Of the many self-refuting statements offered on college campuses across America, perhaps the most dangerous for Christians is the new definition of “tolerance”. Like all worldviews, Christianity offers an explanation for reality that excludes many other options. If Christianity is true, other views of the world that deny the existence of God (or postulate a god who is characteristically different than the God of the Bible) are false. If these other views are true, Christianity is false. When worldviews offer opposite and contradictory explanations, both may be incorrect (or one may be correct) but both cannot be true. We need a strategy, therefore, to deal with people who hold views that are different than our own.
Our culture has embraced a strategy that seems appealing at first, but ultimately falls on its own sword. It begins with a redefinition of “tolerance”. Most young people have now been taught that tolerance requires us to accept that “all views have equal merit and none should be considered better than another”. As I explained in my last post, this definition is self-refuting because, although folks who hold to this definition say they accept all views as equally true, they reject the view that some ideas are patently false (and, therefore, have less value than others). In other words, they will accept any view as equally valuable except the claim that some views are not equally valuable.
The problem here is that we’ve lost our connection to the historic definition of tolerance. In my generation (admittedly I am now an older guy), “tolerance” was defined as “the fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own.” This definition of the term is much different than the more recent corruption of the word, and it requires three important conditions and responses:
Tolerance Requires a Disagreement
Tolerance is unnecessary when you and I agree on something. What’s there to tolerate when we both agree? Tolerance is required when two people don’t agree on something important. Tolerance is not a celebration of harmonious agreement, but a strategy for peaceful coexistence in the midst of disagreement. Tolerance is the attitude we adopt when we refuse to embrace a notion as true, not the act of embracing that notion as though it were true.
Tolerance Requires a Distinction
Tolerance is required when the two positions we hold are distinctly opposed. Competing worldviews that contradict one another, for example, require us to adopt an attitude of tolerance. That’s why it’s so important to examine what others believe, as well as what we believe (and why we believe it). The more self examined you are in your approach to truth, the more necessary it is to learn to tolerate others. The more you examine truth, the more likely you are to find that others will disagree with you.
Tolerance Requires a Demeanor
Finally, tolerance requires a response in the midst of the distinction and disagreement. The proper reaction is not acquiescence to the proposal or worldview being offered, but is instead a loving demeanor toward those with whom we disagree. It’s OK to hate a bad idea, as long as we remember that we are called to love those who hold bad ideas. I can reject a worldview yet still be “fair, objective, and permissive” toward those who hold this worldview. How I react toward people is what defines me as tolerant, not how I react toward ideas.
The three D’s of tolerance are particularly important for Christians because our worldview requires us to react in a way that is counter-cultural. As Christ followers, we are required to personify tolerance, even as we boldly and fearlessly proclaim the truth. Sadly, it seems that some of us think we have to embrace the attitudes and values of the culture in order to be tolerant. But unless we are willing to hold on to our distinctions and retain our disagreements, the need for tolerance will be lost altogether.