Robust Tolerance

One of the major concerns today in the world is the increasing trend towards cultural, linguistic and religious chauvinism and the intolerance that it generates. If tolerance is a desired virtue in the context of the pluralism of our times and if the hallmark of civilised communities is to be tolerant to people while opposing their views, then what is it that undergirds such a response and how can we engage each other with respect despite our differences? Why do we tend to swing between two extremes of the ‘veneer of broadmindedness’ and ‘rabid intolerance’ as alluded to in my previous article? In the following discussion we shall attempt to answer these questions and propose an alternative model, which I would call as a more robust and realistic way of handling our differences and conflicts.

John Naisbitt and Patricia Aberdeen said, as early as in 1990s, in Mega trends 2000, one of the trends of the 21-century is that there would be a swing towards global lifestyles and cultural chauvinism.

There has been an increased trend towards assertion of individual, social and cultural identities and distinctives in recent times. Many times this has lead to factions and fragmentation. Disagreements and differences have torn apart families, communities and nations. Today we have fragmented societies, broken homes and divided nations. And we do not seem to understand how to handle differences and distinctives of people and societies – leading to schisms and factions.

Factions imply differences of opinion or beliefs. And we generally don’t know how to handle disagreements and differences. Factionalism is to be preoccupied with the differences to such an extent that we allow them to hamper or hinder our relations and unity. We must remember that we cannot be completely free from differences and disagreements. Differences are bound to come because understanding and perspectives differ. We cannot remain totally free from differences or their influence over us. It does affect our working, our relationships and our unity.

Why do we have differences? Are differences and distinctives good? Or should we strive for uniformity at any cost? Is it unity or uniformity that we are looking for?

There have been generally two approaches to solve the problem of differences and dissensions. The first one and the one mostly touted, as the best for post-modern times is to be tolerant or broadminded towards all. Such an attitude sounds so noble and virtuous that most of us do not even pause to examine if there is a flaw in such thinking. This position is based on the monistic or pantheistic understanding of the world, life and reality. This approach generally springs from the view that ultimately ALL IS ONE. The distinctions or differences we see are only apparent and illusory. Therefore accept all without rejecting or making any value judgements about anyone or any position. I call this the ostrich-like or tongue-in-cheek approach, which under the veneer of broadmindedness tends to run away from the reality of differences that do exist and are a constant source of trouble. It is ostrich-like or tongue-in-cheek because it fails to face the differences that exist in realistic terms and acts is if differences do not exist. The hollowness of this view is exposed the moment this view is rejected. The best test for the proponents of this view is that they be willing to accept those who do not agree with them including those who are intolerant. Another drawback of this approach is that it negates or denies the individual identities or that they must be subsumed in the one ultimate identity, thus negating both the individual distinctions of people and their quest for recognition and acceptance. In the final analysis this approach is suicidal and self-defeating. Suicidal because if one goes on tolerating everything and anything then there would be nothing there to hold on to, including this very stand. It is self-defeating because by its very nature it must accept all other views including the intolerance of the intolerant. It is because of this reason and the insecurities arising as a result that, sooner or later they too begin to be intolerant.

The second approach has been to regiment culture and practices and to enforce faith and religion, suppressing freedom of expression and thought. This is the approach that is intolerant to all those who disagree and they often resort to rabid intolerance. We find this approach in general among most theocratic, totalitarian, and autocratic regimes in history. The stand is that one’s own view or belief is the only right one and all who do not agree with it cannot be tolerated. Theistic communities who hold to a strict monotheistic understanding of the universe, that God is ONE and therefore whoever disagrees with Him and what He says cannot be tolerated, hold this position generally. No debate, no discussion can be allowed. The world has been witness to untold, unreasonable and unfortunate violence and oppression as a result of this position. Some of the memories are of deep wounds on the psyche of several communities and nations. There might be moderates among them but moderation has no ideological basis within the view.

