“On Tolerance and Intolerance”
A few days ago I was teaching the natural sciences to a sixth grade class in Honduras. The subject of the lesson was human development. The textbook enumerated a few different areas of human development including physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual. Under the “spiritual” heading, the textbook authors wrote that one develops spiritually by acquiring certain universal virtues, among which are love, respect, solidarity, and tolerance. Upon reading that section, I reflected for a moment on the “virtue” of tolerance. Fulton Sheen once wrote, “Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to principles. Intolerance applies only to principles, but never to persons.” This distinction is wise, yet infrequently recognized in today’s world. I should be tolerant of another person because that person espouses an inherent human dignity, but that personal tolerance does not necessarily entail an implicit acceptance of the other person’s ideas and/or principles.
Where, then, do I think many of us–including myself–have gone wrong in the recent past? Let me pose the following question to illustrate my point: how often have you heard a friend say, “I believe such-and-such, yet I would never want to impose that belief on others.”? I certainly encounter it frequently, and I am guilty of employing it from time to time, too. The result of this mindset is a vast and dangerous indifference that prefers political correctness over the truth. Let’s be honest. Where would Christians be today if our forerunners failed to ruffle some feathers back in the 1st century Roman Empire? What would Black America look like now if brave souls from the past had decided not to put forth an agenda of equal opportunity because that agenda might step on some toes? These revolutionaries certainly did not give way to permissibility simply for the sake of permissibility. They fought for what they believed deep inside. They refused to yield to the game of polite politics because their cause was great. We don’t have to be tolerant of ideas. When it comes to the realm of principles, intolerance is to be encouraged.
In the voting booth tolerance does not have to be the default position, especially if we think that we hold the correct position. Let’s debate the difficult topics not with reluctance but with passion, logic, and truth. We don’t have to bow down to negative historical trends when we have every opportunity to shape them anew towards the greater good.
I pray for the reemergence of the recognition of the dignity of every human person alongside the reemergence of the recognition that not every opinion is equally valid. Though there may have been several positives that came out of the Protestant Reformation, there is at least one negative that has spawned the evil of moral relativism: individualistic thinking. Don’t get me wrong. We should think for ourselves. However, we should not think only for ourselves. Our choices have implications, so we have the duty to think through what those implications might be. If we reflect carefully and research rigorously, then we should not be afraid to act by voicing our opinions in public. We may encounter resistance, but that resistance might be the first step towards building a better world.
May God bring you explosive and numerous blessings.