Don Carson explores the relationship between truth and tolerance at The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando.
Let’s begin with prayer.
At a time in history, heavenly Father, when tolerance has become such a buzzword far more important than truth or righteousness or integrity, help us to understand something of the history of tolerance, help us to understand something of the limits of tolerance, and help us to understand something of the changing face of tolerance lest we begin to worship a false god. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
About a year ago I published a book called The Intolerance of Tolerance. I’m sure there are copies in the bookstore, although I haven’t checked. It was an attempt to understand one of the most dramatic social pressures in Western culture to this day and how Christians should think about responding to it.
Much of what I’m going to say is drawn from that book. That book gives far, far more illustrations, not only in this country but in the UK and to some extent in France and elsewhere. I will spare you some of those. You can read them for yourselves. I tried to work out how Christians should begin to respond to it so that in the last chapter I tried to show some of the steps we have take. I’ll say a little bit about that latter part at the end.
Because I’m sure most in this room have not read the book at all, let me begin with some definitions and introductions to the matter. To speak of the intolerance of tolerance might strike some people as nothing more than errant nonsense, an unbearable oxymoron, as meaningless as talking about the hotness of cold or the blackness of white or the like.
Tolerance is today as non-negotiable a virtue in the culture at large as motherhood and apple pie were in America in the 1950s. There are certain things you just don’t question, and tolerance is one of them. To put the matter another way, tolerance has become part of what sociologists nowadays call the Western plausibility structure. As far as I know, that expression, plausibility structure, was first coined by sociologist Peter Berger.
He uses it to refer to structures of thought widely and almost unquestioningly accepted throughout a particular culture. One of his derivative arguments is that in a tight, monolithic culture like Japan, the reigning plausibility structures may be enormously interwoven, interlocked, and complex, and it’s really difficult for an outsider to get into that sort of culture and understand all those given assumptions that just about everybody in the culture works with.
By contrast, in a highly diverse culture like that which dominates many in the Western world, not least the United States, the plausibility structures are necessarily much, much, much more restricted for the very good reason that there are fewer stances held in common. The plausibility structures that do remain, however, in such a society tend to be held with extra tenacity because they are the few things that hold us all together.
Tolerance, I’m suggesting, is, in much of the Western world, part of this restricted but tenaciously held plausibility structure. To saunter into the public square and to question it, to suggest this tolerance may, in fact, be intolerant is not only to tilt at windmills but is culturally insensitive, it appears, and lacking in good taste, even boorish, but if I press on it’s because I remain persuaded that the emperor has no clothes or, at least, he’s not sporting much more than his jockey shorts, and it really is important, I think, to understand what has gone on.
Let’s begin with the fact that the very notion of tolerance has changed. In the past, tolerance was a parasitic virtue. It was a virtue that depended on a whole lot of other cultural virtues so that any culture, whether in ancient pagan Rome before Christ or in the medieval period with the dominance of the Catholic church (it doesn’t matter what culture), every culture has some structures that are more or less widely accepted as rights and wrongs and what’s permitted and what’s approved, what’s cherished and what’s valued, what’s despised, and so on.
They are more or less universally held, but those who don’t hold them raise a certain kind of problem for the culture. What do we do with such people? Do we tolerate them or do we burn them at the stake? Do we crush them? Do we allow them to speak? How much divergence do we allow from what seems to be pretty normative in the culture at large?
That’s a question that is raised in communism. It’s raised in Nazism. It’s raised in a democracy. Every culture has limits to how far you can go. For example, take a very easy one today. Whatever the sexual freedoms that are enjoyed and promulgated and promoted today, virtually no one in our culture is pushing pedophilia. In fact, there are criminal sanctions against that. We do not tolerate pedophilia. Every society has some places where they draw the line, where their intolerance is imposed, and every society has some things that are tolerated.
A society that tolerates very, very little divergence is a pretty repressed society. Either that or a pretty unified society. A society that is very, very free, then, is considered to be a little more tolerant, but tolerance is never seen in the ancient world or until 100 years ago as a virtue in and of itself.
It’s a parasitic virtue. It depends on what the assumed virtues are in the culture at large. You can’t raise tolerance up to the level of supreme virtue because you have to be tolerant of something or intolerant of something, and that already presupposes there is an array of virtues and of reprehensible things that are actually out there. It is necessarily a parasitic virtue. It is parasitic on the assumptions of goodness and badness in the broader culture at large.
With that kind of understanding of tolerance then, there are endless debates in history, in church history, in the pagan world as to what divergences you allow. Do you burn witches at the stake or do you slap them in jail? Or do you say, “It doesn’t really matter; they can do what they want”? How about selling porn? Do you allow it or do you criminalize it?
All of those examples presuppose there are some virtues that are accepted by the courts or by the state or by the culture at large, and then there are degrees of tolerance that are allowed or intolerance if you go too far and so forth. That also means, if you’re in the domain of religion, if you are tolerant toward other religions, what you are really saying is, “I may dislike what you are saying, but I defend to the death your right to say it.”
That’s a slogan that is often ascribed to the French philosopher Voltaire, although there is no evidence he actually said it. It’s just too good to not quote, so I’ll quote it again, even though he didn’t say it. I don’t have a clue who first said it. “I may detest what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Such a person is considered tolerant.