The third approach, which I wish to propose for consideration and debate, is what I term as a robust model. This approach is based on the Trinitarian understanding of God, the Creator. This model may be called as Trinitarian or Incarnational and is very close to the classical model of J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig [1] as quoted in my previous article.  According to the classical model, a person holds that his own moral views are true and those of his opponent are false. But he still respects his opponent as a person and his right to make a case for his views. Thus there is a duty to tolerate a different moral view, not in the sense of thinking it is morally correct, but quite the opposite, in the sense that a person will continue to value and respect one’s opponent, to treat him with dignity, to recognize his right to argue for and propagate his ideas and so forth”(italics mine). How is it possible that one can hold his views as true and his opponent’s false and yet tolerate them? What forms the basis for such a position?

Such a position is possible because of the understanding that God exists as Triune being. There is unity and there is diversity within the Godhead. God is ONE yet THREE. God is ONE because of the communion. God is THREE because of the room, the space they give each other to exist, to express and to BE. The three are in such mutual communion and inter-mingling in their giving and receiving from each other in love and fellowship, retaining their distinctives and particularity. God existed in his pristine solitude (if I may use the word). Nothing existed but He, the communion of three in perfect unity, tranquillity and love. He decided to ‘make room’ for another to exist. He not only created the material world but also self-conscious, self-expressing, rational beings like us with a free will. He made room for our thoughts, ideas, desires, actions, and abilities and finally even the possibility of our foolish lapses, follies, foibles, idiosyncrasies. He did not make us to fall but created us with the possibility to reject him.

Implications for plurality and tolerance

The idea of ‘God making room’ for another to exist has far reaching implications for plurality of ideas, expression and creativity. Hence any attempt at regimentation of people or unification to create one culture or society goes against the very grain of creation or the nature of our being.

According to this model there is room for a multiplicity of ideas, expressions, cultures and societies. The God of the Bible derives pleasure in variety. He went to the extent of taking the risk of creating a being who could disagree with him. And when he did, God without violating the freedom given to man made provision to win him over through a process of propositional, and personal revelation, thus engaging man at the level of the intellectual and the rational.  While holding on to his perfection, he works for man’s restoration through rational persuasion, personal incarnation and loving sacrifice, without the use of any coercive methods and allowing man the freedom to choose, tolerating even his rebellion. In this is the model for tolerance in today’s world. Trinitarian tolerance is giving the freedom to the other for expression and action even if it means a disagreement, but working persuasively to win him over, through rational engagement with gentleness and respect; gentleness with regards to the methods of persuasion, and respect with regard to the other’s position. (Note: This does not mean that there is no end to divine tolerance; God does mete out retributive justice at the end, but first he has borne it himself in the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ).

The incarnation of God in Christ shows us the way for settling our disputes and solving our differences – it is through genuine engagement though rational, intellectual and personal persuasion by means of discussion, debate and teaching. Not by methods of coercion or force but with gentleness and respect. This ought to be done to the point of incarnating to the level of those who we seek to win over.  This is the message for the world today, torn by differences, frustrated by oppression the only way we can handle our difficulties, differences, without losing our identities and distinctives is through tolerance of this kind. This kind of tolerance does not call for running away from reality nor to enforce ones own view. It demands that one has the confidence and the conviction of what he believes and engages in persuasion through debate to the point of entering into an incarnational identity with the people, we seek to convince. This is the challenge before all those who believe that they have something that the world must hear and learn.

This is mature and robust, for while holding to one’s own position as true, it treats its opponents with respect and makes room for them to exist and express themselves while refusing to accept their views. It is a willingness to examine the claims of its opponents and tolerate them even if there is no agreement.  A civilized society is one, which has the confidence of its own beliefs and has the willingness to examine its own views and work gracefully for change, if there is need. And also knows how to handle those who do not agree with them.

[1] Moreland, J.P. & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  (Downer’s Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2003).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s