The Limits of Tolerance

The Limits of Tolerance
Douglas Taylor

I get worried when Tolerance is put as the central value of our tradition.  I’ve actually lost sleep over this.  It’s a nuanced objection that I raise, really.  I have no strong objection to tolerance itself, of course not!  Tolerance is one of the bulwark values of liberal religion.  For generations it has been taught that the continuing thread running through the disparate communities of anti-trinitarianism in Poland and Transylvania and England and America over the past four hundred years was not a single philosophy or book or individual, rather it was the three abiding values of Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance!  Without these three, could you really call it Unitarianism?

We have ever upheld the freedom of every individual to discover for her-or-himself what is ultimately true and right.  We have always espoused the use of reason in this pursuit of truth and understanding.  And we have without fail fiercely advocated the importance of tolerance among people of good faith.  We proclaim the freedom to use reason and insist on tolerance for others to enjoy that same freedom.  Freedom, Reason and Tolerance have historically been seen as the framework around which our faith tradition is built.  This I do not deny or attempt in any way to refute.  My complaint, rather, stems from what might be considered the loss of the use of reason in this equation.  The claim that I am free to believe and behave as I will and you are beholden to tolerate it, so there!

What is missing (other than the use of Reason) in that sense of Tolerance tainted by entitlement is Respect.  But I don’t lay the blame in my complaint at the feet of our religious tradition, rather I pile it up to the knees of the culture we wade through each day.  Tolerance has become a quick and sloppy way to abdicate participation.  And if Tolerance is indeed the shining central value around which all our other values gather then we are in danger of being a vacuous institution little or no real substance and we might just as well close up shop and stop wasting everybody’s time.  But let me unpack this a little because I know I can go leaping from point to point with this and I want you to see where I am going in case you want to go there too.

Western culture, and to a greater degree Unitarian Universalism as it is articulated in modern western culture, is the heir of the Enlightenment. Our faith tradition is arguably the most liberal of the Liberal Religions, committed to personal experience and exploration rather than creed and tradition.  The term “modernity” has our fingerprints all over it.  The broader Western culture around us took on a distinctly Liberal Religious hue a few generations back, hitting a peak perhaps with the Sixties.  Suffrage, equality, desegregation, integration, peace, love, and understanding were all in fashion.  Now-a-days peace, love, and understanding don’t get much traction.  Desegregation, equality, suffrage?  These are slipping too.

Tolerance is still popular.  In the broader culture, however, tolerance these days is really just a mask worn by apathy.  Tolerance used to mean: I reserve the right to be mistaken and to make corrections along the way based on new information.  Tolerance used to mean: I think I’ve got it right, but am open to hearing another person’s proof to the contrary.  (I still try to function with that concept of tolerance.)  The definition of tolerance seems to have shifted, however, to something like: since anybody could be right, nobody is.  Since there is a significant possibility that I am mistaken, and that’s ok, it must not matter.  It must not be important to be right, or maybe there is no such thing as ‘right.’  Do you see how this could be loosely construed as logic?  It certainly doesn’t qualify as the use of reason, but it almost looks like real logic.  In the pursuit of Tolerance we lost Truth.  At least that is how it is characterized by the conservatives.

Well, every now and then I take a chance and read some of the conservative religious periodicals just to see what is holding the attention of our fundamentalist brethren and sistren.  A few years back I found a compelling article written by a Conservative Christian thinker that really rips into our liberal value of tolerance.  I found the article compelling because it offered an intelligent, albeit sensationalized for apologetics purposes, critique of this important element of our faith from outside the tradition.

Liberal Tolerance is perhaps the primary challenge to the Christian worldview current in North American popular culture.  (That is the first line of the synopsis.  It is always nice to know that we’re at the vanguard of the conservative culture’s proclaimed challenge.  The article is entitled Deconstructing Liberal Tolerance by Francis J. Beckwith, and is published in a conservative Christian periodical called Christian Research Journal.  The Synopsis goes one to say,) Proponents of [the Liberal Tolerance] viewpoint argue that it is intolerant and inconsistent with the principles of a free and open society for Christians (and others) to claim that their moral and religious perspectives are correct and ought to be embraced by all citizens.  Liberal Tolerance is not what it appears to be, however.  It is a partisan philosophical perspective with its own set of dogmas.  It assumes, for instance, a relativistic view of moral and religious knowledge.  This assumption has shaped the way many people think about issues such as homosexuality, abortion rights, and religious truth claims, leading them to believe that a liberally tolerant posture concerning these issues is the correct one and that it ought to be reflected in our laws and customs.  But this posture is dogmatic, intolerant, and coercive, for it asserts that there is only one correct view on these issues, and if one does not comply with it, one will face public ridicule, demagogic tactics, and perhaps legal reprisals.  Liberal Tolerance is neither liberal nor tolerant.  (Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000; p29)