That’s the old tolerance, and the virtue of that tolerance is you can disagree with a person and still be judged tolerant if you’re allowing the other person to speak and indeed insisting that he has the right to speak, but the new tolerance comes along and says in many, many domains it is wrong to say the other person is wrong. That’s the one thing that is wrong.
If you say somebody else is wrong in these agreed domains, then you are intrinsically an intolerant person. If you say, for example, Jesus Christ is the only way to God and you make exclusive claims for Christ on the basis of what the Bible itself says, there are many people today who will charge you with being intolerant.
One hundred years ago, that charge wouldn’t have made any sense at all in our culture because we’re not putting in jail anybody who happens to be a Buddhist. We’re not putting in jail anybody who is a Muslim just because he’s a Muslim. We’re not putting in jail anybody who is a Christian just because he’s a Christian. It doesn’t make any sense.
Moreover, Muslims have a right to criticize Christians and Christians have a right to criticize Buddhists and we have a right to interact with one another and say where we think the other one’s right or wrong and give the reasons why. That’s still considered in the older tolerance an eminently tolerant society because you can push away at the values that are espoused by one religious claim or another. You can argue things out in the open marketplace of ideas.
But in the new tolerance, the new tolerance might say, “That religion is most tolerant, and therefore, most virtuous that refuses to say other religions are wrong,” and that view has become so dominant, so powerful in our culture for all kinds of reasons, that instead of being parasitic on a whole value system, it has become the ultimate good.
The effect of that is that it makes it difficult to have serious moral conversation because you’ve already been squashed into silence by being labeled intolerant, and therefore, not worth listening to. Tim Keller likes to talk about defeater beliefs. A defeater belief is a belief which, if you hold it to be true (whether or not it is true makes no difference), it defeats other beliefs. That’s a defeater belief.
Supposing you hold for whatever reason (good, bad, or indifferent) passionately that there is no one way to God, then somebody comes along and announces that Jesus insists, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me,” and that the apostles insisted there is no other name under heaven given to human beings by which we must be saved, then that defeater belief might hear you and say, “Is that what Christians believe? Boy, it’s not worth listening to.”
In other words, the subject itself won’t be engaged because it has already been defeated by the defeater belief that dismisses any claim that is made of an exclusive sort. You suddenly realize this new form of tolerance actually becomes intolerant of those who disagree with that form of tolerance. Starting off with a claim for extra virtue, it ends up actually being remarkably inconsistent.
Let me fill this out just a wee bit more before I try to lay out some ways ahead. Let me clarify things a bit first of all on the two tolerances. Supposing someone says, “She is a very tolerant person,” does this mean she gladly puts up with a lot of opinions with which she disagrees or she thinks all opinions are equally valid? Both uses of tolerance still operate in our culture, both the older one and the newer one, so if somebody says, “She is a very tolerant person,” which is meant?
A Muslim cleric says, “We do not tolerate other religions.” Does this mean, according to this cleric, Muslims do not think other religions should be permitted to exist or Muslims cannot agree other religions are equally valid as Islam? A Christian pastor declares, “Christians gladly tolerate other religions.” Does this mean, according to the pastor, Christians gladly insist other religions have as much right to exist as Christianity does (tolerance number one) or Christians gladly assert all other religions are equally valid (tolerance number two)?
“You Christians are so intolerant,” someone asserts. Does this mean Christians wish all positions contrary to their own to be extirpated or Christians insist Jesus is the only way to God? The former is patently untrue; the latter is certainly true. You begin to see, even in the area of conversation, if there is an ambiguity about the meaning of tolerance, suddenly accusations can be thrown that are far more biting than might be perceived.
Go back to the assertion, “Christians gladly tolerate other religions.” We’ll discover there are a couple of other distinctions that need to be thrown in as well. Let’s assume for a moment the first meaning of toleration is in view. Christians gladly insist other religions have as much right in our fallen and broken world to exist as their own however much those who name the name of Christ and who really understand the Bible really are convinced that other religions are, in some respects, deeply mistaken and do not provide salvation.
Even in this more classical understanding of tolerance, we find room for a certain amount of vagueness. Does the statement envisage legal tolerance? In that case, it is affirming that Christians gladly fight for the equal standing before the law of all religious minorities. Of course, from a Christian perspective, this is a temporary arrangement that lasts only until Christ returns.
It is a way of saying in this broken and fallen world, in this time of massive idolatry, in this age of theological and religious confusion, God has so ordered things that conflict, idolatry, confrontation, and wildly disparate systems of thought even about God himself persist and should not be obliterated by the sword.
But Christians who know their Bibles will still say, “In the new heaven and the new earth, God’s desires will not be contested but will be the object of worshiping delight. For the time being, however, Caesar has the responsibility to preserve social order in a chaotic world. Although Caesar functions under God’s providential sovereignty, nevertheless, there is a difference between God and Caesar. Jesus himself has told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but it will not be like that in the new heaven and the new earth.”
Thus, even our current legal tolerance which Christians should surely defend belongs to the present world order, to the time when the kingdom of God has dawned but has not yet been consummated, because one day God will not tolerate anything that steps outside the purpose of his holy will in the new heaven and in the new earth.
