The Intolerance of Tolerance

Posted: October 5, 2011 by Brett Kunkle in Truth Matters

Is the Bible intolerant?  That was the question Nathan Hansen asked me to answer for hundreds of students and adults recently.  Three years ago, Nathan, Snohomish Community Church’s innovative youth pastor, created Jesus University, a five-day youth conference in the Seattle area.  During the day, students serve their community.  At night, the community is invited to come hear top Christian bands.

But before the bands play, Nathan has a Christian apologist address a tough question for an hour, followed by 30 minutes of Q & A.  The big-name bands draw thousands of people throughout the week, but Nathan ensures they’re given more than music.  They get an intelligent yet gracious defense of Christianity.  And our culture desperately needs some clear thinking when it comes to the topic of tolerance.

Homophobic.  Racist.  Chauvinistic.  Bigoted.  Intolerant. Christians are bullied with this kind of name-calling all the time. Rather than cower in a corner, we can counter with clear thinking.  First, before we move the conversation forward we need to define terms.  When charged with intolerance, we need to ask a simple clarifying question, “What do you mean by that?” and then listen carefully to the answer.  Most challengers will offer some version of the contemporary view of tolerance.  “You think you’re right and everyone else is wrong and that’s intolerant.”  Or, “All religious views are equally valid and none should be considered better.”  Only then are we ready to respond in a helpful way.

Contemporary tolerance is self-contradictory.  The “you think you’re right and others are wrong” version is offered as a corrective to our views.  However, a corrective is only given when one thinks their view is right and another view is wrong.  In the very act of correcting Christians, they do what they say we shouldn’t do.  So according to their own definition, they turn out to be the very thing they charge Christians with being:  intolerant.

The “all views are equally valid” version of tolerance is no better.  I put up some statements for students at Jesus U and asked if they were okay with them.  For example, “Parents who abuse their children in the privacy of their own homes should be allowed to do so.”  Of course, students objected.  But I pointed out if the contemporary version of tolerance is correct, then we’re obligated to tolerate this view regarding child abuse.  All views are equally valid and this is a view, isn’t it?  Students frowned, knowing something was wrong.

I confirmed their suspicions by asking them if the contemporary belief about tolerance is itself a view.  Yes it is and therefore, the criterion of the view applies to itself.  It is a view that should not be considered better than other views.  However, it’s being offered as the correct version of tolerance. But that’s contradictory because there’s no such thing as a correct version if all views are equally valid.  The contemporary view of tolerance turns out to be intolerant.

Students got it.  A few minutes of clear thinking unraveled years of cultural confusion on tolerance.  Afterward, I was able to restore the classical meaning of tolerance:  all people are equal, all views are not.  We are to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their disagreements because all people are made in the image of God.  However, we must put truth at the forefront, always asking what views are true because falsehood in our own lives should never be tolerated.

The church needs a new generation of Christians who will stand courageously for the truth, even as they are called names like intolerant or bigot.  Clear thinking is an important first step.

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