Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Intolerance of the New Tolerance.

From where I stand, there's been a significant shift in the common understanding of the word tolerance.  The Merriam -Webster Dictionary describes tolerance as "a willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are different from your own." So according to this definition, tolerance is not that one does not have strong beliefs or convictions. It is about how we treat those with whom we differ with respect to their beliefs or convictions.

The new definition of tolerance is not yet written in dictionaries, yet it is being inscribed on the soul of our culture.  Here is one example of how it might be defined, from a statement in a  recent article in the New York Times. "People who think they have the truth are dangerous. Everyone has the right to determine what is true for him or herself. No-one should try to press their view of truth on others."

This view insists that people who think they have the truth are intolerant. Even dangerous.
Whether we agree with this or not, we must recognize that this represents a significantly new definition of tolerance. Here, intolerance is not simply pressing one's view of truth upon others. (That has always been seen as intolerant.) Intolerance here is holding the view that one truth is more true than another.

The irony is that the words expressed by the New York Times journalist  express a particular view of truth themselves.  It is a Western, Post-Modern, Enlightenment view of things. It is essentially saying, "What is true is that there is no truth, which is a more enlightened view than those dangerous bigots who believe that there is truth."

D.A. Carson calls this the intolerance of the new tolerance.

Few people have articulated the shift in our culture's view of tolerance better than Rick Warren. Some may say that he is describing something peculiar to California, but I would submit to you that what he is describing is a much broader mood than that. "Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate."

Compassionate conviction is what we need but, it preaches more easily than it lives. 

This past week, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield, a former English professor  and outspoken Lesbian from Syracuse University, spoke at Wheaton College's chapel service in Illinois, sharing the story of how she had converted to Christianity and had entered into a heterosexual marriage.

While her provocative message encouraged many, it also offended others who protested outside the chapel. When she heard that some students were protesting her chapel talk, she sat down and met with them to listen to their grievances. She concluded that their different conclusions on sexuality came from a different view of Scripture. Her view was that Scripture was inspired and authoritative with regards to sexual ethics, while the students held a revisionist view of Scripture. They agreed to disagree.

However, this was how she described the tone and tenor of her conversation with them.

"This is the world I helped create; I was an activist, I was a professor who authored the university’s policy on domestic partnership, which they still use today. I helped make this world, so I really feel for students. There is nothing about what they’ve said, there’s nothing about anybody’s response to me that was offensive in any way. In my heart, I felt huge solidarity and connection.”

I think Rosaria Butterfield manages to thread the needle of compassion and conviction.
God give us grace to follow suit.

*Dr. Butterfield's  book is called, "Secret thoughts of an unlikely convert."You can order it here


  1. Excellent Alan. The re-defining of terms is now full blown. But as a believer, we need to remember that the truth always appears "intolerant" to the unbelieving...it is too narrow. Compassion also needs to be understood from a Biblical perspective. It isn't necessarily the need to sympathize with and affirm everyone's diverse thoughts and behavior. That's the message behind "Co-exist"...that's syncretism which just waters down the truth. Compassion means to walk the line of holding to firm convictions of the truth with understanding, integrity, and vulnerability ourselves...yet without compromise.

  2. Great comments Rick. Did you try and call?