The word “tolerance” can make the strongest Christians among us break into a cold sweat. It would seem tolerance has become a modern-day minefield with missteps in every direction. Condemn evil and we are no better than Jonah, merciless and arrogant. Condone evil and we stand for nothing. But there was a time when tolerance meant something entirely different than it does today. In his book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson captures this distinction by describing an “old tolerance” and a “new tolerance.”
The old tolerance was the tolerance of a generation ago. It was based on the premise that truth is outside of us. To be tolerant meant two people with different perspectives were seeking to uncover the objective reality. I could say, “God exists,” and you could say, “God does not exist,” but neither of us considered these to be realities within ourselves. Rather, we sought to discern the truth through debate and careful consideration of each other’s arguments. We asked ourselves, “Which argument best represents the true reality?”
If you look at nineties pop culture, you can see evidence of the old tolerance. Think about The X-Files, a sci-fi staple of the 1990s. The tag line was, “The truth is out there.” That’s old tolerance in a nutshell. We tolerate one another by agreeing that neither of us have total and complete hold of the truth, but we have the faculties and abilities to discover it. The truth is out there, and it’s up to us to find it.
The new tolerance says truth is inside of us — it’s a personal, subjective reality. Therefore, I don’t demand a debate on the facts; I demand that you believe what I believe, otherwise you are violating me. This new tolerance is a segue to social distrust, and the subsequent hiving off of subcultures. We’re not just people seeking to discuss the issues; we’re white evangelical Christian men, or fundamental Mormon polygamists, or liberal nonconformist hipsters. “My truth” becomes my identity — my individual silo — and if you don’t believe my truth is acceptable, then I reject all other attempts at love that you show me.
It’s a terrible plague on the world. The new tolerance damages the concept that we can disagree with one another and still care for each other. It is, ironically, extremely intolerant. Carson writes, “Contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind to its own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground; it cannot be questioned because it has become part of the West’s plausibility structure.”
A plausibility structure is kind of like a gatekeeper. As we process ideas, they’re filtered through personal and cultural plausibility structures that allow feasible ideas to pass, while rejecting unreasonable ideas. Joe Carter explains it like this:
For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing their claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.
Plausibility structures can protect us from forming erroneous beliefs, but they can also have a negative impact. Imagine if we accept a plausibility structure that is limited to purely physical explanations for everything; we would miss spiritual realities altogether.
The new tolerance is part of our culture’s plausibility structure. It’s become embedded in Western society to the point of being indubitable. As Christians, this presents a tremendous challenge. How do we demonstrate tolerance in a world that believes we can’t be friends unless we agree on everything?
The solution is to shift our focus from tolerance to a far greater ally: gospel grace. Grace is unmerited favor from God, or simply put, it’s undeserved affection. Grace says, “You don’t have to agree with me, and you can even be angry at me for my beliefs, but I will love you still.”
Every single Christian should have a kind of patience with people who think differently, and even people who are against us, because we’ve been shown undeserved affection from God. Romans 5:8 says that “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jonah was half right in his assessment of Nineveh. He was unflinchingly intolerant of evil, as Christians should be. But Jonah missed grace. And when you miss grace, you miss the gospel.
How is God calling you to demonstrate gospel grace to someone in your life? To someone who doesn’t deserve it. Someone who thinks differently, believes differently, lives differently. Someone of a different political persuasion, or moral, intellectual, or spiritual persuasion. It’s not always easy to love those who are radically different than us, but it is always biblical. For where would we be, had not Christ laid down His rights to demonstrate ultimate love for us when we were weak, broken, and wholly undeserving?