the intolerance of tolerance

On a series of recent flights, I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with DA Carson's latest book, The Intolerance of Tolerance. His central premise is that the word 'tolerance' has become slippery and changed its meaning over time. There is an old tolerance (which is good) and a new tolerance (which is bad). Carson circles around this distinction, returning to it again and again for fuller description.

For example:
The old tolerance is the willingness to put up with, allow, or endure people and ideas with whom we disagree; in its purest form, the new tolerance is the social commitment to treat all people and ideas as equally right, save for those people who disagree with this view of tolerance (98).
Or, again - quoting J. Daryl Charles:
Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religion and morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgement; the public square must be given over to indistinctness ... (and it has) a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is "better" than another (76-77).
One of the features of the book is that Carson includes dozens of examples of this new tolerance at work in public life - and some of the nonsense that proliferates as a result. However I thought I'd focus on five implications of this distinction as they impacted me and my culture-watching.

a. the myth of neutrality
Secularist advocates of the 'new tolerance' claim a neutrality and fair-mindedness which religious people just cannot attain. It is almost as if 'tolerance comes naturally to the secular person, whilst intolerance comes naturally to the religious person' (92, quoting Coffey). There is a delicious irony here - because it is many of the gurus of these secularists who raised the alarm about the unavoidability of the involvement of a subject in any interpretative exercise in the first place. They are the ones who asserted that neutrality was impossible. And yet their disciples can appear to be exempt from this reality. But since neutrality is not possible for anyone, is it not far wiser to surface the presuppositions at work and weigh their relative merits as a part of that debate? 
But no - 'all religious beliefs must be banished to the private sphere so that we secularists can occupy the public sphere' (with their own brand of religious beliefs remaining under cover). Is this not intolerance in the guise of tolerance? It is a biggie - and right at the heart of the debate about Religious Education in Schools in New Zealand, a debate that was always going to arrive and one which Christians will struggle to win.

b. the infrequency of civility
The relevance of Carson's argument is self-evident. It does not take long to reach issues related to sexuality, race, gender, religion, and life & death. This shift from the old to the new tolerance as the prevailing view in society is making civility in debate to be so difficult. If accusations of 'homophobe' or 'racist' are on the tip of peoples' tongues, the debate that is needed is less likely to occur. There are exceptions - thankfully. Here in New Zealand, two come to mind from recent weeks. One in the area of sexuality and the other in the area of race.

(1) Notice the civility in the tone of the discussion on gay marriage on TVNZ's Close Up programme (06/06/12). While credit goes to both Laurie Guy (Carey Baptist College) and Alison Mau for this, because Laurie's view is the one under attack, the example of civility which he gave is most instructive. He didn't back down - but nor did he lose his cool either. If I was in that situation myself, I would struggle to do either of these. It was very impressive. Stuart Lange (Laidlaw College) is another Kiwi who comes to mind with this ability when placed in the public square. If Christians are to re-enter the public square, we need this civility.

(2) A young lad, Joshua Iosefa, recently gave the most remarkable prefect speech at Mt Roskill Grammar School, called 'Brown Brother'. Seriously, it is weep-worthy. It is profound. It is prophetic. It is delivered with skill and style. What strikes me is that he raises issues that from someone else's mouth could readily be labelled racist - but he has such charisma, humility, humour, courage, truth-filled conviction ...and civility(!) that a deeper debate becomes possible. I include a link to the original delivery at the school's assembly, rather than the more canned version that appeared later on television.

In this area I find that throwing around the phrase 'political correctness' to be singularly unhelpful. It lifts the temperature of the debate (in a manner reminiscent of 'homophobe' from the 'other side') and injects a lack of sanity (which I guess means 'insanity') into what follows. Plus it is becoming a phrase that is assigned to people with whom we disagree. Far better to engage in debate without the phrase being used.

c. the oddity of 'no religion'
Here in New Zealand we like to celebrate the way our last census (2006) revealed that one third of Kiwis say they have 'no religion'. I can't wait to see the results of the next census to see how high the figure is now. We hail this result as progressive and the mark of civilisation advancing towards the elimination of conflict. Really?! Even when the vast majority of humanity thinks it to be so silly? When I share this with peoples in Asia they are invariably dumb-founded, stunned. Fed by this 'new tolerance', taking religion casually is not going to advance the cause of peace in the world. The bloodiest messes in the bloodiest century (20th) were done by the hands of atheists, not theists. As Carson observes,
... cultures in other parts of the world often see in Western (new) tolerance, not a mature and civilized culture worth emulating, but a childish and maniulative culture that refuses to engage with serious moral issues ... Far from bringing peace, the new tolerance is progressively becoming more intolerant, fostering moral myopia, proving unable to engage in serious and competent discussions about truth, letting personal and social evils fester, and remaining blind to the political and international perceptions of our tolerant cultural profile (139).
On this it is also important to note the shallowness of much of what passes for inter-faith dialogue with its search for 'contentless agreement' (123) in which there emerges 'a sort of happy friendship provided no participant believes very much to be true within his or her respective traditions' (124). It doesn't work like that with people of faith - which is the vast majority of the world! "A Muslim who believes very little and a Christian who believes very little and a Jew who believes very little will have a lot in common: very little' (124).