I hope you see what I mean when I say it is sensationalized for apologetic purposes, the author overstates his case.  ‘Liberal Tolerance is neither liberal nor tolerant.’  That’s just rhetoric.  The part that hooked me, however, is this idea that Liberal Tolerance is grounded in relativism.  At least that is how it is characterized by the conservatives.  And I wonder if there might be something to it.  The article from the conservative magazine presents a clever example of this in the form of a dialogue based loosely, it says, on a real-life exchange between a high school teacher and a student:

Consider the following dialogue (based loosely on a real-life exchange) between a high school teacher and her student, Elizabeth:

Teacher:            Welcome, students. Since this is the first day of class, I want to lay down some ground rules. First, since no one has the truth, you should be open-minded to the opinions of your fellow students. Second….Elizabeth, do you have a question?

Elizabeth:            Yes, I do. If nobody has the truth, isn’t that a good reason for me not to listen to my fellow students? After all, if nobody has the truth, why should I waste my time listening to other people and their opinions. What would be the point? Only if somebody has the truth does it make sense to be open-minded. Don’t you agree?

Teacher:            No, I don’t. Are you claiming to know the truth? Isn’t that a bit arrogant and dogmatic?

Elizabeth:            Not at all. Rather, I think it’s dogmatic, as well as arrogant, to assert that there is not one person on earth who knows the truth. After all, have you met every person in the world and quizzed them exhaustively? If not, how can you make such a claim? Also, I believe it is actually the opposite of arrogance to say that I will alter my opinions to fit the truth whenever and wherever I find it. And if I happen to think that I have good reason to believe I do know the truth and would like to share it with you, why won’t you listen to me? Why would you automatically discredit my opinion before it is even uttered? I thought we were supposed to listen to everyone’s opinion.

Teacher:            This should prove to be an interesting semester.

Another student:            (blurts out): Ain’t that the truth. (the students laugh)

Conservative Christians say our tolerance is grounded in religious and moral relativism, I say it is grounded in respect and covenant!  I have often described Unitarian Universalism as a community of covenanted seekers:  We are not all on the same path but we have promised to support one another along the way.  We’re not walking on the same path but we are walking together.  We have a covenant that binds us to each other, a set of promises, if you will, that we will treat each other with respect and support.  That is something the broader culture lacks: a binding covenant and a commitment to respect.

And not unrelated, there is this misunderstanding of what tolerance is.  Tolerance is not an ‘anything-goes’ sort of mentality.  20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams used to say we can have open minds, but not open at both ends.  Every now and then we do close our minds around something, sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that is not.  But that’s the point.  I have no problem making a major truth claim now and then.  For example: Every person has intrinsic worth and value.  Watch, I’ll do it again: There is a transformative power a work in our lives that is known by many names and misunderstood more often than not.  This is fun, here’s one I know at least some of you will refute: We are all children of God, and as such are beholden to love one another as we are loved.  I know that to be true.  All the evidence I have so far confirms the truth of that statement.  You may disagree.  We should talk about that more.  It doesn’t mean I’m not right.  It doesn’t mean you’re not right.  I could mean neither of us are right, or more likely we’re both almost right, I don’t know.

We can share this because of our commitment to tolerance.  You are free to use reason among other tools to discern the deeper truths and the meaning in life.  And we can tolerate one another’s differing answers because I also am free to use reason among other tools to discern the deeper truths and the meaning in life.  It would almost seem like there is no limit to this, right?

Well, let us push this a little.  Are there some things you or I could say that would be intolerable?  What if I told jokes about dumb blondes from the pulpit?  What if I offered a course on Anti-racism, and included a segment about how black people have small brains compared to white people?  What if I said all SUV drivers and all people who shop at Wal-Mart are sinners and should be publicly shamed?  Is this tolerable?  I don’t know; I’m trying to think about stuff that would push my buttons.  Could we tolerate people who are intolerant?  Are we accepting of bigots and open-minded about exploitation?

