Is the Christian faith tolerant?


A couple of years ago, I 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. It is fascinating to see how, even in the last couple of years since I spoke on this, it continues to be a pressing cultural and theological issue.

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.

Secondly, 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. Some time ago, 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 theological 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.’

whale_2865194bSeventhly (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 the same days 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.”

It 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 merely 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.

(First published in April 2014)

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10 thoughts on “Is the Christian faith tolerant?”

  1. You ground tolerance in the limitations of human reason. The idea seems to be that things should be tolerated where we cannot be certain about them. The implication is that where we can be certain there should be no tolerance. Yet in Romans 14 Paul teaches tolerance of practices which he knows are not appropriate, for the sake of weak consciences. Does this suggest another grounds for tolerance?

    It also isn’t clear how you take this tolerance to apply to society, which is where tolerance is usually demanded. Your final examples suggest you see it to apply to society, but it isn’t clear how. Are you saying Christians should accept that we cannot be certain of the Christian faith, and that is why we should be tolerant citizens? But if we cannot be certain of the faith, why can we be certain within the church and thus limit our tolerance to orthodoxy? Whence come the different standards for church and society?

    My view is that discussions of Christian tolerance in society and its limits need to bring in ideas of respect for the sanctity of conscience, and of human dignity and the divine image. This needs to be placed within a context of the natural moral law and the public good, so that consideration can be given to what scope of tolerance for things contrary to the moral law there is and why. Of particular attention needs to be the requirement of the moral law to worship God the creator, and why this requirement might be treated differently to other requirements. From this we can then explain why we tolerate religious pluralism, and even atheism, while not, say, theft and murder. We also need to bring in a consideration of the public role of religion and how that interacts with tolerance and pluralism, so that we don’t end up undermining our own basis for engaging in the public sphere on the grounds of ‘tolerance’.

    Christianity has a proud history of religious tolerance in society, from its early centuries coexisting with Romans paganism (brought to an end by the Roman authorities after the attempted suppression of the church by Julian the Apostate) to the post-Reformation emphasis on conscience and religious freedom. But tolerance of Christian orthodoxy is in short supply today.

    • Your first sentence is I think a fair summary of most of Ian’s post, but he did also say “it interesting that questions of tolerance arise both in relation to ethical questions but also in relation to questions of knowledge, understanding and certainty”, even though he didn’t elaborate on the former. Tolerance of ethical differences is, I think, the larger debate in contemporary society, and one worthy of debate.

      I would describe Paul’s tolerance in Romans 14 not so much of “practices which he knows are not appropriate” as of restrictions which he knows are not required of those freed from the demands of the Law. It is the people who retain restrictive rules (strict Sabbath observance, dietary limitations) who he describes as weaker, but he teaches acceptance so as not to undermine their faith.

      • Tolerance historically wasn’t so much about ethical differences as religious differences. There were a few ethical differences that were tolerated (such as pacifism) but the moral law was generally taken to be perspicuous and enforceable. The idea of tolerating ethical differences is mainly a post-1960s idea, though in practice has really meant enforcing a new permissive set of ‘moral’ values.

        Re Romans 14: The restrictions aren’t really appropriate for people freed from the Law, but they are permitted for the sake of the faith of those with weak consciences. Paul does know that the restrictions are not really appropriate for Christians.

  2. I have often said in sermons that God isn’t tolerant (that greatest pomo value) but he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two. I can still remember the first (and only) time during a worship service I heard tolerance mentioned in the penitential section as something of which we need to repent, instead of during the intercessions as something we pray for.

  3. I have the T-shirt, literally. Over a small pcture of a Middle East decorated door, it reads: “TOLERANCE, UNDERSTANDING, COEXISTENCE, OMAN’S MESSAGE OF ISLAM.” My one-time ‘parish’ leads the Muslim world through its Ibadi (orthodox) Islam, in placing the violent verses of the Qur’an back in the time of Muhammad.
    Please pray that the influence of the Sultanate continues to grow as a moderating/ tolerant influence in both the Middle East and Europe, also for the continuing quiet witness of the ex-patriate church there, many more Orthodox and R.C.’s than Protestants. Please dare to pray too, that one day (soon) the Quranic passages that speak of the cross can be interpreted as tolerant to the possibility that Jesus Christ did die there.

    Thank you Ian for republishing this timely article, and to Will and John above..

  4. Dear Ray,

    The earlier and older verses in the Koran / Quran takes precedence over the newer ones so it will never solve anything simply “….placing the violent verses of the Qur’an back in the time of Muhammad….”. They will still be valid and still take precedence.

  5. “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.”

    This reflects the attitude of Oliver Cromwell when he addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He did not say ‘you are wrong’; rather he beseeched them to consider that they might be mistaken.

    Eph 4 sets out how Paul proposed that disagreements in the church should be handled. It is interesting that it starts with humility. The much quoted phrase “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) should therefore, I suggest, always be set in this context.

    Arguments in the church which start ‘I am right’ and ‘you are wrong’ do not seem to exibit this humility. Oliver Cromwell’s language does. If we followed the example of Oliver Cromwell we might learn to ‘diagram well’.

  6. Ian, along with its general relevance, your post is timely (almost!) in relation to the resignation of Tim Farron, and I am disappointed that none of the Christian bloggers I read have commented on that event. Tim has been reported as saying it was impossible to be a Christian and a political party leader, although in fact he said he felt torn between these things, and it (now) felt impossible for him. Either way, his resignation raises serious questions about tolerance both in Christian ethics (to quote Tim, “I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me”) and in society generally, or some factions in it.
    I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

  7. There isn’t a contradiction between Mark 9.40 and Matt 12.30 provided that we use the ‘no middle ground is possible’ model.

    It is not that there are only two stages we can be at, it is that there are only two orientations and two destinations, and some may be closer to a better destination but facing the wrong way, or closer to a worse destination but facing the right way.

    Thus C S Lewis, Weight of Glory.

    Thus ‘The devil never bothers me.’ ‘Of course not – why would he want to bother someone walking in the same direction?’

    The idea that there are just the two options and never the twain shall meet is frequent in scripture esp.:
    Rev 22.11, Luke 16.26, Matt 12.33, Deut. 30.19.


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