By David Hegg
Among the long list of recognized virtues is that of patience. It also goes under the names of long-suffering, and tolerance. It is in this last guise — tolerance — that patience is making a name for itself in our day. And yet, ever so slowly, while the outer skin of this virtue remains intact, society is eating away at its core so that in practical terms, tolerance as a virtue barely exists.
To tolerate means, at its most basic core, to put up with the differences in those around us in such a way that ordered, civil discourse and relationship can be maintained. It is the virtue of being able to listen to the insights and beliefs of others without needing either to agree, or to silence them. To tolerate is to let those with whom you differ have a place, have a right, have a voice. Further, it is to insist that such practice is necessary for civilization and true freedom to exist. Tolerance is the legal principle behind most of the freedoms we have in this country.
Of course, law exists to define what a society cannot, and must not, tolerate, for to do so would tear apart the very fabric of that society. What law does not forbid remains to be handled within society by its citizens, relying heavily on the presence of common virtues. These virtues form the essential, if unwritten, cultural code by which all great societies function and prosper. We simply cannot legislate everything. Most things that relate to the relationship of neighbor to neighbor, individual to society, and society to society are by necessity left to be governed by those individual virtues understood as the intrinsic managers of human interaction. There are many, but one of the most important is tolerance. Unfortunately, while we hear about it all the time, it is almost extinct in its historical form.
Simply put, tolerance is not acceptance. But it is almost universally understood today as just that. Today, too often to tolerate is to accept. If you don’t accept my view, you are intolerant. If you disagree with my belief, my lifestyle, my actions, you are intolerant.
My concern is not only that a good English word is having its meaning sucked away and replaced. My great concern is that without tolerance our society falls apart. And if we redefine tolerance as agreement, we are left without a tool with which to manage the genuine differences that will always exist in a pluralistic society.
Tolerance presupposes differences. Tolerance never means acceptance. To tolerate, there has to be a difference of opinion that needs to be tolerated. If, through dialogue and evidence, two parties come to agreement, there is no longer a need to tolerate simply because the gap between the two no longer exists. To equate difference with prejudice, and to further define tolerance as acceptance is not only to murder the English language but also to erode the very virtues our differences demand if we are to live in civilized society.
I’ll go out on a limb here. I do not believe taking God out of the public square is either wise or profitable for our society and those who live in it. This is my belief. I base it on my understanding of history, the Bible, and my own experience of human nature. However, I am also called to love my fellow man and woman. I am called, biblically, to love my neighbor, as well as love my enemy. Clearly, that covers the whole of humanity.
You can disagree with my belief. You can try to mount evidence that contradicts mine, and even suggest that I am misguided or worse. But, as long as I consider that those with whom I disagree have a place, and a right to hold and voice their opinions, you cannot, and must not, say that I am intolerant. In fact, you ought to be glad that I am tolerant, for it is my tolerance that keeps me from forgetting the command of my Lord to love my those who decide my opinions are intolerable. Tolerance is simply self-control mixed with a conviction that my fellow humans are imbued with dignity and value as those created in the image of God, and deserve my respect.
My disagreement with those who would insist my biblical faith be kept quiet, and excluded from public discourse, is not intolerance, it is disagreement, and it is my duty to demonstrate tolerance for their opposing opinion. Of course this cuts both ways. Those desiring to be tolerated are ethically required to be tolerant in return. In our society, those who demand to be tolerated while refusing to tolerate others we call children.
Where our system of laws allows for individual beliefs and convictions, we will always be a society of differences. But each time an opposing belief system is labeled intolerant we erode both our language and our ultimate freedom. It’s time we got out our dictionaries and became much more tolerant of the true definition of tolerance. Frankly, it used to be known simply as civility but it seems that is something else many today cannot tolerate.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.