Review of D. A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance

Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and not kicking hornets’ nests. 

Rachel Bomberger
Rachel Bomberger

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If you’ve been following my semi-occasional book reviews over the past year or so, you will have learned quite a bit about me. You will know, for example, that:

What you probably won’t have learned from reading my posts, however, is what I really, truly think about, well, anything. You might know that I have long struggled to come to a place of resolution about the death penalty, but you certainly won’t have a clue as to where I stand on the issue today.

This is completely intentional, by the way, for while I do hold strong convictions on many of the more controversial political and theological issues of our time, I have, in recent years, become ever more reticent about publicly airing those convictions.

Why is this? Why should I, the natural-born citizen of a nation that safeguards freedom of speech, of religion, and of the press — a nation that prides itself on its almighty tolerance — always feel so downright reluctant, even afraid, to speak my mind?

Perhaps I’ve become timid about this kind of self-expression because, as D. A. Carson points out in The Intolerance of Tolerance, I’ve noticed that the kind of tolerance now so greatly esteemed in public life can actually be quite intolerant.

The Intolerance of Tolerance
The Intolerance of Tolerance

Yet how can tolerance be intolerant? Carson helps me unravel this apparent paradox by careful defining what is generally meant by “tolerance” and “intolerance.” In doing so, he draws a helpful line between “old” and “new” definitions of tolerance and intolerance.

“Old tolerance” can be pretty adequately expressed by that oft-quoted line (often wrongly attributed to Voltaire): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

“New tolerance,” however, takes this ideal — this graciously putting up with people you strongly believe are dead wrong — and both inflates and twists it almost beyond recognition. If the quote above were reworked to fit Carson’s understanding of “new tolerance,” it might read thusly: “I cannot, will not, and dare not disapprove of what you say, because what you have to say is every bit as valid as what I have to say. And I will put to death anyone who says otherwise.”

“Old tolerance” (which allowed deviation from commonly held societal norms) was, by its very nature, held in constant tension with intolerance (which encouraged adherence to societal norms).

But with a new understanding of tolerance — in a culture that now possesses very few broadly held societal norms — comes a new definition of intolerance. According to Carson:

“If you begin with this new view of tolerance, and then elevate this view to the supreme position in the hierarchy of moral virtues, the supreme sin is intolerance. The trouble is that such intolerance, like the new tolerance, also takes on a new definition. Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant. For such questioning there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classed as intolerance and must therefore be condemned. It has become the supreme vice.”

Given this, perhaps I have valid reason to be afraid after all. My strongly held faith and convictions — the things in this life I hold dearest — demand me to acknowledge that they are right and true. Yet for me to assert publicly in any way that my beliefs are right and true is inevitably to imply (even if I don’t say it outright) that other people’s beliefs, insofar as they contradict mine, are wrong and false. This, the world screams, I absolutely must not do.

So I keep quiet. I bite my tongue. And, what’s more, I encourage others to bite theirs.

I can recall conversations with earnest young Christian students back when I was an adjunct English instructor at a state university:

“Yes, I know you’d like to write an argumentative essay on why abortion/gay marriage/evolution/[fill in the blank] is wrong. I know you want to quote the Bible in your research paper. I know you’re dying to write a narrative essay about your conversion experience. But I feel compelled to counsel you against it. Trust me: I know how you feel, but if you’re going to make it successfully through four years at this college, you’ve got to learn to turn down the volume on the faith stuff.”

It broke my heart to do it, but I felt I had to warn them. Even now, I often hear myself urging the outspoken faithful near and dear to me to be careful:

“You can’t say that!” I tell them.

“Why not?” they say. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, of course it’s true, but you still can’t say it. It’s not nice. Don’t you know how uncomfortable people get when they hear stuff like that?”

This, of course, is Carson’s point in a nutshell. As he puts it so well in the article we posted here last week, “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?’”

So, then, what’s a girl with deeply held (but often deeply suppressed) beliefs to do?

Thankfully, Carson offers not just a keen analysis of the issues at stake but also ten “ways ahead.”

“Preserve a place for truth,” he says. “Challenge secularism’s ostensible neutrality and superiority.” “Insist that the new tolerance is not ‘progress.’” “Practice and encourage civility.”

“Be prepared to suffer.”

And, just like that, I suddenly remember why it is that I so often choose to keep mum about my beliefs. As Carson reminds me: social ostracism, harassment, discrimination, even legal action can all lie in wait for those branded by contemporary society as “intolerant.”

“Delight in and trust God,” Carson tells me, even as he recognizes that while “God may bring about changes that reflect the more robust understanding of tolerance better known in earlier times,” the “powerful delusion” of so-called tolerance may also lead Christians “into more suffering for Jesus than the West has known for some time.”

I shudder to think of it. Like everything else in this book, these sentences, drawn from its very last paragraphs, have given me something to mull over deeply.

(FYI: this “mulling over” process may take some time. If you’re still hanging around waiting to hear what I really think about any of that “hot button” stuff, you may need to be patient and wait a little longer while I mull. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, check out Carson’s book for yourself and leave me a comment below to let me know your thoughts on the matter.)

Click here to order The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson.