A couple of weeks ago while teaching I was asked about the title of my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic, and what I meant by “liberal charismatic.” Now this isn’t an ad for my book–no, really, it’s not!–but that title was not one I gave myself, but rather one I picked up from an opponent, someone who didn’t like either liberals or charismatics. But I have had both titles used about me from time to time by people who were not intending to insult me. I prefer to call myself a “passionate moderate” but I really don’t mind being called liberal or charismatic.
I also had my attention called to the case of an individual who is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist church. This individual has a mentor who is very liberal, while the candidate is evangelical. Things aren’t going well. Now I don’t have good, objective statistics on this sort of thing, and because of slippery definitions I’m not sure anyone can get them. But I have heard conservatives, evangelicals, liberals–people from pretty much every perspective–talk about the people that they cannot tolerate in one position or situation for another. I’m sure that a liberal mentor in the situation I mentioned might ask me something like, “But do you think I should help someone who will judge and exclude homosexuals from ministry become a pastor?”
That’s an excellent question. It falls into a general category of questions that help us define the boundary of what we are each willing to tolerate, or the diversity that we are willing to celebrate. It’s much easier to celebrate diversity in general than it is to celebrate individuals who are very different from you. No matter how liberal you perceive yourself to be, there are probably some group of people, perhaps many groups of people, that you just can’t deal with.
For me, it’s the true fundamentalist, such as King James Version Only advocates, and people on the fringes of the young earth creationist movement. Some of those folks I just find annoying. So what happens to tolerance?
Let’s put it this way. For me, tolerance is a value. It is not an absolute belief that I must tolerate everyone and anything that anyone might happen to want to do. I value tolerance fairly highly. In fact, so highly that I would rather be a little less annoyed by the people I mentioned who get on my nerves. I want to treat them more fairly. But my tolerance is not absolute. Paul Hill had freedom of speech. I certainly didn’t like the way he used it, but it did not make me want to eliminate freedom of speech from the constitution. At the same time, I have no tolerance for the way in which he used his speech. I would have no difficulty condemning it in the most forceful terms. As for his actions, when he killed a doctor and a clinic escort in pursuit of his anti-abortion views, I definitely do not find it appropriate to tolerate those. I would note that I also think some of his speech prior to his act at a minimum came very close to incitement, and might have been dealt with on that basis.
All of us have limits to our tolerance, and all of us should. What I value is the idea of making our circle of tolerance as broad as possible. We need to find a way to accept into our lives people whose views and culture differ greatly from our own. We will benefit from doing so. Our communities will benefit when we do so. Often accomplishing this is simply a matter of learning to look at similarities rather than differences. I have found that with groups of Christians one can often find common ground simply by listing similarities. As long as we’re thinking about those things, we seem very much the same. If we choose to list differences we will tend to feel different.
There is good reason to look at things both ways. Comparing and contrasting work together. But when we are trying to accomplish something good in our churches and in our communities, very frequently we need to make looking at our similarities the primary goal.
But does tolerance and diversity mean that one has to agree with what everyone says? There are people who seem to work that way. “Well, that’s OK for you, even though it doesn’t work for me,” someone says. Such people often regard totally contradictory beliefs as equally valid. This type of thinking elminates our critical faculties, at least from our interactions with other people. What we need to do instead is accept and celebrate that there are people who are different, even when I disagree vigorously with their beliefs. In debating those beliefs I can improve my own skills and expand my own knowledge. And yes, horror of horrors, I might find out I was wrong about something and have to change my mind.
When we exercise tolerance in a community, there is also a need for boundaries. One problem I frequently see with church groups, and especially with the United Methodist Church of which I am a member, is that people attempt to be in community without bothering to define what it is that defines them as a community. Let me use this as an example. In the United Methodist Church we have a fairly substantial and well-defined body of doctrine. When I first joined a United Methodist congregation, I had the notion that people actually had some comprehension of what those doctrinal statements said, and that there would be discussion of such things in the church. I was even concerned that in some cases my views were too liberal for the doctrinal statement while in others, such as with the social principles, my views were too conservative.
What I found in practice was that there was a huge amount of ignorance, and a general idea that we ought to be tolerant. Since nobody had any idea what the doctrines were, they never questioned me about my positions, and they looked puzzled when I questioned them. As I’ve taught Bible classes in Methodist churches, I’ve found that the dominant feeling is one of confusion. I think this confusion is the result of an attempt at undefined tolerance. The United Methodist Church needs an agreement on what is required, and what is optional, and then we should expect that the required items be accepted by all those who are part of the community, while the optional items are open to one’s personal opinions. This wouldn’t mean mind control; one can always join another denomination. Unlike citizenship in a nation, one doesn’t have to leave the country because one changes one’s church.
As a passionate moderate, I would like that number of doctrines that we say are essential to be very small. In a pamphlet I publish, Understanding Christian Apologetics, I list just four items, derived from Elgin Husbheck’s book series Consider Christianity. A particular denomination should have more items than those, but nonetheless should be certain that what is listed is what they want to have defining them as a religious community. There can be a larger list that is of commonly held beliefs that are open to disagreement and individual opinion. I believe one could be tolerant and still expect someone who could not be defined by the standards of such a community to find a community where the standards are more congenial.
People in such a community could still cooperate with others on points of agreement. I think this is an essential for a functioning society, particularly a democratic society. I am always delighted when movements in our two political parties get together across party lines. I wish we did that sort of thing more. We could come together for a period of time on some specific issue, and work separately when we disagree. In such a community the pastoral mentor I mentioned could be held to a standard: There are certain doctrines that must be accepted for ministry in our community, and if someone is within those limits they should be accepted.
I’m using the United Methodist Church as an example. In the broader community, the key is viewing tolerance and celebration of diversity as a value. It is not a binary condition–one is tolerant or one is not. We may have more important values that will override it. We may even find people who we do not celebrate and who we do not want in our society. That’s all part of living. Provided that we deal with those options appropriately, there is nothing wrong with this.
I’m going to go forward being tolerant over a large range, but expressing firm limits to my tolerance.