Is intolerance, then, a sin, or is it merely the entailment of a holy God being God in that context, in a perfect world? But if Christians try to take that context of a perfect world which is not yet and bring it back to here, then Christians themselves will become persecutors. Of course, in the right context, the same sentence (“Christians gladly tolerate other religions”) might suggest not legal tolerance but social tolerance.
In a multicultural society, people of different religions should mix together without slights and condescension for all people have been made in the image of God. That’s right. All will give an account to him on the last day. That’s right. Of all people, Christians ought to know they are not one whit socially superior to others. They talk about a great Savior, but they do not think of themselves as a great people. Social tolerance should be encouraged. We could make further distinctions.
In the older view of tolerance, a person might be judged tolerant if, while holding strong views, he or she insisted others had the right to dissent from those views and argue their own cases. This older view of tolerance makes several assumptions. First, there is objective truth out there and it is our duty to pursue truth.
Secondly, the various parties in a dispute think they know what the truth of the matter is even though they disagree sharply, each party thinking the other party is wrong. Thirdly, nevertheless, they hold the best chance of uncovering the truth of the matter or the best chance of persuading most people with reason and not with coercion is by the unhindered exchange of ideas no matter how wrongheaded some of those ideas may seem to us.
In other words, this third assumption demands all sides insist their opponents must not be silenced or crushed. Free inquiry may eventually bring the truth out. Some people argue (sometimes a bit naively) it is likely to convince the greatest number of people. One version of this older view of tolerance (we might call it the secular libertarian version) has another wrinkle to it.
In his famous text on liberty, John Stuart Mill (1807–1873) opts for a secularist basis to tolerance. In the domain of religion, Mill argues, there are insufficient rational grounds for verifying the truth claims of any religion. The only reasonable stance toward religion is therefore public agnosticism in the domain of religion and private benign tolerance.
For Mill, in other words, people should be tolerant in the domain of religion not because this is the best way to uncover the truth but precisely because whatever the truth there are insufficient means for uncovering it. That view of tolerance also circulates very widely today.
There was a parable made famous by a slightly different thinker, Gotthold Lessing (1729–1782), which nicely illustrates this perspective. It circulates in all the literature on this subject. Lessing sets his parable in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. The setting is critical to understanding what Lessing was trying to establish by his parable.
This setting is a conversation among three characters each of whom represents one of the world’s three monotheistic religions: Saladin, the Muslim sultan; Nathan the Wise, a Jew; and a Christian Knight Templar. Saladin says to Nathan the Wise, “You are so wise; now tell me, I entreat, what human faith, what theological law hath struck you as the truest and the best?” Instead of answering directly, Nathan tells his parable which, of course, is Lessing who is creating.
“A man owned an opal ring of superlative beauty and extraordinary, not to say magical, powers. Whoever wore it was beloved by God and by human beings. He had received it from his father, who had received it from his, and so on—it had been passed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial.
The man with the ring had three sons, each of whom he loved equally, and to each of whom he promised, at one time or another, that he would give the ring. Approaching death, the man realized, of course, that he could not make good on his promises, so he secretly asked a master jeweler to make two perfect copies of the ring. The jeweler did such a magnificent job that the rings were physically indistinguishable, even though only one had the magical powers.
Now on his deathbed, the man called each of his sons individually to his side with the others not knowing each had been invited in and gave to him a ring. Then the man did the decent thing and died. Only then did his sons discover that each of the sons had a ring. They began to argue about which one now possessed the magical ring”. In the play, Nathan the Wise describes their bickering and comments:
[The brothers] investigate, recriminate, and wrangle all in vain
Which was the true original, genuine ring
Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable
The one true faith.
So wanting to resolve their dispute, the brothers asked a wise judge to settle the issue, but his ruling refuses to discriminate. The judge says:
If each of you in truth received his ring
Straight from his father’s hand, let each believe
His own to be the true and genuine ring.
The judge urges the brothers to abandon their quest to determine which ring is the magical original. Each brother should instead accept his ring as if it were the original and in that conviction live a life of moral goodness. This would bring honor both to their father and to God.
Lessing’s parable resonates with his eighteenth-century Enlightenment readers. The three great monotheistic religions were so similar that each group should happily go on thinking their religion was the true one and focus on lives of virtue and goodness, free of nasty dogmatism, the dogmatism that was blamed for the bloody wars of the previous century.
What was called for, in other words, was religious tolerance. There is no harm in believing that your monotheistic religion is best provided you live a good life and let others think of their religion as their best, so there’s small wonder that this parable retains its appeal to readers in the twenty-first century. People today are no less skeptical about claims to exclusive religious truth than were Lessing’s readers.
They will be inclined to think well of a religion if it produces morally respectable, nice, religiously tolerant adherence, but today, of course, the parable would have to be revised. Instead of three rings, we would need dozens of them if not hundreds to symbolize the mutual acceptability of the many religious options: monotheistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic.
Of course, we could not concede today as Lessing could that one of the rings was actually original and with magic powers. None of them are. That’s the secular option. But in some ways Lessing’s parable is, when you stop to think about it, not very satisfying. To make the parable work, at least three rather ridiculous stances have been incorporated into the story.
First, the God figure in the parable (the man with the original magic ring) foolishly promises the ring to each of his three sons even though he knows full well he cannot make good on his multiple promises. Far from loving his three sons equally, he is presented as a weak fool who makes impossible promises.
