Friday, February 3, 2012

The Intolerance of Tolerance

Dr. Carson has a new book, set to be released in March, called The Intolerance of Tolerance. In it he argues that the idea of tolerance has shifted from merely allowing all ideas to be presented in order for discussion to take place and get to the best one to the idea that all ideas should be allowed because no one can really know what is true. Notice that the former seeks truth and the latter seeks only to assert the one truth: that no one can really know what is true when it comes to metaphysical claims (yes, a beauty of a self defeating contradiction that stems from the exclusive claims of radical empirical verificationism).

But in the book Dr. Carson quotes a parable by Gotthold Lessing in his work Nathan the Wise that I think is relevant to what the more liberal side of evangelicalism has and will continue to adopt in the future concerning theological truth claims:

Lessing sets the parable in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade.
The setting is critical to understanding what Lessing was trying
to establish by his parable. This setting is a conversation among three
characters, each of whom represents one of the world’s three monotheistic
religions: Saladin, the Muslim sultan; Nathan the Wise, a Jew;
and a Christian Knight Templar. Saladin says to Nathan, “You are so
wise; now tell me, I entreat, what human faith, what theological law.
hath struck you as the truest and the best?”9 Instead of answering directly,
Nathan tells his parable. A man owned an opal ring of superlative
beauty and extraordinary, not to say magical, powers. Whoever
wore it was beloved by God and by human beings. He had received it
from his father, who had received it from his, and so on—it had been
passed down from generation to generation, from time immemorial.
The man with the ring had three sons, each of whom he loved equally,
and to each of whom he promised, at one time or another, that he
would give the ring. Approaching death, the man realized, of course,
that he could not make good on his promises, so he secretly asked a
master jeweler to make two perfect copies of the ring. The jeweler did
such a magnificent job that the rings were physically indistinguishable,
even though only one had the magical powers. Now on his deathbed,
the man called each of his sons individually to his side and gave
him a ring. The man died, and only then did his sons discover that
each of the sons had a ring. They began to argue about which one now
possessed the original magic ring. In the play, Nathan the Wise describes
their bickering and comments:
[The brothers] investigate, recriminate, and wrangle all in vain
Which was the true original genuine ring
Was undemonstrable
Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable
The one true faith.10
Wanting to resolve their dispute, the brothers ask a wise judge to settle
the issue, but his ruling refuses to discriminate:
If each of you in truth received his ring
Straight from his father’s hand, let each believe
His own to be the true and genuine ring.11
The judge urges the brothers to abandon their quest to determine
which ring is the magic original. Each brother should instead accept
his ring as if it were the original and in that conviction live a life of
moral goodness. This would bring honor both to their father and to
Lessing’s parable resonated with his eighteenth-century Enlightenment
readers. The three great monotheistic religions were so
similar that each group should happily go on thinking that their religion
was the true one, and focus on lives of virtue and goodness, free
of nasty dogmatism, the dogmatism that was blamed for the bloody
wars of the previous century. What was called for, in other words, was
religious tolerance. There is no harm in believing that your monotheistic
religion is best, provided you live a good life and let others think
that their religion is best.
Small wonder the parable retains its appeal to readers in the
twenty-first century. People today are no less skeptical about claims to
exclusive religious truth than were Lessing’s readers. They will be inclined
to think well of a religion if it produces morally respectable and
religiously tolerant adherents. Today, of course, the parable would
have to be revised: instead of three rings, we would need dozens of
them, if not hundreds, to symbolize the mutual acceptability of the
many religious options, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or nontheistic.
And, of course, we could not concede today, as Lessing could,
that one of the rings really is the original. (D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 7-9)

Carson points out that the parable doesn't quite work, and this is clear, since it assumes that God is the source of the different religions, etc. However, I wanted you to notice something else here. Notice that this parable is filled with dogmatism that only one view is true. That's the beauty of deceptive rhetoric when people talk about tolerance, or in evangelical circles, "grace" (as it is often redefined to mean "tolerance" in this sense) and "humility" (as it is redefined to mean "one who does not believe or assert that he knows the truth"). The truth is that Lessing has just asserted that his religion is true and that Christianity is false. Did you catch it?

