Tolerance and Social Hope

In glossy brochures advertising colleges and companies, we’ve all probably seen some version of a photograph of a smiling group of people of conspicuously different skin color hanging out together. The value-laden vocabulary associated with such an image often includes words such as respect, diversity, internationalism, multiculturalism, and perhaps most prominently, tolerance. Of course, tolerance in today’s popular discourse is not limited to the tolerance of racial difference but extends ambitiously toward differences of all kinds: cultural, sexual, economic, national, political, ethnic, religious, and so on. For those who tout the value of tolerance, it is tolerance that will pave the way to a pluralistic, inclusive society that resembles a heterogeneous yet happily united family.

But despite its feel-good connotations in mainstream culture, tolerance has invited criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, according to John Bowlin, professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at Princeton Theological Seminary.[1] On the left, people such as philosopher Slavoj Zizek understand tolerance to be much more fundamentally about alienation than acceptance.[2] Rather than being about mutual love and embrace, tolerating others amounts to a form of condescension as well as a thinly veiled way of saying: “Don’t get too close! Stay at a safe distance away from me.” At its worst, tolerance is about narcissistic self-protection and defensive close-mindedness. Progressives and radicals alike are all-too-familiar with the ways that “tolerance” can be leveraged to oppose much-needed change in the name of conservatism. On the right, people such as historian George Marsden tend to characterize tolerance as the softening of one’s core commitments, a slippery slope leading to moral relativism and an “anything goes” attitude.[3] In more extreme terms, tolerance is an excuse for laziness, indifference, and cowardice. One is “tolerant” when one either 1) is unable to honestly confront oneself and others about one’s own commitments in life, or 2) has no commitments in life.

In short, both the left and the right are unhappy with tolerance. No one wants to tolerate because that implies being loose with one’s values; no one wants to be tolerated because that means being regarded as deficient in some way. And so, after one delves a little deeper into the tolerance proffered as the means by which we can achieve a harmonious society, the notion inevitably begins to feel unpleasant and undesirable. It becomes an obstacle that needs to be overcome on our way to a truer, better reconciliation of entrenched differences.

Is there a way to re-think tolerance to make it viable again? Bowlin argues that there is. According to him, true tolerance means 1) knowing that which falls in between the extremes of the dangerously harmful and the harmlessly unobjectionable and 2) responding to those things and activities with patient endurance.[4] Armed with this bi-conditional definition, Bowlin suggests that the resentment directed toward tolerance itself has resulted from a misidentification of tolerance. When there are things and activities that are objectionable and yet deserve patient endurance, the left makes them out to be totally harmless, while the right makes them out to be totally harmful. Both the left and the right think that they are not being intolerant, that the things and activities they are making judgments about fit into either the category of “harmlessly unobjectionable” or the category of “dangerously harmful” and not somewhere in between. But Bowlin would say that they only deceive themselves and each other. Instead of responding with patient endurance, the left perceives the right to be blindly dismissive, the right perceives the left to be blindly accepting, and both parties then think to themselves: “If these people believe that they’re being tolerant, then maybe there’s something wrong with tolerance.” And so, Bowlin theorizes, the much-resented failed achievement of tolerance is misidentified as tolerance itself. Many bitter political battles later, the mere mentioning of tolerance is enough to arouse ire and contempt.

A closer look at Bowlin’s theory, however, reveals an underlying assumption that appears to return us to square one: that we can possess sufficient insight to determine if and when things and activities fall in between the dangerously harmful and the harmlessly unobjectionable. In the most heated political conflicts we see today, who could be said to possess such insight? And if no one does, then Bowlin’s theory (at least in these cases) risks being fed back into the intractability between left and right, disturbingly becoming more ammo for each side to use against the other. If abortion, for example, lies in between the dangerously harmful and the harmlessly unobjectionable, then patient endurance of it should follow. But that “if” is precisely the pre-condition that is widely contested today in political discourse. If Bowlin’s theory itself were brought into the discourse, then accusations of “intolerance” might be traded in for something not too different, only more snobby-sounding: dismissive retorts of “You don’t know what real tolerance is!” And then the left and the right would start hating tolerance itself all over again.

But I think there is hope. I suspect that Bowlin’s definition of tolerance, if and when it is deployed, will seem uncontroversial to both the left and the right, which means that theoretical concerns about tolerance should quickly give way to practical ones. Debates should get substantive, fast. If I believe that legal restrictions on guns should be reduced because I think gun ownership is beneficial for society, then I would spend my energy dialoguing with others who disagree with me, rather than denouncing their (in)tolerance of me and tolerance in general.  In other words, the questions I’d ask myself would be “Can what I’m supporting really be considered dangerously harmful?” and “What counts as dangerously harmful?” rather than “Why are these people being so intolerant toward me?” and “Why is tolerance in our society such a problem?” Bowlin’s theory emphasizes actually talking about the issues, asserting that “every account [of tolerance] is open to dispute, not about tolerance itself, but about its substance, scope, and limits.”[5]

If the vitriol of contemporary debates over tolerance has taught us anything, however, it is that true insight into the difference between the dangerously harmful and the harmlessly unobjectionable is difficult to attain. Yet this does not mean that no insight is possible, nor does it mean that we should not work hard to achieve it. Indeed, a dedication to truth-seeking is a crucial part of being tolerant, as well as being a value touted by left and right alike.

