Christian Tolerance

February 25, 2017


Tolerance of People, Criticism of Ideas & Actions

Freedom has been a watchword of Western culture for generations, and Christians have found ways to make their faith and practice compatible with it, but as the wider culture increasingly focuses on finding value in freedom, it becomes increasingly difficult for Christian values to co-exist alongside secular freedom. One particular aspect of freedom, namely tolerance, or the duty we owe to others who disagree with us, has become increasingly problematic, as it very meaning has changed to become a concept incompatible with classic Christianity. This point was well made by at the annual conference of the L’Abri Fellowship in Rochester, Minnesota, on Feb. 3-4 by Dick Keyes, director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts.

Properly understood, tolerance is to “bear with or endure something or someone who is specifically different and objectionable to you or painful,” Keyes said. The word “tolerance” arose out of conflict over religious tolerance. But the definition of tolerance is “changing underneath our feet in ways we need to be aware of.”

Keyes said that there are three kinds of tolerance: 1) legal tolerance, which is government toleration of difference religions without “persecution … or favoritism.” The First Amendment is “a very good statement of legal tolerance,” he said. This amendment made “pluralism possible.” 2) Personal tolerance is “about how we treat other people personally who are different from us in their religious convictions.” Keyes said that these first two types of tolerance could be called “original tolerance.” These two meanings are the classic, centuries old concept of tolerance. They are concerned with the treatment of real people. However, 3) the third type of tolerance is sometimes called “the new tolerance,” or alternatively “worldview tolerance.” This means “accepting other people’s ideas and actions as equal in truth and value to your own ideas and actions.” This concept means we must “approve or celebrate diverse worldviews, ideas, and behavior of all other people.” This writer would add that it is this kind of tolerance what is involved in the current struggle over Christian sexual morality, in which moral condemnation, legal restriction, and eventually liberty of conscience against abortion, homosexuality (and now, transgenderism) is judged impermissible (as it was in the Supreme Court’s “animus standard”). Traditional morality is held to be an attack on persons, because people have been conflated with their ideas and behaviors. This third kind of tolerance is obviously incompatible with God as sovereign over all things and the absolute truth of his revelation. The question, Keyes then posed, is “how should Christians be tolerant … in a way that’s pleasing to God?”

Keyes said that pluralism is true in a descriptive sense, meaning that “there are a variety of religious options in America today that are really different from each other.” These differences are fundamental, although there may be areas of agreement between different religions, they are not fundamentally saying the same thing. “There are a lot of differences out there, and they don’t all match up in some ultimate unity.” We must make “uncomfortable choices between religious options.” By choosing, “we offend people,” and can even “get into personal trouble.” This is not a new situation, Keyes said. The apostle Paul faced as much, perhaps more, religious diversity on Mars Hill as contemporary Christians in America face.

Pluralism is not unique to religion, Keyes said. “There is pluralism in every other field of investigation … in which people argue with one another.” But religious disagreement and discussion of differences is intolerable to the new tolerance, according to Keyes. Nevertheless, believing that someone else is wrong on religious doctrine is not intolerant – it could be correct. What makes us intolerant is if we actually treat people we disagree with badly. This writer would note, however, that the new tolerance would insist that we are harming others as persons if we disagree with ideas or behavior that is important to them. It is vital to point out that this logically leads to anarchy. If ordinary logic is condemned as oppressive, then we must point out that the claim to harm as a result of condemnation of ideas or behavior is nothing more than an act of will, with no justification. “It’s impossible to believe, actually, that everybody is right, it just can’t be done logically, or morally, or psychologically,” Keyes said. Disagreement over deeply held beliefs is in fact respectful of others, since they are being taken seriously.

How can we be uncompromising about truth, and yet be tolerant? Keyes claimed that the understanding of religious freedom from the Enlightenment forward has been “a kind of see-saw relationship between confidence in Christian truth and tolerance.” As conviction increases, tolerance decreases, and vice versa, according to this view. There is thus a “zero-sum relationship between conviction and tolerance.” This may be true in many cases, but Keyes maintained that there is “no necessary [inverse] relationship between conviction of truth and tolerance.” The Baptist founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, for instance, held tolerance to be part of his religious conviction. In Biblical Christianity, Keyes believes, “truth and tolerance ride on the same elevator … the Christian gospel mandates tolerance.” This, of course, has often been set aside by Christians. But tolerance is “embedded” in the “love chapter” of the Bible, I Corinthians 13, notable especially in the words “bear,” and “endure.” On the positive side, the phrases “believes all things,” and “hopes all things” express enormous faith in God to change other people. Jesus’ admonitions to love our enemies and those who take advantage of us mandate more than tolerance, but certainly includes tolerance. This love is, however, “about people,” not necessarily their ideas or actions.