This is not an incidental detail to the story. It is an essential component that sets up why the father goes to the trouble of deceiving at least two of his sons with fake rings. Has God made impossible and mutually conflicting promises to his disparate sons ostensibly loving all of them so much he ends up lying to them?
Secondly, the entire parable presupposes we, the readers of the parable, know what God has done. Far from fostering a benign tolerance on the ground that we cannot know which ring is the original, this tolerance is, in reality, grounded in the dogmatic certainty that God himself has produced fake rings because he cannot bear to disappoint any of his sons.
In other words, the story works only because the reader has the outsider’s knowledge of what God has done. Far from advocating a certain kind of epistemological restraint grounded in our ignorance of what God has done, the parable assumes the reader knows exactly what God is like. He is the kind of father who happily creates counterfeit rings to keep his boys happy and in the dark.
Thirdly, equally implausible in this story is the way in which the fake rings are physically indistinguishable from the genuine original yet lacking in the original’s power. If over time the original does not produce distinctive blessings owing to its magical properties, its magic is so weak as to be irrelevant. In other words, the counterfeits are not only good copies physically, but they seem to work as well as the original provided each son thinks the copy is the original.
In other words, we’re taken away from a powerful religion that actually transforms people to multiple religions where it doesn’t matter all that much whether one of them is truly powerful or not; what matters is that its defenders think it is powerful. The same problem faces the account of the dialogue between Timothy and the Muslim caliph of Baghdad about AD 800, an account Philip Jenkins has made popular.
“Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800 he engaged in a famous debate with a Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. ‘Imagine,’ Timothy said, ‘that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they’ve found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.’
He said, ‘In the same way, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world. Each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet, all he could claim—and all the caliph could say in response—was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.’ ”
Once again, there is a precious pearl but only one precious pearl. Under this narrative, the dawning light will expose the stones for what they are. Still, even though Lessing’s parable is riddled with conceptual problems, one understands how it makes a powerful appeal in his own day and continues to resonate with many readers in our world, too.
In one respect, however, Lessing’s parable is not very contemporary at all. Both Mill and Lessing thought there is objective truth out there. After all, there is an original magic ring, but their rationalist and secular presuppositions drove them to infer that, at least in some domains, the truth is not acceptable. One can think something or other is true and argue the case, but if one cannot prove this something is true in a manner that conforms to the verification standards of public science then the wisest stance is benign tolerance.
In other words, here’s my point. You knew I’d get here eventually. The older view of tolerance held either that the truth is objective and can be known and the best way to uncover it is bold tolerance of those who disagree since sooner or later the truth will win out or that while truth can be known in some domains, it probably can’t be known in other domains, and the wisest and the least malignant course in such cases is benign tolerance grounded in the superior knowledge that recognizes our limitations.
By contrast, the new tolerance today argues that there is no one view that is exclusively true. Strong opinions are nothing more than strong preferences for a particular version of reality, each version equally true. Lessing wanted people to be tolerant because, according to him, we cannot be sure which ring is the magic one, but he did not deny there is a magic ring.
The new approach to tolerance argues all the rings are equally magic or non-magic. That means the reason for being tolerant is not that we cannot know which ring is magic, nor that this is the best way to find out which ring is magic, but rather, since all the rings are equally magic or non-magic, it is irresponsible to suggest any of the rings are merely a clever imitation without magical power. We must be tolerant not because we cannot distinguish the right path from the wrong path but because all paths are equally right.
If you begin with this new view of tolerance and then elevate it to the supreme position in the hierarchy of moral virtues, then the supreme sin is intolerance. The trouble is such intolerance like the new tolerance has also taken on a new definition. Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their peace in public but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid.
To question such axioms is, by definition, intolerant. For such questioning, there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classed as intolerance which is the supreme sin and must, therefore, be condemned. It has become the supreme vice and becomes a defeater belief which will not allow public conversation of moral and religious questions.
The importance of the distinction between the older view of tolerance and the newer view can scarcely be exaggerated. I don’t think it is possible to make sense of an awful lot of public proclamations on tolerance without understanding the distinction. In a much quoted line, Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ottawa writes, “Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.”
The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) asserts, “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.” But why? Might one not hold a certain dogma to be correct, to hold it absolutely, while insisting that others have the right to hold conflicting things to be dogmatically true? Indeed, does not the assertion, “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism” sound a trifle dogmatic and absolute?
Thomas Helmbock, executive vice president of the national Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity writes, “The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal. There is no hierarchy of truth. Your beliefs and my beliefs are equal and all truth is relative. But if, however, the new tolerance evaluates all values and beliefs as positions worthy of respect, one may reasonably ask if this includes Nazism, Stalinism, child sacrifice, or how about the stances of the Klu Klux Klan or other assorted ethnic supremacist groups?”
What starts off sounding broadminded and wise is self-destructive and stupid. In other words, I claim the new tolerance is intellectually confused and morally bankrupt. It’s intellectually confused because it has so redefined tolerance as to be nonsensical. I can understand what this statement means: “Capitalist A tolerates Communist B.” I understand what that means. I can understand what that means provided I’m using the old definition of tolerance, but under the new definition of tolerance, Capitalist A can’t actually disagree with Communist B.
