The intolerance of tolerance (book review)


By D.A. Carson
IVP. 200 pages. £12.99
ISBN 978 1 844 744 053

This book is a ‘must’ for Christian leaders — especially those who hear that line all the time.

Not because of its author — though Carson is always worth reading. It is a ‘must’ because of the staggering importance of its subject and because few evangelical scholars have Carson’s competence to tackle it. ‘Staggering’ is actually one of Carson’s own repeated words to describe what he’s observing in Western culture. It is not just that we are destroying our freedoms, but that this self-destruction is now celebrated, and it is the one thing that no one must criticise. What is it? Tolerance.

Everybody hurts

Anyone familiar with Don Carson’s writing knows that he is not an alarmist and does not make foolish generalisations. Instead, he carefully traces historical patterns, makes nuanced distinctions and engages with leading social commentators in the secular world. And yet he’s still staggered by what he sees: how the championing of vacuous democracy is leading to democracy’s demise; how the privatisation of religion is curbing the freedom of religion, and how that results in losing civil freedoms generally; how a mistaken moral high ground is removing morality from public life. And this hurts everyone.

Old and new

Carson begins by making a distinction between what he calls the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ tolerance. From there his thesis is simple: the ‘new tolerance’ is intrinsically intolerant. It is therefore self-contradictory and self-destructive — and so is any public square built upon it. And yet, he argues, having rejected almost everything else, the ‘new tolerance’ is the only absolute ‘good’ the West now values.

The ‘old’ tolerance is seen in the conviction that everyone has the right to express differing views, especially when we disagree with them or find them offensive. This, he says, comes from a conviction that truth and goodness can be known and should be pursued by discussion and argument, and that Jesus himself will return to put wrong to right. The ‘old tolerance’ is a good thing and has come in large part from the influence of Christianity within Western heritage as the Reformation gradually led to a clearer distinction between the roles of church and state, expression and coercion.

The ‘new tolerance’, however, is the belief that one should not disagree with another view, but should accept everything (and hence nothing). Its flaw is that it cannot tolerate any view that is intolerant of it. To do so would be to tolerate intolerance; but not to do so would be intolerant! Therefore this ‘new tolerance’ is a self-contradiction. While claiming to be value-neutral, it inevitably becomes the tool of bullying selfish interests, and Christianity itself is targeted most frequently.

Much at stake

This book echoes the content of Carson’s earlier work, Christ and Culture Revisited, but applies it to the specific area of the public square. In places the book requires careful attention. It is flooded with good quotations and contemporary examples (including many from the UK), which makes it authoritative, notably up-to-date and a tremendous resource. It also makes the book slightly repetitive, as the topic is addressed from a number of complementary angles.

But this is why it is a ‘must’. If Carson’s book is full of repeated examples, our contemporary lives are filled with them all the more — and yet ordinary Christians rarely notice what they are or understand what is happening. Christian leaders are in a unique position to serve their people by engaging with Carson’s book and repeating the content even more simply to equip disciples to understand and engage lovingly with the world around them. The need is great and much is at stake. Carson’s conclusion gives ten practical applications for how to do it — including the social priority of truth and evangelism. But if Christian leaders don’t engage with this book it is unlikely that other Christians will deal adequately with its staggeringly important message, which affects all our lives and how we love our neighbours and stand for the gospel.

Timothy Laurence, London Chairman, Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship
This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057