Brett: Firstly, let me set the scene a little bit. Nathaniel and i do not know each other – we recently connected on Twitter via some conversations that have been happening and when we started a little back and forth on this article titled ‘Intolerant Tolerance’  by Mark Driscoll I suggested to him that this might be an interesting conversation to blog.

So via email we are looking to have some back and forth on it and this will be whatever comes out of it.

While I agreed with the majority of what was being expressed in the article, Nathaniel had some reservations, so maybe that is a good place to start. Nathaniel, thanks for agreeing to have this conversation with me and hope it will be helpful for those who read what we write. What was it about the article that caused a reaction in you?

Nathaniel: I reacted to the title of this article before I read it, because I have heard the “your tolerance isn’t tolerance at all because you aren’t tolerating my intolerance” nonsense many times. People view the word “tolerance” in many different ways, but in my experience the most common interpretation and the one used by many Christian writers and speakers have some key differences. My dictionary (Google) defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”

 Mark seems to believe that the “new tolerance” is accepting all other beliefs as equally valid- he explicitly ties it to a lack of moral absolutes. Where is he getting this from? Of course there will be people who define it that way, but is that really the prevailing “new” way to look at it?

Brett: Well firstly, Nathaniel, you are using a definition of a word that contains the word itself, so looking up ‘Tolerate’ on your same dictionary I got this: ‘allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.’ Which in essence is what you are saying, but helps to remove the word from its definition. 

I would tend to agree with Mark that generally [and it is a generalisation, but one that is true for the majority i would suggest] does seem to be the way things are going/have gone. The call is to show tolerance to all forms of behaviour/lifestyle that have previously not been tolerated [within a religious framework] but also with an increasing mindset that “anything goes” [hence the lack of moral absolutes]. Part of that comes from the post-Christian context we now find ourselves in [where before morality was largely defined by the bible but now society as a whole does not deem that to be a suitable point of definition] but if we do not have a set standard from where morality is defined then are we not saying that each person defines morality for themselves?

Nathaniel: I am not sure the “anything goes” attitude is as pervasive as Mark and others might insist. I would also draw a distinction between each person independently creating a set of moral values, versus interpreting a given set of moral values. For instance, a random sample of Christians may agree on the Bible as a moral guide, but vary widely in their interpretations of how its instructions should be applied. Is that moral relativism? For better or for worse, each person has a different set of experiences, motives, and attitudes that will affect the way they act out a common code.

To illustrate this, take a common evangelical perspective regarding our nation’s history – the idea that the Bible and Christian principles were essential to its founding, and that we have gradually fallen away from that standard. It’s pretty clear that realities like chattel slavery and the genocide of indigenous populations don’t mesh well with this narrative. It’s easy to look back now and show how these atrocities conflicted with the morals outlined in Scripture, but what they really show is how each person (and each generation) has a certain degree of choice in how consistently and accurately they apply the teachings of Scripture

 Maybe what Mark would refer to as moral relativism in the church is just the humility to realize that our experiences as individuals are not universal, that we “see in a mirror dimly,” and that we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us.

 Brett: Nathaniel, while I would personally disagree with you on your ‘anything goes’ stance, I think I can say I agree with pretty much the rest of what you have written here. Healthy interpretation of Scripture [and how some have read it absolutely to say ‘it is our duty to kill people’ and others read it absolutely to say ‘we don’t have the right to kill people’ in the whole capital punishment question… so even the ‘absolute’ of the Bible ends up being very non-absolute once interpretation is applied and we have seen through apartheid and the crusades to name just two, how horribly that can end up looking] and the importance of being led by the Spirit to have any idea of how God is really leading us is of paramount importance. Which is where it gets infinitely tricky as both sides of an argument always claim loudly that they are led by the Spirit [except maybe the cessationists? Hm, where do they stand on this one?

While there is merit in the idea of humility and possibility of error expressed in your description of the ‘mirror dimly’ idea, surely there still need to be boundaries. People having sex with animals? Is that still a safe one to assume that most people will see as completely across the line. And yet already there are government debates and in some countries it is legalised. Surely we will corporately agree that that is a good example of something to be intolerant towards? That is one thing which I enjoyed from the article and which the pastor of my church preached on recently – the fact that we all embrace intolerance in certain ways [intolerance towards litter, intolerance towards drunk driving etc] and so as opposed to blanket tolerance, perhaps what we are needing is a combination of tolerance where it is needed as well as a healthy intolerance. What are your thoughts about that idea?

Nathaniel: Who are the masses of people applying the idea of tolerance to drunk driving or littering? Does the fact that we are a country with laws mean that we have collectively rejected this mythical form of tolerance? 

Of course not, because tolerance as a community value boils down to mutual respect and understanding. Look back at that transcript from their discussion. Does Piers even hint at this “new tolerance” against which the whole rest of Mark’s attack is focused? I don’t see anything from that excerpt that would imply a “postmodern” definition of tolerance. 

 So why does Mark use that as a starting point for this discussion, and why are we having this discussion at all? My assessment would be that conflating moral relativism and tolerance creates an bogeyman against which fundamentalists and dogmatists can defend their positions. Mark took the appearance of a buzzword in one conversation as an excuse to attack arguments that (just about) no one is making.

