem, from my perspective, is that the vocabulary for the debate is proving quite slippery.

Take the word “tolerance” for example. What does it mean to “tolerate” someone or something? Traditionally the word has meant something like, “putting up with or making room for something that I personally find objectionable.”  Tolerance becomes necessary as we inhabit the same space as those we disagree with. Living, as we do, in a religiously and culturally diverse country makes tolerance an even more necessary virtue.

But the word has changed in meaning in recent years (along with “inclusion” and others). Tolerance now means something like, “agreeing with, affirming or celebrating the validity of a viewpoint or practice other than my own.” In the previous sense of the word I could “tolerate” an idea that I personally found ridiculous. I could tolerate and make space for someone who I had deep disagreements with. I worry that this option is being taken off the table.

Increasingly, to disagree with someone or to hold “exclusive” views is by definition intolerant, no matter how passionately I believe in and affirm another person’s “right” (to use another devalued word) to believe or practice otherwise without fear of persecution. The only options, so it seems, are inclusion or bigotry. There is no middle ground for compassionate, yet fervent disagreement. In a new twist on the old saying, “If you are not for me you are against me,” we now have, “If you do not agree with me, you hate me.”  This may an overstatement, but perhaps not by much.

Daniel Taylor has written a good little book called, Is God Intolerant?  In it, he makes some very interesting points concerning the vocabulary shift discussed above. He rightly points out that, from God’s perspective tolerance is not too strong a demand for Christian living but too weak.

By God’s standards we are worse than intolerant—we often fail to love.

This is a statement worth pondering for me. How do the demands of love stack up to the demands of tolerance (whichever definition you happen to subscribe to)? What are the implications of this for real life issues?  One of Taylor’s concluding statements puts it well:

Ultimately, tolerance is too weak a concept to be attributed to God. God is so much more than tolerant that Christians can rightly ignore it as a fundamental goal for their own lives—but only if they are willing to live by a much higher standard.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post. Personally, I have a great deal of trouble dealing with interlocuters who aren’t interested in a good old fashioned argument – not that I love to scrap, but I feel like avoiding arguments is often simply a failure to take one another seriously – or as you put it, a failure to love one another enough.

    September 3, 2011
  2. …”What are the implications of this for real life issues?”…Indeed, this is the question.

    I am so greatful for the spiritual legacy my Catholic faith has preserved and bestowed. In Catholic worship I encounter the risen Christ. He is real. He is alive. He is the King of Kings and he animates everything that is worthy and good within my person.

    I no longer venture to say, where God isn’t. He can and certainly does animate the lives of others in other communities. If the presence of God is certain to you. if the Holy Spirit is alive and present in your being, praise His Holy Name. Be who you are, where you are.

    As for me the question becomes, what do I give him in return? My worship? Certainly. My prayer? Always. Love directed towards His person? I believe I am faithful. Love lived in community with others? Sadly, I think my efforts here are inadequate. Loving others has been the source of most of my sin. Even where I love sincerely, I know intuititively my efforts are still shallow and incomplete. I do not love others as faith commands. This is not so much a cause of any intellectual dissent on my part. Theoretically I subscribe to the command. I believe in it but I stand certain I come nowhere near living what I purport to believe. This must change and I am going to need help.

    God’s grace, always. My best efforts, certainly. But perhaps what is most lacking is a community and culture that reflects, Christian familial love.

    I have always admired the Muslim and Jewish communities that take their expressions of fidelity to God and express that faithfully and completely as culture and community. This is not to say that there cannot be and is not serious error in the manifestation of their cultures, but that it is indeed admirable and Godly that they engage with faith, not merely as an intellectual assent but also as a way of life. Say what you mean. Live what you say.

    In every human dynamic, every expression of culture and community there will be sin. It is unavoidable and uncontestable, it is the human condition. This truth is intended not to create apathy or dispair but rather humility. It is intended so that when mistakes are made by ourselves and others our judgements are animated with mercy and forgiveness. Is it time for us to reclaim a Christian culture and begin living according to it’s precepts? Which is the greater sin?Making our best effort to live as we say we believe life ought to be lived and are sometimes sinful, or should we continue to subscribe to religeous beliefs that we knowingly contradict each and every day of our lives?

    Secular culture, has undermined Christian living. Catholics like myself, though present by the millions in Sunday worship, no longer live as a discernably distinct culture. Catholic love, at least to me, has mostly become a series of Sunday posits with no distinct identity Monday through Saturday. How does invisibility evangelize? Worse still, who is attracted to the stench of hypocriscy?

