True Tolerance

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We assert, we herald, the truth about God becoming King of the world in and through Jesus of Nazareth alone. It is our public announcement.

In an enlightening but disturbing book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson explains that in today’s plausibility structure (where everyone must, by cultural mandate accept all positions without any claim to or pursuit of objective truth), our sense of reason has flown out the window. We must not, indeed we dare not, employ discriminating judgment to ascertain the truth or plausibility of religious claims. To do so would be to be intolerant (apostasy from tolerance ethics!). So says the new definition of tolerance. In the new tolerance ethics, no competing religious truth claims about reality can be debated, affirmed, or denied. There’s only religion, only inner spirituality.

Philosophical pluralism (the empirical fact that there are many positions) and relativism (that the many positions are relative to the individual’s perspective and have no claim to objectivity) say that all religions are basically the same, mere human endeavors with a cultural or ethnic twist that give them their distinctive flavors. Since religion is a subjective, opinionated, and emotional anthropological phenomenon and, even more significantly, because it’s unverifiable by science, it should remain a private affair. It must not factor into public policy, diplomacy, or ethical considerations because traditional religion comes with boundaries. And even when secular humanitarianism and religious belief have overlapping interests in areas including family, child protection, education, or marriage, such interests must give way upon pain of penalty or cancellation to the dictates of tolerance ethics. There can and will be only religious affirmations.

Faith rests upon the prior promise-making, promise-keeping of the living God in and through Jesus.

The “truth” question, that is, the pursuit and assertion of truth, has already been ruled inappropriate in the realm of religious beliefs (since it’s just individual or community perspective anyway). And so, the status of belief itself must be transmuted into something that the dominant politically correct plausibility structure tolerates — affirmations. Consequently, the only domain for negations is personal, private spirituality. In other words, there is no place for truth, religious truth, because, in the new tolerance ethics, only affirmations exist; anything else, you must keep to yourself or be branded intolerant. For negations to exist would require reverting back to the former definition of tolerance, where real differences are hammered out in debate through the pursuit of truth, evidence, and facts. But not today. Tolerance now affirms and accepts all beliefs as relative and, therefore, equally valueless beyond personal or community perspective.  

An implication is that the very words “belief” and “faith” have suffered a near-fatal downgrade. Belief used to be a robust and sturdy word. To say, for example, ‘I believe Napoleon visited Wittenberg’ was to confidently articulate an element of a fact-based narrative. It reliably stood on a tradition of witness and/or testimony, such that served as the foundation of jurisprudence from time immemorial. Now, however, “belief” is flimsy hope, a kind of hedging against the counterfactual to avoid a straightforward contradiction. ‘I believe it’s raining outside’ isn’t to say anything with much confidence. The same can be said for “faith.” In Scripture and throughout the Christian tradition, faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). [1] Note that this understanding of faith has an antecedent — an assurance. This is to say that faith rests upon the prior promise-making, promise-keeping of the living God in and through Jesus. Because “all of the promise of God are yes and amen” in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20), there is a basis, an assurance of things hoped for insofar as they are promises to be fulfilled in Christ. Our bodily resurrection is a good example. And so we have a conviction of something yet seen (the general resurrection on the Last Day) already established in the fact of Jesus’ first-century resurrection and availing atonement.

It’s principally for this reason that I have no time for this redefinition of “tolerance” and, consequently, “intolerance.” Neither should you. Nathan Hatch has it right: “The modern intellectual world is adrift, incapable or unwilling to allow any claim of certainty to set the coordinates by which ideas and commitments are to be judged.” [2] Not so for Christians. The very hallmark of being a Christian, wrote Luther as he rebutted Erasmus, is the way of assertion: The Holy Spirit is not a skeptic (Spiritus Sanctus non est scepticus) but the promulgator of the way, the truth, and the life. Proclamation, not quietism, is the apostolic way. We assert, we herald, the truth about God becoming King of the world in and through Jesus of Nazareth alone. It is our public announcement. It constitutes our public policy. Yes, we’re open to discussion, just as St. Paul passionately attempted to persuade Festus, who was at liberty to reject the gospel and, in fact, did so (Acts 25-26). That’s true tolerance. But it is also a fearless witness to the truth because in addition to truth, there is also falsehood. We positively affirm but also negatively deny — just like our Confession. Paul engaged the powerbrokers of his day. He spoke truth to power rather than cower in their shadow when facing ultimate cancellation — imprisonment followed by death. And here, the rhetorical maxim of St. Peter attains: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 20:19-20). 

