Before the deluge of preparation for Holy Week and Easter an online offer from my seminary bookstore of Don Carson’s latest book The Intolerance of Tolerance caught my eye. It could not be more timely. It’s an important book written in Carson’s brisk style and a fast read. Try a PDF of the first 30 pages of it here. See also these MP3s, part 1 and part 2, where Carson addresses these issues.
In a recent interview with John Starke he explained the difference between the “old tolerance” and the “new tolerance”:
The old tolerance presupposed another system of thought already in place—Christianity, communism, Naziism, Buddhism, secularism—whatever. The issue then became how much deviation from that system could be tolerated before coercive force is applied. To the extent that one allowed deviation, one was tolerant; correspondingly, where one judges that deviation has gone too far (e.g., almost everyone agrees, even today, that pedophilia goes beyond the pale), then coercive force—in short, intolerance—is a virtue. It was quite possible to disagree strongly with what a person was saying, but still tolerate the opinion that was perceived to be aberrant, on the ground that it was better for society to allow such opinions than to coerce silence from those articulating them.
The new tolerance
(1) tends to insist that those who merely disagree with others, at least in several spheres, are intolerant, even if no coercive force is applied;
(2) tends to make such tolerance the supreme good, independently of surrounding systems of thought; and
(3) tends to be remarkably blind in regard to its own intolerant condemnation of everyone who disagrees with its own definition of tolerance.
Carson gives many examples that leads us to the conclusion that in many domains, in many discussions, the question is rarely “Is this true?” but “Is anyone offended?” Rigorous discussion of content soon shuts down; truth is demoted; various forms of class warfare are encouraged; in some domains it becomes wrong (supreme irony) to say that anyone is wrong.
I have watched how in my little corner of the Anglican world discussions and decisions are saturated by the new tolerance that Carson outlines in his book, particularly number three. This does present a conundrum when your confessional statement and church canons accept Scripture as the final authority – and Scripture makes exclusive claims. Not very tolerant. Further, what are we to do when Jesus makes exclusive claims? The way forward it seems is to relegate Scripture to the position of artifact and Jesus to a human teacher or semi-mystical guru.
But artifacts are not authoritative, they’re curiosities. Beautiful perhaps, compelling at times, but artifacts never gain the necessary traction in our thinking we so desperately need. Do we really have to settle for the tyranny of the expert that stands before the people to say, “Trust me, I am the most tolerant person in the room”?
The new tolerance is already the new religion.
As a way out of the maze of our new time religion I recommend Timothy Ward’s excellent Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. I will do a review soon.