When I was in high school, our friend group would often pile into one of our cars to go find something to do together. Maybe you have some experience with this. If so, you know it never ends well, as one of our friends proved. He had a nasty habit. Thinking he was funny, he would wait for a strategic moment while someone else was driving and with all his might pull up the emergency brake that sat between the driver and passenger in the front seat. Immediately, the car would screech to a halt.
Today, the relational version of that emergency brake is calling someone intolerant. Once someone pulls that, the conversation—and typically the relationship—screeches to a halt.
The Western world has actually experienced a radical redefinition of tolerance. Dr. D. A. Carson explains the difference between the old tolerance and what he calls “the new tolerance.” In his book The Intolerance of Tolerance, he examines the progression of dictionary definitions of tolerance and points out a subtle but massive shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views.” Tolerance once meant “recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices,” but now means “accepting the differing views of other people.”1
Do you see the profound implications of that subtle shift? Under the old definition, two people disagreed without abandoning their position. They naturally thought the other person was mistaken but tolerated their ideas nonetheless. Carson points out three assumptions underlying this scenario: First, objective truth exists. Second, the people who disagree believe their view is true. Third, by sorting through their disagreement in a reasonable manner, both sides have an opportunity to arrive at the actual truth. But as Carson notes, the new tolerance “refuses to adjudicate among competing truth claims and moral claims on the ground that to do so would be intolerant.” It “becomes a synonym for ethical or religious neutrality.” The old tolerance “actually requires you to take a stand among competing truth and ethical claims, for otherwise you are not in a position to put up with something with which you disagree” [emphasis in original].2
Tolerance by definition means disagreement, because you don’t tolerate people that agree with you. You probably enjoy them a lot! So tolerance necessarily means that people do not see eye-to-eye.
Tensions spike between Christians and non-Christians because we tend to think and speak in terms of the old tolerance while others more often than not fall in line with the new tolerance. Christians assume tolerance means figuring out how to get along with people you think are wrong, so that everyone survives to debate another day—and maybe even learn a little something. But much of our world is no longer on that quest for truth. No one is ever right or wrong. As you’ve seen already in the sentiments of our focus groups, one idea or behavior is as good as another. If that is the case, we should not only tolerate differences but approve of and even celebrate everyone and everything as equally right. To put it bluntly, unless you show up for every parade and wave every ag you are an intolerant bigot.
YOU DON’T NEED GOD TO BE GOOD
This shift toward a new tolerance started in the mid-60s but only now dominates public thinking to the point that it tops the list of objections to Christianity. Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl trace this change back to the values-clarification curriculum introduced in many public and some private schools. Beckwith and Koukl quote the curriculum developers boasting that this approach imparts no specific set of values: “There is no sermonizing or moralizing. The goal is to involve the students in practical experiences, make them aware of their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value systems [emphasis in the original].”3 This approach says we should establish our own personal standard of morality based not on objective absolutes but on subjective values. It dethrones God and His universal standard of morality that is apart from us and to which we are accountable, and in His place enthrones our own personal standards of morality. It denies that we are fallen and sinful but instead trains us to trust our own “feelings,” “ideas,” “beliefs,” and “values.” The bottom line is that many people think that you do not need God to be good.
This is exactly how I thought before I became a Christian. I assumed I was a pretty good person with a decent idea of right and wrong who lived a good life by my own instincts, conscience, and perspective. My life worked. I was happy. As a college student, I enjoyed picking up bits and pieces from sociology, psychology, theology, anthropology, history, and philosophy that I relied on to make choices. When I started reading the Bible, every page pulled me into a fight. God was intolerant of some of my behaviors. He took exception to some of my beliefs. He stood in authority over me, judging me and telling me I needed to change. I resisted that. I could not agree with that. It was like I was a cat and the Bible was a hose. But I eventually had a change of heart and mind that caused me to stop straining against God and start surrendering to God.
FLUNKING THE TOLERANCE TEST
It is easy to deny the existence of moral absolutes until we somehow get trampled—and then we are quick to cry out for justice. When you suffer grave harm, no one has to convince you that some actions deserve not tolerance, but punishment. Sexual assault victims, for example, never complain that their values or feelings were violated. They understand that an old-fashioned word like evil better describes their pain.
The new tolerance seems like a wiser, kinder, and gentler way to do life in a world rife with extremism. It seems to value the underdog and give voice to the groups and individuals who have been silenced. But as an overarching ideology, the new tolerance leads to anarchy and misery—the very things it seeks to halt. The new tolerance flunks the test of real life. And isn’t that what we’re after here? Honest conversations about real life that lead to real life- changing answers?
Everyone draws lines. We do not let drunk people drive. We do not let smokers light up in hospitals. We do not let sex o enders teach children at school. We do not let 30-year-old men marry 15-year-old girls. We do not let people lacking eyesight join the military and shoot guns. We do not let illiterate people graduate from Harvard. Why? Because we know these things are wrong. So wrong that we deem them intolerable.
Many focus group participants sensed this tension. The harder they tried to consistently apply the new tolerance the more they realized the dangerous road they were hurdling down. They hedged their statements with provisions like “if no one gets hurt,” which is subjective verbiage anyone could use to excuse their own bad behavior, or “if they are consenting adults,” a stipulation that forces us to ask why we tolerate things from 19-year-olds that we do not with 16-year-olds. Is that not arbitrary and intolerant?
Christians are correct to resist feeling pressured to approve or celebrate things that go against their core beliefs. And that’s how the give-and-take of life works. No one expects vegetarians to root for butcher shops or environmentalists to lose their voice cheering at a monster truck rally. Sometimes our best response to charges of intolerance is to say with genuine love and concern for the truth, “Hey, wait a second, you say we’re intolerant? You’re intolerant too.”
- D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 3.
- Ibid., 98.
- Sidney Simon quoted in footnote: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,1998),
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