Postmodernism and the Paradox of Tolerance

Consider the following scenario: a group of sincere, well-meaning college students successfully lobby their college administration to create a safe space for peers affected by a recent tragedy. These students argue that such spaces—which generally correspond to a physical area (such as an office, classroom, or building)—provide an opportunity for those marginalized by tragedies or injustices to communicate, dialogue, and share their experiences comfortably, without fear of retaliation.[i] These spaces exist, in other words, to validate the marginalized, to resist the cultural forces that perpetrate oppression, and to provide a safe avenue for authenticity in a world that seems contrived and uninviting.

Critics of safe spaces claim that these spaces, while grounded in noble intentions, inadvertently foster an environment that perpetrates another form of marginalization—against ideas, creeds, and worldviews. Facts ought to matter in the academy, the argument goes, and safe spaces intrinsically violate the central tenets of the university by prioritizing identity over the pursuit of knowledge. Thus, the dialogues that safe spaces promote are one-sided, existing within an echo chamber that unfairly blocks out unsavory viewpoints on the basis of emotion and ideology.

To be clear, both sides have valid concerns, and this article does not take a position on the politics of safe spaces. Rather, the safe space debate is fascinating because it underscores a much more fundamental reality: that tolerance exerts a powerful pull on the moral discourse of our modern society. At first glance, both sides of the safe space debate seem to represent differing conceptions of tolerance—one that prioritizes the tolerance of identities and another that prioritizes the tolerance of ideas. It is easy to attribute these differences to an ideological clash where people with different worldviews talk past one another, but the truth is more complicated. On one hand, the safe space debate is not a semantic or ideological debate over the meaning of tolerance per se, and there is a good case to be made that people of many political persuasions understand the spirit of tolerance in a remarkably consistent fashion. On the other hand, the roots of disagreement are undoubtedly influenced by competing worldviews, which affect how people perceive truth and its relevant domains. How one defines the basic characteristics of truth and how that truth is known implicitly determines who can be tolerated and how tolerance can be expressed. The safe space debate is a symptom of a wider societal progression towards a postmodern conception of truth, which under closer examination fails to provide any meaningful framework for tolerance. The Christian worldview, by contrast, subscribes to a view of truth that not only makes tolerance a theoretical possibility but a moral necessity.

It is important to first establish what exactly this “spirit” of tolerance is supposed to mean, since, as mentioned earlier, it is tempting to approach the safe space debate as a debate between different conceptions of tolerance. Indeed, philosopher Rainer Forst distinguishes between four conceptions of tolerance. The first conception, which he calls the “permission conception,” is a relation between an authority (or majority) and a dissenting minority, where the minority is permitted to live according to their beliefs insofar as the minority does not threaten the dominant status of the ruling class. The second is called the “coexistence conception,” and shares similar pragmatic goals to the first conception (that is, of avoiding conflict), but exists in an environment where there is no asymmetric distribution of power between competing groups. Forst’s third conception, the “respect conception,” consists of tolerating parties who differ fundamentally in their worldviews, but who also recognize their opponents as equals who share in the benefits of a common socio-political framework. Lastly, the fourth conception of tolerance, the “esteem conception,” expands what it means to “recognize” an opposing side by demanding an ethical esteem for their beliefs—in other words, recognizing that such beliefs, while misguided, are ethically valuable and attractive, derived from rational principles that one could easily embrace.[ii]

Forst’s first and second conception primarily ground themselves in power dynamics between different interest groups in society, which no doubt is important in understanding tolerance from a superficial standpoint. However, what makes these conceptions less relevant to the spirit of tolerance is their emphasis on the practical necessity of tolerance. Tolerance, according to these conceptions, exists primarily as an instrument in the utilitarian’s toolkit to avoid conflict and suffering wherever possible.