Consider, for instance, the words of leftist theorist Herbert Marcuse in his influential 1965 essay on “Repressive Tolerance”:

Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind.[6]

Writing as a Marxist in the throes of the Cold War, Marcuse reacted against the ways that the liberal democratic establishment fostered a “repressive tolerance” on those who disagreed ideologically with them. Yet in rejecting a tolerance which opened space for “safe” dissenting opinions only insofar as they allowed for the continuance of the – for Marcuse – unjust status quo, Marcuse, unlike the aforementioned modern day leftist Zizek, did not reject the virtue of tolerance itself. Rather, it was in the name of truth and true tolerance that he called for a violent overthrow of the status quo in order to establish a society in which freedom and tolerance were genuinely possible.

There is much to be commended in Marcuse’s analysis, most of all the insight that the commitment to truth demands resisting injustice and falsehood, whether it is popular or not. If tolerance is not a matter of accepting or enduring difference independent of the truth, neither is it about protecting people’s feelings. On the contrary, tolerance can be confrontational and offensive, even shockingly so. Consider, for instance, the Biblical tradition of prophetic critique. When the prophet Amos met resistance while castigating Israel for its failures to uphold the standards of justice, he retorted by appealing to God’s judgment: his critic’s wife will become a prostitute, his sons and daughters will be killed, his land will be divided up by others, and he will “die in an unclean land” – the ancient Israelite way of saying “if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to see your land taken over, shamefully watch your family impoverished and killed, and know what it’s like to spend the rest of your life as a slave”.[7]

Harsh words for a harsh situation. Yet a vital difference separates Amos’ response to Marcuse’s: whereas Marcuse’s evaluation results in a human-centered response, Amos’ is decidedly God-centered. For Marcuse, tolerance demands violence now. Amos, violence later. For Marcuse, it is we humans who must enact justice. For Amos, it is God who will eventually judge. And it is here that Bowlin’s Christian roots begin to show. For if men chafe at injustice, God even more so. Yet whereas Marcuse finds in his situation a despair that resorts to revolution, those familiar with the arc of the Biblical narrative find in God a loving forbearance that again and again delays judgment in hopes that reconciliation is yet possible. It is this divine forbearance, Bowlin suggests, which ought to serve as a model for tolerance. Marcuse’s notion certainly fulfills Bowlin’s first criterion, but it neglects the second: a call for patient endurance.

If divine forbearance is a model for human tolerance, then it is crucial to point out that the former is grounded in love, and that that love is best exemplified by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ love for those with whom he disagreed went outrageously far, enabling him to patiently endure the injustices committed against him and accept death on a Roman cross. He was able to endure because he trusted in a God who judges justly. When Jesus was raised from the dead, the radical message implicit in the event was clear: God’s righteous judgment prevailed and will always prevail, even against the injustice and death in this world.

The Christian is able to exercise patient endurance – Bowlin’s second condition – because she believes in that message. Her faith in God’s promise of ultimate justice allows her to patiently make every attempt to find reconciliation in the here and now. Her assurance is grounded in the conviction that, just as God vindicated Jesus in resurrection, so he would vindicate her as well. This translates into a stubborn refusal to abandon others in the face of seemingly insurmountable differences – a dogged hope in the power of love to overcome all opposition, even if it should result in one’s death. This is not to say that only Christians can truly be tolerant, but that some kind of “moral faith” in the possibility of future reconciliation and justice is necessary for holding the two criterion together.[8]

Truth and patience; two sides of tolerance that are difficult to hold together, yet still something desperately needed in a society divided by differences of all kinds. When practiced correctly, it can hold the tensions between justice and peace together when neither seems attainable in the hopes that they someday will be. It gives us glimpses of a pluralistic society that nevertheless cares for the good of all, which Christians see in the alternate kingdom – the kingdom of God – that Jesus inaugurated. Within this kingdom, tolerance commits us to the hard, gritty work of being committed to each other just as he was committed to us, longing for a day in which all that is broken is healed at last. Tolerance may not be easy, but it is certainly worth it.



[2] See, for instance, Zizek and Daly, “Conversations with Zizek,” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 72-73.

[3] See, for instance, Marsden, “The Incoherent University,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2000), 92-105.

[4] Bowlin, “Tolerance among the Fathers,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 26:1 (Spring/Summer 2006), 8. Here, I must note that Bowlin chooses to portray tolerance as a virtue. But because I believe it is possible to explain his understanding of tolerance and its implications without entering into the realm of virtue ethics, I proceed to do so in this article.

[5] Bowlin, “Here the Shoe Pinches”: Kuyper, Tolerance, and the Virtues in Kuyper Center Review, vol.1, Politics, Religion, and Sphere Sovereignty, ed. Gordon Graham, 134.

[6] Marcuse, Herbert “Repressive Tolerance” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 95-137.

[7] Amos 7:17.

[8] Consider, for instance, pragmatist arguments that citizens of a democracy possess a kind of “democratic hope” parallel to the religious virtue of Christians. One wonders, however, whether such tolerance can persist in times when it is the national security of the democracy itself at stake. See, for instance, Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) or Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).

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