The word ‘tolerance’ has evolved over the years. This will not come as a surprise to anyone over the age of 40. It has morphed into its current meaning in popular usage over the past 20 years or so – maybe less.
I looked this word up in three dictionaries. One of them was good old Webster (part of my E-Sword package). The newest reference was from dictionary.com online. The third was from a 1980 Oxford American Dictionary that I have in actual book form (imagine that!). The later two dictionaries give more than one definition. I’m sticking with the first one in each. Let the scientific and medical bloggers deal with the alternatives. Let’s look at the definitions:
Webster, from 1828
The power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring.
Webster says that this word is ‘rare,’ though the word ‘intolerance’ is more common. Interesting, no?
Oxford American, 1980
- willingness or ability to tolerate a person or thing
Since that is not very helpful on its own, here is how they define ‘tolerate:”
- to permit without protest or interference
On to 2006, www.dictionary.com (I admit, I don’t know when they last updated this entry).
- The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others
I’m going to bring in a big gun to make my commentary here. In his book, The Gagging of God, Dr. D.A. Carson explains the change that has come over this word ‘tolerance’:
In a relatively free and open society, the best forms of tolerance are those that are open to and tolerant of people, even when there are strong disagreements with their ideas. This robust toleration for people, if not always their ideas, engenders a measure of civility in public discourse while still fostering spirited debate over the relative merits of this or that idea. Today, however, tolerance in many Western societies focuses on ideas, not people.
The result of adopting this new brand of tolerance is less discussion of the merits of competing ideas – and less civility. There is less discussion because toleration of diverse ideas demands that we avoid criticizing the opinions of others; in addition, there is almost no discussion where the ideas at issue are of the religious sort that claim to be valid for everyone everywhere: that sort of notion is right outside the modern ‘plausibility structure’ (to use Peter Berger’s term), and has to be trashed. There is less civility because there is no inherent demand, in this new practice of tolerance, to be tolerant of people, and it is especially difficult to be tolerant of those people whose views are so far outside the accepted ‘plausibility structures’ that they think your brand of tolerance is muddleheaded.
In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure the other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism (in the third sense) has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated. Correspondingly, proselytism is a dirty word. One cannot fail to observe a crushing irony: the gospel of relativistic tolerance is perhaps the most ‘evangelistic’ movement in the Western culture at the moment, demanding assent and brooking no rivals. (D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, pp. 32-33)
Can we strongly disagree with ideas without offending one another? Can we state that certain things in the realm of religion, philosophy and morality are right and wrong without being branded as ‘intolerant’? These are sobering questions. Do we have the courage to be misunderstood in order to communicate God’s truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it?
This ‘Tolerance’ with a capital ‘T’ has made serious inroads into the church. It is not a new phenomenon, either. It goes hand-in-hand with what we used to call ‘secular humanism’ (maybe we don’t use that handle much anymore because for so much of evangelicalism, ‘Secular Humanism R Us’).
We should be aware of how words have changed, but we should not lose sleep about being branded ‘intolerant’ if what the world – and even those criticizing from inside the church – are simply reacting against the truth of God’s Word proclaimed with confidence.