Now you’d think that tolerance would be. . . . well. . . . tolerant. But one author has written about The Intolerance of Tolerance. That’s the title of a recent book by D.A. Carson. I had the opportunity to interview him on this topic for a recent President’s Forum at RTS Orlando.
“The intolerance of tolerance?!”
According to Carson, there are forces at work in Western culture which are changing the way we think about tolerance.
These days, he notes, tolerance occupies a very high place in Western culture, much like motherhood and apple pie did in 1950’s America. But what we mean by tolerance has changed. And the new contemporary tolerance is increasingly and sometimes hostilely intolerant!
Look up the word “tolerance” in a dictionary, and you will find it means something like—“to put up with, allow to exist, or permit.”
According to Carson, the old understanding of tolerance believed that truth exists. It held that truth is discovered by the exchange of ideas, and in this exchange it is good to allow dissenting views. Others have the right to dissent. It was sometimes said—“I disapprove of what you say but will defend your right to say it.” The old tolerance was not perfect. It could be intolerant. But in principle, it allowed all sides to speak, and protected this free expression.
The new tolerance, by contrast, is grounded in relativism—the belief that no one view is true. It rejects absolutes. It says we must not only be tolerant of all views, but that all views are equally valid. In this new understanding, tolerance is the supreme value. All views are equally valid; except the view which says that all views are not equally true. Consequently, according to the new tolerance, we must not tolerate someone who holds to absolute truth.
The irony of the new tolerance is that it allows no claims of exclusive truth, except, the absolute claim that there is no exclusive truth. Strangely, there is no tolerance for those who disagree with this viewpoint.
Carson sites numerous examples of how this new view of tolerance is being applied in American society—from medical schools and hospitals dropping consciences clauses, to universities no longer allowing Christian groups to meet on campus because they have exclusive statements of faith.
How did this shift from the old tolerance to the new come about? Carson says the old view was rooted in a moral vision where there is a God, and we are made in his image. In other words, God and truth provided the framework for understanding the old view of tolerance. Tolerance was a secondary virtue.
But in our current cultural climate that moral consensus is gone. And so tolerance has now become the supreme virtue. As an absolute, it now fights against cultural, moral and religious distinctives.
Carson’s book helpfully highlights some of the weaknesses of “the new tolerance.” He points out that, in day-to-day life, we don’t really live like moral relativists. He also reminds us that the new tolerance, with its view that all truth is relative, is inconsistent with itself. Nor is it as value neutral as its advocates says it is.
Carson ends his book with helpful suggestions about how Christians should live in this new moral climate. And this is worth the price of the book. He makes a case for exposing the moral and epistemological bankruptcy of the new tolerance. He urges Christians to view tolerance, not as a supreme value but as a second thing. He also encourages us to think, and recognize distinctions on matters of truth. Yes, we should have a tolerant spirit towards people, but not a tolerance that views all ideas as equally valid.
Why not? Because God has spoken and truth is truth. Carson urges his readers to expose the moral confusion and arrogance of the new tolerance, but do so in a way that is winsome.
But he warns that the new tolerance may open the door to a host of evils. It may possibly lead to the loss of our first amendment protections. If it does, says Carson, we should not despair, because we will then be in a cultural environment rather like that of the early church. It is familiar territory. And if that is what happens, God will still be our joy.
Meanwhile, Carson, urges that Christians get on with evangelizing and planting churches. Because as we declare the gospel, converted people will be exposed to the transforming light and truth of Jesus Christ, and the sanity of tolerance may well be restored.
 The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A.Carson, William B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012.