Thursday, April 23, 2015

On tolerance

An Ethical Musings' reader recently inquired about the place of tolerance in the Christian life.

The French philosopher and author Voltaire observed, "If you were fully persuaded you would not be intolerant. You are intolerant only because deep in your heart you feel that you are being deceived." Voltaire's explanation of intolerance's origin seems wrong, but he was right to conclude that intolerance is indicative of doubt.

Name-calling and bullying often connote a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem on the part of the name-caller or bully, an attempt at self-aggrandizement or self-preservation at the expense of another person. At its most extreme, bullying becomes physical assault, sexual molestation, or other criminal behavior.

Name-calling and bullying have no place in Christianity for three reasons. First, the most genuine and enduring sources of self-confidence and self-esteem are to know who one is, to like one's self, and to live one's formative years among family and friends who reinforce those positives. Second, name-calling and bullying demean and disrespect, acts incompatible with Jesus' example of respecting everyone. Third, Jesus recognized human diversity and individuality. Intolerance demands uniformity incompatible with the human diversity and individuality.

Sadly, social science research shows that a link exists between intolerance and religiosity:
The correlation between religiosity and intolerance has been confirmed with many different measures of religiosity and of intolerance. In measuring intolerance it is important to ask 'intolerant of whom?' Generally speaking, those on the left tend to be more concerned to protect the rights of progressive groups, while conservatives tend to be more protective of the rights of right-wing groups. (Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell, American Grace, Kindle Location 7417-19)
In other words, while Christians – regardless of their theological persuasion – may pay lip service to respecting everyone, the practice of tolerance falls well short of the ideal.

Certainty is unchristian. The Christian life requires a person to act in the absence of absolutes, incontrovertible proof, and undebatable truth. If that were not so, then the entire world would long ago have converted to Christianity, Christians would be united instead of hopelessly divided, and the spiritual life would rest upon fact instead of belief.

Thankfully, the converse of Voltaire's observation that intolerance indicates doubt is not true. Tolerance does not necessarily indicate a lack of doubt. Although tolerance may indicate a lack of any firm beliefs (e.g., as in relativism), tolerance may also reflect a healthy balance of belief and doubt in which a person knows his/her beliefs and yet is open to the possibility of being wrong and therefore the possibility of growth. With doubt, change and growth become possible; with doubt, one has room for the genuine tolerance that values diversity.


Anonymous said...

“Certainty is unchristian.” That statement has broad implications. Fundamentalists want certainty from the Bible. Traditionalist Roman Catholics want certainty from the Pope. Idolatry is an ever-present danger, and it causes us to lose perspective.

George Clifford said...

In writing the post, I considered spelling out some of the implications, then decided that leaving it vague might be more powerful, encouraging readers to weigh the statement for themselves.