Tolerance, Morality, & Freedom Part I: Tolerance

Written by Victor Stanley Jr.

Introduction

The following statement is put forth by a friend or acquaintance: “My biggest problem with Christianity is, for one, that Christians seem so intolerant and judgmental, and secondly, their sexual ethic seems to suppress basic human desires and our freedom to live fulfilled lives.” The question now raised is this, what response can be offered by the Christian who truly wants to engage the person who holds these views as well as the culture that shapes them? One can imagine that numerous responses are possible yet not all are plausible, some responses are consistent yet incoherent, and still other responses are coherent yet do not correspond to reality. Thus, the attempt must be made to offer a response that is plausible, consistent, coherent, and that corresponds to reality.

The aforementioned statement is neither rare nor shocking, in fact, it is a commonly voiced grievance against Christianity. It is a position that is often stated everywhere from the lecture halls and student unions at universities, to the rhetoric put forth by talking heads in the media, and even at backyard cookouts at a neighbor or family member’s house. In order to really tackle the issues raised by the statement it must be analyzed so that the core concerns it is getting at can be addressed rather than the peripheral socio-cultural challenges that may or may not be related to those concerns. This means discussion of gay marriage or genetic predispositions should be tabled as well as glib and demeaning arguments about postmodernism being silly or foolish.

The statement made by this friend targets three specific things: Tolerance, Morality, and Freedom. Modern western societies have staked much on these three things and so they must be handled with care and graciousness toward the person making the statement. So ingrained in the cultural consciousness of western society are these three, that any attack on them is taken not just as an assault on an ideology, but rather an assault on a person or community’s very identity. Tolerance, morality, and freedom in that order are at the core of the statement. A person or community’s concept of what tolerance is and what it means will shape their view of morals and their place in society. A person or community’s view of morality will undergird their understanding of freedom versus restriction, liberation versus bondage, and expression versus suppression. What follows is a response that seeks to respond to the statement as a whole by addressing the three individual concerns it raises.

Tolerance

What tolerance is can be difficult to nail down. Its definition has changed over time to mean something much different than what it meant in ages past. Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as: “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own. b: the act of allowing something: TOLERATION.”[1] This implies the recognizing that other views exist, but not necessarily accepting those other views as correct or valid. Yet, as D.A. Carson points out, the definition of tolerance has moved from the accepting of the presence of differing viewpoints, to the acceptance of all viewpoints being equally valid and true.[2] This is an important distinction to make when addressing the original statement put forth by this hypothetical friend. When he or she says that “Christians seem so intolerant and judgmental,” is she implying that Christians refuse to engage with differing views, or that they refuse to accept other views as being true? In today’s culture, it is often the latter that is meant when the word “intolerant” is thrown around. However, if tolerance means accepting all views as equally true, then it is easy to see how some very disturbing scenarios can be justified without consequence. Ravi Zacharias offers this poignant statement, “In some countries you love your neighbors, and in others you eat them.”[3]

If the new definition of tolerance is to be adopted, then people must accept living in a society where you may become your neighbor’s friend or, just as likely, his dinner. Yet, this friend that has made the assertion that Christian’s are intolerant would spit at the thought of living in a society where having one’s neighbor over for dinner can suddenly have more sinister implications. This friend, when pressed on why such a situation is unfavorable to him, may emphatically respond that “eating people is wrong!” It is this remark that reveals another facet to the idea of tolerance. It shows that tolerance, the new tolerance, is a virtue unless the thing one is asked to tolerate is perceived as being against his or her set of beliefs. Therefore, Christians must be tolerant of people’s views on sexuality, meaning they must be accepted as true, but no one is required to be tolerant of Christian’s views on sexuality.

This begs the question, “why is the refusal to accept Christianity’s view on sexuality not seen as intolerant?” The answer is evident in our friend’s response to cannibalism, “eating people is wrong!” To say that it is wrong is to not simply say that it is frowned upon or undesirable to modern sensibilities, it is not simply saying that a person disagrees with it, rather it is to say that it goes against the moral norm. This friend has inadvertently introduced morality into her position despite it being absent from her original statement. Initially this friend brought up tolerance and ethics, however, a discussion on tolerance often gives way to a discussion on morality; this is because what people are tolerant or intolerant of is usually tied to their morality. Christians are viewed as intolerant because they refuse to accept as true, positions that the culture views as being morally good or neutral. Christian morality is on the stand, and must be cross-examined to determine whether or not it has a basis for its attitudes toward what are becoming new cultural norms.


[1] Merriam-Webster, Inc, ed., Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh edition (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2003).

[2] D. A Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2013) pp. 3.

[3] Ravi K Zacharias, Can Man Live without God (Nashville, Tenn.: W Pub. Group, 2004).

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