TODAY, every country embraces within its borders people of diverse religions, races, history and cultures. As a result, each individual needs to honor the personal freedom of others to hold to their own beliefs and convictions. Without tolerance of others, no peace is possible. Since 1995, the United Nations has designated Nov. 16. as “The International Day for Tolerance.” The day is a reminder for people everywhere to respect the rights and beliefs of others.
In its 1995 Declaration of Principles of Tolerance, the United Nations defined tolerance as the “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, forms of expression and ways of being human.” At first sight, this definition sounds noble. However, it actually enshrines a deeply flawed understanding of what tolerance is. The key word in the declaration’s definition is the word “acceptance.” Tolerance, as so defined, requires that we accept the convictions of others as true as our own. However, a right understanding of tolerance does not mean this at all.
To be tolerant means that we recognize that there are opinions and beliefs that others hold and we do not. Nonetheless, we can live with these individuals with respect and understanding. It does not mean that we have to accept what they believe. Our society has moved away from recognizing that there are differences of opinions to imposing the necessity of accepting all truths as having the same validity. Thus, tolerance has been eviscerated of its true meaning. One example suffices.
Greg Koukl is a professor at Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in Southern California. He is well-known for hosting his own radio talk show for 20 years. Recently, he visited a Christian high school in Des Moines, Iowa. He wrote two sentences on the blackboard and asked the students to comment. The first sentence read, “All views have equal merit and none should be considered better than another.” All the students enthusiastically agreed with the statement. They were, after all, being tolerant. Next, he wrote a second sentence that claimed Jesus was the Messiah and anyone who did not accept this truth was wrong. This time, the students vehemently protested. They felt it would be disrespectful of others to say that they were wrong.
I am convinced that, if any teacher were to repeat this simple exercise in any of our Catholic schools, the response from our students would be, for the most part, the same. And, I would not be surprised if many of their parents would respond in the same way. Perhaps, they might even label as divisive and judgmental the teacher who holds that the two contrary statements cannot both be right. Saying one belief is true and another is not is now considered a form of intolerance. Such a position, however, is not logical.
When it comes to individuals who hold contradictory truths about governing, does it make sense to say that they are all equally true? Not at all! Capitalism is not communism. Democracy is not theocracy.
But, when it comes to the truth about religion, why is it wrong to say that all religions are not equally true? Either Jesus is the Messiah or he is not. Either he is the Son of God, a divine person who became man, or he is a human person who made false claims about himself. If he is not the Son of God, then Jesus was simply a charismatic, ethical teacher, an interesting historical figure, but not someone who matters for our eternal salvation.
Rightfully understood, tolerance is all about the respect that we give to people who differ from us in religion, politics and ideology. It means being charitable to them, not disparaging them or belittling them. It does not mean accepting their ideas as having the same value as ours.
True tolerance means knowing true from false, right from wrong, good from evil. This entails making judgments about the teachings of our faith, the culture of our day and the changing social issues that confront us.
The 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
Our Christian faith tells us that we must love the truth because to love the truth is to love the one who told us: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). When we see the truth in terms of our personal relationship with Jesus, we are not hindered by a distorted sense of tolerance to speak the truth in charity.