Tolerance and Freedom
It was many years ago, during an intense discussion sitting around a bush campfire, that my beloved older sister brought me to tears when she admitted that she thought that I (along with all Christians) was ‘smug and arrogant’ because I claimed to know the truth. Choking back sobs, I tried to explain that the truth didn’t come from me – it was revealed in the Bible. I wasn’t claiming any superior worthiness – simply believing what God had said. Although at one stage my sister herself had thrown her lot in with Christians, it appeared she had ‘moved on’. The Bible, she said, was no longer relevant. I now look back and see that she had imbibed a fair shot of postmodernism and come out with a worldview that drew many of its moral assumptions from Christianity but considered itself to be progressive. My sister was interested in spirituality – but not in a form as traditional as Christianity. What she valued most was her individual freedom – the freedom to create a private spirituality, eclectically plucking fruit from whatever spiritual tree was attractive and within reach.
Reading Chapters 2 & 3 of The Intolerance of Tolerance has helped me to distill that the different understandings of tolerance (the old and the new) are rooted in very different cultural and philosophical contexts. In the past the limits of toleration were worked out within the overarching framework of a dominant and shared moral vision, with the general purpose of toleration being the common good. Our own age no longer has that shared framework of belief. Individualism has taken hold – the common good is now the servant of individual freedom. Christian thought of course upholds the value of the individual as made in God’s image, but the knowledge of God’s love for us in Christ frees us to serve others. Our chief thought as Christians is ‘How can I serve God and others?'. But, unmoored from its basis in Christian doctrine, our culture has now elevated the rights of the individual to the point where the question is no longer, ‘Is this good for our community as a whole?’, but ‘Why shouldn’t I have the right to express myself in this way?’.
It’s great to read Carson writing so frankly about the fact that subscribers to the humanist/secularist point of view seem to ride the high horse of superiority themselves – assuming that they are enlightened and have moved past draconian religious ideas. They are for progress, tolerance, fairness, open-mindedness! Reading this week about the decision of the Victorian state government to axe Special Religious Instruction in schools is a case in point. The group which has been pushing for this is called ‘Fairness in Religion in Schools’ – pretty ironic considering this is a group which seems so bent on attacking Christianity in particular! It’s hard to understand what exactly was ‘unfair’ about SRI. I guess their campaign is based on the opinion that matters of faith have no place in public education, and therefore it is ‘unfair’ to allocate class time to them. Apparently, Victorian students will be using the time previously devoted to SRI to be learning about ‘how to build healthy relationships, understand global cultures, ethics and traditions and to prevent family violence.’ What platform of belief will this ethical education be based on? Many assume the secularist viewpoint offers a morally neutral standpoint from which to look down and judge other less enlightened souls, but in fact, Carson argues humanism/atheism/secularism has its own set of dogmas and limits to what it will tolerate.
Carson argues that it is this chimera of ‘neutrality’ that has allowed many to import their own political agenda into the larger consciousness. For better or worse, movements of the last century have worked to bend the Western moral consciousness to their own view point. Take feminism as an example – from being seen as second-class citizens, it now appears to be self-evident to us that women are equal and have the right to benefit from as many freedoms as men. It is difficult, however, when moral assumptions come up against each other, as is now happening. Do we stand up for feminism – and therefore condemn Islamic nations that deny women’s rights? What about the belief that all cultures are equally good? How can we impose our moral vision on another nation? And what about when women use their rights to overpower the rights of one less powerful (e.g. an unborn child)? Whose individual rights should we champion? What are we prepared to tolerate and on what grounds?
I hope we are all encouraged to defend the Bible as the best way to navigate this treacherous moral landscape, and not to be ashamed of allowing it to renew our minds so we can have the insight to understand the complexities of these questions.
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.