(Editor’s Note: This article is reposted with permission from Gospel Centered Discipleship)
It can be difficult to share our faith. Sometimes when opportunities arise to share our faith, we shrink back because we don’t want to be intolerant. We don’t want to come across as demeaning of other’s beliefs or exclusivist in our own beliefs. This can be very positive concern, though it has some shortcomings too.
Tolerance as Christian Love
Tolerance can be either an expression of Christian love or intellectual and relational carelessness. How do you know if your tolerance is loving or careless? It depends on what we mean by tolerance. In The Intolerance of Tolerance, D. A. Carson helpfully clarifies the meaning of tolerance. He points out that there are two types of tolerance: old and new. The old tolerance is the belief that other opinions have a right to exist. This is a very Christian notion. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, and even our enemy. The Christian ethic of love should compel disciples to tolerate other beliefs and religions. We ought to grant others the right to believe whatever they desire to believe. After all, what people believe is a deeply personal and profound matter. It isn’t like picking out a ripe banana at the supermarket. Our beliefs require much more thought and investment. Love values people and respects the things they hold dear. Since Christians are to love God, neighbor and even enemy, tolerance (believing that people have the right to hold different opinions) can be very loving and respectful. Christianity shouldn’t be coercive or proselytizing; it should be loving and tolerant.
The Carelessness of Tolerance
The new tolerance, however, is defined as the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true. This is quite a leap from the old tolerance. It is one thing to say something has the right to exist; it is quite another to say that two beliefs are equally valid. If we followed the logic of the new tolerance, it would be possible to affirm the following two statements:
- We should grant others the dignity to believe whatever they want to believe.
- We should force others to believe whatever we believe to be true.
The new tolerance has to allow for these two statements to coexist. The problem is that this is simply impossible to do! The new tolerance is intellectually careless. The new tolerance carelessly dismisses careful logic. For instance, new tolerance affirms that both Jesus and Allah are God. It also affirms that working to keep the Five Pillars of Islam and trusting in the work of Christ are both ways to get to God. The problem, however, is that both Islam and Christianity fundamentally disagree on who God is and how to reach him. In Islam, we reach up to God but in Christianity, God reaches down to us. These beliefs can’t be equally valid and true because to affirm one its to invalidate the other.
This intellectual carelessness is not only illogical; it is exclusively intolerant. According to the new tolerance, it should be intolerant to not tolerate exclusive faiths like Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Instead, the new tolerance makes the exclusive claim that all religions lead to the same God. This is an act of great disrespect, dismissing the centuries of study, formulation, adherence, and faith of religious devotees. In this, the new tolerance is religious. It makes an exclusive claim (all beliefs are equally true) and intolerantly forces that belief onto everyone. As a result, it is not only intellectually careless but relationally careless.
The Relational Impact of Our Confusion
The carelessness of the new tolerance impacts relationships. Have you ever been on the precipice of a spiritual conversation with someone of a different faith, but backed off because you thought to yourself: “I don’t want them to think I’m intolerant or judgmental of what they believe?” If so, you did this out of a confusion over what tolerance truly is. Your behavior was affected by your (wrong) belief that tolerance means validating all other faiths as equally true. When we affirm two contradictory statements, it creates a cognitive (and spiritual) dissonance that affects our behavior in social settings. We become paralyzed, unable to discuss some of life’s most meaningful questions with others because, on the one hand, we tolerate differences (classic tolerance) and on the new hand, we dismiss differences (since they are equally valid). The unfortunate result is that relationships often remain skin-deep. We don’t get down into the weighty matters of faith, ethics, truth, and beauty.
So you see, there’s quite a difference between the old and new tolerance. While we should grant others the dignity of their belief (or unbelief), classic tolerance also expects the differences between beliefs to come out. Classic, and Christian, tolerance should promote respectful dialogue and charitable debate between religions. Christians should honor differences and dialogue to grow in clarity and appreciation of differences between religious viewpoints. We should be eager to learn from others about their faith, not condemn them for their faith. Meaningful conversation is in short supply, and of all people, Christians should have meaningful conversations with others. After all, Jesus claimed to answer the deepest questions of life. And if his teachings are true, then we have every reason to talk deeply with others about meaning, faith, and truth. Jesus gives us every reason to be classically tolerant, full of love, and persuasively engaged in the things that matter most.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless. Dodson has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others.