Why Tolerance is Not Enough

I'm loving N.T. Wright's latest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Harper). Wright has a definite gift for big picture thinking: he soars over the vast and varied biblical landscape with grace and ease, showing his readers a topography that is both stunning and profound, yet accessible and deeply relevant. Contrasting the Christian virtue of love with society's penchant for tolerance, Wright remarks:

"The problem with [tolerance] is clear: I can 'tolerate' you without it costing me anything very much. I can shrug my shoulders, walk away, and leave you to do your own thing. That, admittedly, is preferable to my taking you by the throat and shaking you until you agree with me. But it is certainly not love. Love affirms the reality of the other person, the other culture, the other way of life; love takes the trouble to get to know the other person or culture, finding out how he, she, or it ticks, what makes it special; and finally, love wants the best for that person or culture" (p. 254).

Love costs something. Perhaps more accurately, love costs everything. Tolerance, not nearly as much. God grant us the grace to love one another.


Craig N. said...

I've noticed that the term tolerance has a special meaning today. The true definition of the word "tolerance" is that I disagree with you and think you are wrong but I bite my lip and bear it nevertheless. Today, people use the term tolerance to mean that I must accept/respect your viewpoint also even though I think it is incorrect. I tolerate many things but I don't also accept them as true. At what point did the definition change?

Carl Hofmann said...

Astute observation, counselor! Does tolerance, in practice, mean allowing enough room for everyone's opinion to be "true"--rather than simply not condemning another's viewpoint? Changing definitions notwithstanding, love's still got my vote (as difficult as it is). Thanks, Craig.

Hazel Brown said...

I like the last sentence in the Wright quote: "Love takes the trouble to get to know the other person or culture, finding out how he, she, or it ticks..." The trouble with toleration in the sense of merely not saying anything critical is that that definition allows you to remain distant from people who are different from you. My favorite philosopher, Richard Rorty, has a theory of morality based on the concept of sympathy: he says that it's easy to ignore those who seem weird and different and far away, but when those people appear on your doorstep, you are much more likely to do something to help them, because they are close to you and you can see how much like you they are.

I think people hold back from fully engaging with "the other" because they are afraid of finding TOO MUCH similarity; once someone is very similar to you, you are forced to reexamine what you think about them, and what you think about their beliefs. Maybe your beliefs will even change and grow as a result of an encounter with someone different, and that's scary. But unless we do that, there is no hope of building a world that is more inclusive and just for everyone, and not just for the people we already know we love. Tolerance is good if you manage to keep your mouth closed rather than start a shouting match, but it's even better when you use it to create a genuine conversation with someone who is different from you.