Is Christianity tolerant?

I recently gave a short talk to the Nottingham Theology Network, part of UCCF’s work with students, on the question of tolerance. Having wondered how much I knew about the subject, I came to realise that it touches on some central issues of faith and mission. Here are my assorted reflections.

First, it is interesting to note that the subject of tolerance—in particular, how tolerant can we be of people with different views—has concerned people from the very beginning of Christian faith. This is perhaps best captured in the two, apparently contradictory, sayings of Jesus:

Whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9.40)

Whoever is not with me is against me. (Matt 12.30)

In fact, these two statements are in different contexts and address different issues—the first on how wide we should see the scope of Jesus’ ministry, the second on how we respond to those who explicitly oppose the purposes of Jesus. But together they suggest that different levels of tolerance are appropriate in different situations. In the writings of Paul, we continue to see the issue of tolerance reappearing, often in the context of the relation between Jewish and Gentile believers (for example in 1 Cor 8 and Romans 14). But alongside some wide latitude in variations in practice, Paul has some very clear boundaries on both belief and behaviour. Clearly, for Paul, there are things we should tolerate and other things we should not. But it interesting that questions of tolerance arise both in relation to ethical questions but also in relation to questions of knowledge, understanding and certainty—what we might call epistemic questions.

evangelistsSecondly, it appears that the very structure of the presentation of testimony about Jesus has tolerance built into it. The fact we have four gospels, each with their own distinct focus and characterisation of Jesus, has long been seen as important. The mechanical definition of tolerance in engineering is: ‘an allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity, especially in the dimensions of a machine or part’, and this kind of idea seems to have been applied to the testimony about Jesus. But it is something of which many Christians are unaware. This week I asked people in my Lent Course giving an overview of the Bible to compare the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matt 8.5–13 and Luke 7.1–10 (along with Luke 13.28–29). Most were amazed to see the degree of tolerance of variation in the telling of the story—though also the much smaller tolerance for variation in Jesus’ actual words. 

Thirdly, I have argued elsewhere that this tradition of tolerance is continued in subsequent theology, for example in the Chalcedonian definition concerning the two natures of Christ. Instead of bringing theology down to a single point (which then tolerates no variation), this formulation sets boundaries around what can be said, thus creating space for theological expressing, tolerating different points of view, but only within certain constraints. It is worth noting that negative commands create space (‘You can do anything you like, as long as you don’t cross this line’) whereas positive commands (‘You must do this’) can often be more restrictive. Negative statements function like the side and end lines of a football pitch, creating space for meaningful play.

Fourthly, this leads to reflection on the function of language in expressing truth. Why should we presume that the truth about God (or even about the physical world, like the nature of light of the working of gravity) can be expressed adequately in human language? If the Word was God, (John 1.1) then we can say enough in language to make meaningful statements about God. But if God’s ways are higher than our ways (Is 55.8), how can we presume to pin down the truth about God in what we say? (‘There are two things which are infinite: the universe; and human stupidity—but I am not sure about the universe.’ Albert Einstein.) We have to say, then, that all our statements claiming truth about God are provisional. This is not (contra postmodernity) because there are no absolute truths, but because (contra modernity) we can never state these absolute truths with absolute clarity. God cannot be measured.

Fifthly, this notion of the provisionality of our claims of God finds particular theological expression in the NT in its eschatology. As Paul comments in 1 Cor 13.12:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

What we know now is the truth about God—it is the ‘first fruits’ (Rom 8.23), the first portion of the harvest—but it is not yet fully known. This is how Paul (and the other NT writers) manage to hold together a powerful sense of conviction about the truth they proclaim, with a sense of provisionality and tolerance around aspects of that.

Sixthly, putting these ideas together means having nested sets of bounded space for truth. On the one hand, claims we believe to be truth form a bounded space (rather than a single point); there are truth things about God and about Jesus which might sit in some tension with one another, and we need to allow that. But the provisionality of our understanding creates a wider, also bounded, space—things which we need to consider and engage with, even if they are beyond the bounds of what we believe to be true. This is illustrated rather nicely in a scene from The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon and Stuart are arguing about who would succeed Batman after he dies:

Stuart: You could not be more wrong

Sheldon: More wrong? ‘Wrong’ is an absolute term; it is not subject to gradation.

Stuart: Not so. It is a little bit wrong to say: ‘A tomato is a vegetable.’ It is very wrong to say: ‘A tomato is a suspension bridge.’

Seventhly (and finally) this illustrates why our culture has real problems dealing with issues of tolerance—and why the demand for tolerance has become a curious intolerance. Here are two examples from this morning’s news:

Plans to beach a giant inflatable whale beside the Thames in London for a re-enactment of the story of Jonah have been refused because it would be too “religious”.

“In our modern culture it is increasingly difficult to have an open debate without being labelled as bigoted or intolerant…It is a great irony that those seeking to increase tolerance do not extend that to those who disagree with them.”

whale_2865194bIt is impossible to define issues of intolerance without clarifying our understanding of the nature of truth, and popular culture continues to be (in either a modernist or postmodernist way) naive about the nature of truth claims. But the issue of tolerance is also deeply connected to questions of power. Paul Ricoeur, in the book he edited Tolerance between Intolerance and the Intolerable, concludes:

Tolerance is the fruit of an asceticism in the exercise of power. It is a virtue—an individual virtue and a collective virtue…Intolerance has its first impulse in the power that each of us has of imposing our beliefs, our convictions, our manner of leading our live, on others.

Christian belief has at its heart the worship of one who did not impose his truth on us, did not command us to obey, but invited us as friends to follow him (John 15.15), as he laid down all power in laying down his life for us.

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7 thoughts on “Is Christianity tolerant?”

  1. Ian,

    Very good article, but I think part of the problem is that our society is very confused about what tolerance and intolerance are all about.

    As Christians we are accused of intolerance when we tell anyone that their behaviour or lifestyle is sinful and will bring with it punishment, and it does not help at all if we then say, “Well, as far as I am concerned you can go right on doing what you are doing; I am just warning you that to the best of my knowledge God frowns on your behaviour and you need to amend it.”

    Another way of putting it, it is today considered intolerant to disagree with or express moral disapproval of certain behaviours and life styles; and in some cases the only way to avoid the accusation of intolerance is to actually express moral approval of certain behaviours and life styles, mostly those having to do directly or indirectly with sexuality.

    In this view of things any setting of boundaries is intolerant; the curious thing is that the people who hold this view are themselves most intolerant of anyone who does not agree with them, not just considering them wrong but going out of their way to harm them by, for example, forcing termination of their employment, etc.

    So I think the question is no longer whether Christianity is tolerant, but whether secular society is tolerant.



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