The Intolerance of Tolerance

The Intolerance of Tolerance

by D. A. Carson


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The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. Carson

Tolerance currently occupies a very high place in Western societies: it is considered gauche, even boorish, to question it. In The Intolerance of Tolerance, however, questioning tolerance — or, at least, contemporary understandings of tolerance — is exactly what D. A . Carson does.

Carson traces the subtle but enormous shift in the way we have come to understand tolerance over recent years — from defending the rights of those who hold different beliefs to affirming all beliefs as equally valid and correct. He looks back at the history of this shift and discusses its implications for culture today, especially its bearing on democracy, discussions about good and evil, and Christian truth claims.

Using real-life examples that will sometimes arouse laughter and sometimes make the blood boil, Carson argues not only that the "new tolerance" is socially dangerous and intellectually debilitating but also that it actually leads to genuine intolerance of all who struggle to hold fast to their beliefs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802869401
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 02/08/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 196
Sales rank: 305,870
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

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The Intolerance of Tolerance


William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 D. A. Carson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-3170-5

Chapter One

Introduction: The Changing Face of Tolerance

* * *

To speak of "the intolerance of tolerance" might strike some people as nothing more than arrant nonsense — an obscure oxymoron, perhaps, as meaningless as talk about the hotness of cold or the blackness of white. Tolerance currently occupies a very high place in Western culture, a bit like motherhood and apple pie in America in the early 1950s: it is considered rather gauche to question it. To hint, as my title does, that this tolerance might itself on occasion be intolerant is unlikely to win many friends. To put the matter in a slightly more sophisticated way, tolerance has become part of the Western "plausibility structure." As far as I know, the expression "plausibility structure" was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger. He uses it to refer to structures of thought widely and almost unquestioningly accepted throughout a particular culture. One of his derivative arguments is that in tight, monolithic cultures (e.g., Japan), the reigning plausibility structures may be enormously complex — that is, there may be many interlocking stances that are widely assumed and almost never questioned. By contrast, in a highly diverse culture like what dominates many nations in the Western world, the plausibility structures are necessarily more restricted, for the very good reason that there are fewer stances held in common. The plausibility structures that do remain, however, tend to be held with extra tenacity, almost as if people recognize that without such structures the culture will be in danger of flying apart. And tolerance, I am suggesting, is, in much of the Western world, part of this restricted but tenaciously held plausibility structure. To saunter into the public square and question it in some way or other not only is to tilt at windmills but is also culturally insensitive, lacking in good taste, boorish.

But I press on regardless, persuaded that the emperor has no clothes, or, at best, is sporting no more than Jockey shorts. The notion of tolerance is changing, and with the new definitions the shape of tolerance itself has changed. Although a few things can be said in favor of the newer definition, the sad reality is that this new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind to its own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground; it cannot be questioned because it has become part of the West's plausibility structure. Worse, this new tolerance is socially dangerous and is certainly intellectually debilitating. Even the good that it wishes to achieve is better accomplished in other ways. Most of the rest of this chapter is devoted to unpacking and defending this thesis.

The Old Tolerance and the New

Let's begin with dictionaries. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning of the verb "to tolerate" is "To endure, sustain (pain or hardship)." That usage is becoming obsolete, but it still surfaces today when we say that a patient has a remarkable ability to tolerate pain. The second meaning: "To allow to exist or to be done or practised without authoritative interference or molestation; also gen. to allow, permit." Third: "To bear without repugnance; to allow intellectually, or in taste, sentiment, or principle; to put up with." Webster's Unabridged Dictionary is similar: "1. to allow; permit; not interfere with. 2. to recognize and respect (others' beliefs, practices, etc.) without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing. 3. to put up with; to bear; as, he tolerates his brother-in-law. 4. in medicine, to have tolerance for (a specified drug, etc.)." Even the computer-based dictionary Encarta includes in its list "ACCEPT EXISTENCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS to recognize other people's right to have different beliefs or practices without an attempt to suppress them." So far so good: all these definitions are on the same page. When we turn to Encarta's treatment of the corresponding noun "tolerance," however, a subtle change appears: "1. ACCEPTANCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS the accepting of the differing views of other people, e.g., in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views."

This shift from "accepting the existence of different views" to "acceptance of different views," from recognizing other people's right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another's position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new.