This approach to tolerance carries some risks. In particular, there seems to be several scenarios that are consistent with the underlying principles of the first and second conception, but which intuitively contradict our moral sensibilities. For instance, imagine a society that, writ large, subscribes unilaterally to a certain religion. This religion demands universal submission and regards other worldviews with moral disdain. In this society, however, there is a very small religious minority. Their values conflict with the values of the dominant class. Thus, society regards the presence of this minority (however small) as a deep threat to their religious and cultural hegemony. Under the first conception of tolerance (where tolerance is available to people who do not pose a threat), eliminating this group can be practically, even morally, justified. After all, the presence of the minority is regarded as a risk to public peace and the society has an ideological reason for minority eradication.

Now consider another similar example whereby that same religious minority instead comprises a group roughly equal in size to the “dominant” class described previously. Let us call both groups “Group A” and “Group B,” respectively. This time there is no asymmetric distribution of power between the two groups. According to the second conception, tolerance is justifiable because social peace is a preferable compromise to conflict—neither side is confident that conflict will rule in their favor. But suppose that one day, a member of Group A discovers a biological weapon that makes every member of Group B mute and disabled. Given the utilitarian assumptions of the second conception, conflict is actually preferable to social peace for Group A. After all, making Group B disabled and mute gives Group A control of society. But this appears to contradict common moral sense.

It is clear that we need to think of tolerance another way, at least in the context of the current debate. When tolerance enters Western discourse, it is evoked in moral terms. For instance, tolerance is typically evoked in the safe space debate to resolve ethical disputes (e.g. “We ought to affirm the marginalized.” “We ought to cultivate the central mission of the university”). This moral dimension in modern debates about tolerance cannot be understood through the lens of the first or second conceptions of tolerance. Thus, the third and fourth conceptions—which almost sound like moral imperatives—are more pertinent when determining the spirit of tolerance as presently understood.

Both conceptions ultimately promote respect as the dominant feature in an understanding of tolerance, which comes from the desire to confront the reality of diversity and the profound disagreements that diversity brings about constructively. But rather than tackling the problem of difference by resorting to tribal power struggles, the modern understanding of tolerance presents a moral framework grounded in a metaphysical truth—that all persons are equal by virtue of sharing a nature as intrinsically rational individuals, who likewise desire to pursue truth. Respect, therefore, is a practice extending from this conception of tolerance to foster and cultivate this recognition, so that the acquisition of truth can be a social endeavor. If our modern understanding of tolerance is imbued with this respect, then the spirit of tolerance exists when one fundamentally disagrees with another without personally disapproving of or denigrating the opponent in question.

Christianity is no stranger to this understanding of tolerance—in fact, its theology demands it. Christian tolerance is inspired by two theological ideas. The first is a particular expression of theism which emphasizes the innately rational nature of God. “In the beginning was the Logos,” proclaims John in the prologue to his Gospel, indicating—with the use of “Logosthe idea that God is reason, but at the same time deeply personal and capable of creating the entire universe.[iii] Establishing God as fundamentally rational is essential, because if God did create the entire universe, as Christians claim, then he did so rationally, meaning that the universe itself is intelligible and subject to rational inquiry. The Christian proclaims that truth is woven into the fabric of reality and is, therefore, something we interact with instead of something we create subjectively. Of course, there are different levels of truth, some more subjectively inclined than others (one’s favorite ice cream flavor versus the second law of thermodynamics, for example). But ultimately, all truths are reflections of God himself, worshiped by Christians as Truth incarnate.

The second theological idea is that the whole person is ordered to truth. Philosophically, this idea is not unique to Christianity; it was Aristotle who first argued that man has a rational principle (or nature) that separates him from other living organisms, which in turn imbues man with a natural disposition toward the acquisition of truth.[iv] While Christianity did not invent this definition of man, it heavily presupposes it, and it is impossible to properly understand Christian theology and practice without first recognizing this principle. If God created us so that we could experience perfect communion with him—even dying for humanity after we fell astray from that purpose—there must be a sense in which our natures are, in principle, capable of relating to God. And since God is Logos, the Truth incarnate, human nature must be essentially rational in order to fulfill this relational purpose. Even if ideas themselves may be irrational, human nature could be counted on to perform rational activity so that truths can eventually be found. Indeed, in the First Letter of Peter, Christians are called to always be prepared to give an answer to questions about their faith.[v] Far from being a practical directive for evangelization, Peter’s directive affirms that the Christian hope is grounded in truth. Rationally defending this hope both reflects the Christian’s relationship with God and participates in the divine wisdom through Logos.

