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Why Tolerance Fails

One of the major developments in western culture today is the promotion of living a tolerant life. Which usually means to be respectful of other people's views and beliefs by affirming their right to exist despite the differences being present. That concept is what the word "tolerant" used to mean. Today, tolerance is deceptively different.


As a long growing fruit of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, postmodern thought has prevailed in our world. The primary understanding of morality and truth is now characterized as being a relativistic pluralism.


Defining Terms


Pluralism is the thought that advocates the co-existence of several different beliefs. In a religious context, this concept would hold that there are many roads leading to heaven, not just one. Christianity and Islam, for instance, can share the hill of truth rather than attempt to conquer it for themselves.


Relativism promotes the individual's concept of right and wrong as being decisive. There is no objective truth, only subjective forms of it which vary from person to person. Taking these two terms together, you arrive at a society operating under a relativistic pluralism guarded by the advocacy of tolerance.


This is significant as a major complaint towards Christianity, specifically in America, is that it is "intolerant." I would disagree with that statement if operating with the original definition of tolerance. But when put up against today's definition of tolerance I would say it is probably accurate.


The New And Old Tolerance


In his book, The Unbelievable Gospel, pastor and author, Johnathan K. Dodson, explains this distinction, "Where the old tolerance held that other opinions have a right to exist, the new tolerance is the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true. This is quite a leap away from the old tolerance. It is one thing to say something has the right to exist; it is altogether different to say that two beliefs are equally true.” As you can see, this is a small yet momentous pivot. To put it clearly, tolerance in our society is the belief that all people have a right to believe whatever they choose, and that all beliefs are equally true. This is why I would agree and disagree with the statement that Christians are intolerant. Jesus was a passionate, controversial teacher and the gospel message is unashamedly offensive and exclusive, but he never forced his teachings on anyone. On the contrary, he told his disciples to move on if people were opposed to listening (Matthew 10:14).


But the shift we now experience is that mere disagreement with someone else's belief is considered intolerant. It's not enough to allow people to believe what they want and peacefully disagree; they must be recognized as equally true — anything else is unacceptable and destined for Twitter cancelation. I understand this desire is an attempt to nurture peace among all people, but it ultimately fails. Let me give you four reasons why.


1) It's Illogical.


The concept that everyone is right and can dictate truth for themselves caves in on itself. Tolerance (the new kind) would lead us to affirm both that all people have a right to believe what they want, and we should force our beliefs on others. In this world, we are forced to say yes to these seemingly opposing statements in the same breath.


As you can see, this breaks down quite quickly. To fix this issue, people will amend this approach by qualifying that everyone is allowed to express and believe what they want — as long as it doesn't interfere or hurt others. Again, a well-meaning adjustment, but on what grounds do they impose this filter in a world that rejects objective truth? The unavoidable answer is that there are no grounds to do so, you can only hope people adhere to it. What you are left with is wishful thinking, not a sustainable standard for society.


2) It's Ignorant.


Like I said before, Christianity is without question an exclusive religion. We believe in one God and one way to heaven. That cuts out a lot of well-meaning people with different beliefs. In a culture whose currency is inclusiveness, Christianity is bankrupt. Yet, in the same way, Christianity is good news to all people, and no one is without access to the gospel of grace. That conviction drives the entire Christian church. The point being, society only knows and distains our exclusiveness of other religions. It's more inclusive and respectful to say there are many ways to heaven rather than one. But let's look at some snapshots of the major religions:


  • Buddhism, for example, doesn’t believe in a personal God. Everything is God. Our goal is to become one with “God” in nothingness. We reach this by following the Eight-Fold Noble Path.


  • Islam teaches that there is a God but he is not personal. We can’t really know him and must respect the boundaries between us and him. We reach the divine by following the Five Pillars.


  • Christianity teaches that there is a personal, Trinitarian God who loves us and we can love back. We receive eternal life through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


  • Hinduism has several different versions of God, some are more polytheistic, others are even atheistic. Why’s that? Because they don’t have a clear source of “theology” like the Bible or Koran.


You see, these religions are not just giving different directions, they’re talking about different destinations!


3) It's Arrogant.


Aside from being illogical, the posture of the new tolerance is far from humble. People will often say, "who am I to say they're wrong?" in an effort to respect those they don't agree with. But as we see above, when you promote a sweeping statement like all religions are the same, you don't support them humbly, you oppress them to play by your rules.


The differences above aren't mere disagreements that can coexist. All religions have different approaches, understandings, convictions, and conclusions of life. Without knowing it, people come off as ignorant and arrogant when they melt them together and assume they can equally be true without the loss of the distinctions that make them what they are.


4) It's Intolerant.


The world would be an easier place if everyone was right in what they believed — but we do not live in that world. No matter how much culture preaches that ideology, it will never be a reality. Tolerance is allowing different beliefs to disagree and live peacefully without forcing them to change to fit the mold of society.


I've heard it said that the differences between different religions ultimately do not matter because they all do the same thing. Again, this is incorrect. If the differences were ignored, the religions would disappear. But don't think this is merely a religious ordeal. Any school of thought or worldview that threatens the inclusive and "tolerant" status quo is subject to being scrutinized and eventually targeted.


A Better Way


For these four reasons, I believe the tolerance of our day fails. In an ironic twist, that which boasts of being logical, informed, humble, and tolerant turns out to be the very things it hates. Instead of attempting to melt everything together in the hope of keeping the peace, we need to learn the old skill of disagreeing well. What's lost in the new tolerance is the ability to hear opposing views and ask meaningful questions. In its place we are left with short fuses and harsh reactions leading to far too many charred bridges.


I believe there is a better way. Paul wrote to Timothy that, "the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil" (2 Timothy 2:24). Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Christians have taken this text to heart. Arguments are abundant in today's cultural landscape and everyone has a soapbox (or a blog!) to preach from. Yet the things people have concerned themselves with in using these platforms have not been attempting to build or repair bridges. Rather, it's been used to prove who is right and who is wrong. It's been used to paint labels of "enemy" rather than "neighbor." For those that follow Jesus, the better way is not surrendering what we believe to be true, it's surrendering our need to be right. It's giving up or our need to win an argument without winning a person.


The question we should ponder is, how can we do better?