The problem of what "tolerance" means is in fact more difficult than these few comments on dictionary entries might suggest. For in contemporary usage, both meanings continue in popular use, and often it is unclear what the speaker or writer means. For instance, "She is a very tolerant person": does this mean she gladly puts up with a lot of opinions with which she disagrees, or that she thinks all opinions are equally valid? A Muslim cleric says, "We do not tolerate other religions": does this mean that, according to this cleric, Muslims do not think that other religions should be permitted to exist, or that Muslims cannot agree that other religions are as valid as Islam? A Christian pastor declares, "Christians gladly tolerate other religions": does this mean, according to the pastor, that Christians gladly insist that other religions have as much right to exist as Christianity does, or that Christians gladly assert that all religions are equally valid? "You Christians are so intolerant," someone asserts: does this mean that Christians wish all positions contrary to their own were extirpated, or that Christians insist that Jesus is the only way to God? The former is patently untrue; the latter is certainly true (at least, if Christians are trying to be faithful to the Bible): Christians do think that Jesus is the only way to God. But does that make them intolerant? In the former sense of "intolerant," not at all; the fact remains, however, that any sort of exclusive truth claim is widely viewed as a sign of gross intolerance. But the latter depends absolutely on the second meaning of "tolerance."

Other distinctions can be usefully introduced. Go back to the assertion "Christians gladly tolerate other religions." Let us assume for a moment that the first meaning of "tolerate" is in view — i.e., Christians gladly insist that other religions have as much right to exist as their own, however much those same Christians may think the other religions are deeply mistaken in some respects. Even this more classical understanding of "tolerate" and "tolerance" leaves room for a certain amount of vagueness. Does the statement envisage legal tolerance? In that case, it is affirming that Christians gladly fight for the equal standing before the law of all religious minorities. Of course, from a Christian perspective, this is a temporary arrangement that lasts only until Christ returns. It is a way of saying that in this fallen and broken world order, in this time of massive idolatry, in this age of theological and religious confusion, God has so ordered things that conflict, idolatry, confrontation, and wildly disparate systems of thought, even about God himself, persist. In the new heaven and the new earth, God's desires will not be contested but will be the object of worshiping delight. For the time being, however, Caesar (read: government) has the responsibility to preserve social order in a chaotic world. Although Caesar remains under God's providential sovereignty, nevertheless there is a difference between God and Caesar — and Jesus himself has told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. It will not be like that in the new heaven and the new earth. Thus even this legal tolerance, which Christians should surely defend, belongs to the present, to the time when the kingdom of God has dawned but has not yet been consummated, or (to say it the way theologians do) to this age of inaugurated but not yet final eschatology.

Of course, in the right context the same sentence, "Christians gladly tolerate other religions," might suggest, not legal tolerance, but social tolerance: that is, in a multicultural society, people of different religions should mix together without slights and condescension, for all people have been made in the image of God and all will give an account to him on the last day. Of all people, Christians ought to know that they are not one whit socially superior to others. They talk about a great Savior, but they are not to think of themselves as a great people. So social tolerance should be encouraged.

Yet another distinction demands brief mention. Someone might assert that the God of the Bible, even under the terms of the new covenant, does not hold up tolerance as a virtue: if men and women do not repent and by conversion come under the Lordship of Christ, they perish. Certainly the God of the Bible does not hold up tolerance in the second sense as a virtue. Yet is not God's patience and forbearance in delaying Christ's return a form of tolerance, intended to lead people to repentance (Romans 2:4)? Hence the distinction: bad ideas and bad actions are tolerated (in the first sense), reluctantly and with bold articulation of what makes them bad, while the people who hold those bad ideas or perform those bad actions are tolerated (again, in the first sense) without any sense of begrudging reluctance, but in the hope that they will come to repentance and faith. Tolerance toward persons, in this sense, is surely a great virtue to be nurtured and cultivated.

These and other distinctions need to be thought through a little more; they will be picked up later in this book. At the moment it is more urgent to explore more thoroughly how widely different the old tolerance and the new tolerance really are.

Sharpening the Contrast between the Old Tolerance and the New

Under the older view of tolerance, a person might be judged tolerant if, while holding strong views, he or she insisted that others had the right to dissent from those views and argue their own cases. This view of tolerance is in line with the famous utterance often (if erroneously) assigned to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This older view of tolerance makes three assumptions: (1) there is objective truth out there, and it is our duty to pursue that truth; (2) the various parties in a dispute think that they know what the truth of the matter is, even though they disagree sharply, each party thinking the other is wrong; (3) nevertheless they hold that the best chance of uncovering the truth of the matter, or the best chance of persuading most people with reason and not with coercion, is by the unhindered exchange of ideas, no matter how wrongheaded some of those ideas seem. This third assumption demands that all sides insist that their opponents must not be silenced or crushed. Free inquiry may eventually bring the truth out; it is likely to convince the greatest number of people. Phlogiston (an imaginary substance that chemists once thought to cause combustion) will be exposed, and oxygen will win; Newtonian mechanics will be bested, and Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics will both have their say.

