The Intolerance of Tolerance by Don Carson

I have a complicated relationship with the ABC. On one hand I love it – but there is one program which never fails to get me really incensed. It’s QandA – does anyone else feel this way? No matter what issues are open for discussion, if there is a Christian on the panel, at some point in the show they will have the accusation of ‘intolerance’ thrown at them, usually followed by a round of applause.

Reading Don Carson’s short critique of the concept of ‘tolerance’ in Western culture, The Intolerance of Tolerance, has been such a relief. Carson articulates so precisely the difficulty of the Christian position in relation to the philosophy and morality of our contemporary Western culture. At the moment it is as though in any given debate a Christian can argue so deftly, so winsomely, and yet simply be palmed off as a hater, an intolerant creep who just can’t stand the idea that people are different from them. Take the marriage equality debate – in trying to think wisely about this issue in regard to the common good, many Christians have counselled that we should avoid changing the definition of marriage. But according to some, this position (based of course on the teachings of the Bible) should not be tolerated. It is a position of hatred, it is discrimination.

I for one feel completely mortified by the idea of being labelled as a bigot. After all, I’m a follower of Jesus, the one who tells me to love my enemies, who reached out to the marginalised and the outcasts. How can anyone think that attitude has anything to do with me?

Of course, the whole concept of ‘tolerance’ has taken on a new life in the last 50 years or so. While the word used to mean putting up with things you don’t agree with, it now means agreeing that everything is ok!! Our society seems to have a mania to approve of everything, in case, heaven forbid, someone is offended. And yet, don’t we still revile certain behaviours? (One might argue that the practice of paedophilia, for example, is even more taboo than ever). In his explanation of ‘plausibility structures’, Carson argues that because of our highly diverse culture, we tend to hold on to a small number of beliefs more tenaciously, seemingly because without them, the whole fabric of society might fly apart. This has really helped me to understand where we are in Western culture at present. The idea of ‘tolerance’ has become almost the number one plausibility structure by which to make a moral judgment. This leads to people claiming: ‘I’m only intolerant of intolerance!’ (like a panellist on QandA once remarked to Peter Jensen). In other words, Christians are intolerant, therefore it’s ok to discriminate against them and try to silence them, but not anyone else. The moral paradoxes just continue to mount up, and as Carson states, it is ‘intellectually debilitating’ for our society because it hinders the free exchange of ideas and the ability to think deeply about moral questions.

Carson’s examples in Chapter Two were confronting but very close to home. Sydney had a similar incident recently when several books were banned from use in SRE classes. How strange that they didn’t actually ban the Bible – after all, that’s where the ideas come from. But that would be obvious discrimination! It is hard to imagine the NSW government making a similar demand on Islamic SRE teachers. So it’s ok to teach the Bible as a historical religious document, as long as you keep your opinions about right and wrong to yourself and don’t try to say they are relevant to anyone in the present day? As Carson says, this is a trivialisation of faith. And usually, as Carson points out, the target of this kind of officious meddling is the Christian faith.

Of course, it is no surprise that the world hates us, since it hated Jesus first. But we need to continually be ready to expose the contradictions and moral bankruptcy of our society. Actually I was pleasantly surprised by the ABC the other week, when Media Watch exposed the one-sided media coverage of the marriage equality debate! I will keep watching the ABC, and as much as QandA irritates me, I applaud the Christians who courageously sit on the panel, endure the hostility and keep on speaking the truth in love.

I hope Carson’s critique is sparking some new thoughts for you, and maybe even some debate! Keep reading and stay tuned in the coming weeks…


About this month's contributor, Kristen Butchatsky
I am a wife to Pete, a mum of three girls aged 7, 5 and 3, and a music teacher. I am a long-time member of the wonderful church family St Aidan’s Anglican in Hurstville Grove, having come to Christ through a youth group ministry at age 14. I love singing, reading (obviously!!), walking my dog, Ned and going to see plays, movies and musical theatre. 
EQUIP Book ClubComment