To be sure, basic human rights have their place, but also their boundaries. [3] Likewise, philosophical pluralism and tolerance ethics have their place and boundaries. But without boundaries, they become tools of oppression, even socially permissible violence, when tolerance ethics manifests intolerance of theological beliefs and narratives when they emerge out of their prescribed enclaves. All men are indeed created equal and deserve universal human rights. However, all ideas are not created equal, and all religions are not basically the same, nor do all belong to the realm of opinion, personal perspectives, or the inner life of individuals. A prime example of this disparity is the contrast between Islam and Christianity. An honest comparison of these two “Abrahamic faiths” alone shatters any pluralist claim of religious relativism. Exposing the difference between a fabricated religion and one based on objective evidence may be accomplished by using geographic and archeological evidence combined with ancient manuscripts, historiography, and even genetics.

True tolerance, on the other hand, such that emerges from the Spirit of God, is driven by love, not the law.

The events concerning Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and empty grave not only were reported to have taken place when Jewish and Roman customs, policies and procedures were codified, active, and scrutinized, but the events themselves were carried out in the most public manner: the capital city, during its most populated festival, with its most public figures, in public forums, terminating in public byways, fully accessible to the populace. “These things were not done in a corner,” Paul would testify on record before King Festus (Acts 26:26). Christianity, then, at least in these respects, garners our affirmation, our amen, and thus constitutes our faith. On the other side of the spectrum, the archeological and geographic evidence for Islam pales in comparison with the multitudinous material evidence for Christianity. The state of current affairs of Islamic History is explained by historian Tom Holland: “Nowadays it is hard to think of any other field of history so riven by disagreement as that of early Islam.” [4] This confusion is bound to an inability to clearly locate geographic and temporal locations central to Islam’s history. Unlike Christianity, which can be placed on a historical timeline occurring in a specific place according to different rulers and historical events, Islam does not locate well in relation to geopolitics. Holland explains:

Unlike the Bible, which name-checks any number of conveniently datable rulers–from Cyrus to Augustus–the Quran betrays what is, to any historian, a more regrettable lack of interest in geopolitics. Those who are named in its pages tend to be angels, demons, or prophets…The focus of the Quran is fixed implacably, not on the personal but on the divine. [5]

While the Bible is rooted in geopolitical history, the Qur’an has more roots in the divine than in any specific geographic location. Whereas the descriptions of the city of Nazareth and Jerusalem are verified by visiting them today, the same cannot be said for the historical locations of Islam. Instead, there’s scholarly uncertainty surrounding Islam’s origins in regards to geography, unlike Christianity. Consequently, Islam elicits our denial. It isn’t true, and yet it is fully tolerated. There’s an earnest Christian desire to engage with Muslims, as well as all others who are yet baptized disciples of Christ Jesus. True tolerance recognizes irreconcilable and contradictory differences and respects because true tolerance takes seriously Muslim and Islamic beliefs. So much so that truth compels us to converse, to persuade, to assert (1 Peter 3:15).  

The motivation to do so also stands polar opposite to new fashionable tolerance ethics. In civic society, “tolerate” is a command empowered by the law. You will tolerate your neighbor’s beliefs and practices or there will be consequences, be they never so contrary to your religious faith. Evidence of such “tolerance” looks like virtue signaling your approbation through a variety of outlets ranging from social media “likes” to lapel pins to yard placards and even capitulation to pronoun preferences. True tolerance, on the other hand, such that emerges from the Spirit of God, is driven by love, not the law. Divine love, a love of neighbor as one’s self, is the result of the regenerating effect of the gospel (Luke 6:35). Our new life in Christ yields “speaking the truth in love” (Eph, 4:15), taking tolerance to a whole new level in which God’s yes and our no, his truth and our falsehood, human sin and atoning forgiveness, coexist in the one-crucified, now-resurrected Jesus, and Jesus alone. 

[1] To be sure, faith is a high level term with multiple meanings ranging from an entire body of belief (the Christian faith) to, christologically speaking, both epistemological and ontological dimensions. 

[2] Nathan Hatch, “Evangelical Colleges and the Challenge of Christian Thinking,” in Making Higher Education Christian: The History and Mission of Evangelical Colleges in America, ed. Joel A. Carpenter and Kenneth W. Shipps (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987), 163.

[3] Although, the radical proliferation of human “rights” as promoted and protected by the United Nations seems to work contrary to limitations.  In 1948 there were 30 basic human rights listed. Now, through the instruments of Chapter Bodies and Treaty Bodies, the number has ballooned to more than 1200, lending further credence to tolerance ethics privileging only affirmations.

[4] Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword (London: Brown Book Group, 2012).

[5] Holland on Front Row, with John Wilson, BBC4, 5 April 2012.