Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The New Tolerance and the Trojan Horse

“It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels,” said Eomer. “The world is all grown strange…. How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

“As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

A friend recently posed a fascinating question on an online forum: when does tolerance become moral relativism? Appropriately enough, my friend encountered this question on the campus of a university. As anyone who has spent even the smallest amount of time at a university recently can attest, tolerance is not only the intelligentsia’s favorite moral virtue, it is to them the only moral virtue. They chastise anyone who would impose their value system on someone else, unless that system is tolerance - and only tolerance. And their end-game is to make that value system universal; that is, they want to make it yours, too. Our children are bombarded with tolerance the moment they turn on their television. Schools are increasingly focusing on tolerance and diversity in their curriculum. As political analyst Juan Williams recently discovered, fall out of step for even a moment and your scourging will be public and painful.

What do we mean when we say we expect someone to be tolerant of something? If I ask you if you like the cold weather, and you simply respond that you can “tolerate it”, what have you actually said? Simple analysis reveals a few things: a.) you do not in fact like the cold weather; and b.) you can bear the cold weather if you must; that is, you do not have immediate plans to move to Florida to avoid it. Notice what you have not told me: that cold weather suits you as well as any other weather. In this regards at least, when we speak of tolerance we are not speaking of sympathizing with or affirming someone else’s position, we are only speaking of bearing it. If I tell you that I love the cold, and you say that you can tolerate my enthusiasm for it, you are not saying that you agree with my position that cold weather is grand. You might still prefer warm weather, but you agree to not push me off a cliff for holding a different opinion.

If this classical definition is what it means to be “tolerant” - only that we do not want to do bodily harm to those who hold a worldview opposed to our own - then what should the Christian’s response to these calls for tolerance be? There could be no easier answer for the Christian: we are supposed to go far beyond tolerance. Jesus summed up the greatest commandment into two parts: first, the Christian is to love God with his whole heart; and second, to love your neighbor as yourself. The Greek word translated as “love” here is the verbal form of the Greek word agape, which does not imply sentiment or sexuality, but charity and brotherly-love. We as Christians are to be charitable and kind to our neighbors - everyone that we come into contact with, even if they hold worldviews which oppose our own. Jesus commanded it.

But is this what the academics and social activists mean when they make their familiar calls to “tolerance”? The evidence reveals that it is not. Take the Williams case, for instance. Mr. Williams did not advocate doing bodily harm or imposing draconic restrictions on devout Muslims, and yet he was labeled as a bigot. Think about this: how often have you heard a political commentator, educator, or anyone else define what they mean when they say we should be “tolerant”? Almost never. Any discussion of a definition such as this is almost always lacking. This is most certainly by design. By keeping the definition ambiguous advocates can actually alter the meaning of the word - and the debate - over time and most people are none the wiser for it. A simple survey of the meaning of tolerance would indicate just such a thing has happened. A 1992 Webster’s Dictionary defines tolerance as “readiness to allow others to believe or act as they judge best.” No problems there, right? However, the most recent online Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines tolerance as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own .” Notice the shift from “allow[ing]” the views or acts of others to “sympathiz[ing] or with that view or action. The former implies the classical definition of tolerance discussed above while the latter requires something new: not only are we required to “live and let live” to be tolerant, but now there is an expectation to sympathize if not assent.

These linguistic acrobatics must make the Christian wonder what is afoot. Most people are familiar with the  story of the Trojan Horse. Today “Trojan horse” is used in the technological world, but the original Trojan Horse was perhaps the greatest trick in human history. After sieging the ancient city of Troy, the Greeks realized they could not breach the city’s strong walls by force; they therefore created a ruse by which they hoped to trick the Trojans. The Trojans were horse-lovers, so the Greeks crafted a giant wooden horse out of scraps of their own warships. They hid thirty of their own men in the hollow inner spaces of the horse, and left it at the gates of the city as an offering to the Trojans. The Trojans were fooled and welcomed the horse - and the Greeks warriors hidden in its belly - into the city. At night the Greeks exited their hiding place and opened the city gates to their countrymen. Troy was lost, and the Trojans disappeared from history.

We must wonder if we are not now the targets of a similar ruse. The genius of the original Trojan Horse is the Greeks were able to get the Trojans to accept something - Greeks within their own city walls - they never would have accepted under normal conditions. The game seems the same for advocates of the new tolerance: their aim seems to be to get others to accept a thing under the guise of “tolerance’ which they would might never accept otherwise. This takes us back to my friend's original question: where does tolerance and moral relativism intersect? When we no longer are only required to bear others with an opposing worldview in order to be tolerant, but are instead required to sympathize or assent with their worldview - that is, treat it as though it were our own and acknowledge it as valid - than we have ceased to hold or our own worldview in any meaningful way. We have been driven to moral relativism. For example, say I hold the view that marriage is to between two people and you the opposing view that marriage should be between five people. In order to be tolerant in the classical sense, I only need to refrain from punching you in the mouth because you disagree with me. However, under the guise of this new tolerance, I am now required to agree in some vague sense that it is not only acceptable but agreeable for five people to all be married one to another, and I must try to sympathize with how you feel for believing this. In reality, I have only committed to the position that I believe there is no proper form of marriage. I have committed to a free-for-all.

This is dangerous ground. Even advocates of the new tolerance do not want to go where it will eventually take us. They just have not followed their course to its logical conclusion. There was a recent news article that introduced a new word to the English vernacular that we should all prepare to hear more often as the debate about morality takes a linguistic turn: “pedosexual.” If there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, and we all are free to follow our inner urgings or “how we were made”, then there is nothing to say that the pedophile has somehow gone off course. For the Christian, this new tolerance is even more dangerous because it puts us in a position to disobey our Lord. Remember Jesus commandment to love our neighbor? If someone is engaging in behavior that is destructive to themselves or others, love mandates that we inform them of the problem. Imagine for a minute you were an ancient Trojan, and you somehow had been made aware of the true intent of the Trojan Horse, of the 30 blood-thirsty Greeks hiding in its belly. If you loved your city and neighbors you would not tolerate the wooden horse being brought inside the city's gates. You would do everything in your power to stop it.

This emphasis on tolerance puts the Christian on defense. If advocates of the new tolerance expect something other than tolerance - like sympathy or assent - then we must require they say as much. If we are unwilling or unable to take control of this debate, we as a society have opened the city gates and welcomed in a Trojan horse of a different kind.