For the Christian, then, all truth is contained in the divine personhood of God, and as sub-creations and image-bearers of the divine, humans have the rational capacity and inclination to interact with and apprehend truth. Because truth is fundamentally separate from the human person, Christians are motivated to separate the beliefs that persons have about truth from the persons themselves. Christian tolerance is a recognition of this metaphysical reality—that, in the eyes of God, all humans have inherent dignity because they, by nature, understand and desire truth, not because they are successful at comprehending truth in its entirety. In fact, the mystery of God makes such a quest impossible, and so the Christian understands that everyone deserves respect regardless of the opinions they happen to hold, or how close they are to the truth. The discovery of truth is both an individual and social activity, bound to encounter roadblocks as individually fallible people disagree with the conclusions drawn by their peers. The Christian response to this inevitable disagreement is nonetheless an act of love and cooperation, drawn from a seemingly naïve but theologically grounded vision that their mistaken interlocutors ultimately desire the same thing they do, and are worthy partners in the quest for wisdom.

Nowhere is this practice better exemplified than by Saint Thomas Aquinas’ approach to theology. Professor A. J. Conyers, in an article for First Things, draws attention to the incredible diversity that populated the thirteenth-century intellectual community—Muslim, Jewish, pagan, and Christian thinkers frequently dialogued and exchanged ideas without any sense that they were betraying their core religious convictions. It was in this oft-neglected period of history that Aquinas made his contribution to the Church. His approach in his theological studies begins, according to Conyers, “by calling attention to various important insights into the meaning of truth from a number of sources, not all of them Christian.”[vi] Aquinas first quotes three Christian thinkers, and, without skipping a beat, proceeds to quote Avicenna and Aristotle, a Muslim and pagan philosopher respectively. Conyers draws two remarkable insights from his study of Aquinas:

“[Aquinas] does not call attention to the fact that he is drawing from a plurality of sources that represent diverse faiths. Nor is there the lazy air of relativism here. Instead we find the resolute pressing forward to an idea of truth that can be common to everyone because it is real for everyone… It promotes not a unity that is assumed and goes unquestioned at the beginning, but one that is found at some cost to those who search.”[vii]

To Conyers, the fact that Aquinas’ magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, is unfinished reflects how much Aquinas internalized Christian tolerance. He was not afraid to declare truth as he saw it, but he was also open to truth as it was discovered. For Aquinas, practicing Christian tolerance meant recognizing that God’s truth is universally relevant, unbounded by creed or nationality, and is thus reflected to varying degrees in other cultures because Christ himself gives universal witness to that truth.[viii]

The shift from Aquinas to postmodernism was a slow one, the roots of which lie in the decline of Scholasticism during the Enlightenment period. During the Enlightenment, a new understanding of tolerance arose that claimed to provide a more expansive application of tolerance’s spirit, but which in practice marginalized religious thought in the public square. Two developments accounted for this change. The first was cultural—Conyers argued that the religious wars that decimated Europe during the early modern period led to “the growth of regional political authorities that gradually eclipsed the local, familial, ecclesiastic, and sometimes informal authorities that governed (and to some extent still govern) public life.”[ix] Post-wars European society saw religion as a source of social unrest, and thereby relegated religious authority from matters of public life to the realm of private conviction. This meant that most political discussions, whether they be about the role of the state or the nature of a just society, marginalized religious judgment by default. The second development was philosophical—the rise of positivism threatened the epistemology of religious belief by denying it any rational legitimacy. Positivism, a philosophical doctrine first proposed by Auguste Comte and later expanded upon by Émile Durkheim and Moritz Schlick, restricted epistemic validity to facts obtained by the scientific method.[x] Observation and verification, they claimed, trump intuition, theological reasoning, and divine revelation. Thus, positivism abolished the old religious approach to reason, which incorporates many different forms of knowledge into one holistic practice of wisdom.

