The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. 186 pages.
D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill. His many other books include The Gagging of God, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, The God Who Is There, and Christ and Culture Revisited.
The topic of this book is neither strange nor surprising to a Christian living in 21st Century America. In a world that advocates tolerance of all people and all beliefs, that tolerance in practice does not really extend to all people and all beliefs and actually becomes intolerant, particularly toward those who may disagree with that position, especially Christianity. In a postmodern world with no absolute truth, the truth of God’s Word is always under attack. In The Intolerance of Tolerance, D. A. Carson seeks to define the current state of affairs, bringing in the historical background and philosophical underpinnings of that attitude and how it affects Christianity moving forward.
Key to Carson’s discussion is the definition of terms, especially tolerance. The opening chapters focus on the distinction between the “old” tolerance and the “new” tolerance. Tolerance in the old sense meant having a set of beliefs that people believed to be true and tolerating the fact that others may have their own set of beliefs. But that tolerance allowed people to think that others were wrong and allowed people to share and debate their beliefs to prove their point, with the idea that truth would win out. Those who were intolerant did not allow people to share their side.
Under the new tolerance, there is no absolute truth. Being tolerant means that people can hold their own beliefs but cannot think that anyone else’s beliefs are wrong. If someone questions another’s beliefs, then they are automatically declared intolerant, whether they are right or wrong. “If you begin with this new view of tolerance, and then elevate this view to the supreme position in the hierarchy of moral virtues, the supreme sin is intolerance” (10-11).
Carson then illustrates how the new tolerance plays itself out in different spheres, from the domain of government to the domain of education (especially the academic world of colleges and universities) and the media. Throughout the book he cites examples and anecdotes where the new tolerance has been allowed to play out, targeting not only Christianity, but other religions as well.
In looking at the historical background, Carson traces a path from the early centuries of the Christian church through Europe and up to the present times. Citing different philosophical influences such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, he unpacks the source of the new tolerance. Of special note is Mill’s update on the distinction between the public, objective sphere and the private, subjective sphere (63). Religion is relegated to that private sphere. Combined with the secularization of modern society, it helps to explain why the new tolerance is not tolerant of a religion that holds to a standard of truth and morality for public use. That results in inconsistencies within a secular society that assumes it holds a neutral position on all issues and those who disagree are intolerant. “In a word, as they [the new tolerance] become more convinced of their superiority and neutrality, they become less tolerant” (92).
Two chapters cover the important areas of truth and morality. Carson asserts that the new tolerance pushes the myth that tolerance comes from holding to flexible non-dogmatic truths, while intolerance is the result of absolute truths. The reality is the opposite—tyranny is the result of relativism and tolerance arises from a belief in absolutes (100). When truth is relative, the new tolerance says churches should not discipline their own members (104), all religions are really saying the same thing (118), and evangelism is despised because it involves telling someone they are wrong. But even this is “an instance of the pot calling the kettle black” as the new tolerance is telling others its truth with “the manipulative bludgeoning of the other party by labeling it intolerant” (123).
As for morality, new tolerance refuses to label behavior as right and wrong. The result is the following situation: “Relativism refuses to acknowledge sin and evil the way the Bible does, and therefore it never adequately confronts sin and evil, and therefore leaves people enslaved by sin and evil” (132). With no discussion possible, all that is left is to debate tolerance and intolerance (133).
Carson then spends a chapter discussing the current state of affairs in the United States and the system of democracy. He warns against assuming democracy is the best form of government because the term can encompass a variety of systems with different bases of power (153) and that no system is perfect when it involves imperfect human beings who make mistakes (157). Christians will always have the tension between serving God’s kingdom and serving the state, along with the responsibility to get involved and speak for the truth, even if they are labeled intolerant (158).
The book closes with Carson exploring ten suggestions for Christians when dealing with this topic (161-176): 1) Expose the new tolerance’s moral and epistemological bankruptcy; 2) Preserve a place for truth; 3) Expose the new tolerance’s condescending arrogance; 4) Insist that the new tolerance is not “progress”; 5) Distinguish between empirical diversity and the inherent goodness of all diversity; 6) Challenge secularism’s ostensible neutrality and superiority; 7) Practice and encourage civility; 8) Evangelize; 9) Be prepared to suffer; and 10) Delight in and trust God.
On the one hand, it’s easy to say along with Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). The devil will always work against God’s kingdom and the attitude of new tolerance is the latest form of persecution. Therefore the solution is simple: Christians are called to be faithful to God’s Word and preach the gospel, no matter what others may think. On the other hand, a detailed book like Carson’s still has value in that it helps us to understand the culture we live in and to see how much this attitude pervades every facet of our lives. The historical and philosophical backgrounds help to explain current trends in this line of thought. The countless examples and case studies that Carson cites as illustrations demonstrate that although not all hope is lost, there is a trend of where things may go.
There is very little that confessional Lutherans would find to disagree within this book, including his use of Scripture. Because his focus is more explaining and unpacking the other side, Carson’s use of Scripture is limited. He does at times allude to a previous book, Christ and Culture Revisited (2008), where he seems to have explored a Scriptural perspective more fully.
When reading about the topic of tolerance and intolerance, it’s easy to become frustrated and upset with how Christianity is being treated unfairly. That is why we keep in mind the last four of Carson’s suggestions. We continue to show the love that God has shown us as we spread the truth of the gospel. Although we may face suffering of different degrees, we know that God is still in control and trust him to take care of us until he takes us home to heaven.