d. the disappointment with universities
I can understand the media and politics losing the plot here - but universities? 'Historically the bastions of free speech and free thinking, have repeatedly, in the name of tolerance, exhibited remarkable intolerance' (31).  If they were truly fair-minded they would offer a Stage Three course which analyses the contribution which adherents of the Christian faith have made to the advance of civilisation. Can you see it in the History department at the University of Auckland? Even a critical engagement with the topic would lead to a string of positive outcomes by Christians. Even an inclusion of Islam in such a course handled even-handedly would lead to numerous positive contributions made by Christian believers. But our universities can be so hostile to Christian faith, often stuck back in the Crusades. It is part of why I would argue, if we are thinking strategically and investing in the long haul, that it is our campuses which are the most urgent mission priority for the church in New Zealand.

e. the intolerance of jesus
Leaning heavily on Jesus' "Get out - I never knew you" conclusion to his celebrated sermon (Matthew 7. 21-23), Carson touches on the intolerance which Jesus can show to those who claim to be his followers. Although Carson does not mention them, I am reflecting on them at the moment and we could add Jesus' messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3 as further examples of this intolerance. 'A central myth of our time is that God is infinitely tolerant, that Jesus is infinitely tolerant' (102). We need to quit creating Jesus in the image of our interests and agendas and allow the biblical record to shape our understanding of who Jesus is. Surely anything else leads to idolatry?

There are two sections in the book where Carson helps strengthen the resolve of believers in this demanding area. From pp111-125, he discusses 'Aspects of Christian Truth Claims' - and then in pp161-176 he offers 'Ways Ahead: Ten Words'. Let me give a taste by concluding with these 'words':
+ Expose the New Tolerance's Moral and Epistemological Bankruptcy
+ Preserve a Place for Truth
+ Expose the New Tolerance's Condescending Arrogance
+ Insist that the New Tolerance is not 'Progress'
+ Distinguish between Empirical Diversity and the Inherent Goodness of All Diversity
+ Challenge Secularism's Ostensible Neutrality and Superiority
+ Practice and Encourage Civility
+ Evangelize
+ Be Prepared to Suffer
+ Delight and Trust in God

I'd add an eleventh (yes, I know - this is incredibly brave of me!) - from my own research and reflection:
+ Live a Life (and Speak Words) which Intrigue
(which is a little different - and a little more - than mere civility)

nice chatting



Matt B said…
I find tolerance in its current form irritating. It is upheld as an essential character trait like control of anger. "I think you need to deal with your tolerance problem." It just makes everyone want to believe that they are sorted when it comes to tolerance, regardless of whether or not they actually are. I see a lot over very intolerant people walking around claiming to be tolerant.
John Phillips said…
Joshuas speech is weep-worthy indeed. It eloquently confirms a recent conversation a 'Brown Brother' had with me over my 'deficit thinking'. (edu-speak for moving on from making excuses for low achievement)
Paul said…
Thanks, John. I watched/listened to Joshua again last night. It really is special on so many fronts - and a real example to the two or three generations above him.

And Matt, your comments have taken me back to some of the other insights that have helped me along the way.

John Stott once distinguished between a 'tolerant mind' and a 'tolerant spirit' - with the latter being the good one. Carson quotes this (pp164-165) and sees the distinction to be similar to his 'old' vs 'new' one. I neglected to mention in the post that Carson sees the old tolerance more as a 'social response' (good!) - and the new tolerance as an 'intellectual stance' (not so good!)...

I've also been helped by GK Chesterton's famous quote in his book, Orthodoxy: 'What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition ... and settled on the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.' A brilliant insight from many decades ago.

When all is said and done, I make my way back to the Jesus revealed to us in John's gospel - 'full of grace and truth'. That is a Table of Contents for the gospel because in it we find Jesus, again and again, gracious with people - and yet incredibly dogmatic and intolerant (for today's ears anyway, again and again, with matters of truth. Just track the word 'truth' the gospel and it is one offensive statement after the other. It is this Jesus with whom we must reckon - and worship and bear witness to - not some other Jesus (who so often defaults to being a slightly nicer version of ourselves). Nah?! Not for me...

Oops - got a bit carried away here

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