In recent years, the issue of tolerance has become a hot-button issue. As a college student, it was not uncommon to hear the words “that’s pretty intolerant of you” in the classroom, as if the person committed an unforgivable sin. Clearly this is something that people care about. What exactly do we mean when we say that something is tolerant or not? Why should we even care about this issue to begin with? I hope to answer these questions and more in this brief article.
What do people generally mean when they say something is tolerant or intolerant? There has been a surprising shift in the meaning of these words in our culture that you should be aware of. See which of these definitions you would place under the word tolerance; Tolerance: to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with). Or, Tolerance: affirming that all beliefs are equally valid and correct. Which of those would you agree with? In recent years the societal definition of tolerance has changed from allowing something to exist, to affirming that the thing is true. This is a major difference! Another example would be when we criticize or rationally analyze someone’s worldview and come to the conclusion that it can’t be true. When it comes down to it, there are two different types of tolerance that I will be referring to from this point on. I borrow the words “Old Tolerance”, and “New Tolerance” from D. A. Carson’s book “The Intolerance of Tolerance”. Contrast the new tolerance I just examined with old tolerance that says, “I may or may not agree that this worldview or belief is true but I will allow you to hold that worldview or opinion, but I would love to show you why I think it’s irrational or otherwise untrue.”
Now let’s take this “new tolerance” for a test flight and see if it lands safely. Those who hold to new tolerance have some issues to address. First, this new tolerance sounds an awful lot like relativism. Relativists believe that what’s true for you is true and what’s true for me is true, so it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something because all truth is relative. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to understand that relativism is self-defeating. The biggest problem here is that they claim that all truth is relative, except for the fact that all truth is relative. Clearly every worldview cannot be true because of all the exclusive truth claims of different worldviews and religions. But lets not gratify relativism with any more explanation, (for a more in-depth analysis of why relativism is false, buy the book “Relativism” by Beckwith and Koukl). Therefore the reason I say that this new tolerance sounds a lot like relativism is because the people getting called intolerant are the ones who don’t believe that all beliefs are basically true, or who criticize or critique another’s worldview. Therefore, if new tolerance is synonymous with relativism then I believe it to be already proven false. If new tolerance were true then we would be stuck in a world of neutrality, where everyone is stuck on the fence about each other’s views. The relativistic followers of new tolerance are insisting that all people ought to tolerate (or accept as true without argument) everyone’s viewpoint, including their own. But here is the kicker; the new tolerance will tolerate (in their own meaning of the word) everyone’s viewpoint except those who agree with old tolerance. This is a clear contradiction in the beliefs of those who hold to the new definition of tolerance. Clearly they are willing to tolerate all beliefs except the ones that are contradictory to their own, which is typically their biggest complaint against those who disagree with them. To me, this is hypocrisy.
This issue is important because truth is important. Without truth we are stuck in an abstract world without a ground for morality. Indeed there may still be moral people, but they would have no true ground for it. I for one fall under the old tolerance view because old tolerance acknowledges truth. I believe in truth. I believe there must be an ultimate standard of truth otherwise we would not be able to call something right or wrong, just as we would not be able to tell what two inches was without a ruler. I am a Christian and therefore believe with Scripture that Jesus is truth (John 14:6). He alone is our standard and truth. The problem is that God expects us to meet this standard of perfection and truth but nobody in history has done that except for one person. Jesus came because God lovingly offered us a way to get back to Him. God came to us in the person of Jesus to die and pay the price for our sin of not meeting His moral standard. Jesus died to pay the price and if we are willing to trust in what Jesus did on the cross then we can trade in our human imperfection and sin for Jesus’ perfection and right standing with God. This is the essence of the Gospel that Christians believe. The world will say this is intolerant, but we must remember that Scripture tells us that the gospel will be seen as foolishness to those who are perishing. As one who sees the gospel as not only the wisdom of God but beautiful, my prayer is that the church will stand up for the gospel even if that earns them the label of intolerant.