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Two days ago Tom Gilson alerted readers to some of the complexities associated with the contemporary notion of tolerance.

Is tolerance indeed a virtue, as North American conventional wisdom would have it? 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!

These norms vary according to context, which means that something tolerable in one context may be intolerable in another. To confess or deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ has different meanings within the institutional church and within the political community. Tolerating such denial within the state might be seen as a political virtue in so far as it is based on a recognition that regulating 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.

Similarly church members may disagree on a variety of policy options, even if they are united in affirming that God calls political authority to do public justice. Will a rise in the minimum wage genuinely help the working poor or will it aggravate an already high unemployment rate? Church denominations would be unwise to pronounce on the specifics of something beyond the competence of ecclesial bodies, especially when there is legitimate disagreement amongst their own membership on the issue. Political parties, on the other hand, may and do take stances on such issues, since those disagreeing with them are free to go elsewhere with no damage done to the larger polity.

The only way to determine when and where tolerance is and is not appropriate is to grasp the respective norms governing state and church. A general appeal to tolerance will not take us very far and may in fact come to function as justification for any number of intolerables. North American protestantism in particular is filled with church denominations that tolerate all sorts of heterodox views, yet take firm, seemingly nonnegotiable 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. So is tolerance a genuine good? Yes, but only if we understand it as a differentiated normed tolerance.

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