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.