You see, as I've argued before here, there are really only two religions in the world. There are multiple expressions of one of those religions, but only one expression of the other. One religion says that people have the capacity to be good and acceptable to God by living a good moral life. The other, Christianity, says that people do not have the capacity of being good and acceptable to God and must, therefore, turn away from their own self righteousness and receive Christ's, without which, God will reject them, and cast them out from His presence as evildoers. So what Lessing has done, by slight of hand, is to reject orthodox Christianity's claims as false, and asserted over them his religion that believes one can work his way to heaven by being a good person apart from Christ. Remember, the center of Christianity is Christ, His work upon the cross, and His daily work in interceding for us now that He has resurrected and ascended to the Father. It isn't about trying to obtain salvation by living a good moral life. We are told that such is impossible, and that we are self serving people, not people who live true moral lives anyway (although we like to stack the deck in our favor to appear that way to ourselves and others). 

So Lessing's parable is bogus because it does not tolerate any religion but his own. Sure, all other religious expressions of that central idea that one can achieve salvation by a good moral life are acceptable to Lessing, as long as their theological truth claims don't get in the way of their morality; but if salvation is through another, i.e., Christ, and not myself, as Christianity teaches, then the only religion not tolerated by the moralist is Christianity. This is why Christianity appears to be so exclusive and intolerant (in the modern sense) of other beliefs, because other beliefs largely are one and the same belief taking upon different forms. Christianity, however, is the opposite of them. It does not assume man is capable of true good apart from Christ, and it does not teach that one can please God or be reconciled to Him by one's "good" life lived. 

This is why pietism within evangelicalism, the kind we see in liberalism and the emerging church, is heresy. It is a completely different religion, even while claiming to be Christian, as Lessing's moralistic version of Christianity is presented in his parable. But these are two different religions, and to claim that one is being tolerant to others by excluding the very view that opposes them at the get go, without even acknowledging its existence for that matter, is not only intolerant of it, but downright hateful and deceptive toward it.

Now, this stems from the idea that no one can know what theological truth claims are true; but that statement itself is an a priori rejection of the Bible that claims to be revelation from God, who I would assume does know what is theologically true. We can make metaphysical truth claims, not because we have first hand knowledge of them, but because we trust the Scripture as an accurate source of God's revelation to us (i.e., we have true humility that is directed toward God and His revelation, not toward other people's truth claims and their knowledge). That's the humility of faith in Other to which the Bible calls us. Again, those who deny this, whether inside or outside evangelical circles, are simply assuming that the Bible is not true, and again, asserting a dogmatic theological truth claim that could only be known through first hand metaphysical knowledge or by trusting in some other source of divine revelation. In other words, the seemingly tolerant idea that no one can really know what is true, theologically or metaphysically speaking, is completely intolerant of any idea that opposes that view, having assumed itself the superior theological and metaphysical truth claim that the Bible and Christianity are not true at the get go. Hence, such claims are not merely saying that no one can know, since the individual who makes this claim is asserting that he does know, but are in fact seeking to lift up one religious belief above all others by trumping them with the "tolerance/humility/graciousness card." 

This is important to understand, as I and many others have always said, there is no such thing as a non-dogmatic belief. Truth is exclusive by its very nature. As soon as a truth claim is made, it automatically excludes everything that opposes it as being true. That's just the nature of truth claims. The question is not, therefore, whether we are tolerant in the modern senses of the word (as though that has anything to do with being Christ-like, or gracious, or humble, etc.), but whether what we believe is true. Hence, we should know what we believe and why we believe it, and realize that as soon as we do, we are by nature (as all other religions and belief systems are to us) being intolerant by modern standards. That's what persecuted the prophets. That's what killed the apostles. That's what burned our teachers in Church History alive. And that's what crucified our Lord. But that's also what glorifies God, lifting Him up in the sea of alternate claims to be the true Lord of all truth claims. That's what causes Him to shine brightly in a dark place. That's what saves our souls. And that's what leads us home. 

So will you admit your intolerance today, and begin to take all truth claims more seriously in your rhetoric (as seriously as you already take them but don't realize it)? Let us exalt what is true, rather than undermine what is true with a sheep-woven guise of humility and tolerance when what we're all really doing is vying to either make ourselves or Christ as King of the Theological Mountain; but have no illusions, if Christ is not lifted up to the top, each person will lift himself there, as everyman wants his religion to dominate the others. It's just that everyman doesn't want to you to realize that he does.

1 comment:

  1. "The truth is that Lessing has just asserted that his religion is true and that Christianity is false. Did you catch it?"

    I missed it!

    Thanks for illuminating me in later paragraphs!

    Great post, Hodge.

    You didn't really mince words with this statement:

    "This is why pietism within evangelicalism, the kind we see in liberalism and the emerging church, is heresy."