Reformation Books: The Intolerance of Tolerance
Sometimes the title of a book really grabs you. Don Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance does exactly that – summarising in just a few words the state of
today’s culture and church. And in my opinion the book lives up to the title.
Carson’s main thesis is that there are two definitions of tolerance interplaying in today’s world. There’s an old tolerance which accepts different views, and looks to engage those different views in conversation, argument and defence. Then there’s a new tolerance that claims that no one view is exclusively true and that strong opinions are nothing more than preferences. With these definitions in mind, and a host of examples from the legal and social world, Carson unpacks what happens when these tolerances interact with truth claims. The old tolerance would say that either one of the differing opinions must be true, or through the conversation, argument and unpacking the truth is worked out and reasoned. The new tolerance questions the existence of truth claims all together, and actually capitulates itself into intolerance when truth claims are under scrutiny.
One example of this intolerance of tolerance that Carson gives near the beginning of the book is that of the Co-operative Bank asking the Christian organisation, Christian Voice to close its accounts because its views were incompatible with the Co-op’s ethos. Carson quotes the statement from the bank:
“It has come to the bank’s attention that Christian Voice is engaged in discriminatory pronouncements based on the grounds of sexual orientation….This public stance is incompatible with the position of the Co-operative Bank, which publicly supports diversity and dignity in all its forms for our staff, customers and stakeholders.”
Carson goes on to show just how incredulous this statement is: obviously supporting diversity in all its forms does not stretch to those who claim to hold a truth about sexual orientation which is seen as discriminatory. In countless other examples most of which comes from legal cases in the states, Carson shows the implausibility and the contradictory nature of the new tolerance not least to mention the damage that is being done to society under the auspices of tolerance.
Having set this introduction Carson gives a historical overview of tolerance from the early church through to the 21st century, before considering how he feels traditional orthodox credal Christianity is on the receiving end of being told that its truth claims are not just unwelcome in the world, but are actively discriminated against by a culture driven by the new tolerance. The areas which cause most controversy, and are given an airing by Carson are abortion, sexual orientation, adoption or IVF by unmarried couples, evangelism and even the public declaration of faith. Carson goes on to show that despite the new tolerance which should incorporate all positions, actually in denying the existence of truth claims or so-called discriminatory actions, does nothing about the pervasiveness of evil in the world. In the penultimate chapter he address the new tolerance’s effect on democracy and state, which has a strong American influence, but is nonetheless interesting from a British perspective. In the final chapter Carson gives ten pointers forward for Christians who wish to remain within the sphere of the old tolerance but find themselves living in a world of the intolerant new tolerance.
Sometimes a book misses the mark of where culture and the world is. Not this one. In many aspects, some would say for its benefit, the URC, has whole-heartedly embraced the new tolerance: from advertising campaigns that radically welcome everyone, to open policies for churches to decide whether to hold civil partnerships, to a collective theology that is shifting from offering truth to the nations to suggesting we just hold different opinions together and don’t discriminate against anyone. Carson shows the downfall of this stance. I love the URC, genuinely, and feel called by God to offer myself for His work in this church. If that church wants to heed the warning to reform, to re-examine what it is doing in light of scripture and its authority under God, then it would be hard to find a better place to start, other than scripture itself, than with Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance. This book was written for us. Now.