Friday, January 11, 2013

New Tolerance, True Tolerance: Challenging the New Tolerance

I've learned the hard way a couple of times that it's not a good idea to drive when I'm angry.  I think I'm coming to the same conclusion about blogging, as it has the potential to do a lot of damage. I read this article last week and it's typical of the sort of thing that tends to get me going, and then I started to write about it.  It's a good thing I'm learning, because you're going to get the toned down version. 

"Saying Goodbye to Tolerance," written by Marilyn Sewell, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister. It was typical rhetoric of the kind that I tend to find upsetting, those preachers of tolerance, in their own words, who are "saying goodbye to tolerance." Righters of exclusionist wrongs, while themselves seeking out a group of people to tear down, namely people like me, evangelical Christians, to blame as the source of the world's problems. Why evangelical Christians I plead, why not Hindu Nationalists or Islamic militants, or bent on change violent Maoists? I can only assume she is busy making them feel welcome. Lucky us.

Sewell asserts that it is evangelical Christianity (not the rest of orthodox Christianity which shares the same creed, harder to marginalize I suspect), alone that claims that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Well Jesus made the claim actually, not us, we're just trying to accept what he said and not be hypocrites you know, like when you say you believe in something, but don't practice it, like tolerance for example. She asserts that exclusive truth claims can only be a bad thing. Is that true?  Is Jesus' claim to be the way the truth and the life a scary treacherous idea? Only if you oppose him. lol. But why would you do that? Underlying my facetiousness is a serious question, one that I have been asking myself for years. Was Jesus making his exclusive truth claim against the ignorance of some poor soul sitting on a street in Calcutta, blind and deaf and begging? Or, was he saying that to those who would willfully oppose him and his move for long lasting peace and universal security, while knowing that only he, being God, would have the ability to frame? Don't forget, there were a lot of people who wanted Jesus dead, and still do. In short, critics of Christianity need to examine it's exclusiveness within the context of it's deeper theological significance. The problem is, is that they often don't consider the possibility that it might be true in the first place, to begin to do that. Truth claims are bad, remember?

And this is where I'll try to bring it down a notch. I  understand where (let's call her) Marilyn is coming from, both personally and historically. I too bear the scorch marks of fundamentalism, and I can see how two world wars and record bloodshed in a century that followed modernism and 19th century optimism alongside increasingly global consequences would have a way of having people say, hey, maybe we should try to find a common ideology here. Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? For the record, I would actually agree with Sewell that there is truth in all the major world religions, and that we can learn from each other. I would also agree that it's not my place to judge, but neither would I assume that all religions are one and the same. I would want to find common ground where I can when dialoging with diverse people, but I would also want to test ideas against my own spiritual tradition and life experience. I would want to weigh the evidence, in short. I think our present pluralist culture has this nebulous idea that all paths lead to the same place, but may I ask, on what is that belief grounded? Do you know what I mean? It's not that I don't think other religions have anything to offer, that's not it at all. I don't doubt for a moment that Buddha was a great seeker or Confucious was wise or that Hinduism has a tremendous cultural depth, it's that I question Confucius' ability to save me.  Honestly, as someone who has a tendency towards melancholy and a persistent fear of death since I was a child, I need more than an assumption. I need an anchor. I need a life preserver.

In continuing, I want to get at something deeper, this idea that exclusive truth claims can only be a bad thing. In so doing, comparatively, you have two ideologies, Christianity vs. pluralism. Pluralism teaches that exclusivism is bad and inclusivism is good. So, if you believe that exclusivism is the problem, are you going to tolerate exclusivists? Well, apparently not, according to Marilyn Sewell. Christianity, on the other hand is exclusive, no doubt. Christ's claim was exclusive, yet he taught his followers to love their enemies, to bless those who would even harm them. So, if you're a Christian, and you are confronted with difference, how will you respond? Well, if you take the teachings of Christ seriously, it should be in love. That's the thing isn't it? Is exclusivity the behavioral determinant of an ideology, or is the actual behavioral directives of a religion, the better predictor of a religious follower's behavior? And that is why as hard as Sewell  tries to connect Christianity to hate crimes, the statistics do not support what she is reaching for. Further, she seems to be either unaware or simply doesn't care that her words could be contributing to a culture that leads to the persecution of evangelicals. Think I'm crazy?  As much as what she is saying about her experiences of a gay family member being shunned saddens me, may I also say that I have been looked down upon and scorned within my own family for being an evangelical Christian all my life, as well as feeling a tremendous pressure to conform from the larger culture. Now, would I blame this on articles like Ms Sewell's for creating a culture where evangelicals are not welcome? Should I? All I can say is, is that in my mind people are responsible for their own behavior at the end of the day, not society. And that is why I would plead with Sewell not to judge Christianity or every evangelical Christian by the behavior of her family member, but rather challenge her family member to be more like Christ.

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now, but I think some of the pluralist and liberal denominations of our time, seem to be more of a cultural reaction to Christian fundamentalism than necessarily having a solid theological or philosophical grounding. And this is where I wonder if a little easing up of the religious right might help lessen some of these cultural and religious tensions. But Evangelicalism need not be equated with fundamentalism per se, or perhaps more accurately, a fundamentalist mindset. May I suggest that it is possible to adhere to certain core tenets of Christianity, and yet retain a perceptual depth or sensitivity to difference, or acceptance that not everyone will share our beliefs. But all ideas are exclusive, bottom line, and as Sewell demonstrates, those that claim otherwise seem to jump to exclude the exclusionists. All of this might seem fine and well if you agree with her, but please consider what she's saying from the perspective of those who sincerely do not.

Having said all this, mainly I began writing this because I wanted to ask, what is true tolerance? What does it look like? Is tolerance holding all the right politically correct opinions, or is tolerance leaving room for people to disagree, to see things differently, to ask honest questions?  I hope it's the latter, because my fear is that if political correctness takes over, any more than it already has, than I'm in trouble, because I don't hold the right opinions. But I do believe in compassion, I do respect people's right to make choices for themselves. I do believe in the sanctity of human life, all human life, young and old, rich and poor, gay or straight, black or white, regardless of whether you find yourself on the privileged side of the planet or not. And why shouldn't that be enough, may I ask, to care, to love, to see value in human beings and in human relationships, to want to engage in respectful dialogue? Why would anyone, claiming to be tolerant, shun someone wishing to politely dialogue? We all have the right to an opinion here, and so I ask that theological conservatives also be included in that emerging discussion, anything less would be a loss of freedom of conscience in favour of a dictated ideology.

Thanks for listening, sincerely,

M.A. Harvey


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