The hostility toward Christianity inherent in both developments, whether it be political or philosophical, had a profound impact on the practice of tolerance. Both movements claimed to advance the cause of tolerance—the political establishment thought that a society free from religious authority could better pursue alternative ideas, and positivists thought that the scientific method could create a framework of truth that offered a systematic way of adjudicating truth claims while offering a means to separate ideas from personhood. But what Enlightenment tolerance entailed in practice was an underlying intolerance that targeted a broad segment of the religious population. At the very least, intolerance was expressed when religious thought was assigned no epistemic weight in the public sphere, since these ideas were only permitted to function as private speculation about the unknown. This marginalization, combined with positivism’s hostility towards religion, meant that religious thought was not just ignored, but considered fundamentally irrational. If humans are rational animals, characterizing religious thought as irrational (or arational) devalues the persons who hold those beliefs, since it refuses to recognize the rational activity performed (e.g. contemplating religious ideas). By decrying the entire religious category as intrinsically irrational, positivist thinkers imply that people who cultivate religious wisdom are acting against their rational nature.

But while Enlightenment tolerance fails to be as expansive as it claims, postmodern tolerance is a philosophical oxymoron. Any attempt to understand this oxymoron must first consider postmodernism’s metaphysical dream, which R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, characterizes as the “Empire of Desire.” Every culture has a metaphysical dream—a desire for happiness and fulfillment grounded in a particular metaphysical understanding of the world. Our culture today, argues Reno, has a postmodern metaphysical dream, consisting of pure, primal desire emancipated from the stifling discipline of moral norms. For the postmodernist, pure desire “must be seen as the deepest, truest source of life.”[xi]Anything that seeks to control these desires, whether it be moral law, cultural norms, or religious authorities, is an illegitimate vehicle of oppression, dooming the human person to a life of frustration and conflict.

Of course, this dream must have metaphysical claims, but it is easy to see how the Empire of Desire approaches the question of truth. Reno’s thesis makes a bold, yet plausible claim: if desire is the truest source of life, then all other determinative principles and authoritative truths are secondary. Objective truth, far from being an unchanging reality grasped by the pursuit of knowledge, is instead another vehicle for oppression, no different from the moral codes that prevent the human person from achieving his or her desires. Thus, the existence of objective truth is not so much denied necessarily by the postmodernist paradigm, but is rather deprived of any epistemic weight in rhetorical exchanges (just as the religious viewpoint was denied epistemic weight in Enlightenment discussions regarding the public sphere). Objective truth, if it exists, does not matter; what matters to the postmodern vision is a truth ontologically dependent on the primal desires of the human person, unfettered by laws that claim authority over these desires. In theory, the postmodern metaphysical dream seems to promote tolerance quite expansively. After all, if there are no universal truths that can be properly apprehended by human persons, then there is no need to harmonize or integrate a wide cacophony of different truth claims. All opinions are welcome to the table, because all opinions are in some sense true (in the respect that both opinion and truth are grounded in human desire). Subsequently, the tradition of finding unity in the midst of diversity is rejected in favor of one that upholds a vaguely complacent form of diversity that desperately tries to avoid disagreement wherever possible.

