Is Tolerance a Virtue?

Barbara Davey — Hon. Quaker Chaplain 

Just before sitting down to gather my thoughts for this piece, I was reading from Countdown, Carole Satyamurti’s final collection of poetry. By chance I came across the poem ‘Memorial,’ written after a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, the still desolate French village where six hundred were massacred in 1944.

This is the house that Jacques built…

This is the baker, his bead long lost…

These are the children and neighbors and wives

all dead, like the baker…

These are the soldiers, who barred the doors

and torched the Christ; who erased the lives…

Satyamurti ends her poem (published in 2011) with a devastating litany of further atrocities: “…Solibor, / Haditha, Shattila, Warsaw, / in Srebrenica and Darfur…”

There is so much, locally and globally, that cannot be tolerated, and it would be irresponsible not to join with others in speaking out as clearly and as passionately as we can.

But let’s take a step sideways and look at how tolerance might play out in our everyday lives, our faith lives, in the fabric of our relationships one with another. Let’s explore in particular the idea of tolerance being “too low a bar” for how we treat one another. 

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology refers to the Act of Toleration in 1689, and for current meanings of the word ‘tolerable’ it gives bearable, passable, endurable. The Act was of course highly significant as a first step on the path of religious freedom, but there is something narrow-minded and limiting about the way the word has come to be used nowadays. Virtuous it may be, but also ungenerous in spirit, with an often unspoken yet implicit sense of judgement. There is even a risk of complacency and indifference.

I was surprised therefore to read in the dictionary that the root of the word ‘tolerance’ is in fact the Latin ‘tollere,’ to raise up, as in EXTOL, to praise enthusiastically.

This joyful taking pleasure in difference comes across in some of the writings of early Quakers from the period leading up to the Act of Toleration, like Isaac Pennington in 1660: 

“How sweet and pleasant it is […] to see several sorts of believers […] For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him […] and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk. (Quaker faith & practice 27.13)

I am reminded of a blessing from the Jewish tradition

Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe

Who makes created things different

How might Pennington’s joy be embodied in our everyday lives now? One approach would be to live in a spirit of seeking and of exploration, in the knowledge that our own vision can be widened by the vision of others.

Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment? (Quaker faith & practice, Advices & queries 7)

This speaks to me of religion being an abundance, overflowing any rigid cup that seeks to contain it.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

There is a sense here of truth being as a seed with the power of growth, and growth doesn’t come solely from a place of comfort – it comes also from a place of challenge. To embrace diversity of abundance in a meaningful way can be disquieting, challenging, threatening certainties that we might have held dear.

Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all. (Advices & queries 5)

It is a step into the unknown, or rather into a place not yet known, and we need to uphold each other in love, trusting in the possibility of riches awaiting discovery. So now, rather than simply tolerating and putting up with it, how about, as far as we are able, extolling the difference we encounter? And if cracks appear in treasured certainties, perhaps Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ can offer us some encouragement…

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

Jared Michelson — Hon. Cornerstone Chaplain

Before we talk about tolerance, we should talk about the soil from which tolerance grows: liberalism.

Liberalism is in crisis. By liberalism, I am not referring to ‘the left’ as opposed to the ‘right,’ but to the sort of vision for society which flows from Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke or John Stuart Mill or their contemporary disciples like John Rawls. In western democracies like the UK, the ‘left’ largely represents one wing of liberalism and the right represents another. In other words, whether we vote Tory or Labour, westerners are nearly all liberals in this broad sense (with an increasing chorus of dissenters).

There are lots of ways of telling the story of how liberalism got to be in such a critical condition, but here is one: liberalism arose in a particular historical and social context. Europe inherited a number of values from Christianity, as well as from other sources like Judaism and the Graceo-Roman world, but Enlightenment thinkers thought these values were universal and, as the US Decleration of Independence boldly declares, ‘self-evident.’ They thought everyone would agree on these values—like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and human equality—if they would just be rational. But they were wrong. Westerners largely embraced these values not because they are universal or self-evident, but because they are the heirs of a particular cultural inheritance shaped by, in particular (as Nietzsche argues), Christianity. This cultural inheritance or local tradition primed westerners to find this particular set of liberal values obvious. 

Now, with the fall of Christendom and the rise of a globalised world, increasingly pluralistic Western nations have a radical diversity of views on moral norms and values. This has exposed what was already the case: liberal values were never self-evident and universal. For example, does a liberal support the right of Muslims to wear a burqa, because of the liberal values of freedom of religion and multiculturalism? Or does a liberal oppose the wearing of the burqa because of the liberal value of sexual equality? If we think the answer is obvious or simple, then how do we respond to Islamic cultures that do not allow women to drive? Or to religious sects which allow husbands to corporeally punish their wives? This tension arises precisely because western ideas about equality or freedom of expression are not as ‘universal’ as we think. In fact, the west’s current consensus regarding equality amongst the sexes was not self-evident to the very men who affirmed “that all men are created equal.’

In sum, my only suggestion given all of this pluralism is simple and straightforward. We should do a bit more listening and reflection before we join the mob in crying out ‘intolerant’. Yes, there are views which we should reject and even ostracize, but we should not pretend that deciding which views or lifestyles to ‘tolerate’ and which to refuse is ‘self-evident.’ All of us, whether we are religious or irreligious, come to our own decisions about values through a complex array of tradition and reasoning. We should admit this, and be willing to ask ourselves hard questions about where our values come from and whether they have a defensible grounding and rationale.

This is precisely what a university is supposed to be all about. The university is not about inculcating the one correct way of thinking, nor is it about merely producing profitable workers for economic growth. The university is is a place where different and even opposed philosophies and worldviews are let loose to confront and challenge one another. It is a place where we seek ‘the good’ together, even if we do not yet agree on what ‘the good’ is.

