Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tolerance & Being the Church

The following three views of tolerance provide us an opportunity to understand our faith and our religious commitment on a more profound level than we might otherwise do. The first view is that of the Reverend John Stott, the great English evangelist who has been a significant part of the resurgence of the evangelical movement throughout the world. The Reverend Donald Perschall of the Diocese of Dallas provided this quote from Stott’s The Authentic Jesus on the House of Bishops and Deputies listserv. The second piece is written by Tom Woodward, retired priest living in Santa Fe, New Mexico and member of the board of The Episcopal Majority, in response to the Stott quote. The Reverend Michael Russell, Rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in San Diego, California, is the author of the third reflection. We hope many of you will provide additional insights on this critical issue in the "comments" section.

Three Kinds of Tolerance (Stott)

How then are we to think of other religions? The word that immediately springs to most people's minds is 'tolerance', but they do not always stop to define what they mean by it. It may help if we distinguish between three kinds.

The first may be called legal tolerance, which ensures that every minority's religious and political rights (usually summarized as the freedom to 'profess, practise and propagate') are adequately protected in law. This is obviously right.

Another kind is social tolerance, which encourages respect for all persons, whatever views they may hold, and seeks to understand and appreciate their position. This too is a virtue which Christians wish to cultivate; it arises naturally from our recognition that all human beings are God's creation and bear his image, and that we are meant to live together in amity.

But what about intellectual tolerance, which is the third kind? To cultivate a mind so broad that it can tolerate every opinion, without ever detecting anything in it to reject, is not a virtue; it is the vice of the feeble-minded. It can degenerate into an unprincipled confusion of truth with error and goodness with evil. Christians, who believe that truth and goodness have been revealed in Christ, cannot possibly come to terms with it.

From The Authentic Jesus (London: Marshalls, 1985), p. 69.

Response from Tom Woodward

I believe there is another level of tolerance which involves toleration of ambiguity. Too often we sacrifice ambiguity to our anxiety in having to settle for belief instead of certainty. While most of us believe passionately in the God revealed in Holy Scripture and the life of the church, our knowledge is not certainty and our conceptions of God are partial.

Several years ago I attended the showing of an IMAX movie about the stars and the immensity of the universe. At the end of the movie, earth was pointed out as a tiny dot in the middle of the Milky Way. Even though I knew that, it was shocking to see – especially against what was becoming the capture of the Christian Church by those who demanded certainty, not only for themselves but for everyone else.

Against the backdrop of infinity, mystery is so much more reliable than certainty – and probably closer to the truth.

When we use Scripture as a club instead of a path into mystery and love, we use it in a way that Jesus never did. While the author of the fourth Gospel has Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me," we delude ourselves, I think, when we assert that we understand what that means in the way that we understand most other things.

God calls us into relationship, not into a vocation of dominance over Buddhists, Jews, or even pagans. We affirm what we know and what we believe – and we do so knowing that it is saving truth for us. That is our faith, not a club. That is the root of the tolerance beyond what John Stott saw – and it has to do with the essence of the incarnation, transfiguration, resurrection as clothed in mystery and wonder, not certainty.

Response from Michael Russell

There have been several references to Freidman/Bowen Family systems theory these past few days. In light of the Stott quotation, I have a few musings for you.

Our "orthodox" brethren and sisteren seem essentially insecure and codependent to me. For many of them, the security of their own self seems to depend on others believing the same as they do. If someone else believes differently, their beliefs are threatened. Every time we hear the claim that a homosexual relationship threatens marriage, we are hearing a statement of insecurity and co-dependence – i.e., my happiness/security depends on your behavior/belief. It is intolerable for them that anyone believes differently, because they have no internal surety of their belief ... it is all dependent on others.

A self differentiated adult, however, can hold his or her personal belief regardless of what others believe and can exist in the world where there is a multiplicity of opinion. Such an adult is not dependent on others' agreeing for confirmation of his or her deeply held convictions. So neither homosexual not rampant heterosexual misbehavior can possibly threaten their marriage or anyone else's for that matter. They can assess others' points of view and behaviors without needing them to agree or be in congruence with their own.

Tolerance is possible for adults who are secure in their convictions. It is intolerable for adolescent faith which is always measuring itself against its peers and is happiest when all the peers affirm.

In short, whenever someone's happiness or security depends on someone else's agreement or behavior, we are in the adolescent co-dependent zone. Adult faith can hold its position without demanding anyone else's conformity. Stott's obsession with conformity is simply a case of arrested development.


Blogger MatthewRG said...

I think that the idea that Christians are called to "tolerance" in any form is itself flawed. No where in the Gospels do I find Jesus settling for tolerance. The standard that the Gospels hold up for us is nothing less than the standard of love. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." It is, to be sure, a demanding standard. I make no claim to live up to it myself. But I think it is one which we cannot ignore. I don't think Jesus would counsel anyone in our church these days to merely tolerate one another. Rather, I feel confident he would ask us to love each other. The challenge for us is to figure out what that love would look like in the present environment. Personally, I never have wanted to be tolerated, and I really don't know anyone who does.

