on 13 April 2012
D. A. Carson is a Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is widely regarded as today's foremost New Testament scholar. Published last month, The Intolerance of Tolerance is a welcome and much-needed addition to his catalogue of over 50 works.
The purpose of Carson's book is to examine how the definition of tolerance has evolved over the years and to evaluate the detriment such change has spelled for both the Christian church and the broader culture. Carson's first chapter is entitled The Changing Face of Tolerance and his first heading reads The Old Tolerance and the New. Carson argues that while the verb "tolerate" was originally defined as "ACCEPT EXISTENCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS", the verb has now subtly morphed to mean "ACCEPT DIFFERENT VIEWS". Carson describes this change as "subtle in form but massive in substance" (3).
Carson's subject is daunting and he acknowledges the immensity of his task right from the first page. He notes that `hinting that tolerance might on occasion be intolerance is unlikely to win many friends' (1). On a more philosophical level, he surmises that `tolerance has become part of the Western "plausibility structure"... widely and almost unquestioningly accepted...to saunter into the public square and question it in some way or another is not only to tilt at windmills but also culturally insensitive, lacking in good taste, boorish' (2). His thorough analysis of the challenge he faces, however, lands him in good stead to topple the erroneous assumptions of tolerance that may be lodged in the reader's mind.
Carson's subject is clearly defined and he can afford to be exhaustive. He evaluates the present scene in chapter 2 (What is Going On?), documenting attacks on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience throughout the Western world (both Europe and America). He focuses particularly on three areas: the domain of education, of media, and of homosexual behaviour. In the domain of education, one of his examples of note was that of recent attempts by the state to disband Christian unions at colleges who were accused of being discriminatory, "either because it [i.e. the union] insisted that its officers (though not its members) subscribe to its statement of faith, or because it refused to accept among is officers those who advocated or practiced homosexuality" (30). Carson notes out of any such situations contested in the courts, 100% were settled in favour of the Christian union. Further, in the domain of homosexual behaviour, Carson draws attention to the jail sentence meted out to Swedish pastor Ake Green, for "showing `disrespect' against homosexuals in the sermon he delivered from his pulpit in the small town of Borgholm, Sweden on July 20, 2003' (39). He also mentions the case currently before a US Court where a Christian photographer refused to photograph a `gay commitment ceremony' of two women and was subsequently fined thousands as an example of the "unrestrained venom" (40) now flowing towards those who hold to Christian tradition.
Carson examines the history of tolerance in chapter three which includes a treatment of early Christian thought and a contrast of the intolerance of Islam, for example, with the trend of limited tolerance towards which Christianity has generally advocated (although Carson fairly examines major deviations from this). In doing this, Carson clearly shows that the new tolerance has become an "absolute good that gains the power to erode other cultural distinctives, including moral and religious distinctives" (76), in contrast to the past, when tolerance was "not perceived to be an intellectual stance but a social response" (76). He concludes by observing that the "antivalue of this new tolerance dilutes and destroys all the hard and unyielding components of cultural identity, for they are judged to be marks of intolerance" (77).
After treating of the church and Christian truth claims, Carson climaxes in chapter six, where he declares that "the most striking test case [of morality and tolerance] is homosexuality" (134). Carson denigrates the fact that, despite evidence to the contrary, "it is everywhere assumed that people are simply born that way, and that's all there is to it" (134), declaring that "the evidence will simply not allow such shallow reductionism" (134). Carson also criticizes the way that evidence surrounding the issue is presented in a "highly manipulative fashion" which does not probe "the abundant statistics of how infrequent homosexual fidelity is". He also highlights the media's blackmail of those who hold a rational religious conviction against homosexuality, referencing among others the case of Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's representative to the EU, who in 2004 "was rejected as commissioner for justice on the ground that he is a Catholic who agrees with his church's stance on homosexuality" (135), despite the fact that at his hearing, "he carefully distinguished between what is immoral and what should be criminal". Carson closes the chapter concluding that "the new tolerance is destined in the long haul to pay horrendous costs", "swamps penetrating discussion about truth and morality", and fosters "moral myopia" (139).
Carson's most prominent characteristic throughout the book (second only perhaps to his balanced and measured approach), is his sober optimism. His book inspires hope in the reader by closing with 10 points on how Christians can reverse the trend of the `new tolerance' for the good of the church and the broader culture. Most telling of all is his affirmation that the declaring the gospel trumps even "forging a more responsible track towards tolerance" (173) as the most important activity in which believers should be involved.
Carson's book is a must read for those who want to develop a deeper understanding of the meaning of tolerance and for those who want an intellectual impetus in resisting the "tolerance card" often waved by those challenging mainstream Christian morals. Carson's work is not always an easy read, but his style is memorable and his flow of thought remains clear throughout the book. Those who purchase will not be disappointed.