Tolerance, intolerance, and in between
TOLERANCE, INTOLERANCE, AND IN BETWEEN
The following is a three-way exchange of recent
Brother X: "(There is)... a climate of confrontation and
intolerance threatening to destroy our unique fellowship."
Brother Y: "However, it should be pointed out that some of us
believe that our unique fellowship is threatened with destruction from excessive
Brother Z: "So we should use slight
Now this exchange is threatening to give me a headache, for
which I have little "tolerance". So, to head this off, and incidentally to
figure out where I stand on this, I headed for the dictionary...
"Tolerance" has at least four distinct meanings (not that they
are totally unrelated to one another, but there are gradations involved... and,
as everybody knows, the fun is in the "details"!):
Now, this suggests a question: When they use the word
"tolerance", or its negation, "intolerance", which of the four definitions (or
its negation) do each of Brothers X, Y, and Z mean?
- a policy of non-interference with; the desire to allow or permit (something
- freedom from bigotry or prejudice. (This ought to be further
qualified: "bigotry" is "blind, or narrow-minded adherence to a particular point
of view" -- at least that is the primary definition; and "prejudice" is
"suspicion or irrational hatred".)
- The amount of variation allowed from a
standard. (This is basically a scientific definition -- as in "allowable or
workable deviation" from a manufacturing standard -- but it does suggest some
interesting points from a Christadelphian point of view.)
- allowing others
freedom to hold religious views that differ from the established
Does Brother X mean there is "a climate of blind,
narrow-minded... suspicion and irrational hatred"? Or does he mean there is a
"climate in which certain beliefs are not allowed"? My guess is... the first.
But can I be sure?
When Brother Y says that we may have "excessive tolerance",
does he mean that we have gotten too far away from "blind, narrow-minded...
suspicion and irrational hatred"? Or does he mean that we've gotten (or could
get) to the point where we "allow or permit" certain beliefs that we should not?
My guess is... the second.
Is Brother Z suggesting that even "slight bigotry or
prejudice" is too much? Of course. Or is he suggesting that we should, as a
community, "allow or permit" any and every doctrine? I hope not.
Just a little case study of how the use of the same word with
different meanings can drastically affect our discussions. Or, as the fellow
once said, "It all depends on what you mean by what you say!"
Now take the four definitions of "tolerance" above:
(a) If by "tolerance" we mean a policy of non-interference
with particular doctrines or practices IN THE BROTHERHOOD, then... certainly...
absolute "tolerance" would be absolutely destructive of our faith, or at least
of our community's uniqueness. Amongst Christadelphians, such absolute
"tolerance" could never be tolerated!
(b) If by "tolerance" we mean freedom from bigotry and
prejudice, then we can never have too much! It's like Peter says in Acts 10 and
11, "I have learned not to call or consider any man common or unclean!" However,
as with Cornelius and his household, such men (and women) could not be
"tolerated" in the ecclesia unless they believed the first principles and were
What is interesting about this definition is how the
commonly-accepted definitions of ordinary words may come to affect our very
thought processes (think "gay" and "pro-choice"). If "intolerance" is so readily
equated with "prejudice" and "bigotry", who would ever want to be "intolerant"?
But sometimes, I am sure we all agree, we must be "intolerant"! When and where,
that is the question!
(c) If by "tolerance" we mean an acceptable variation from a
generally-recognized standard, then -- again -- tolerance is a very real
desideratum (sorry, I was reading John Thomas today: "desideratum: a thing
greatly to be desired"). Part of what keeps us together is our adherence to a
generally-recognized standard (a statement of faith). But another part of what
keeps us together, practically speaking, is that we generally recognize that
there are acceptable variations from that standard, ie, certain doctrines and
practices not specifically forbidden, because not of a first-principle nature.
As has been said, "In essential things --unity. In doubtful things -- liberty
(or tolerance). And in all things -- love."
(d) If by "tolerance" we mean allowing others to hold
religious views that differ from the established ones, we better believe in
this. If our governments did not believe in this, where would we be, with our
"non-orthodox" views? Hiding in cellars and caves, that's where!
Submitted in a spirit of equal parts "tolerance" and