The intolerance of ‘tolerance’

tsslogo.jpgIn light of our discussion on religious tolerance and policy shifts limiting evangelism efforts on college campuses (Georgetown specifically) I am reminded of a point made by Don Carson, a man himself passionately committed to and engaged in campus evangelism. I transcribed this quote several years ago but since lost the text. So this morning I trekked back into the audio archives, located the quote and clicked out a transcript. It was a great honor to attend this message personally on October 6, 2002 at Omaha Bible Church. For simple folk like myself, I think the point is better stated here than anywhere in Carson’s books.

“Twenty five years ago ‘tolerance’ was understood to be a virtue that operated something like this: If I hold strong views on any particular subject I am nevertheless judged to be ‘tolerant’ if I think that your views are bad, immoral, improper, even disgusting, wicked or stupid, but still insist you have the right to defend them. In other words, a ‘tolerant’ person puts up with somebody else’s views and insists they have the right to hold them even while – in the vigorous arena of debate – we might disagree fundamentally on who is right or who is wrong. Such a person is a ‘tolerant’ person.

But nowadays, that is not what ‘tolerance’ means. Now ‘tolerance’ means that you don’t hold that anybody is right or wrong. Everybody is equally right or wrong. Nobody is more right than another person. If you don’t hold that then you are ‘intolerant.’ Now that is a huge shift … Under this new definition of ‘tolerance’ I don’t even know what ‘tolerance’ means because in the old view of ‘tolerance’ you had to disagree with someone before you could actually tolerate them. How do you say ‘Oh, yes, you are entirely right – I tolerate you?’ … This new ‘tolerance’ actually becomes extremely intolerant of anybody who does not buy into this view of ‘tolerance’ because if you actually come right out and say that some view is wrong or silly or foolish or indefensible or even questionable, then you are judged to be ‘intolerant.’ Thus, in the name of this newfangled tolerance it turns out, at profoundly deep levels, to be the most intolerant thing of all!”

D.A. Carson, Evangelism in the 21st Century (session 2), address delivered at Omaha Bible Church on Oct. 6, 2002. Carson will be back at OBC in 2008 (DV).

Evangelism @ Georgetown U

tsslogo.jpgIn order to curb proselytizing, Georgetown University recently instituted the following policy:

“While zeal for spreading the good news of the Gospel is a most worthy Christian virtue, there is increasing agreement among Christians today that proselytism, defined as any effort to influence people in ways that depersonalizes or deprives them of their inherent value as persons or the use of any coercive techniques or manipulative appeals which bypass a person’s critical faculties or play on psychological weakness, is unworthy of Christian life. Physical coercion, moral constraint, or psychological pressure and inducements for conversion which exploit other people’s needs, weaknesses, and lack of education are not to be practiced by representatives of affiliated ministries.”

This statement is open to broad interpretation. Can you mention God’s eternal judgment, or would this be considered “coercive” or “manipulative”? Will talk of personal sinfulness violate a person’s “inherent value”? If arguments were based on Scripture as the revealed Word of God would this be to “bypass a person’s critical faculties”? At its core the gospel is an answer to our greatest needs, our sin, our weaknesses, our ignorance and calls us to repent (say we are wrong) and turn from our current ways. I wonder what a public reading of Revelation 3:17 would get you? “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Would this get you arrested or kicked off the Georgetown campus?

If I were pursuing a PhD, it would be a study in contemporary trends in so-called religious tolerance. Interesting shifts are taking place in our country. For example, in former days religious tolerance was about lovingly tolerating other people despite an intolerance towards their ideas. This tolerance leads to civil discussions and an opportunity for Christians to love their neighbor and also be repulsed by their neighbor’s false understanding of the gospel. Tolerance is now taking a new form. Religious tolerance is no longer a tolerance of persons we disagree with, but rather a debate on what opinions will be tolerated publicly. This is a significant shift because religious tolerance is quickly becoming religious intolerance if we don’t believe what the policy holders approve.

This post is no endorsement of bone-headed evangelism that has no humility, that puts down its audience, that yells all day at the wrath to come without mentioning the Son who bore this wrath so sinners can come to their loving eternal Father. What I am saying is that these groups cause reactions in policy that — when mixed with the new religious ‘tolerance’ of opinions — will impact the work of the humblest evangelist.



Related: “In a relatively free and open society, the best forms of tolerance are those that are open to and tolerant of people, even when there are strong disagreements with their ideas. This robust toleration for people, if not always for their ideas, engenders a measure of civility in public discourse while still fostering spirited debate over the relative merits of this or that idea. Today, however, tolerance in many Western societies increasingly focuses on ideas, not on people. The result of adopting this new brand of tolerance is less discussion of the merits of competing ideas — and less civility. There is less discussion because toleration of diverse ideas demands that we avoid criticizing the opinions of others… Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated. Correspondingly, proselytism is a dirty word. One cannot fail to observe a crushing irony: the gospel of relativistic tolerance is perhaps the most ‘evangelistic’ movement in Western culture at the moment, demanding assent and brooking no rivals.”

D.A. Carson in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan: 1996) pp. 32, 33.