It is precisely in the area of disagreement, however, where postmodernism runs into a problem—because all ideas are personal, any disapproval of ideas is inherently disapproving of the person who holds those ideas. Indeed, writer Molly Oshatz argued that the nature of “debate” to a postmodernist would be unrecognizable to those who maintain a traditional understanding of truth:

“If truth is something neutral that exists outside of all of us, [as the classical thinkers understood it], then we can discuss it and disagree about its content without involving ourselves personally, at least not right away. But if the only truth for me is my own personal truth arising from my identity and circumstances, then any and all disagreement about what is is by definition personal.”[xii]

No longer is intellectual disagreement a mutually beneficial exchange that brings its participants closer to truth. Instead, disagreement is a power struggle between various actors who seek to impose their worldviews on each other. Force and persuasion become indistinguishable in this Darwinian battle for personal gratification, and any concession made is grounded in identity submission—the recognition that you, in some sense, are flawed and inferior to your opponent.

Therein lies the central paradox of postmodernism—that its only tool for claiming the mantle of tolerance actually deprives tolerance of any real meaning and significance. It is thus no surprise that safe spaces are such a contentious issue today. In a postmodern age, disagreement is not just a personal act, but an inherently violent one. For victims of tragedies and marginalized communities, it is completely understandable, even rational, to create a space as a refuge from this violence—postmodernism (and natural desires for human dignity) demands it. But the unfortunate irony is that postmodernism, taken to its rational conclusion, even undermines the very idea of safe spaces.  Because all disagreements are inherently violent, even small disagreements are ultimately threatening in a postmodern framework. And since there is some gradient of difference between any two people, there will always be some element of insecurity in any given space. A safe space may unite persons affected by a tragedy, but that same group may exhibit profound differences in other areas, which opens the group up to power struggles when those differences eventually emerge. Postmodernism reduces all differences to potential avenues for violence—hence, so long as variation exists between individuals, there is no shared space in which a person can be truly safe from danger.

Postmodernism conflates truth and personhood, and in doing so confines the person to a state of perpetual insecurity and vulnerability. It is this fear of violence that prevents modern persons from recognizing the inherent dignity of their peers. But while the postmodern metaphysical dream envisions truth as fundamentally personal, the Christian metaphysical dream understands truth as fundamentally predicated on the divine—Christ as Logos, Truth incarnate. Objective truth is real, and is not ontologically equivalent to human experience or applications of the human capacity for rationality. This dream, like the postmodern one, promotes personal conviction, but does so in a way that understands conviction as an attempt to understand the world rather than as an abstract expression of primal desire. On its face, the Christian understanding of truth appears intolerant, since any personal conviction necessarily understands conflicting convictions as false. But this critique entirely misses the point on the purpose of tolerance, which was desired because it promoted unity in a pluralistic society through the search and discovery of universal truths. No doubt this unity is difficult and costly to achieve. But Christian tolerance ultimately allows these costs to be shared—the Christian worldview emancipates believers from their natural tendency to devalue their opponents and redirects them onto a path that sees every person as a fellow searcher who deserves support and respect. This freedom provides the only stable foundation for tolerance, which, when properly cultivated, embodies the love that Christ has for mankind.


[i] Teddy Amenabar, “The New Language of Protest,” The Washington Post, 19 May 2016, <>.

[ii] Rainer Forst, “Toleration,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 June 2012, <>.

[iii] See John 1:1.

[iv] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition, ed. Steven M. Cahn (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), 283-284.

[v] See 1 Peter 3:15.

[vi] A. J. Conyers, “Rescuing Tolerance,” First Things (August 2001).

[vii] Conyers, Rescuing Tolerance.

[viii] Conyers, Rescuing Tolerance.

[ix] Conyers, Rescuing Tolerance.

[x] Jorge Larrain, The Concept of Ideology (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 197.

[xi] R. R. Reno, “Empire of Desire: Outlining the Postmodern Metaphysical Dream,” First Things (June 2014).

[xii] Molly Oshatz, “College Without Truth,” First Things (May 2016).


Joshua Tseng-Tham is a double major in philosophy and economics at Dartmouth.


This article was also featured under Campus Voices at the Veritas Forum.

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