The Capitalist might say, “I dislike your views,” but dare not say, “Your views are profoundly wrong. They’re evil. They’re mistaken.” Vice versa, the Communist can’t say to the Capitalist that they’re wrong, they’re evil, or they’re mistaken. The most he can say is, “I don’t like them. They’re not my choice. But your views are fine for you, and my views are fine for me,” in which case, what does tolerance actually mean?
I don’t think you can speak intelligently of tolerance until you disagree with people in the first place. You have to be able to say, “I think your ideas in some domain or other are nonsensical, but you can hold them if you like. There are no sanctions against you, but it’s really ridiculous.” But if you say, “I can’t disagree with you,” and “I tolerate you,” words are losing all their meaning.
It is an intellectually bankrupt perspective, but it’s equally a morally bankrupt perspective because it thinks of itself as holding the virtuous high ground since tolerance has become the supreme virtue. It holds the high ground, it thinks, while being massively intolerant of absolutely anybody and any position that disagrees with its own definition of tolerance in the first place. Thus, it is an intrinsically intolerant position. That’s why it’s morally bankrupt. It claims to be following one thing and, in fact, is bankrupt across the board.
This could be pursued on all kinds of fronts, but let me take up one area that is incredibly sensitive today. I understand this. Today, there is probably no more hot-button conversation topic in public concourse than homosexuality. Recently, a young woman of my acquaintance, a junior clerk in a company, was just doing her work, and a chap she had seen in the office whom she hadn’t known really came up to her and said, “I hear that you’re a Christian.”
She said, “Yes, I am.” “Does that mean you hate me because I’m a homosexual?” She said, “No. I don’t hate you. I don’t even know you. I’m a Christian. I believe what the Bible says, that homosexuality is not a good thing, but the Bible says there are lots of things that are not good things. I’m happy to know you. I’m happy to work with you.”
He went to HR and complained that he felt threatened and diminished by this homophobic Christian in the office. She was fired on Monday in the name of tolerance. God help us, there are a lot of intolerant people out there with respect to homosexuals, people who make filthy jokes and diminishing comments, but as I read the current scene, there is a lot more intolerance coming from the homosexual side toward those who actually disagree with them on their moral position. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically homophobic.
Therefore, it is impossible to have a serious moral discussion about homosexuality or any other form of sexual behavior and conduct, because already you have been marginalized by the label homophobic and by the label intolerant. That’s a defeater belief. Thus, it refuses to engage. This is part of a much bigger phenomenon in culture.
In the past, whether you came from a Catholic tradition of natural law or from the confessional Protestant position that insisted there is something of God’s moral law that is written on the human conscience, on the human heart, nevertheless, it was widely presupposed in Western culture granted this Judeo-Christian heritage that there are many moral issues that are pre-political.
Before you start talking politics, you have to start talking right and wrong, but if you hold that nothing is pre-political, then you establish right and wrong by judicial decisions. You establish right and wrong by legislation. You establish right and wrong by political fiat, and nothing is pre-political.
That means what you work hard for are political decisions that go in the direction you want things to go. If the court says it’s okay, then it’s okay. It’s a good thing. If you think it’s a bad thing, quite frankly, you’re intolerant. It has become extraordinarily difficult to undertake serious moral discourse in our conversation in our generation on any number of subjects today partly because most people in our culture do not have categories for pre-political discussion of moral issues. That’s even before I start quoting chapter and verse.
We are entering a time, therefore, in Western culture, where unless this turns around in reformation and revival or the swing of a pendulum or whatever, there is very little doubt in my mind, if current trends continue, you will sooner or later (sooner rather than later) find Christian congregations or Christian institutions or Christians in general losing their jobs like this young woman who lost her job a couple of weeks ago or being fined prodigious amounts simply because they are already judged to have committed the most heinous offense. Namely, they are intolerant.
The question begins to arise.… How do we address such matters? That would be a lecture in itself. Let me say a few things. The book I mentioned, The Intolerance of Tolerance, tries to tease this out in much more detail and traces, also, something of the history of tolerance in Christian circles and outside to understand what the various contributions of ethical thinkers have been and to look at what Scripture says about some of these issues.
It really is important to put this discussion in a broader historical framework. We didn’t suddenly spring up. There are trends and traces in culture that have shaped us and brought us to this point, and a thinking Christian out to try to find out what they are. But supposing things go really badly …
They may not! They may not! God may raise things up in spectacular reformation and revival. God may give a swing of the pendulum in another direction. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and as a friend of mine says, I work for a non-profit organization; nevertheless, there are some things that can be said if a wheel is coming off.
Our dear friend and brother, Al Mohler, is writing a book titled The Day After Tomorrow or something like that. What it means is eventually the courts come down and say homosexual marriage, for example, is the law of the land. It’s protected by the constitution, so read. What happens next? I’m looking forward to reading the book. Then I can find out what I’m supposed to have said in this talk. There are a number of things that must be said.
1. Love people. Do not go on a hate binge. Do not paint those who disagree with you as demons. Talk. Love people. Likewise, you try to evangelize anybody. Homosexual, heterosexual, I really don’t care. You still evangelize people with care and interest. Have them in your homes for meals and cherish them. Love is a powerful witness even in and of itself. When it comes to Christian acceptance of converted homosexuals in the church, that’s another whole subject I would love to get into. That one’s just too big here.
