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The Intolerance of Tolerance Review

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April 30, 2014

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Learning about the World We Live In

Don Carson is an informer. Don’t get me wrong; Carson is an excellent writer who communicates his points clearly, compellingly, and occasionally with a wit that makes the reader laugh (or groan) out loud.

In reading Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance, I learned a lot about the world I live in. In being informed about current events in government and society, events that greatly impact my ability to work as a counselor with a biblically-informed ethic, Carson helped me discover how to think through my response to tough issues that have or will walk through my office door. I chose this book specifically to help me consider how to respond to the gay couple seeking marital counseling, or the pastor struggling with anxiety who smokes marijuana daily since the drug was legalized. I not only developed an internal construct for addressing my concerns, I took away far more as I developed a broader awareness of the probable looming threats to biblical counseling as a field.

Tolerance used to mean a respectful engagement with another person with whom we disagree.  Tolerance was once consistent with humble self-examination, and thoughtful attempts to persuade others to more truth-based belief and action, all for good purposes. This kind of tolerance is a necessary ingredient of biblical counseling.

Tolerance Isn’t What It Used to Be

In a famous Friends’ episode, Rachel makes a “traditional” English trifle for Thanksgiving dessert, which she carefully follows from her cookbook. Unaware that two pages are stuck together, and that her dessert is half trifle and half shepherd’s pie, Rachel explains to Joey and Ross that “First there is a layer of lady fingers, then a layer of jam, then custard, which I made from scratch, raspberries, more lady fingers, then beef sautéed with peas and onions, then more custard.” The new tolerance is about as appealing as Rachel’s trifle.

What is the old and new tolerance?

The old tolerance holds that “a different and opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist…” (p. 3). This older view of tolerance, which Carson views as superior (though not without flaws) to the new, assumed that objective truth existed, people who disagreed with one another believed they knew “the truth,” and that the best path of persuading others to abandon their wrong beliefs in favor of correct ones is through rational debate, not coercion. The new tolerance, on the other hand, “argues that there is no one view that is exclusively true” (p. 11). Since “no absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism” (p. 13), those who hold to the new tolerance are “prone to label all of its opponents intolerant” (p. 15). The new tolerance strikes at the heart of biblical counseling in which wrong beliefs are lovingly challenged in light of Scriptural truth.

Carson’s stroll through history in Chapter Two (What is Going On?) is as eye opening as it is disturbing. Under the banner of promoting tolerance, Carson informs the reader about the many social institutions utilizing intolerance as their primary tool to evoke the value of tolerance. Banks send their customers packing because the bank deems the customer to be intolerant in their views. Educational institutions bypass due process (discipline without investigation) because students claim that a respected professor used intolerant speech. Doctors are losing their right to opt out of performing what they view to be acts against their personal consciences on the grounds that their personal values are intolerant of patient rights.

Carson brings to light event after event in which intolerant actions occurred against someone declared to be intolerant, all in the name of protecting the supreme virtue of tolerance. The sheer magnitude of Carson’s litany of intolerable acts of intolerant tolerance is breath taking. Whether Carson discusses politics, government, the church, or society, his probing into attitudes and values surrounding the notion of tolerance leaves the reader with an eerie sense of dread. When will the biblical counselor be deemed intolerant and aggressively “corrected” under the banner of protecting society?

It seems that, without consensus, the definition of tolerance changed in the middle of a conversation. Everyone is expected to know that the change occurred, and is required to accept and agree with it.  Tolerance is praised at the same time that faith comprised of truth claims is attacked. A pervasive attitude of intolerance, belonging to no one human face or name, is beginning to alienate believers in Jesus Christ from their fellow human beings.

I am not unfamiliar with this alienation. Having been raised in a blended family before blended families were common, I remember my father’s repeated instructions that we children be tolerant of one another. To be tolerant in my father’s eyes meant that we ignored our brothers and sisters when we disagreed with them, and we denied that true differences existed. Regardless of who did what, or who was injured or not, five half-siblings living together striving to be “tolerant” meant that hurt feelings went unaddressed, relationships were weakened, and bitterness abounded. Virtually no adult sibling relationships survived my childhood of “enforced tolerance.”

What is motivating Carson to write this book?  He is deeply concerned that believers continue to “keep reserving a place for truth, not only in our own hearts and minds, but in our interaction with the broader culture” (p 163). Carson urgently argues that individuals, society, government, and the planet are at risk if truth is lost. Certainly the field of biblical counseling is at risk, too, as biblical counselors engage in the very activities deemed a violation of society’s cherished value of tolerance—lovingly holding out truth claims to help others be personally transformed into Christ’s likeness.

Having been informed by Carson’s book and my own personal experience in my family of origin, I am convinced that an unhealthy definition and application of the “tolerance” truly has the power to damage people and weaken the fabric of community.

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