I came across a post about the relationship between “tolerance” and “the truth” that I wanted to address (Rich Deem, 2006). Although the author has a decent perspective on what makes Christianity unique, but he has a far overblown concept of his own perception of the truth, and thus an inaccurate rendering of Jesus activity 2000 years ago. Because he is more Pharisaical himself than faithful, I’m not surprised at his difficulty: just as the Pharisees at the time had difficulty Jesus even then. But because I see this line of thinking replicated in many places in our modern faith, I thought I would review it.
The Christian is most often claimed to be “intolerant” when he refuses to accept and speaks out against “alternative lifestyles,” such as cohabitation or homosexual behavior. Again, this is an improper use of the word “intolerant.” Tolerance does not require acceptance of all ideas as being true, but merely a willingness to hear alternative beliefs. Those who say that Christians should not express their beliefs are actually the ones who are being intolerant, since they are unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression to Christian beliefs. An interesting argument… but totally inaccurate. I am personally willing to listen to many arguments about the “sinfulness” of same-sex relationships, and have done for hours… until I’m able to repeat them back almost word for word. But I am rarely given the same respect: I am usually cut off quickly by those who disagree, and have never been convinced that people are actually listening to me when I run through my arguments. They’ve been convinced that I’m wrong before I start. Rarely can they actually repeat any part of my argument back to me. It’s too scary for them to really consider something that would threaten their world view. Beyond that: it is not the simple discussion that is the worst of being intolerant. It’s the use of those ideas and those words to legislate their beliefs on others that I think defines intolerance. It’s forcing morality on those who don’t agree something is immoral that is intolerant. I have lots of friends who believe that I am and was wrong when I married my husband. I know that. Many of them get over it and love us anyway: that is not intolerant. Voting to make my marriage illegal: that is intolerant.
“Christians are intolerant because they try to tell other people what to do and what to believe,” is a common complaint from those who have been witnessed to by a zealous Christian. Although the actions of Christians are often interpreted as intolerance, the primary reason why Christians are seen as intolerant is because the perceived, politically-correct definition of tolerance has changed over the years. This shift in word-meaning might be true (and definitions of words are always “correct”, even if they change: they are defined in their usage by societies, not by single people… ), but it is not really relevant to the discussion. The very fact that he relies on his definition from “circa 1735” illustrates how out of date he and his ideas are.
What is the difference between tolerance and acceptance?
“Acceptance” implies a change of mind, which leads to a parallel change in behaviour. “Accepting” that homosexuality is not a sin changes a person’s voting behaviour when asked about a constitutional amendment to ban the practise. “Tolerance” implies that one’s mind has not been changed, but that the subject is not sufficiently important to justify a particular action. From the outside perspective, tolerance and acceptance cannot be distinguished. It is only in exploring the roots of one’s beliefs that this becomes obvious. “Tolerating” homosexuality means that you still believe it is a sin: but that it is more important to you that your gay friends be happy and have the protection of the law in their relationship, so your voting still changes. It’s a matter of priorities.
One of my best friends is excellent at tolerating me. We were very close in Bible College; she was the maid of honour in my first marriage (to my wife). She has very strong, Biblical beliefs. When my husband and I visit, she does a wonderful job of accepting us and tolerating our relationship. Once I asked her about what she thought about our marriage: she said she looked at it as parallel to the sin of gluttony, something oh-so-common in the Western world, which is hardly even remarked on any more. She still sees it as a sin, but she regards our relationship as much more important.
“You understand that I don’t see it the same as you do,” I remember remarking. “I do not believe I’m sinning in this.” And she looked at me quizzically.
“Of course. If you did, then I would say something.”
There is a part of me that understands the reason that many Christians are so intolerant about same-sex sexuality. I’m not a fool; I can read the NIV translation of the New Testament. But I disagree. Those who won’t let me disagree and who force their beliefs on me: they are intolerant.
Real tolerance is deference to all ideas, not indifference to the truth. Although this sounds true and worthy of respect, it is precisely where the problem lies. The way it’s expressed here, the line between “ideas” that can be tolerated and “truth” that must be defended sounds to be hard and fast. But it is not. Mr. Deem uses the Bible as his source of Truth (capital “T”) and beyond that, his interpretation of the Bible. He sees his interpretation of Scripture as being so important to his self-respect that he is willing sacrifice others’ happiness, freedom and self-expression on the altar of his perspective. He is not even willing to acknowledge that others might possibly be justified in their actions. Locking one’s perspective in a single direction and refusing to move: that is intolerant.