Inklings of Truth


Tepid Tolerance

By Audrey Stallsmith

A local columnist I read the other day was in a huff. He had previously asserted there was no scripture alluding to a certain sin, and a more knowledgeable reader had pointed out a passage that proved him wrong.

In his chagrin, the columnist sniffed that he couldn’t believe somebody had taken the time to find the single intolerant verse in the whole book of Romans. His complaint made me smile. I suspect the columnist hadn’t taken the time to read Romans if he thought there was only one such verse in it! I have to agree with the writer--I think it was Lewis--who said that, to someone looking for a tolerant religion, he certainly wouldn’t recommend Christianity.

Of course, in matters of race or gender, Jesus did not discriminate. His concern for the Samaritan woman proves that. And his own maternal bloodline included at least two foreigners, one of whom, Rahab, had a "reputation."

We might consider that a bit careless of God, had He not always been more interested in a person’s present faith than in his/her lineage or past. God could have seen to it that the Israelite spies were never suspected. He gave Rahab her chance, I would guess, because she had truly come to believe that "the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath." (Joshua 2:11b) And she staked her life upon that belief.

Such supreme dedication is really all Christ requires of us. But that dedication does mean following His rules. Jesus told Thomas, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6)

To be a Christian is to believe Christ is the only answer. If we argue otherwise, we imply the Crucifixion was unnecessary. To be a Christian is to assert that neither Buddha, nor Mohammed, nor Confucius, nor even any of the Christian saints can save us, no matter how sincerely we believe they can. As Rebecca Manley Pippert reminds us in Out of the Saltshaker, "Sincerity just cannot be an adequate basis for determining truth. Hitler was sincere."

Why, then, have so many concluded earnestness is all that matters? I can believe wholeheartedly that I am on the road home. But, if (as is quite likely with me) I have actually gotten confused and am driving in the opposite direction, no amount of my declaiming my sincerity is going to get me there until I consult signs or a map, realize my mistake, and turn around.

But, ironically, a society that calls itself tolerant has what Chuck Colson, in Against the Night, calls an "intolerance of absolutes." The modern attitude would seem to be that maps and signs are too "rigid," that I should follow my own inclinations, and that wherever I end up in my muddled wanderings is fine. But, if that mindset was acceptable to Christ, he would have congratulated the woman caught in adultery on her "independence" rather than ordering her to "Sin no more."

In The God of Stones and Spiders, Colson refers to the modern aversion to moral standards as "a looter’s ethic. . .the notion that life somehow gives us the right to have every whim and desire satisfied." Have we become the people whom Malcolm Muggeridge scathingly described in Jesus Rediscovered as "able to agree about almost anything because they believed almost nothing?"

Dorothy Sayers equates this modern preferred vagueness about religion with the deadly sin of sloth which is, in her words, "called Tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. . .the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die."

(That vagueness is also more than a little annoying. If I hear one more New Ager natter airily about spirit without specifying whose spirit they are talking about, I will probably blow a gasket!)

Another popular response these days is, "Oh, I believe only in the Sermon on the Mount." I suspect most of the people who make such a profession are about as familiar with that passage as the previously mentioned columnist was with Romans. In that sermon--just to mention a few small points--Jesus prohibits divorce except for those whose spouses have committed fornication, and makes lust virtually equivalent to adultery and hatred to murder.

Our natural inclination is to prefer an easier, more comfortable, religion. But any god I might come up with on my own can have no substance because it offers no resistance--and simply does not exist outside of my fertile but still very limited mortal imagination.

As Lewis states in Letters to Malcolm, "Nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. A safe god, a tame god, soon proclaims himself to any sound mind as fantasy." Or, as he puts it more succinctly in Screwtape Letters, "A moderated religion is no religion at all." I suspect it is deadly dull too!

God’s army is made up of volunteers, granted, but even volunteers don’t get to write their own rules. "God is not to be bargained with," Georges Bernanos warns in The Diary of a Country Priest. "We must give ourselves up to Him unconditionally."

By signing on, we are promising obedience to the Commander in Chief, even when we don’t know why He wants what He wants. As the heroine is discovering in TV’s Joan of Arcadia, we often only understand after we obey--and sometimes not even then! But Joan does keep grumblingly following God’s orders, even when it gets her in major trouble with the people around her, because, well, He is God, after all!

If we were permitted to simply tolerate others, we could just go along with their wishes to keep the peace. But God demands much more from us than that. As Fulton Sheen points out in Peace of Soul, "One of the cruelest things that can happen to a human being is to be tolerated."

No, God commands that we love all of our fellowmen. That doesn’t mean we have to feel warm and fuzzy towards them. But it does mean we must give them, not what they want, but what God knows is best for them. In Life Can Begin Again, Helmut Thielicke reminds us that "Jesus did not say, ‘You are the honey of the world.’ Salt bites." But, according to Bernanos, it also "saves you from gangrene."