Sandy Edwards — Hon. Humanist Chaplain 

Virtue is defined as having high moral standards. Tolerance, the dislike or disagreement with something, depends very much on the subject matter, which of course is highly variable. There is, therefore, a limit to tolerance which will depend on the person’s own moral standards and level to which the subject matter tests them.

We all have different lifestyles, cultures and beliefs and so there will not be a universal limit on tolerance. Generally we are tolerant of most differences; this is just common decency and respect for others and not particularly virtuous. However, there are of course things of which we disapprove to the extent that we are extremely offended. This is what tests our tolerance. 

There is of course a difference between disagreeing and disapproving. For example, as a Humanist, I disagree with religious beliefs but do not, on the whole, disapprove. People have their own ways to get through life and find spiritual comfort. Only when a person’s actions cause harm, discriminate, or contravene human rights are one’s moral standards tested. What we consider wrong, others of different cultures and beliefs might consider acceptable.

To sort out these differences requires understanding, dialogue and education; this can often result in changes of attitudes from both sides. There are, unfortunately, circumstances where you might consider something to be intolerable but are not able to show this, so your tolerance has to be hidden. In these examples, speaking against cultural or political dictates can result in severe punishment, imprisonment or worse. However, these dictates can change, as happened recently in Sudan which now has comparatively liberal laws due just to a change of government. Virtue is linked to moral values, and these will vary according to cultures, beliefs, etc. This conflict of ideologies may cause intolerance – or it may bring about change.

Leslie Stevenson — Hon. Quaker Chaplain 

Let us first distinguish legal tolerance (the neutrality of the state towards differences of religion) from the attitudes of individuals to each other. 

In Britain, the Toleration Act of 1689 granted religious freedom to dissenting (i.e. non-Anglican) protestant Christians such as Quakers, Congregationalists and Baptists, ending a period of suppression since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. But some discrimination remained in force, e.g. dissenters could not go to university at Oxford or Cambridge. The Catholic Emancipation act of 1829 extended legal tolerance to Roman Catholics. Homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1967.

In the newly-independent United States of America, the first amendment to the Constitution in 1791 made the state officially neutral in religious matters, and recognized the freedom of individuals and churches in religion. For historical reasons Britain retains the “establishment” in the state of Anglicanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland, but apart from certain formalities (e.g. the seats allocated to some Bishops in the House of Lords), this does not affect the general climate of toleration of religious differences; though attitudes to Islam are still a matter of difficulty.

In many other countries around the world there remain many kinds of intolerance (legal, or less formal) based on religious, ethnic, sexual, or political differences. In Europe we have learnt through the hard lessons of history that it is best for the state to remain neutral and for citizens to respect each other’s freedom of conscience in matters of morality, religion and politics (though it seems the US is now unlearning that lesson).

What then are the limits of individual tolerance? Of course, if someone has committed fraud, robbery, assault, murder, rape or child abuse, the law should act. There is no question of toleration of such crimes, and we must assist the processes of law when necessary. But as the saying has it, to condemn the sin is not to condemn the sinner irrevocably: as long as he/she is alive there is some possibility of a change of heart, however unlikely that may seem (it may be assisted by therapeutic understanding and spiritual counselling). That is the main reason for opposing the death penalty.

How tolerant should one be of actions that are within the law, but offend one’s own moral or religious principles? If definite harm is being caused to someone else, e.g. in a cult, we may have some duty to speak out. But one has to bear in mind that intervention may do more harm than good, and a lot will depend on the way one speaks.

FGM is now against the law in the UK (though the ban is difficult to enforce) and it seems remain a deeply-entrenched cultural practice elsewhere. Legalization of assisted dying is a currently divisive issue. Abortion is legal here under certain cases, but some religious traditions view it as always (or almost always) wrong. They can campaign for a change in the law, they can criticize personal decisions, but (in my view, at least) they have no right to take direct action against individuals or clinics who act within the law.

In this country we can criticize various religious beliefs or practices, we are entitled to register our dissent, state our own view and argue for it. But the spirit in which one speaks and acts is vital. It is all too easy for human nature to label and condemn anyone who differs from one’s own group. We need to understand the other without agreeing with them, and to remain ready to engage in respectful dialogue.

One of the Quaker Advices and Queries says, ‘While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.’ To my mind, that sort of tolerance is a virtue.

Revd. Dr. Donald MacEwan — University Chaplain

Yes, tolerance with a small t is a virtue. There is so much to tolerate – the housemate who plays the same piece of music over and over again, the lecturer who isn’t clear, the unwashed dishes, the breaking of a promise to call you back. If we didn’t tolerate irritating people who irritate us by causing irritations, what would happen? We’d call them out every time. We’d demand perfection from our fellow human beings. We’d end up with no friends. Small t tolerance is the glue that sticks society together, including families, student flats, villages and cities.

Capital T Tolerance is something different. It’s the Virtue with bulging biceps that declares that we have to live and let live, that your opinion is just as valid as mine, and that my prejudice is just as acceptable as yours. Tolerance minds its own business. Tolerance approves of others partly by not enquiring too closely into what others believe and do.

Jesus, despite his reputation for being meek and mild, could be intolerant. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation…” (Luke 6:24) But after further woes to the complacent and comfortable, he invites his listeners to adopt a new attitude, which turns mere tolerance on its head. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…” (Luke 6:27) In other words, tolerance is not really that hard – a trick of indifference, if you like. Loving is a lifetime’s work, and much more exciting.

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