“The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there” (Soul Searching, Christian Smith).
Those who study trends in Christian missions tell us that in the very near future America will cease to be the primary sending nation for Christian missionaries. Already large numbers of missionaries are being sent from places like India, Latin America and South Korea. Some are being sent to reach us. Why is it that our Churches are full (especially in their Mega forms) and yet a steadily decreasing number of Christians answer the call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Part of the answer might surprise you. Allow me to explain.
An ideological shift: The tyranny of tolerance
America has become an ethnic, religious and ideological melting pot and tolerance is held as the required virtue for civility in a pluralistic society. To keep diversity from becoming a source of conflict, we practice zero-tolerance toward intolerance with no exceptions being tolerated. Sound confusing? It gets worse.
The new ethic of tolerance requires us to treat all judgments about value and morality as only expressions of personal preference. But, in a free society, people want to know who gets to define the boundaries for tolerance. Who gets to say what is “in” and what is “out”? Who gets to tell us what we must accept as lawful and good for our common life?
The popular version of tolerance has left many feeling that they are under a form of societal coercion designed to force them to affirm a politically approved set of beliefs. And when people feel left out or rejected by a forced set of politically correct boundaries, they perceive it as a threat to liberty.
What does it tell us when no exceptions to tolerance will be tolerated? Is this tolerance? Or, is it something worse? Is it a form of intolerance disguised as tolerance?
We fail to understand that tolerance is only a virtue that can function in the context of actual disagreements. Tolerant people are known for treating respectfully those with whom they strongly disagree. It will do no good to pretend that disagreements do not exist. And it will threaten true tolerance if forced agreement is required. The virtue of tolerance is unnecessary when we surrender or minimize differences. Where disagreements either do not exist or do not matter, there is no need for tolerance.
When we feel we have to force tolerance on others, it should alert us to an opportunity to teach virtues that promote true tolerance. Where is the place for respect, honor and neighbor love in a pluralistic culture? Forced tolerance actually diminishes and even threatens the shared virtues of honor and respect. But cultures of honor and respect require shared values and morality. Is it even possible to have robust and respectful conversation about values and morals? How do we arrive at shared understandings of what is best for us when we are under the tyranny of tolerance?
Tyrannical versions of tolerance lead people into duplicity as they learn to subscribe to one set of beliefs publicly and another privately. Is it surprising that this breads resentment and sometimes violence? If you force a man against his will, he’s of the same persuasion still.
The kind of tolerance being required today is too often a form of intolerance. It requires people to keep their differences to themselves. It promotes a monolithic culture—where everyone is increasingly forced to conceal the multi-cultural dimensions of society. We have diversity we can’t talk about lest we offend those who disagree with us.
To the point: An entire generation of Americans has been socially conditioned under the tyranny of a distorted version of tolerance, and I am asking how this has affected the Church.
Pressure on religious communities:
In the cause of promoting pluralistic civility, pressure is especially placed on religious communities. Anything perceived as a claim to singularity or superiority appears to threaten the required civility. People have become increasingly suspicious of attempts to privilege one religious tradition or teaching as normative for all people. No matter how respectfully its adherents treat others, a religion claiming special access to truth about God is viewed with suspicion. Absolute religious or moral opinions are increasingly perceived as threats to peace and potential causes of violence.
Division of truth: Personal and public
The radical view of tolerance has been strengthened by a reduction of moral and religious truth to personal opinion. Moral and religious opinions are widely viewed as matters of personal taste similar to preferences for chocolate over vanilla. Media and academic influences (the primary means for social conditioning) have tried to persuade the public that moral and religious opinions (unlike scientific facts) are personal matters we should keep to ourselves. An unsuspecting public has been taught to marginalize religion and morality into a private sphere where it cannot “disrupt” civility.
Public education: learning environments for the tyranny of tolerance
Participants in public learning institutions face an imposed rule of tolerance that requires acceptance and honor for each person’s moral and religious beliefs. In his extensive research concerning the thinking and beliefs of American teenagers, Professor Christian Smith suggested that among today’s young students, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there’” (Soul Searching). To avoid upsetting others, young people have learned to avoid particulars and absolutes and to talk about things in strictly non-offensive ways.
Even if they hold to particular moral or religious beliefs, they’ve learned to suspend the clarity of their commitment in most social circumstances. And, since they’ve been taught that moral and religious opinions are only personal taste, why stir things up over such matters? You just don’t go there.
The social conditioning I am describing has pressured young people (and many adults) in our churches to become in-articulate with regard to their faith. It’s unnecessary to learn how to defend beliefs in a society that strongly discourages us about speaking in particular or absolute categories. Growing numbers of people are not only unable to articulate what they believe and why they believe it, they’re guarded against beliefs that are too particular, exclusive, or offensive..
Exceptions to the rule of tolerance:
Exceptions to the tyranny of tolerance are found in areas where society decides the acceptable views for everyone to hold. Arrogant elitists in media and academia pressure others to see things their way. They use ridicule, condescension and manipulation. Uniformity of opinion is required for all who wish to be considered open-minded and progressive. Those who see things differently will be labeled (among other things) narrow, backwards, hateful and right-wing conservatives.