Keyes related the experience of Christians in communist Romania, in which they were severely persecuted. Immediately after the fall of the regime, massacres were impending, as the populace sought revenge against people associated with the regime. Christians had “moral authority” in the country, because they had been so badly persecuted, and their campaign for “forgiveness and love,” pressed in large meetings, was successful in averting a bloodbath. This toleration, however, was a toleration of persons, not ideas. Christians said that what was done to them was “evil and wrong,” but they forgave their persecutors “in the name of God who forgives us.”

If Christians do not reconcile with ideas that are contrary to God’s revelation, how is this difference in ideas to be expressed? Keyes distinguished different levels of meaning. “Small meanings” satisfy everyday needs, we choose food, clothing, housing, etc. to suit our needs and desires. With small meanings, we share much with other people by our “common creation.” “Middle meanings” are moral meanings. These meanings “help us mediate between the small meanings.” Keyes observed that even though Europe has become very secular, the influence of the Ten Commandments remains widespread. It’s possible that non-Christians there, following the inherited culture, may make better moral choices in some situations than individual Christians. “Large meanings” are “worldview level commitments.” Worldviews consist of three elements: 1) “what exists, 2) what’s the matter with the world?, and 3) what is the solution?” Although this is a fundamental level of difference, there “can be many common threads and themes” between religions and belief systems, but also “real and irreconcilable differences.”

How do we show “tolerance and love to those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ?” Keyes asked. He mentioned first, legal tolerance. Legal tolerance by Christians for those they disagreed with developed slowly. The difference between church and state authority was a development of Jesus teaching of our different duties to God and Caesar. Keyes believes that the parable of the wheat and tares was intended by Jesus to say that the church should not have coercive power in society, but that that properly belongs to the state. On the other hand, the state may not regulate matters of belief and conscience. Keyes quoted law professor John Inazu of Washington University in St. Louis, who describes the First Amendment as “a mutual nonaggression pact with things we don’t like.”

Evangelism and charity show love to all persons. Keyes said that although evangelism is decried by secularists as a kind of “imperialism,” it is really the result of the two great commandments stated by Jesus, to love God and to love our neighbor. This is not the “new tolerance,” since it involves the claim that not all religions are the same, and people need to pursue truth and righteousness in their lives. But even with this difference, there remain large areas of concern for the common good that Christians may share in common with different groups of non-Christians, and action on these common interests should be part of advancing the kingdom of God.

Tolerance and love are also important in the church, Keyes said. New Testament church meetings were open to all, but the sacraments were open only the believing Christians. “Church discipline happened when … a Christian was persistently doing something” that was against the will of God. The church in Corinth, notably, was “much too tolerant and much too lax about church discipline.” But “the whole rationale of church discipline” is to bring the sinner to repentance and to “re-include” them in the Christian fellowship. “The whole emphasis is on the person, to accept the person, to do everything we can to bring the person back, while rejecting the person’s behavior or ideas.”

The New Testament “does not include a blueprint for Christian culture,” Keyes said. It gives “enormous space, enormous room to move … [in] the way we are to live our lives.” But, this writer would add, the commands of Christ and the apostles do give us definite absolutes to live by. As Keyes maintained, we must then live in fellowship with other Christians led by the Spirit of God. Keyes referred to distinctions drawn by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein between “a statement that is vague, and a statement that is imprecise.” A vague statement tells us in general what to do, an imprecise statement tells us exactly what to do but does not specify all we need to know to follow the instruction. Keyes believes that Christians have misinterpreted vague statements in the Bible as imprecise statements. We should be careful not to add to Biblical precepts, attempting to make the Bible more specific than it is, just as we should not subtract from Biblical precepts.

Keyes proposed divine commands that concern creation may be properly incorporated into secular law, whereas divine commands relating to religious belief and practice should not be incorporated into secular law. How we argue religiously derived proposals for the wider society matters – in much of the country, one cannot persuade by quoting Scripture. “Secular categories” must be appealed to.

In response to a question, Keyes said that relativists should admit that they are being exclusivist in condemning traditional Christians for being exclusivists. Without this admission, they will appear tolerant and traditionalists will appear intolerant. When people admit that they speak from absolute principles, discussion is possible. Tolerance of people who disagree with Christian beliefs and values must never be confused with the equality of ideas, an impossible position for either Christians or non-Christians to maintain.

 A Personal Note:
I was privileged to serve on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Religion and Democracy for several years shortly after it was established in 1981.  It was a privilege because I served with such men as the Reverend James Henry, Pastor Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel.  – Abyssum

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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