Setting the table for conversations about life and faith
Irecently attended a interfaith consultation on global religious freedom. One of the hosts said it was vital that we move beyond the "mere tolerance" of difference. I’ve heard similar appeals before.
Rather than finding ways of living cordially and collaboratively in spite of differences – which is the essence of toleration – this relativistic approach presumes all religions are essentially the same and demands we neuter religious diversity. Those who decline become social pariahs.
In a society marked by deep and significant religious differences, there is nothing "mere" about tolerance.
Properly understood, toleration involves two conditions – you disagree with certain convictions or practices, and you also have a degree of control or power over the convictions or practices (such as the ability to censor convictions or curtail practices). This second condition enjoins forbearance, one of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:25). It means to be patient, self-controlled and showing restraint.
Tolerance should not be confused with indifference or acquiescence. Indifference is not toleration because the element of disagreement is absent. Acquiescence is not toleration as you lack the power to influence the behaviour. The expectation of moving beyond tolerance to a celebration of religious difference eliminates the need for genuine toleration by presuming religions are essentially the same and equally true.
Tolerance can lead to passivity and can be mistaken for indifference or acquiescence. Jesus was neither.
Am I to affirm or celebrate another faith that denies my deeply held belief that Jesus is Lord, one who died, was resurrected and appeared to over 500 people? Do I expect those who consider core Christian beliefs to be blasphemy or nonsense to affirm my faith?
In terms of practices it is not as though we as a society are always tolerant. For example, legislation seeking to amend the Criminal Code is an instance of intolerance. The Criminal Code is a moral code and when legislation is introduced, either to criminalize or decriminalize an activity, we are signalling that some behaviour is not to be tolerated.
When we exhibit tolerance in matters of religious belief, we can also express our contention that not all convictions and practices can be collectively affirmed or celebrated. We affirm the religious freedom of all, and yet we also believe certain convictions are true and some practices better reflect these convictions than others. Practising tolerance is premised on the rejection of religious relativism.
Jesus modelled tolerance when He shared a meal with "tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 5:29–30). He was severely condemned by the Pharisees and scribes for what they interpreted as indifference toward, if not a celebration of, the behaviour of those with whom He ate, showing a disregard of the law and custom.
Apart from whether purity rituals were properly observed, the beliefs and practices of those with whom He ate did not hinder Jesus accepting their hospitality.
This does not mean He affirmed their life choices and religious practices. In fact, He calls us all to repentance. In His sermons and parables, He called the self-righteous to humility, the self-absorbed to generosity, and offered healing to the broken souls, hearts, minds and bodies. He challenged all vices such as greed, selfishness, adultery, extortion and violence. He did not celebrate nor stay silent to all choices.
His acceptance of others and the respect he showed them drew them into relationship with Him (Matthew 7:12; 12:20). Jesus witnessed about His life and mission, and about the coming Kingdom (John 4:7–27).
Tolerance can lead to passivity and can be mistaken for indifference or acquiescence. Jesus was neither. He did not compromise who He was to win friends or be heard.
As we live in a religiously diverse society and adhere to religious beliefs at odds with the choices many make, we can follow Jesus’ example by engaging in tolerant ways without bending the knee in relativistic thinking or behaviour.
Under His lordship we can share a meal, and engage in questions and ideas. Providing the opportunity for all to be heard affords us the same opportunity to tell others about the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).
In following Jesus’ example we bear witness to what we believe. Toleration and dialogue go hand in hand. In conversation we hear the story of others, and it sets the table for hospitality through which we bear witness to our convictions and of God’s empowering love available to all.
Bruce J. Clemenger is senior ambassador and president emeritus of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and author of The New Orthodoxy: Canada’s Emerging Civil Religion (Castle Quay, 2022). Illustration of men in suits by Vectorium.