D. A. Carson | Interview by: John Starke
Many leading institutions today boast of "tolerance" as their most cherished virtue. College campuses, courts of law, and businesses educate their employees and us about the need for tolerance—religious, sexual, ideological, and otherwise. However, recent developments have exposed the darker side to this tolerance. What many tout as tolerance ends up intolerant of Christian teaching.
In his new book The Intolerance of Tolerance, D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and president of The Gospel Coalition, addresses these trends and gives historical, theological, and biblical insight into the challenges for Christians trying to faithfully preach Christ in a world so intolerant of his claims.
Earlier this week Carson answered a few questions concerning the cultural challenge of intolerance and how Christians might labor to be winsome and persuasive.
Tolerance is highly valued in Western culture. What intolerance do you see on the contemporary scene that masquerades as tolerance?
It is easy to amass hundreds of examples. In the name of tolerance authorities have sometimes tried to shut down Christian groups on university campuses (which sounds pretty intolerant) on the ground that because these groups allow only confessing Christians to be officers, they are not acceptably tolerant—and their intolerance cannot be tolerated. Several states have told Catholic adoption services that they must close because they refuse to place children in the homes of practicing homosexual couples. Thus by being tolerant of homosexuality these authorities become intolerant of Catholics and their convictions (even though no children are harmed by the Catholic charities, since there are many other agencies).
How do you seek to persuade someone who prides himself on tolerance to see things from a different perspective?
A great deal depends on how much time I am allotted! In short responses, the intolerance intrinsic to such "tolerance" needs to be exposed, graciously but firmly, for what it is: hypocritical intolerance. If there is more time, one might sketch in the shape of a civil society, and make clear something of the history of tolerance. And for those who are willing to engage in still more extended discussion, one might work away at an array of related issues: the proper roles and limitations of the state, the nature of oppression, the relation between church and state—even the fact that Christians will gladly put up with persecution and death rather than be silenced on some issues in the name of "tolerance."
How does what you call the old tolerance differ from the new?
The old tolerance presupposed another system of thought already in place—Christianity, communism, Naziism, Buddhism, secularism—whatever. The issue then became how much deviation from that system could be tolerated before coercive force is applied. To the extent that one allowed deviation, one was tolerant; correspondingly, where one judges that deviation has gone too far (e.g., almost everyone agrees, even today, that pedophilia goes beyond the pale), then coercive force—in short, intolerance—is a virtue. It was quite possible to disagree strongly with what a person was saying, but still tolerate the opinion that was perceived to be aberrant, on the ground that it was better for society to allow such opinions than to coerce silence from those articulating them.
But invariably, tolerance has its limits. The new tolerance (1) tends to insist that those who merely disagree with others, at least in several spheres, are intolerant, even if no coercive force is applied; (2) tends to make such tolerance the supreme good, independently of surrounding systems of thought; and (3) tends to be remarkably blind in regard to its own intolerant condemnation of everyone who disagrees with its own definition of tolerance. The result is that in many domains, in many discussions, the question is rarely "Is this true?" but "Is anyone offended?" Rigorous discussion of content soon shuts down; truth is demoted; various forms of class warfare are encouraged; in some domains it becomes wrong (supreme irony) to say that anyone is wrong.
Why should Christians care about intolerance if our neighbors still tolerate our private worship?
The lordship of Christ extends everywhere—to morality, aesthetics, social interaction, the rights and limitations of the state, and much more. Secularism thinks it is idealogically neutral, and that those who disagree with it are intolerant, and should therefore keep their opinions to the purely private sphere—but as popular as this view is, it is demonstrably silly and blind to its silliness. Thoughtful Christians will want to speak up in more arenas than that of private worship. The alternative is loss of freedom, and ultimately persecution—all in the name of tolerance.
Most of your career has been spent in New Testament studies. Yet you've written major books on cultural challenges, such as The Gagging of God, Christ and Culture Revisited, and now The Intolerance of Tolerance. How do these two disciplines cross paths?
In Scripture, the centrality and glory of God extend beyond the private lives of the community of the faithful to embrace the entire world, the entire universe—and therefore certainly the cultures in which we live. There are cultural commentators who are more insightful than I, and there are biblical commentators who know more than I, but God seems to have given me a heart and mind to show how thinking your way through Scripture has a bearing on broad cultural issues that garner too little attention from expositors. But I try not to forget that I am first and foremost a pastor-theologian, a preacher and teacher of God's most holy Word.