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Is Tolerance a Christian Virtue? (part 4)

Is tolerance a Christian virtue? Part Four: From Enlightenment to Domestic Tranquility

Michael Jinkins


“Toleration has failed to capture the public imagination because it is not a passion.” — Theodore Zeldin


Tolerance, as we know it, is largely an invention of the Enlightenment.* It grew from a dissatisfaction among philosophical, scientific and even some religious minds (who, in that time, were sometimes the same people) that the only way to safeguard truth was to allow it to make its way in the free market of public debate.


Clearly truth had not been well-served, these leading minds argued, by allowing it to be the private domain of a single ecclesiastical institution. If a man like Galileo could be forced to recant the realities he observed because his observations did not fit the current orthodoxies of the church, then humanity needed a new way forward, if, indeed, it hoped to move forward at all.


Toleration, as defined by early champions like the philosopher John Locke, essentially provided the necessary minimal conditions to ensure a public space in which social, political, intellectual and scientific inquiry could be conducted. But tolerance did not by any means suspend critical judgement or vigorous argumentation. Truth had to make its own way in the world without institutional props.


There are champions throughout the history of toleration, none more significant than John Stuart Mill. Mill despised all attempts by society to standardize and force into conformity human beings, a condition he believed led to “collective mediocrity.” Humanity should enjoy the broadest possible variety of experiences and encounters so that its scope of knowledge would increase. In order for human beings to become all they are meant to be, Mill believed, freedom of inquiry and expression must reign supreme.


Mill, himself, drew a sharp distinction between respecting the views of others and tolerating them. He was willing to do the latter, but not necessarily the former. According to Mill, deep and worthwhile convictions run counter to granting a blanket acquiescence to the views of others. And, without deep and worthwhile convictions, there can be no meaningful ends of life guiding individuals or societies.


We thrive, according to Mill, in an environment that values truth. That means that tolerance is a sort of social contract which permits us to participate in exploring, arguing, investigating and disagreeing, all in the service of truth.


When T. S. Eliot, in his essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society,” says that “in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated,” he is tacitly endorsing Mill’s version of tolerance and arguing against an earlier version that might look down upon a belief or an idea with condescension, but would, in the end, “put up with it.”


Eliot understood that his sort of Christians don’t want to be “put up with.” They don’t want to be humored or patronized. They want to engage the world around them intelligently and vigorously. They want to employ their minds in the service of God. And they want the world around them to hear the distinctive perspective of their faith. But, this meant that they would have to enter the world of cultural and scientific disputation without claiming an exemption from criticism. Christians may have something important to say, but there may be important things for them also to hear.


This means, practically speaking, that tolerance is merely the starting point for Christians. We do not just wish to “tolerate” others, any more than we would want merely to be “tolerated.” Instead, because of our appreciation for the God whose eternal Being holds plurality-in-unity without confusion or dilution (when we strip away the Neo-Platonism from the Nicene Confession, this is basically what it says), and because we believe that variety is essential to the vision of the Creator and is a blessing not a curse (both of which are faith assumptions, not empirical statements), we are prepared to engage with respect and joy the differences of others in the hope that together we may grow not only in knowledge but wisdom, and not only in wisdom, but virtue.


The implications of this approach to tolerance are revolutionary. There is, as theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, once said, no “storm free zone” where religion can operate without being called to account by others. But neither is there a “storm free zone” where all other human endeavors can be conducted free from historical, theological, ethical and moral inquiry.


A public sphere must remain secular so as to allow persons to conduct their lives free from the intrusion and coercion of sectarian religious institutions and individuals. As I said to a Fundamentalist Baptist Minister years ago, the reason we have the agreement we have barring religious instruction in public schools is so that your children aren’t taught to be Presbyterians under the cover of just getting a good education. I had a feeling that argument might be more persuasive than me saying that I didn’t want my kids to be taught to be Fundamentalists. But a secular public sphere may also be obliged to hear from representatives of the various religious sects among that public who disagree with the moral boundaries drawn on behalf of a common life. Some of the most important advances in public policy (for example, in public safety and health legislation and in civil rights reforms) have owed a great deal to the efforts of religious groups.


Such is the nature of living in a genuinely pluralistic society. But, nobody ever said tolerance is easy.


Before leaving this subject, there is one thing more that has to be touched upon, though only briefly.


Values, even precious and crucial values, sometimes come into conflict. There is no timeless hierarchy of values that insures we will never have to make ethical trade offs and agonistic choices.


In our democracy, for instance, we believe in freedom of expression and association, and we believe in them so deeply that we enshrine these values in our Constitution. We also believe in national security, a commitment to the basic safety and defense of our people. Sometimes these values come into conflict, and we are required to negotiate some balance between these values if we are to move ahead together.


It is a given that some citizens will value more highly one of these values over others. Some people of faith may even back up their adherence to a particular value with the authority of their religion. We often feel the rub of tolerance most acutely in these practical situations. And it is a real temptation to stigmatize those whose weighting of values does not coincide with our own. But, perhaps, it is helpful in these situations, at least for persons of faith, to see the positive thing that is being said when we are willing to negotiate our values with one another.


We are saying that no value, however highly regarded, can assume the place of our highest allegiance. We will make no value into a god. Our willingness to reject this most pragmatic form of idolatry can open the door to meaningful discussion and durable public policy, and can help us assure a life together that values the gifts, experiences and perspectives of others.





*While there are streams of influence within the history of toleration that are traceable to the Protestant Reformation, our Protestant forebears were sometimes just as guilty of “religious totalitarianism” as was the medieval Roman Catholic Church before us. “Theocracy,” one quickly learns in Church history, is a chimera; in reality, it is code for despotic control under the cover of religion. The great gains in religious freedom (a subspecies of toleration) owe their principal debt to the Protestant streams that were oppressed by National and State supported religions. The Quakers were especially notable in this regard, as were some of the groups in the Radical Reformation. In the United States, tolerance was championed by Baptist leadership in the colonial period and in the early days of the Federal Constitution. Having experienced oppression, and remembering how tenuous is the condition of religious freedom, seems to help sects support toleration

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