As examples, homosexual lifestyles and gay marriage are being forced on Americans against their will. Abortion is pushed as a fundamental right. The value of religion is found not in its truthfulness but in the benefit it brings to adherents. As long as you are sincere in your efforts to serve God, it doesn’t matter what religion you follow. Outside of Church, one must never publicly refer to what the Bible teaches. Those who speak up face collective groans about the presence of “one of those radical Christians.”
No need for evangelism or apologetics:
Under this kind of social conditioning, it seems unnecessary to be trained in moral argument or to learn how to constructively engage someone in a discussion about differences of belief. Young people in particular might question the value of such training. Why talk about things that could be perceived exclusive or violations of pluralistic civility. Some will suspect hidden imperialistic agendas designed to oppress others or to impose your politics on them. Let’s not go there.
Neutrality feels safer:
A growing number of people actually feel that there is something morally repugnant about followers of one religion maintaining that they are correct in their beliefs and that sincere adherents of other religions are mistaken.
Most college students accept the idea of some creative force behind the existence of the universe. “What is debated is how you move from this rather impersonal force to the beliefs of a particular religious tradition, and especially whether in affirming the truth-reliability of one path, you must stand against the truth-reliability of all other paths.” (Professor Daniel Liechty, Illinois State University).
The tension is not about belief in God as such but whether it is “safe” to believe in an absolute deity. The tyranny of tolerance has scared people into postures of neutrality. It feels safer to choose not to believe anything too conclusively and to hold all beliefs in their broadest terms. The by-product is a culture that has lost its ability to think, discuss and debate. “Whatever” has become the word of choice on moral and religious differences. In this environment, it becomes increasingly hard to train people to share and defend their faith. And why would they consider a call to missions?
A new social etiquette
Social etiquette now requires acknowledgement of the independent validity of every faith. Those who attempt to convert people to religious beliefs are viewed as religious chauvinists. It’s not enough to maintain (as we should) that each person is free to follow and express her own religion. Now we must treat each religious belief as equally valid and abandon, as unacceptably arrogant, any attempt to convert others to a different religious views.
Strangely, this approach “… forecloses on open-mindedness in the same breath by which it extols the virtues of open-mindedness. Both the irony and tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance” (D. A. Carson, God and Culture).
“No exceptions to tolerance will be tolerated”.
Christian witness and missions
Should we be surprised that Christians with a missionary faith feel intimidated by this attitude? How can they obey Jesus’ call to, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), without being considered rude or intrusive? Under the tyranny of tolerance, how should we think about Jesus statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but through me” (John 14:6)? Should we change Jesus’ words and make him say, “I am a way, a truth, and a life. People can come to the father through me or any other means they desire.”
It’s tempting to feel marginalized by selective tolerance. Interestingly, the primary politically correct object of intolerance is Christianity. Islam doesn’t receive the same level of ridicule and hostility. Professors who openly mock Christianity wouldn’t dare attack the Islamic faith in university classrooms.
But like the first followers of Christ, we must not compromise the message of salvation. In fiercely pluralistic and polytheistic Roman society, early apostles testified of Jesus that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They did not offer this as a personal opinion among other equally valid options. They proclaimed Jesus Christ as a fact of prophecy, history and salvation.
When Jesus included persecution as distinguishing mark of discipleship (cf. Matthew 5:10-12; John 15:20). Persecuted people live provokingly different lifestyles in the world. They are difference-makers and the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He also cautioned them not to dilute the salt or hide the light.
The followers of Jesus must be like well-lit cities on a hill that cannot be hidden. They’re called to capture strategic places of influence for Jesus. They cannot allow themselves to be marginalized by the pressures of selective intolerance.
Witness with wisdom and grace:
Considering the atmosphere I have described, Christian witness must be delivered with wisdom and grace. Scripture exhorts us to, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6).
Given the prevailing distortions of tolerance and the misdirected attitude toward religious beliefs, it’s wise to emphasize the inclusive parts of our message. The good news of salvation is meant for all people.
Seven truths relating all people to the gospel
1. God has demonstrated his love for all people (John 3:16).
2. God desires the salvation of all people (I Timothy 2:3-4).
3. God has made provision for the salvation of all people (I John 2:2).
4. God commands all people to repent (Acts 17:30).
5. God will hold all people accountable for their response (Acts 17:31).
6. God takes no pleasure in anyone’s rejection of his provision (Ezekiel 18:23,32).
7. God will save all people who place faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
Questions for discussion:
1. What are the long-term affects for those who spend large amounts of time in environments where they learn to avoid talking about particulars and absolutes?
2. Would a learned ability to suspend commitment to one’s belief lead to moral compromise in other circumstances?
3. How can churches address these matters and the issue of inarticulacy regarding the faith?
4. How does Christian teaching about all people being created equally in the image of God serve as the reliable basis for true tolerance?
5. Does tolerance ask too little of people?
6. Would it be better to use the word “respect” instead of the term “tolerance”? If so, Why?
7. How would a call to radical neighbor love –over tolerance— be more socially transformative?
8. How do salt and light metaphors relate to the roles of Jesus’ followers in the world?