Book review: “The Intolerance of Tolerance” by DA Carson



Intolerance of Tolerance

You might have noticed a strange kind of double-speak going on around us. If you dare to hold a different opinion to the broader culture on a contentious issue, whether on marriage, sexuality, God or something else, you have a reasonable chance of being told to keep quiet because you’re being intolerant. I’m not talking about sanctioning or acting against those with whom you disagree; just holding a different position. If you dare to point out that perhaps your alternative views ought to be tolerated—well, heaven help you.

In his inimitable manner, Don Carson lays out for us the landscape of how ‘tolerance’ is now defined, and the resulting difficulties this leaves evangelistic-minded Christians with. The Intolerance of Tolerance is part cultural analysis, part gospel outline in the face of cultural pressures, and part exploration of how to engage in a Western world that is steadily moving further and further from its biblical foundations. The opening and closing chapters alone are worth the price of the book, but there’s more great stuff along the way.

Carson starts by demonstrating that the way ‘tolerance’ used to be understood—for example, the motto “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—is no longer a commonly accepted view. There’s a new tolerance in town:

Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant. (p. 12)

This is a worrying development, and it doesn’t reflect well on our collective ability to think ethically. As a whole, having cast off from biblical moorings (to varying degrees depending on where you live), Western culture has removed the broad yet detailed moral base we once had as a society. In its stead is a pretty shallow replacement:

The new tolerance, then, has become a supreme virtue, if not the supreme virtue, of much of the Western world and beyond. No longer a function of a broader ethical and moral cultural consensus, tolerance is not worked out in terms of what might be permitted—legally, intellectually, socially—granted the “givens” of this broader consensus, but becomes an absolute good that gains the power to erode other cultural distinctives, including moral and religious distinctives. (p. 76)

This new tolerance isn’t, of course, tolerant of everything. Carson spends a whole chapter outlining the various ways in which supreme intolerance is committed in the name of tolerance. Perhaps I’m turning into a grumpy old man faster than I realize, but this gave me a sense of grim satisfaction. Sometimes seeing that the emperor has no clothes (or tolerance) is a good thing.

A real strength of this book is Carson’s section on how Christianity entails certain claims to truth that we are bound to uphold:

If [Christians] are judged intolerant in the new sense, the price of escaping the charge is too high to pay: it would mean abandoning Christ. (p. 111)

That is, we might need to suck it up and be known as ‘intolerant’ for the sake of holding out Jesus to a world that desperately needs him.

Carson finishes the book with “Ten Words” for Christians trying to engage a world that’s in the thrall of this new tolerance. These suggestions are excellent applications of the critique of tolerance he outlines and the Christian response to our current situation. After all, these aren’t abstract issues:

A culture that minimizes values such as honor, integrity, valor, self-sacrifice for the sake of other people, truth-telling, and courtesy, while maximizing sexual freedom so strongly that the issues themselves cannot be debated because everything has been decided under the controlling rubric of the new tolerance, is destined in the long haul to pay horrendous costs. (p. 138)

We’ve got things around the wrong way, and Christians need to find ways to love those we disagree with, and say as much.

This book won’t be for everyone. Like many of Carson’s books, it’s an excellent and accessible summary of lots of academic debate and philosophy, but it’s still in the ‘accessible academic’ category. It’s nowhere near as hard going as wading through all of that source material, but neither is it a simple afternoon’s read. It might take you some work to get through it, but it’s well worth doing so that you can be equipped to stand for truth in a world that increasingly denies there is any such thing.

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