    Perhaps the most notable American Catholic of this era, JFK, assured the population of America that he was a citizen first and a Catholic second. His faith would never interfere with the expression of his duty. His faith would become a private matter that would influence only…what?…where he went on a Sunday morning? An hour of his time once a week? How dead his faith must have subsequently become to him. How dead is the faith of millions and millions who subscribe to the same precept.

    What does living like Christians, in Christian communities look like in the 21st century? This is the question that ought to animate all our discussions. Exegetical debates are, by comparison, mostly irrelevant.

    We will evangelize no one until we first begin living in accordance with our beliefs.

    September 4, 2011
    • Yes, it is certainly true that in a cultural context characterized by divisiveness and suspicion towards other views, the best response as Christians is a life of consistency between belief and action—a life ruled by the imperatives of love. This seems like a good and necessary start in a world where disagreement or lack of affirmation is often interpreted as rejection (as Gil puts it in the post—”If you don’t agree with me, you hate me”).

      I can’t help but wonder, though, if there are some things that will remain problematic in our cultural context, regardless of how well Christians love. The popular understanding of tolerance that Gil identifies in this post runs deep in Canadian culture. I worry about the future of our discourse in this pluralistic context with such a shallow default understanding of what it means to live together with differences. When our only really non-negotiable value seems to be the individual and his/her preferences, and when expressing disagreement is so often portrayed as intolerant by definition, it seems we are destined for trouble (or are already there).

      September 5, 2011
      • “Destined for trouble”, probably. Destined for choices,certainly. The “one foot in both camps” position will likely be forced to choose in the not too distant future. Most Catholic friends I talk to think a smaller but more faithful and committed church will emerge in the next few generations.

        September 5, 2011
  3. The irony of the “new tolerence” is that it is anything but. It is rabidly insistent about that with which it agrees and openly hostile and dismissive towards that with which it differs. There is clearly an Orwellian linguistic turn afoot and words like tolerence and freedom take on entirely new and “enhanced” meaning.

    With regard to your concerns about the pervasiveness of this new definition among Canadians, I offer the following. In a recent mayoralty contest in the city of Toronto significant advertising by ethnic leaders, advising their constituents not to vote for one of leading candidates, was felt to be a decisive blow against his campaign. Specifically he was targeted as morally unsuitable on account of the fact that he was married to another man.

    Though outraged the “new tolerence” crowd was mostly mute in it’s crticism. Initially it tried to connect the advertising to the eventually winner, by all accounts described as a politically conservative RC man. The efforts failed. No right thinking conservative politician, intent on winning, would ever dare such a campaign tactic.

    Eventually it came to light that the advertising was the purview of ethnic community leaders and not any individual candidate. Perhaps in the spirit of tolerence those offended by the claims did not persue the issue further. This constuency had long held the view that they were sole champion of both ethinic and sexual orientation based communities. They were wholly unequipped and ill prepared to deal with criticisms of their views of tolerence/affirmation from within.

    The ethnic advertising was calm and direct. It did not smear the candidate at length It made no effort to deny him his homsexual preference, it simply stated that this behavior made him unsuitable.

    The election outcome was predictable. The candidate who was criticised in this manner won a small majority of the vote in areas that were predominantly urban and was trounced in the more ethnic suburban areas. Initially the favorite, he lost the campaign.

    Ironically perhaps, the constituency that best represented his interests are silent on what many feel was the decisive issue. They don’t seem to want to touch this one with a 12 foot pole. Widespread rejection of their views of tolerence/affirmation by many whom they believed were there own constituents, has led to a peculiar silence by what is usually a very media savvy and vocal constituency.

    The political message going forward seems somewhat clear. Theists must ally themselves with theists, irrespective of dogmatic differences. Moral understandings of tolerence are compatitible enough that such allegiances will be a formidable consituency. Those who would disagree will no longer be able to caraciture their oppositon as white, elderly and radically Christian. It is mainstream and it is multicultural.

    Areas of culture once thought to be the exclusive domain of the “new tolerence” are not in fact, quite what they seem.

    September 6, 2011
    • Thanks, Paul. Very interesting story…

      I think you are right, “tolerance” often operates within very fixed boundaries, and can be very intolerant of those who depart from the script. I think of the response to the article that Christie Blatchford wrote in the National Post after Jack Layton’s death (see here and here) that I referred to in a previous post. Blatchford certainly departed from the script, voicing some criticism of how Layton was being remembered, among other things. I certainly did not agree with everything she wrote (or the timing), but was stunned by the nature and volume of hate and abuse that came her way after this article—mostly, I presume, from people who would place themselves on the left-of-centre end of the political spectrum, supposedly characterized by tolerance of diversity, inclusivity, openness to other views, etc. I suppose even “tolerance” has its orthodoxy, heresies, and inquisitors.

      September 6, 2011

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