2. Be prepared to suffer. It may come to that. In which case, don’t lash out. Just be faithful to Jesus. It may come to that. It may not, but it may.
3. In some cases, it’s worth challenging some of this. You have to do it with the right attitude. You recall how sometimes in his ministry Paul simply accepts a Roman beating and other times he says, “Wait a minute. I’m a Roman citizen. You don’t have the right to do that.” I think there are discernable reasons I don’t have time to go into here about why Paul sometimes adopts one stance and sometimes another stance, but there are times to challenge the decisions that are coming down.
For example, if this young woman who got sacked a couple of weeks ago of my acquaintance had been another sort of personality, if she had more money, if she had more courage, she might have questioned that decision on the ground of its intolerance because she wasn’t threatening anybody or demeaning anybody. She had not said a harsh word.
It becomes important sometimes for Christians to stand up to see if the courts, in fact, will start striking a mediating stance if certain positions are held up straight, not just for her own sake because she wants to keep her job but because it sets up a certain standard that protects the next person who is in a similar situation.
It becomes an act of Christian charity to protect and safeguard the stance of other Christians who find themselves in the same sort of position. My prediction is there will be lots and lots and lots of such cases in the future before this sort of settles down even on the worst projection because some of this is so transparently intolerant and foolish that it is going to get challenged in the courts.
4. When all else fails, be happy. Don’t go around frightened. Be a joyful, confident Christian in happy allegiance to Jesus who says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If that means some of us have to take some knocks, so be it. God is no one’s debtor. It will all get sorted out in eternity. Meanwhile, we will bear witness to Christ Jesus and try to practice the best kind of tolerance, knowing in the end there is one judge and he will make the books straight.
I have a little flashing clock down in front of me here that tells me we have about five minutes for Q&A. In fact, we might have a little more than that. If anyone would like to ask a question, there are two microphones here. If you want to come up to one of those microphones and ask a question so that everybody can hear it for posterity, that would be really wonderful.
Male: Dr. Carson, how do you recommend pastors speak to their congregations regarding this homosexual issue?
Don Carson: An astute question, one that many are asking. If you are dealing with Scripture in an expository fashion, you will come up with these sorts of passages, and the best way to deal with them is as you come up with them. If you’re going through 1 Corinthians, you’re going to deal with them. If you’re going through Romans, you’re going to deal with them.
There is also a place when you’re dealing with passages in Leviticus to talk more broadly about the relationship between the old covenant and the new because, the biggest charge that is brought up is.… I don’t know if it’s the biggest. One of the biggest charges that is brought up is, “You Christians cite one passage in Leviticus but don’t talk about stoning adulterers.”
That is tied up with the relationship between the old covenant and the new and questions of that sort, so it’s important for Christians to have a whole understanding as to how their Bible is put together, a whole theology that is mature to think through what the texts say. By and large, I would not fly a banner out the front that says, “Sunday night Pastor Bob is speaking on homosexuality.”
A brother on the council of The Gospel Coalition, someone whose name most of you know, recently was preaching through biblical texts, and in the context of biblical texts the text he was expounding mentioned quite a number of sins. He had about 90 seconds in the sermon on homosexuality, but he mentioned all kinds of other things (infidelity, hate, and whatever other sins he mentioned).
In fact, there was someone who sat in on the congregation that Sunday, a lesbian, as it turned out. It was her first visit. She fastened in on that, raised the banner, and the next week outside the church there were parades and banners, and he was dismissed as a homophobic person with articles in the newspaper and all of that.
To be quite frank, when I am speaking on this subject, I insist on letting people know privately and in smaller numbers. Then I’m prepared to talk about it at length, not because I’m afraid of conflict but because the conflict usually comes in so heavily that it’s impossible to have a rational discussion.
I have had some private, serious, rational discussions on university campuses with those who disagree on this point or another, but by and large in the local church what I would recommend is don’t make this a federal issue. Just be faithful right across the board. Preach the gospel. Preach the Word with integrity. If there comes a time when you have to speak a little more comprehensively in a topical fashion, then do it without announcing it. Just go ahead and quietly do it.
Male: Could you explain in a little more depth why a group like the New Atheism, which is fundamentally intolerant by any meaningful sense of that word, can claim the language of tolerance and be intellectually acceptable on that level?
Don: That’s a good question, but it’s bound up with the fact that there’s an awful lot of the new tolerance (the new intolerance) that is remarkably inconsistent. It’s not an evenhanded or rationally sensible position, so I would argue the New Atheism is virulent, it’s interesting, it’s sharp, it’s not particularly profound, it understands almost nothing about epistemology, but it makes a good counter-partner in debate and discussion.
Those who are already committed to a secular worldview will already have biases on that side, so inevitably there are biases in all of our positions, and once tolerance itself becomes the chief virtue, then those who agree with you, you bless as tolerant whether or not they are and those who disagree with you, you curse as intolerant whether or not they are. That’s the new rhetoric because the tolerance/intolerance axis is what’s dividing good and evil.
Male: I, and I’m sure many here, have relatives and friends who are practicing homosexuals or adamantly pluralistic in their belief systems. I guess what I’m saying is this intellectual conversation we’re having seems to be relegated to an insider conversation now and ineffective in open debates. Like you don’t want to have open debates with your homosexual friends, so while these intellectual ideas are very helpful, how do we use them in loving those people and how do we let those flesh out in practical ways to love homosexuals and pluralists?
