We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)
We’ve spent time exploring the concept of moral values. What I would like to do now is discuss Christian moral values specifically. In particular I would like to ask whether Christianity — traditionally understood — is intolerant.
As a way of beginning our discussion, I must dispense with the question whether Christianity — historically speaking — is intolerant. The answer to that question is arguably yes in that people have committed all sorts of atrocities in the name of Christ. Of course people have also committed the greatest good in the name of Christ; the question is whether, in either case, the actions were consistent with the message of Christianity.
This question matters, because in our day there seems to be a sentiment that Christianity (and religious faith in general) only serves to promote intolerance. The idea is that those who take Scripture most seriously are those who are most intolerant, that Scripture is the source of intolerance.
Now on one hand this is true. Christianity has within it an element of intolerance that cannot be surgically removed without removing Christianity itself. This is because truth, by its very nature, is intolerant. If the speed of light is constant, this fact will not bend to the modern idea that truth is relative. If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, this fact will not bend to the modern idea that miracles are not possible.
Christianity has within it an element of intolerance that cannot be surgically removed without removing Christianity itself. This is because truth, by its very nature, is intolerant.
When Einstein published his theory of special relativity, the scientific community was not at first convinced. But no one accused Einstein of intolerance. No one said, “Your theory is not very tolerant of other theories.”
Christianity then is intolerant, but no less tolerant than any other claim about reality. It, like truth, will not bend, but requires we bend to it. But in bending, we find ourselves bending not under the weight of intolerance but under the weight of mercy. At the very foundation of the truth of Christianity we find these words:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)
Christianity’s otherwise intolerant claim to reality is a message of Divine tolerance — not tolerance regarding the truth about ourselves, but tolerance regarding God’s willingness to forgive, to take our place in fact in the punishment our sins deserve.
This has ramifications for how we see the world. For example, it is unlikely that the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence would have originated outside a Christian framework. The idea that every individual has the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, though shaped by ideas from the Enlightenment, are fundamentally Christian ideas.
Christianity’s claim to reality is a message of Divine tolerance — not tolerance regarding the truth about ourselves, but tolerance regarding God’s willingness to forgive, to take our place in fact in the punishment our sins deserve.
We in the West are so used to these ideas that we consider them to be self-evident. We think, “Of course every individual has the right to do as they please!” But think about it: Why should this be so? Why should it be obvious to everyone at all times that every individual has intrinsic worth, regardless of their choices or actions? Why, in other words, should we believe we have value despite our sins?
Enlightenment thinkers believed that the power of the human mind was sufficient to discern moral values. But the Enlightenment led to Modernism which led to Postmodernism. In other words, humanity discovered that the power of the human mind alone leads only to disillusionment, moral ambiguity and ultimately the abandonment of moral absolutes.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that the power of the human mind was sufficient to discern moral values. But humanity discovered that the power of the human mind alone leads only to disillusionment, moral ambiguity and ultimately the abandonment of moral absolutes.
And ultimately, tyranny. The reason for this is perhaps not simple to see, but it begins with the fact that human beings are moral creatures and therefore must have moral absolutes. In the absence of moral absolutes, they will make their own. They will erect a moral code — even if that moral code is the absence of moral standards — then force that moral code upon society.
And unless that moral code has built into its foundation the concept of mercy and tolerance, its advocates will apply that New Morality with neither mercy nor tolerance. In fact, they will think it is their moral right to do so.
Christianity, of course, is susceptible to the same tyranny. But if the founding of America can be attributed to its Christian influence, then one might say Christianity a tyranny of tolerance: It is a commitment to the moral worth of each individual, and a willingness to accommodate differences — to extend grace just as God Himself has extended it to humanity.
We rarely see this face of Christianity discussed in media, which is strange since it is central to its message. In our upcoming posts, we will explore why.