23 April 2008

Normed tolerance

At the weekend I was privileged to attend a conference on Civil Society and Sphere Sovereignty, sponsored by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The current holder of the Kuyper Chair is John R. Bowlin, whose full title is the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Associate Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life. Bowlin delivered a lecture titled: "Here the Shoe Pinches: Kuyper, Tolerance and the Virtues." (A taste of his approach can be had here.)

Is tolerance a virtue? Bowlin believes it is, and he attempts to defend this on Aristotelian grounds. Nevertheless, even if tolerance is in some sense a virtue, virtue itself is not an adequate place to start in any attempt to determine a right course of action. As a quality ascribed to human beings, virtue is necessarily ancillary to God's call and our obedience to that call. To obey his call is to respond to something quite specific rooted in the general command to love God and neighbour (Mark 12:29-31). This love has different implications for the various social and communal contexts in which we find ourselves. It cannot be adequately understood or practised unless we are in tune with the norms God has built into his creation. Otherwise, to tolerate an activity harmful to the practitioner, not to mention the larger community, is to perform a most unloving act!

To confess or deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ has different meanings within the institutional church and within the political community. Tolerating denial within the state might be seen as a political virtue in so far as it is based on a recognition that to regulate citizens' ultimate beliefs lies beyond the competence of political authority. Yet to tolerate this rejection of a cardinal christian doctrine within an ecclesial body can hardly be a virtue, since it would harm the confessional integrity of the church. Therefore, what might be a virtue in the state must be recognized to be a vice in the church body. The only way to determine the difference is to gain a grasp of the respective norms governing state and church. A general appeal to tolerance will not take us very far.

North American protestantism in particular is filled with church denominations that tolerate all sorts of heterodox views, yet take firm positions on highly contestable social and political issues. This represents a general failure to grasp the norms most applicable to the institutional church and can only produce a skewed tolerance scarcely to be labelled virtuous.

In summary, there is simply not enough substantive content in the notion of tolerance to justify it being categorized amongst the virtues, even if we accord virtue a modest place within a larger ethical framework.

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