D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and author of the new book The Intolerance of Tolerance. In this post, he describes the way in which tolerance has evolved throughout recent history — from a necessary safeguard against tyranny into the supreme virtue of Western society.
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For more than two thousand years, tolerance was widely viewed as a virtue that was in some ways parasitic on a larger moral vision. A parasite draws its life from a larger organism; old-fashioned tolerance drew its life from the moral matrix in which it was embedded. In recent decades that has changed, and not for the better: tolerance has become independent, largely cut off from a larger moral framework.
In the culture of ancient Greece, in the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages, in Spain during the Inquisition, in Calvin’s Geneva, in Victorian England as in revolutionary France, in Puritan New England as in mid-America during the Eisenhower years, in Mao’s China or in today’s Saudi Arabia — in all these worlds tolerance held the same functional place. Whatever the shape of the particular culture in which it was embedded, the degree of tolerance or intolerance that was settled on in each setting was in large part maintained out of concern for the public good. If one holds that such-and-such a belief system is for the good of society (whether the belief system is religious, as in the Spanish inquisition, or secular, as in Mao’s China, or some complex combination of traditional religion and commitment to “progress” and material prosperity, as in Victorian England), it will not be long before people have to wrestle with the question, “How much deviation should we allow? How much deviation from the norm can be tolerated?” If the powers that be allow too much tolerance, the “exceptions” and “misfits” and “outliers” may bring down the entire system that is understood to do so much good; if too little, the powers that be risk hurting many people, and may in addition provoke an unsolicited reaction from the broader culture, a reaction that might well prove equally destructive. In these worlds, tolerance is not absolute. It is held in tension with intolerance. Tolerance and intolerance constitute a sort of paired virtue, and the trick is getting the balance right in support of the larger matrix of cultural values. And necessarily, that paired virtue, the balance between tolerance and intolerance, changes as the culture changes.
But in much of the Western world, the last few decades have brought about a jarring change. This change can be analyzed on at least four fronts.
First, by and large it has become detached from any broad, culture-wide ethical system, for the very good reason that the culture has become suspicious of all systems. But that leaves tolerance as the last virtue standing — or, more cautiously put, it leaves tolerance exercising the role of supreme virtue.
Second, the supreme virtue of tolerance, detached from any broad ethical system, has now become part of the “plausibility structure” of much of the Western world. As far as I know, the category of plausibility structure was first coined by sociologist Peter Berger. The plausibility structure of society is the cultural structure that the overwhelming majority of people in that culture find plausible; opinions and stances outside that structure seem hopelessly implausible. If tolerance is part of the West’s plausibility structure, then even to suggest that we should not tolerate something or other is to sound bizarre, out of date, out of step with the contemporary world, mean, even (and here’s irony) evil. So if a Christian were to insist, for instance, that Jesus is the only way to God, the first question in our culture will not be “What reasons do you advance for that position?” but “What about all the Hindus (or Muslims, or atheists, or whatever)?”
Third, it is worth analyzing the effect of elevating tolerance to the level of supreme virtue. It generates scores of ironies that relatively few people even notice. As J. Daryl Charles puts it, the old tolerance that has recently been transmuted to this new status “becomes indistinguishable from an intractably intolerant relativism.” Worse, it soon becomes massively inconsistent and manipulative.
A university tries to ban a Christian student group from circulating one thousand free copies of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, on the grounds that this book does not take a sufficiently tolerant view of other religions and that campus Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and other religionists might be offended. Yet few reflect on the fact that by trying to ban this Christian group, the university is reflecting an intolerance of the Christian group that does not accept the majority view regarding the nature of tolerance.
The rising number of Muslims in England has prompted subtle (and not-so-subtle) eviction of pigs and their stories. In some schools, the story of the three little pigs is now banned, as Muslim school children might be offended by stories about unclean animals. The council of Dudley, Worcestershire (West Midlands) banned all images or representations of pigs from its benefits department, on the ground that Muslims coming in for benefits might be offended: calendars with pigs, porcelain porcine figurines, and so forth, including a tissue box depicting Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. When pressed as to why pigs have to go, Mahbubur Rahman, a Muslim Councillor in West Midlands, explained, “It’s a tolerance of people’s beliefs.” This is stunning doublespeak. What about tolerance of those who think differently about pigs? In the name of tolerance toward the beliefs of Muslims, intolerance is imposed. No one should doubt that Muslims ought to be free to express their dislike of pigs and pig representations; the problem, rather, is that Mr Rahman thinks that getting rid of pigs and pig representations is a moral obligation that upholds the virtue of tolerance, whereas he senses himself under no obligation to uphold the virtue of tolerance so as to permit those who rather like pigs and their representations to keep them. As one commentator puts it, on the lips of Mr Rahman and in the decisions of the Dudley Council, tolerance has become strangely confused with Islamist supremacism. My files on such developments, like certain demons, have become legion.
Fourth, the elevation of tolerance to supreme virtue and the adoption of this virtue into the West’s plausibility structure makes it extremely difficult to converse intelligently with other parts of the world — the worlds of Buddhism, say, or of Islam, Hindusim, and Communism. They may like our technology and our toys, but they commonly think we are silly, intellectually and morally vapid, unprincipled; we are inclined to think they are hard-line, bigoted, hate-filled, and (the supreme sin) intolerant.
Believe me when I insist that this blog post has no interest in decreasing tolerance in the world. Rather, we must expose the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of this new tolerance, and we must strive to regain the old tolerance, which was attached to some sort of broad ethical and cultural vision, so that what we argue about with others is first of all the truthfulness or credibility or usefulness of the broad vision. And here, Christians can lead the way. The new tolerance will simply wrap us up in more chains, as every issue becomes, not, “What is the truth of the matter?” but “Has anyone been offended?”
Sometimes the truth offends.