One version of this older view of tolerance — one might call it the secular libertarian version — has another wrinkle to it. In his famous text on liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) opts for a secularist basis to tolerance. In the domain of religion, Mill argues, there are insufficient rational grounds for verifying the truth claims of any religion. The only reasonable stance toward religion is therefore public agnosticism and private benign tolerance. For Mill, people should be tolerant in the domain of religion, not because this is the best way to uncover the truth, but precisely because whatever the truth, there are insufficient means for uncovering it.

A parable made famous by a slightly earlier thinker, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), nicely illustrates this perspective. Lessing sets the parable in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. The setting is critical to understanding what Lessing was trying to establish by his parable. This setting is a conversation among three characters, each of whom represents one of the world's three monotheistic religions: Saladin, the Muslim sultan; Nathan the Wise, a Jew; and a Christian Knight Templar. Saladin says to Nathan, "You are so wise; now tell me, I entreat, what human faith, what theological law hath struck you as the truest and the best?" Instead of answering directly, Nathan tells his parable. A man owned an opal ring of superlative beauty and extraordinary, not to say magical, powers. Whoever wore it was beloved by God and by human beings. He had received it from his father, who had received it from his, and so on — it had been passed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial. The man with the ring had three sons, each of whom he loved equally, and to each of whom he promised, at one time or another, that he would give the ring. Approaching death, the man realized, of course, that he could not make good on his promises, so he secretly asked a master jeweler to make two perfect copies of the ring. The jeweler did such a magnificent job that the rings were physically indistinguishable, even though only one had the magical powers. Now on his deathbed, the man called each of his sons individually to his side and gave him a ring. The man died, and only then did his sons discover that each of the sons had a ring. They began to argue about which one now possessed the original magic ring. In the play, Nathan the Wise describes their bickering and comments:

[The brothers] investigate, recriminate, and wrangle all in vain Which was the true original genuine ring Was undemonstrable Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable The one true faith.

Wanting to resolve their dispute, the brothers ask a wise judge to settle the issue, but his ruling refuses to discriminate:

If each of you in truth received his ring Straight from his father's hand, let each believe His own to be the true and genuine ring.

The judge urges the brothers to abandon their quest to determine which ring is the magic original. Each brother should instead accept his ring as if it were the original and in that conviction live a life of moral goodness. This would bring honor both to their father and to God.

Lessing's parable resonated with his eighteenth-century Enlightenment readers. The three great monotheistic religions were so similar that each group should happily go on thinking that their religion was the true one, and focus on lives of virtue and goodness, free of nasty dogmatism, the dogmatism that was blamed for the bloody wars of the previous century. What was called for, in other words, was religious tolerance. There is no harm in believing that your monotheistic religion is best, provided you live a good life and let others think that their religion is best.

Small wonder the parable retains its appeal to readers in the twenty-first century. People today are no less skeptical about claims to exclusive religious truth than were Lessing's readers. They will be inclined to think well of a religion if it produces morally respectable and religiously tolerant adherents. Today, of course, the parable would have to be revised: instead of three rings, we would need dozens of them, if not hundreds, to symbolize the mutual acceptability of the many religious options, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or nontheistic. And, of course, we could not concede today, as Lessing could, that one of the rings really is the original.


Excerpted from The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. CARSON Copyright © 2012 by D. A. Carson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Introduction: The Changing Face of Tolerance 1

2 What Is Going On? 19

3 Jottings on the History of Tolerance 47

4 Worse Than Inconsistency 79

5 The Church and Christian Truth Claims 97

6 And Still There Is Evil 127

7 Tolerance, Democracy, and Majoritarianism 141

8 Ways Ahead: Ten Words 161

Index of Names 177

Index of Subjects 181

Index of Scripture References 185

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Intolerance of Tolerance 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
George2 More than 1 year ago
Carson articulates well the difference between the "old" [classical]tolerance and the "new [modern][contemporary]tolerance. Much of the complaint centers on the relativist view of things: all truth claims are equally valid, none are better than others, therefore, what is true and right exists only from the viewpoint of the viewer. No absolute truth exists, therefore there is no absolute moral guidepost or absolute morals. There are no absolutes; all is relative. This leads us to the new tolerance that mandates not only that we tolerate [put up with] the unacceptable but also we must affirm and embrace it. The book concludes with ten actions supporters of the old tolerance should undertake to maintain their viewpoint in the postmodern world. This book is not bedtime reading. It lodges serious complaints from an evangelical viewpoint. It is well written, but the thoughts are dense. It is unlikely that postmoderns will be much worried about its message.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The content of this book is presented in a scholarly manner with many relevant examples to illustrate points. It is not light reading and is extremely thought provoking. Carson does advocate a position but with respect and civility.