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Is Tolerance a Christian Value? (Part 1)

Is Tolerance a Christian Virtue?

Part One: A Theological Starting Point

Michael Jinkins


In response to my request for sermon ideas this past summer, several members of the congregation asked if I would address the issues of moral absolutism and relativism. It occurred to me that preaching on these subjects might not be the most productive way to address them, but that a short series of blogs would better serve as a conversation starter. So, for four weeks, blogs will be devoted to this subject.


To tolerate all things, and to tolerate nothing … both are intolerable.

— Thomas Shepard (Puritan Preacher), 1672



“We are living, we are dwelling in a grand and awful time,” says the nineteenth- century hymn by Arthur Cleveland Coxe.


The word “awful” at the time the hymn was written actually meant “awesome” in today’s English. But the hymn conveys a sense of crisis too, asking “Will ye play, then? Will ye dally?” while the whole world groans in travail.


Anxiety was in the air, it seems, in 1840. And I see no evidence that the world is getting any less anxious.


Almost three decades ago, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. warned against the potential for a cultural “Balkanization” of American society. He warned that “unless a common purpose binds” Americans together “tribal hostilities will drive them apart.”


Just a couple of years after that warning, John Powers, writing for the Boston Globe, prophesied: “The mood is anxious, suspicious, even resigned. Much as Americans may want common ground, they find themselves swept up in polarizing issues.”


Note, please, that these comments came years before 9/11/2001. If anything the mood has grown only more anxious, and we as a people have grown only more divided.


Strangely enough, however, the “Balkanization” against which Schlesinger warned, those violent divisions of a society along ethnic, tribal, cultural, religious and political lines which threatens to make neighbors into enemies, is not, in fact, a result of differences among us, but an unwillingness on the part of some to coexist with certain others. “Balkanization,” as a phrase, originated in the violence of Serbia and Croatia. It was the consequence of trying to enforce sameness, to drive out diversity in the name of uniformity.


“Uniformitarianism” is the great threat underlying so many political and cultural and (sadly) even religious movements in our time. In a society hungry for community, the human longing for fellowship can be subverted by the loathing of those “other people” (whomever they are) who remain tenaciously “other,” those people who simply don’t assimilate or don’t conform to the degree that some people believe they should. Ironically, however, the concept of community itself is only meaningful in relationship to difference.


A community is never made up of identical entities. A community is made up of persons in relation to one another, different persons together with each other, growing because of their differences, not despite them. All of the great transformational virtues we value in a community are predicated on differences among us: for example, mutuality, loyalty, truth-telling, harmony, reconciliation, forgiveness, love, and peace.


The impulse to suspect or reject or exclude is not and never has been restricted to one political party or religion or another. Politically progressive or liberal folks can be as exclusive and judgmental of difference as conservatives. And religions are so well known for their exclusivism of those who differ that they have found their way into popular humor.


{A new visitor to heaven is being shown around my St. Peter. He is impressed by the beauty of the place, the joy, the music. As they walk along, however, they come to a huge wall, and as they approach it, St. Peter says, “Shhhh. We try to be quiet here. Behind the wall are the fill in the blank, and they think they’re the only ones up here. We all try not to upset them.”}


And, yet, our Christian faith is grounded in a specific and peculiar understanding of God. We don’t believe that God is (as one philosopher once famously described the deity: “a bare windowless monad”). Even when we affirm monotheism, this does not reduce God to a featureless, abstract, distant “Something or Someone Singular and Somewhere Else.” And we certainly don’t believe that we can define God. As Saint Paul said, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable his judgements, and his ways beyond finding out.”


One could argue, in fact, that even the Hebrew benchmark for ethical monotheism is less a metaphysical concept, than a pledge of allegiance. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” Throughout the Old Testament, God remains unnamed and incomprehensible, referred to under a wide variety of qualities, Creator, Breath, Word, Wind, Wisdom, and so many others. The very “designations” or “names” by which God is called in the Old Testament bear testimony to a richness and variety that can be surprising: Elohim (incidentally which is a plural, not singular); El Shaddai (God Almighty or the God of the Mountain); YHWH, and the various descriptive designations of Yahweh; Ish (God, the faithful but cuckolded husband of Israel in Hosea); and Adonai (Lord).


In the New Testament, God emerges as more a relationship than an entity. Trinity is not the “name” of God, nor God’s “name” “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Both are like signposts pointing to the relationship at the heart of Ultimate Being. Three-in-One or Trinity really just begins to express the strange dynamic intra-relatedness within God and inter-relatedness of God to everything else. Theologians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition have traditionally made more room for this dynamic divine being-as-communion, or being-in-becoming, than has the Western Catholic tradition. Indeed, relinquishing the traditional designation “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” need not be a cause even for the most orthodox among us. In the early church, the authors of the Nicene Confession (the benchmark for Trinitarian orthodoxy) insist that describing God as Father is no more or less appropriate than speaking of God as “the Eternal One” or the “One without Origin.”


According to Christian thought the pluralism-in-unity of God is woven into the whole fabric of existence. Difference-in-unity is the nature of God. And God loves difference, as G.K. Chesterton often noted, which is why daisies all look like daisies, but no two daisies look exactly alike.


There’s no good reason for Christians anxiously to resort to what the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as “religious totalitarianism” to enforce their “Trinitarian” faith, especially realizing that the fundamental point of “Trinitarian” faith is that the heart of Ultimate Reality and that which holds all things together is divine love.


Today I want to end this blog and open this short series of blogs with a pair of questions:

Is it possible for Christians to make a meaningful contribution to peace and justice and to contribute to reconciliation in this anxious and fractured world?

Or must Christianity (and all other religions) remain, as some have argued, a persistent threat to the peace and harmony of human society?


Here’s what I believe:

I believe that hatred, exclusion, intolerance, and violence are all aberrations and sins against the image of God (the God who is Communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the plural-in-union Ground of All Being) in which we are created.

I believe that difference is a blessing and not a curse, and that variety lies at the heart of God’s good creation.

I believe that once we find in one another the blessedness of difference, there’s no turning back to a preference for a homogeneous world. Not only has such a world never existed, it was never willed into existence by the God in whom all differences are met in pure love and gratitude.


My bottom-line:

It seems to me that if we as people of faith don’t figure out an alternative to absolutism in belief and ethics, our entire world is in for only more bloodshed and destruction from religious zealots. But it also seems to me that the best alternative to absolutism isn’t simply a lowest-common denominator relativism that reduces values, beliefs and ethics to individual preferences.


More to come.



My research interest in the subjects of moral absolutism, relativism and pluralism as they relate to Christian ethics and faith began toward the end of the 1990s, and culminated in a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford University in 1999 and the book I began there (and completed a few years later) on the intersection of Christian faith and the social philosophy of Sir Isaiah Berlin. The book, Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism (London/New York: Routledge, 2002 hardback/ 2012 paperback) is ridiculously expensive, but may be found in many university libraries if you’d like to read it.


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