Don: That’s an astute question as well. In some ways, this is an in-house debate but not entirely. I was on the Berkley campus a few months ago where the topic given me in front of 600 students was the intolerance of tolerance. I talked along much these same lines. I didn’t mention much about homosexuality, but in the hour-long Q&A afterwards, it came up, and in that context it was wonderful. Things went courteously.
There’s a possibility of having serious engagement along these lines, but if you’re talking about the level of personally sharing the gospel and that sort of thing, yes. Here we’re talking about the nature of a social phenomenon not how to share the gospel. Here I would say quite a lot of other things. I don’t want to turn this talk into a talk on homosexuality and homosexual evangelism because I’m really talking about the nature of tolerance. Homosexuality was merely a particularly focused case of it.
I would say in my experience at least when I have seen homosexuals converted, and I’ve seen quite a number of them converted over the years, they tend to go into one of three patterns if they’re genuinely converted. Let me backtrack. In one government report I read a few years ago (I don’t know how accurate it was), it said at the time the government’s estimate was that 87 percent of male homosexuals were, in fact, bisexual.
If you are in some sense bisexual, then obviously you can have sex either way. That means in some degree or another there’s an element of choice, at least for those 87 percent. What are you doing, then, in terms of feeding your imagination? Where’s your fantasy life going? But there’s another 13 percent, according to that particular report, that can only go one way.
Supposing they get converted, what happens? I don’t know comparable statistics for lesbians, but in my experience, there is more lesbian experimentation. What I have discovered is some, when they get converted, with care and Bible teaching and rigorous friendship, in fact, really may revert and become heterosexuals. They may, but that percentage, in my experience, has been small. Some remain homosexual in orientation all the days of their life, but they find their self-identity not in their sexuality but in Christ Jesus and are happy to remain celibate for Jesus’ sake.
The closest analogy I can think of is I’ve been married to my wife now for 37, almost 38, years, but supposing six months after we had gotten married, she had been paralyzed in some terrible motor accident and remained in a semi-vegetative state for the next 35 years. Would I have the right to remarry, to sleep around? No. For Jesus’ sake, because my identity is not finally in the marriage, nor even in my favorite wife, nor in sex, nor in heterosexuality, but in Jesus, therefore, I will be content and rejoice in the celibacy of those years.
I think there are some homosexuals who are converted who take that stance. I could introduce you to some. There are still others who, with the care of a thoughtful church and wise pastors and a really wonderful godly woman, actually enter into a heterosexual marriage, have children, have tight intimacy but will still tell you, if they stray from Jesus, where their imagination and their fantasy is going is still on the homosexual side. They live with that with what degree of faithfulness they can muster by the grace of God under the gospel until resurrection bodies in the new heaven and the new earth.
These are extraordinarily complex issues. I have no doubt God can change things at any moment he should chose, but in my experience of people who are converted, that’s the gamut of things I see, and I think more information along these lines from experienced counselors who are far wiser and more experienced than I, the David Powlisons of this world, whose witness on this front is very similar to my own and who has a lot more experience than I’ll ever have.… It seems to me we need to think in careful, understated ways about what happens when men and women come to Christ carrying all kinds of baggage, including that particular baggage.
Male: I serve in campus ministry on college campuses, and one of the challenges our groups face is that largely we are the subject of being called intolerant. What’s happening now is we’re either not being allowed access to campuses or we’re being kicked off campuses. The question comes up.… When is it worth challenging?
Largely it has been, in the past, because of conversion and evangelism. We’re trying to see conversions and evangelize. Most recently in the last year it has been more our views on homosexuality. Could you elaborate a little bit more about what you said about Paul accepting beatings sometimes and other times appealing to his citizenship?
Don: Yes. His situation is a bit different. It seems to me, as I read the texts closely, Paul will accept the beating for Christ’s sake if it’s simply a question of identifying himself as a Christian and there are no entailments for others, but where, in fact, it might protect others for him to question it on various legal grounds, he’s prepared to do so.
I don’t have a formulaic answer to your question, but there have been quite a number of courts that have actually supported the Christian plaintiff when the plaintiff says he or she has been kicked off the campus illegitimately. The argument is pretty obvious. Usually, the question arises because the student government has some sort of policy of nondiscrimination that is extraordinarily broad.
Therefore, if you say as a Christian group the leaders of that particular Christian group must be in line with what the Bible says about sexuality or whatever it says, then you’re running in defiance of the university’s regulations, but if you say, “Does that mean the local Hillel group could allow in a Nazi on their board?” or “Does a local Muslim allow an evangelical Christian?” it becomes so silly so fast, so that what you’re having in the name of diversity is not diversity.
In real diversity, you have different pockets on the campus who are all doing their own thing, but then you need the old kind of tolerance, but in the name of diversity, what is being asked for is lowest common denominator commonality, so as to elevate that virtue of the new tolerance to the supreme level.
When that has been challenged in court, it has usually won, and if you get enough of those winnings, then it’s a lot harder for the next university to kick out a campus group, but that takes courage, takes money, and takes time. I understand that. The jury’s not out on this one yet. It’s complicated, and it’s not just here. UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) in Britain has had similar court cases, and so far they’ve won.
