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The Intolerance of Tolerance

In this persuasive book, D. A. Carson argues that Western culture as a whole has come to define tolerance quite differently from its original meaning. In the original definition of tolerance, people believed that there was absolute truth that could be known. You would tolerate people whose views were in opposition to your own, and you were free to engage in open, vigorous debate.

You could tell someone that he/she was wrong and still treat that person with respect and dignity. The new definition of tolerance, strongly influenced by postmodernism, holds that there is no absolute truth and therefore telling a person that he/she is wrong is intolerant. And such “intolerance” should not be tolerated. It should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, that the new tolerance is itself intolerant.

The implications for our world are staggering when one considers the rise of the new tolerance and its inherent inconsistencies and contradictions. Carson cites well-documented case after case of the way that the new tolerance suppresses freedom of speech in the name of toleration. College professors have been fired for stating viewpoints that their universities did not agree with.

Homeschooling parents have been ordered to stop teaching their children at home because they are passing their beliefs (deemed “intolerant”) on to their children. Prison ministries have been sued for partnering with state institutions to reduce recidivism (with excellent results) through Bible study and prayer. In the new tolerance, the only crime is intolerance and therefore intolerance is the only suitable response to those deemed intolerant.

Central to the new tolerance is the assumption that secularism is a neutral position, but nothing could be further from the truth. Secularism by its very nature denies the absolute truth claims of the world’s religions—thereby making a claim to absolute truth itself. It’s as laughable and ridiculous as that line in George Lucas’s latest Star Wars film, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” How the writers failed to see that that statement is, in itself, an absolute is indicative of the utter lack of self-examination and self-awareness displayed by the majority of the new tolerance’s proponents.

What is a Christian to do with all this? It looks pretty bleak out there, as secularism and the new definition of tolerance continue to gain ground in our cultural assumptions. I appreciate how Carson wraps up his book with a chapter on where to go from here. Basically, we must continue to point out the inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and moral bankruptcy of the new tolerance. We must evangelize, keeping the gospel central to all we do. We must be tolerant (according to the old definition!) of those with whom we disagree.

And we must prepare to suffer. It won’t be a sudden persecution, police rounding up all Christians to be incarcerated or something. Instead, the suffering we face is the encroaching kind. Christians will be fined for speaking truths out of alignment with the culture’s dominant belief system of intolerant tolerance. Or we’ll be barred from certain professions, or prevented from entering universities, or any number of quiet persecutions that will seem not only necessary, but morally praiseworthy to those who hold to the new tolerance.

This is an eye-opening, much-needed, and somewhat disturbing book. The whole current of Western culture is drifting further and further away from Christianity; I don’t know the numbers, but it certainly feels like we’re already the minority. The new tolerance is winning. It can be tempting to fear what is coming to us and our children. I’m so thankful that my hope does not lie in the culture coming back to its senses, but in Christ. ( )

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