Tolerance is not just what we need to live peaceably together in an increasingly diverse society (though that’s true): tolerance is much more important than that. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that life itself depends on tolerance, as does the fate of the entire world.
Tolerance is not, despite how the word is often employed, a vague sense that all beliefs and all religions are basically the same. This is a false idea, and this is a false definition of tolerance. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what tolerance actually implies.
Tolerance is about recognizing that all beliefs and all religions are not basically the same. In fact, tolerance recognizes that many beliefs and religions are inherently contradictory, and no amount of hand-holding and attendance at diversity seminars will make inherently contradictory beliefs the same.
Rather, tolerance is about making space for irreconcilable differences. Tolerance is not about agreement, but about tolerating viewpoints with which you vehemently disagree.
Limits of Tolerance
It should be said that the one thing that we cannot tolerate is violence (which is not the same thing as speech, however ugly and hateful that speech might be), because violence makes tolerance itself impossible. But, with the exception of violence, tolerance makes room for all other actions and choices and beliefs.
A Theology of Tolerance
One of the main expressions of tolerance in the American Constitution is in our First Amendment: our right to religious freedom. (The First Amendment literally says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) But religious freedom is not just a nice idea, codified into law. Rather, religious freedom is a principle built on the bedrock of reality, because it’s a principle that is obviously true: all people are free to believe whatever they want to believe. You cannot force anyone to believe anything. God created us as completely free creatures, and we can use that freedom in whatever way we want. We are even free to believe ugly things and free to act in ugly ways, free even to reject God himself. And God permits this freedom.
God, you might say, is tolerant.
In fact, I think that the Lord is far more tolerant than I would be, were I in his place: I’d never have allowed that evil man to massacre all those people in that Orlando nightclub.
But then again, neither would I have so loved the world that I would have given my only son for the world, knowing that the world (which I created) would reject and kill him. God’s tolerance, you might say, made the Crucifixion possible.
Which means God’s tolerance also made the Resurrection possible.
Which means that tolerance is part of God’s plan to save the world.