Are there really rights, wrongs, truths and falsehoods? Part Two: Tolerance in a Postmodern World

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In part one of this three-part series, the problem of both tolerance and truth in a postmodern context was introduced.  One of the highest virtues in postmodernity is tolerance.  The basic idea is that we should seek to understand, appreciate, and respect countries, cultures, peoples, and religions very different from our own.  And this, I think, is a commendable goal.

Unfortunately, the underlying—and frequently unspoken—assumption in this process of respect and appreciation often goes far beyond mere understanding.  For the postmodernist, all variant perspectives of life, death, and ethics should not only be understood, they should be accepted and embraced as equally valid ways of looking at and living in our world.

A Fatal Flaw

This passion for equal validity reveals a fatal flaw in the postmodern view.  In general, tolerance of other perspectives is easy enough, so long as the other perspectives in question hold certain central values in common.

In Christianity, for example, we have a unifying set of claims—the core truths of Christ’s gospel—that allows us to tolerate many expressions of that faith (often called denominations) so long as the core remains common to all.  This gives us the unique ability to tolerate diversity and maintain unity all at the same time.

But what can be done with truly and radically different worldviews alongside their widely divergent applications in the real world?  What shall we do with those who value anarchy and chaos over order; tyranny and domination over freedom; bigotry and racism over equality?  And who defines what is bigoted, tyrannical, and anarchist?

These are genuinely difficult questions that have been wrestled with throughout the ages.  And well they should be, for if tolerance is the highest and only ultimate virtue, how can anyone or anything be considered truly “intolerable?”  How much, and who, should we tolerate?  Should we tolerate none but ourselves—totalitarian tribalism?  Or perhaps, like the postmodernist, we should try (or at least pretend to try) and tolerate everyone and everything.

If, however, we are to tolerate everyone and everything, must we therefore allow the Ku Klux Klan to hold recruitment rallies, public lynchings, and cross burnings?  Should we allow females to be “circumcised” because it is a long-standing cultural practice in some societies?  Or perhaps even more extremely, should members of NAMBLA be granted the “right” to have sex with “consenting” children—all in the name of “tolerance?”

The Need for a More Basic Foundation

Such examples illustrate that tolerance must be rooted in a more basic (and often unspoken) foundation of what is really right and wrong.  Many postmodernists have trouble making judgments against others because they reject the idea that any such foundation exists, or even if it does, they purport it cannot be known.

Thus, when the need to evaluate a potentially or clearly harmful and damaging (i.e., morally wrong) view and behavior, postmodernism claims to be ideologically opposed to passing judgment.  This is all fine and good when talking about the differences between moderate Muslims and liberal Protestants, but the problem becomes especially acute when discussing the differences between, say, neo-Nazi skinheads and ultraconservative Hasidic Jews.

At some point, an evaluation concerning who should be tolerated and who should be restrained and censored must enter in.  Otherwise, we could not say that killing people on the basis of their ethnic or religious background is morally wrong.  All we could say is we “prefer” that people not do such “unpleasant things” to one another—the essence of relativistic moral emotivism.

Toleration requires a way to pass judgment.

Because of this deficiency, most postmodernists “smuggle in,” under cover of silence or thoughtless ignorance, several important but unspoken evaluative criteria.  Every cry for tolerance requires an evaluative source, a way to pass judgment, so that the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, can be adequately discerned.  The question, then, is not should there be limits to toleration, but what should those limits be and how are they determined?

For postmodernists, there are, first and foremost, no absolutes, either ethically or intellectually.  No one has the right to make moral and intellectual judgments of other views because no one has access—except maybe the perspicacious postmodernist—to this kind of “privileged information.”  Second, all those who claim to have a comprehensive view of the world—save the highly progressive postmodernists—are at best naïve and much more likely arrogant.  And third, all who claim to be correct about the way the world really is—gloriously “postmodern,” according to postmodernists—are labeled intolerant and imperialistic, always trying to force others to accept their view of reality.

Christianity in the Postmodern Doghouse

All of this puts classical Christians in the postmodern doghouse since for us, some things really are right and wrong, true and false, and worthy of our rejection.  But of course, the same is true for the postmodern relativist.  All that is not relative is wrong, false, and worthy of rejection.  The postmodernist finds himself indicted and convicted by the same thing he claims to eradicate—the intolerance of any intolerance.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have recently been witness to public expressions of some of the most hateful, intolerant, and bigoted behavior from people who consider themselves “champions” of tolerance?  Tolerance has been recast into toleration for all who agree with their perspective, while rabid intolerance has been cast toward all who dare to disagree.

The Critical Need for Genuine Debate

This highlights a critical need for the resurrection of genuine moral and intellectual debate.  Contrary to the mantras of some, not all perspectives—religious or otherwise—are created equal.  Some ideas, by their very nature, are worthy of rejection, not because they are culturally and politically unpopular, but because they do not stand up to the test of moral and intellectual scrutiny.

The bald exercise of power, be it through executive orders, riots in the streets, or general bullying on either side of the cultural divide, is a poor substitute for thoughtful and respectful conversation and debate over the things that matter the most, both in this life and the life to come.  But when concepts of truth have been relegated to the category of “alternative facts,” and moral standards have been deemed mere “personal preferences,” there is little room for reasoned disagreement and considerate compromise.

At the end of the day, however, every sane person still maintains—justified or not—that what they believe is actually true.  It’s not believing some things are true and others are false that’s the problem.  What’s wrong is condemning a certain class of people for believing something solely because they believe differently than you.  As Greg Koukl (The Story of Reality, 24) puts it: “Since everyone—religious person, atheist scientists, skeptic—believes his beliefs are true, it has always struck me as odd when some have been faulted simply for thinking their views correct.  They’ve been labeled intolerant or bigoted for doing so.  But what is the alternative?  The person objecting thinks his own views correct as well, which is why he’s objecting.  Both parties in the conversation think they’re right and the other wrong.  Why, then, is only the religious person (usually) branded a bigot for doing so?”

Everyone I know who supports the legalization of homosexual marriage (for example), genuinely believes that our world is a better and morally superior place when such marriage is legal, celebrated, promoted, and most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, legally protected.  At the same time, those who believe it to be wrong believe it should be discouraged and rejected as a viable human lifestyle.  And whether we admit it or not, legalization is an implicit and explicit endorsement, immediately creating legal and social challenges for all who oppose such unions.

All of this highlights the fact that Christians need to stand for what is true and right and good.  After all, someone, postmodern or otherwise, is setting public and private criteria for evaluating acceptable and unacceptable points of view.  As those with a well thought through moral and intellectual perspective that has stood the test of time, why shouldn’t Christians be intimately involved in that evaluative process?  If God has given us a revelation of what is good and true, then we have a biblical responsibility to raise His values and standards as a primary means of sorting out our world’s debilitating moral and intellectual confusion.

From my limited observation, believers in Christ have been somewhat embarrassed by and rendered silent about this problem for far too long.  If the gospel truly is good news for everyone, then for the sake of all humanity, not merely for the Church of Jesus Christ, we can ill afford to maintain our religious laryngitis any longer.  The cultural price for our silence is, for everyone, costly and not worth the toll it will inevitably demand of us all.

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