Striving For Tolerance

Below is a column I recently wrote for our local paper.

In our society today, tolerance is generally considered a good word representing a good thing. We have a long history of looking sideways at closed or despotic societies, and for very good reasons. When one sectarian group lays claim to a monopoly on Absolute Truth (with all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted), and then undertakes to promulgate their narrow vision with a club, the results are consistently devastating. Whether we are talking about Marxism, fundamentalist Islam, or the Inquisition, the results have made us very dubious about particular forms of certainty, especially particular forms of religious certainty. Because of concern over this kind of thing, Americans like to sit loose in their pluralism.

The problem with this response is that it is possible to drift into a narrow certainty about the impossibility of narrow certainty. Dogmatic relativism doesn’t work as an absolute cultural norm, any better than any other narrow dogmatisms do. In a world where people are willing to fly airliners into skyscrapers, commit serial murders, or perpetrate other outrages, it is clear that “to each his own” cannot function as an absolute. This is because for some people, their “own” means denying the principle of “to each his own” to others. Tolerance cannot be absolutized without at the same moment committing suicide. And when tolerance commits suicide, intolerance rushes in like a flood.

It must be possible for people to live together, putting aside their various disagreements for the sake of a greater good. Because we believe this, we rightly view tolerance as a social good. Virtually no one wants to return to the days when one group persecutes another on the basis of denominational distinctives. But a difficulty arises with that pesky word virtually. What do we do with the people who do want a return to zealotry and the stake? And because they are the kind of people they are, they always know how to push the issue, and they will not stop pushing until somebody pushes back. And when we push back, what basis do we have for doing so? We have to know what we believe and why. It is contradictory to say first that that there are no moral absolutes, and second that intolerance is absolutely bad, morally speaking. If relativism is the case, then anything goes, including the worst forms of absolutism. This dilemma is why we need a vision for society that is simultaneously fixed and broad. The fact that it is fixed excludes totalitarian relativism. The fact that it is broad excludes sectarianism.

To paraphrase a comment by G.K. Chesterton, a culture that does not stand for something will fall for anything. In order to forbear with one another, in order to extend grace to one another, in order to tolerate one another, we need to have a place to stand. This is just a long way of saying that tolerance, rightly understood, is a genuine Christian virtue. It grows naturally out of a broad (not narrow) Trinitarian vision of the good life.

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