That might change just with a degenerating culture, but I would still say some of these things are worth tackling, partly because we are a democracy. Therefore, we do have some responsibility for government. We have some options open to us the apostle Paul didn’t have. He could not really conceive of taking Caesar to court.
Male: Obamacare is now going to collect taxes for abortion and contraceptives. Do we tolerate the tax and just pay?
Don: That’s a really difficult one. If you’re talking about taxes in general.… You can’t have a transaction at a bank, you can’t buy a stock, and you can’t invest anywhere nowadays without having some money going somewhere that you don’t want it to go. It’s the complexity and integration of our whole system.
But that’s a bit different from a Christian organization that has taken a public stance on religious grounds against abortion or against abortifacients. It might not be against all pills, for example, but those that get rid of the baby by a kind of abortion. The best book on the moral and theological integration of the subject that I know is a recent one by Megan Best. It’s probably in the bookstore as well. I don’t know if she’s here for this pre-council, but she’s certainly here for the main conference and is running one of the workshops. She’s a medical doctor from Australia.
There the issues I would want to argue are important enough to fight over. Wheaton College and The Catholic University of America have separate lawsuits, and the jury is out on what some of these things are going to mean. The real thing the Obamacare bill is pulling off here is trying to define what is and is not a religious exception, so in theory they’re not overturning the Second Amendment; they’re merely defining its applicability to a narrower and narrower focus, and that gives the government the right to define what is and is not religion.
In other words, if you’re running a seminary, it might be the people teaching Bible might be protected and you wouldn’t be able to force them to have the kind of insurance policy that provided contraception or whatever, but if you’re the gardener on the property, because he’s not teaching the Bible, he would not be protected. That sort of debate is coming down the track big time, and it may well be there will be some huge cases, huge court costs, huge lawsuits, huge penalties, and huge fines before that one is sorted out. I think Christians are going to have to stand up for that one.
Male: Previously I had an employer with a lot of HR training and development who worked around the area of tolerance. I’ve moved on, and I work with a different employer now, and just in general terms with tolerance, I haven’t had any issues, and I’m very grateful for the position I’m in. I’m in the financial services industry. If there was a situation, and maybe there are other people here wondering, where tolerance was brought to the table from HR from someone who felt threatened or diminished, what would you recommend as a course of action for that?
Don: For someone who felt diminished and threatened?
Male: Someone who accused you of feeling diminished or threatened and HR contacted you and now you are in a position where now you maybe would lose your job over that. What would you recommend? Like you said, not in every situation but in some situations that might be …
Don: First step, I would like to explain to HR what I think, what my attitude is, what the conversation was, and then I would even suggest, if the person is willing, for HR to mediate a face-to-face talk or with any mediator they wanted with this person so there is as open a discussion as possible instead of this thing going immediately to courts.
The automatic ruling out of a position under the flag of intolerance is precisely what is knocking out conversation. I confess I would want to push very hard on those sorts of fronts first, but it may be in some cases there will eventually be, whether I like them or not, court cases about whether or not the HR folk have acted in a discriminatory fashion by getting rid of this person who happens to be a Christian, provided he or she has not done anything genuinely defamatory.
Male: In order to embrace Christian tolerance, this old version of tolerance, do you see us embracing a Libertarian perspective or participation of Libertarian government? You spoke to degrees of tolerance. How would you address someone who would say opposing pornography would be legislating morality? Is being tolerant in the old definition being Libertarian, or is there some legitimacy to banning pornography and things like that?
Don: Another huge question. It has many, many implications. It deserves another hour just in itself, but let me try to answer briefly. There are many, many younger people today especially who are saying, “As a Christian, I agree with you that homosexuality is condemned by the Bible. I don’t want to practice it. I don’t want to see it in the church, but I don’t think it’s right to legislate against it.
If it is approved, that’s fine. Who am I to legislate against something that others do in any domain of morality whatsoever?” That’s a more Libertarian view of moral issues. Thus, it becomes possible allegedly to go along with the courts without challenging anything and have a certain kind of peace and keep your head down. All of us are drawn to that on certain fronts.
I mean, I suspect there are not many people in the room today who want to criminalize homosexuality and throw people in prison for being homosexuals, although that was the standard a century ago in much of the Western world, so why should we want to do it for homosexual marriage? It is a complicated issue. At the same time, the Libertarian view has no real place for seeing that Christians have a responsibility for what they judge to be good for the culture.
In other words, in traditional terms it’s the Anabaptist view. They’re building their own little structure in society over here, and they have no responsibility for the broader world. But if Christians hold that they do have a responsibility for the broader world, even if they lose in public debate, if they say this is ultimately going to be very harmful to society if we lose the value of what marriage is in biblical categories, then society itself is losing something.
Whether or not society becomes a Christian society or not or more people get converted or not is in, one sense, irrelevant to the question of whether or not we have social responsibilities to do good to all men, especially those of the household of God and have a responsibility to bear witness as best we can with integrity, humility, winsomeness, godliness, to get moral conversation back into the public discourse.
If you hold that to be the case as I do, then the strict, extreme Libertarian view, the Anabaptist position on moral issues, in my view, is not defensible, but I understand the issues, and they are complex.