Back in the spring there was a flurry of e-mail on the UU minister’s chat on the topic of Tolerance.  The initial question that touched off the series was “How long do I tolerate a person with anti-Semitic leanings?”  Most of the situation as it was described involved personal e-mails sent to the minister.  For most of this I thought, “Hey, as long as the person is keeping these ‘leanings’ between him-or-herself and the minister, we can talk about tolerance.  The minister can offer counsel, a little argument perhaps, and as long as no one is hurt then who am I to say it has crossed a line?”

When the response to this minister’s initial question began to pour in from the colleagues, I read stories for example of a congregant who regularly laced the social hour beverage with LSD and the leadership tolerated it, wondering how to respond for nearly a year.  There were stories of a congregant who was known by a few as a date-rapist and who had begun preying on the women of the congregation.  There were stories of a congregant who would berate others members viciously and everyone would sort of sigh and tolerate it.  All these stories were of individuals breaking faith with the covenant of the congregation through harmful words or deeds and it distressed me and most of my colleagues and I trust it distresses you as well to hear the question ‘shouldn’t we be tolerant and open?’ rather than clear leadership statement that this is appalling and we will not allow it to continue.  Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “There are some things to which a person should be maladjusted.”

It is one thing to tolerate another person’s beliefs, but we can make a very clear distinction and not tolerate words and deeds that harm other people.  We will not tolerate injustice, hatred, or bigotry in its varied and sadly plentiful forms.  We will not tolerate the denigration of an entire group or class of people in this house of worship.  We will not tolerate slander and slurs to be used within these walls.  We will not tolerate screaming and shouting as method discourse in this church.  We will not tolerate injury or the threat of injury to be perpetrated in this congregation.  I’m just getting warmed up here.  I bet we could keep going, but let us notice the key ingredient along this line of thinking.  The conservative Christians say our tolerance is grounded in religious and moral relativism, I say it is grounded in respect and our sense of covenant!  Unitarian Universalism is a community of covenanted seekers:  We are not all on the same path but we have promised to support one another along the way.

Now, I am not saying that bigotry, slander, injury and inappropriate acting out does not happen here.  I’m not saying we are perfect.  And I am not suggesting that when anything like this happens here that our first response should be excommunication!  But neither will we just wring our hands while looking the other way.  And yes, that might mean that we will tolerate a person’s beliefs but respectfully ask that they believe them somewhere other than here.  There are behaviors that we will respectfully not tolerate because they break the covenant, the bond that we have, the promise that we will treat one another as children of God, as members of one family, as partners on the journey of deeper understanding and richer connections.

As I read through this sermon early this morning, it read like I was gearing up to a big confrontation with some one of you here in the congregation who has been acting out – and that is not the case.  I am preaching a cloudy skies warning in a time of clear skies.  Certainly back in the early spring we had quite a confrontation over the vandalism done by the member of our congregation, Matthew Fox; and The UU Minister’s Chat picked up this conversation about tolerance and behavior a few months after that while we here were working through it.  But I am now taking a calm moment in the life of a vibrant, dynamic, growing congregation to tease out important ideas around the topic of tolerance; and to remind us of our promise, our covenant.

And you may be thinking to yourself, ‘I don’t remember signing any covenant. What covenant is he talking about?’  You’ve caught me there.  It is an implicit covenant that in indicated in many of our documents about the congregation, it comes out in the sermons and special services, it is between the lines in our newsletter.  That is partly why I am preaching about it now, to help make this explicit.  If you hadn’t caught on yet, here it is:  We have a deep commitment to tolerance in this congregation.  Your faith is your own, it will not be coerced.  We will tolerate a remarkable range of beliefs and convictions here.  You can believe in God, you can believe in ghosts, you can be pro-life or pro-choice or both (like I am), you can believe that ‘evil’ is merely a human construct, you can support the war or the peace efforts, you can be gay, you can shop at Wal-Mart even though I won’t, you can be against gay marriage, you can even believe in Intelligent Design.  But that is not the last word on the subject.  Tolerance won’t get us all the way there.  There are limits to tolerance.

The last word is this: We are in this together.  We are in this to make life better.  We are in this to encourage and be encouraged in our deepening journeys.  Ours is a message of blessing and acceptance, that every person has an innate value and worth, even the ones you disagree with or do not like.  It is a message that calls us through the hurt and the promise to treat one another with care and with justice.

In a world without end,

May it be so.