Peace to everyone,
Matthew (a priest)
Knoxville, Tennessee

4/10/2007 7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Reverend Donald Perschall has constructed a strawman and then proceeded, not surprisingly, to knock it down with ease. Tolerance does not mean “to accept every opinion, without ever detecting anything in it to reject,” but rather to neither coercively forbid nor prevent the holdinig or advocating an opinion. It is the mirror image of freedom of conscience.

I rather suspect if Matthew has ever been a victim of intolerance to the point of physical violence, he can appreciate why some, while preferring to be loved, are quite willing to settle for tolerance if need be.


4/11/2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger Reid said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/11/2007 3:57 PM  
Blogger Reid said...

[My apologies for removing my last post. It contained a confusing grammatical error that I had missed on first review. The corrected text follows.]

With regard to Woodward's response, I am not altogether convinced that he is advocating for a tolerance that is different in quality from Stott's social tolerance. While he invokes a lot of religious language to try to set "toleration of ambiguity" apart from Stott's "social tolerance", I see in both a recognition that we are to live together and seek to understand each other in this pluralistic world of ours. I think what Woodward means to suggest is that some degree of intellectual tolerance is necessary to social tolerance, i.e. as Christians we are called to witness from a humble intellectual posture even while believing our witness to be true. Put this way, I think Stott would agree with Woodward despite the absolutism we see in this passage. Granted, I think they would still disagree about the degree to which we should as Christians embrace ambiguity.

I think we also must keep in mind the time at which Stott is writing; 1985 was a long time ago and dialog about religious pluralism was 22 years less advanced.

With regard to Russell's response, while I think it is fair to analyze the psychology of religious belief, the last sentence turns the comment into an ad hominem against a great and good mind. I hope it does not reflect a lack of charity.

4/11/2007 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Friends,

Tolerance as described - Legal, Social, Intellectual; Tolerance defined as requiring openness to ambiguity; Tolerance further understood as a confident willingness to co-exist with differing views - all of these are significant aspects of the level of interpersonal permeability in our personal boundaries.

The last example, provided by Russell, comes close to hitting the mark.

We thrive in our Christianity, introspectively, in our personal relationship with our Almighty God. In and through our discipleship under Jesus, who for us proclaims his oneness with God, we open ourselves to the same dynamic and divine union that he embodies.

At the same time, we thrive in our Christianity through the extrovertive act of living the Way, spreading the Gospel, in Grace, by bringing this inner union through Jesus into the outer world and into interpersonal relationships.

So, Russell finds a key to necessary stability in first establishing ourselves inwardly upon the Rock of Christ. To make this establishment, what are we to do? We study, immersing and weaving ourselves into the fabric of the Scriptures. We take stock in Tradition, trusting in the history of our Faith. Thirdly, we seek to allow the exchange of ideas and experience through active involvement in community and the mutually beneficial exercise of Reason for the sake of exploring each other's souls. To do any less is to leave an important aspect of our discipleship wanting. We must engage ourselves, having established our own Christing, in the lives of others. But, fourthly, we also, by continuing to act in faith, become infused with the Light of Christ, providing the safety to walk into the places that are unsafe, to spread the Gospel.

But, experience has taught us that to be effective in the personal exchange, we must also respect the dignity and boundaries of others.

Did Jesus rush around healing all and any who were sick? Not exactly. In fact, almost every healing that we have read about came as a result of, in his own words, the faith of the healed in the Healer. They were open to his touch or their faith was the key that opened the door to his grace.

This was the tolerance of Jesus - to go through the world offering the Holy Spirit to those who could accept. This was also his command to his disciples when he sent them, two by two, on their missions. Why do we, today, expect to be able to effectively transmit the Gospel in any other way?

We must be tolerant. In the present difficulty within TEC and the Anglican Communion, it is my opinion that we, ourselves, have created an artifice of intolerance out of a short-sighted interpretation of Scripture, in order to err on the side of what we believe to be righteous caution. Instead, we have unintentionally created a series of lines in the sand. Whether it be the Ordination of Gays living their lives or the Ordination of women, we now feel impelled to defend or assault the establishment of the sand line that we, ourselves, have created. We forget that the wind of the Holy Spirit can obscure the clarity of that line in a moment by providing a new discovery or a revelation that forces us to bend or discard the previously accepted paradigm. Remember, that is what Jesus did with the Hebrew establishment. That is what the Anglican church did by declaring the existence of individual responsibility. In every case when change comes upon us, defense of what we thought we understood is the natural response. We cannot confidently let go.

By the same token, we cannot force the new understanding, once realized, upon those who have retreated to a safe harbor when they are fearing their own seaworthiness in sailing out into the storm. Yet, the Gallileans sailed and were met and saved by Christ.

We must be tolerant to a fault, to the Cross, to the acceptance of the outcast and the misunderstood, standing only on our faith.


4/12/2007 10:04 AM  

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