Brett: Nathaniel, I’m not sure you are seeing my point on the intolerance thing – the suggestion that I am making is that a certain level of intolerance is necessary for society to function well [I am not suggesting people ARE tolerant towards those things but speaking to the postmodern definition of tolerance which I would certainly hold to being more closely what Mark is suggesting than what you are saying “just about no one is making”] I don’t know that Mark took the definition of “the new tolerance” from anything Piers suggested but is using it as an assumed place of where the world seems to be at the moment, so maybe that is a good place to backtrack a little to getting a better understanding of how we both see that.

 It might be helpful to go back to the article and look at the two definitions given for tolerance and give us an idea of which one  feels more descriptive of how things are today [in general, in the world] or would you hold that neither of these are accurate?

The old view of tolerance assumed that (1) there is objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives each think they know what that objective truth is; and (3) as people/groups disagree, dialogue, and debate their conflicting views of the truth, everyone involved will have an opportunity to learn, grow, change, and possibly arrive together at the truth. 

The new tolerance is different from the old tolerance. The new view of tolerance assumes that (1) there is no objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives do not have the truth but only what they believe to be the truth; and (3) various people, groups, and perspectives should not argue and debate their disagreements because there is no truth to be discovered and to assume otherwise only leads to needless conflicts and prejudices.

Piers was pressing Mark to answer the question ‘Are you tolerant?’ and Mark was responding with a message of ‘Loving your neighbor.’ So a helpful question to look at is, do you think it is possible to love your neighbor without being tolerant of some of their beliefs or ways of living?

Nathaniel: I think tolerance is a posture of the heart and mind towards people, regardless of their beliefs or actions. Put another way, you don’t have to tolerate every action or belief, but you should treat each everyone with tolerance. Whether you believe in objective truth or moral absolutes, you can still treat your brothers and sisters with respect. Is that too simple? I think this definition of tolerance has remained the same regardless of the cultural trends that he sees. 

Brett: Okay I think we might be nearing more common ground here in terms of understanding. The idea of respect and treating a person who believes something completely different to you with love. But I think within that idea [which I imagine we would both hold to] is the more recent idea that suggests that I cannot love you and treat you with respect while also holding on to the idea that I think you are wrong in some behavior you have or action that you are doing? Because then that is not seen as tolerance and even the love and respect will in many cases be questioned [because you believe me to be wrong] Does that make sense?

Nathaniel: How pervasive is that “newer idea” (that I cannot love you and treat you with respect while also holding on to the idea that I think you are wrong). It is probably hard to quantify, since few people would self describe as exhibiting this form. 

This seems to be the key point to me : when a Christian is being accused of intolerance, as I am sure Mark often is, does it provoke us to go on the attack to insulate ourselves from criticism? Do we reflexively rail against “the wordly definition of tolerance” as we imagine it? Or are we open to criticism and to instruction? Are we willing to examine whether under the auspices of loving the sinner and hating the sin we have allowed ourselves to stand in judgment? 
I have the tendency to deflect criticism related to my spiritual journey – if someone has an issue with how I apply my faith,  it’s easy for me to believe that their issue is about the essential nature of my faith, when really it is about my imperfect practice. Often the issue is not my belief, it’s that I am being self righteous or stubborn. 
So my final point would be that I think this talk of “new tolerance” is unproductive without practical examples that also show how it affects the church. I would much prefer some self-reflection on whether we are truly practicing “Christian tolerance,” and loving people without standing in judgment.
Brett: I think you make some good points there, Nathaniel, although i do still think Mark [who i don’t agree with on a lot of stuff] is speaking about something that has become and is becoming more pervasive. Maybe you have not experienced or seen it as much, but i encourage you to keep your eyes open cos i strongly feel that is where we’re heading. You mentioned the old ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ statement which i agree with and have used often enough, but i have recently heard in multiple contexts that a variety of people feel like that is not a possible statement [Tony Campolo posted a video on it on Red Letter Christians which i didn’t get a chance to watch yet as one example but i have heard people speak of it too]. Jesus and the woman caught in sin is a prime example of the combination of ‘I don’t condemn you’ with ‘Go and sin no more.’
We didn’t touch on homosexuality, because I didn’t really want to go down that path in terms of trying to stay focused on what we’ve been talking about. But that is one example where homosexuality used to be viewed as a sin and now more and more prevalently it is being viewed as acceptable in both society and the church. But what i think Mark is alluding to in that area is now it has swung full circle where now the people who call homosexuality a sin are viewed as being sinful in their call.
But let’s end off with that great point you made in terms of responding to criticism and none of us can obviously speak for Mark in that area, but that is one plus we can take from this discussion. How do i respond to how people criticise me? Do I start by assessing whether the criticism is valid or not and maybe ask those around me who know me and who i trust to help me discern whether it is something i need to learn from and accept? Or is my first reaction to brush it off or deflect it or even get defensive in my approach and potentially miss what might have been helpful for me to hear?
Thankx for the conversation. I don’t know that it was all helpful [as you also indicated offline] but hopefully there is something in here worth gleaning and at least the invitation for us to be thinking about what both ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ mean and what are the things in life that we should be healthily intolerant towards? And also the joy of being able to have a conversation with someone and not feeling like we have to agree on every single thing.