Book Review: The Intolerance of Tolerance by D.A. Carson

One doesn’t have to be a great student of culture to know that there’s been a shift in how we view the world. It’s a change that, D.A. Carson argues, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. What’s happened? We’ve changed our understanding of tolerance. We’ve moved from an understanding that accepts the existence of different views to one that presupposes the acceptance of those same views.

“To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it,” writes Carson in his recently released book, The Intolerance of Tolerance. “The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. . . .  We leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid.” Based upon his lectures given over the last decade, this book delves into the nature of this new form of tolerance, its implications for our culture and how we can respond.

Tolerance: Out with the Old…

One of the things I love about reading Carson’s work is that he’s very good at taking something really big and heady and making it reasonably easy to understand (either that or I’m so comfortable with abstract concepts that I don’t even notice anymore). For example, here’s how he describes the difference between the old and new forms of tolerance:

The older view of tolerance held either that truth is objective and can be known, and that the best way to uncover it is bold tolerance of those who disagree, since sooner or later the truth will win out. . . . The new tolerance argues that there is no one view that is exclusively true. Strong opinions are nothing more than strong preferences for a particular version of reality, each version equally true.

This distinction is important because if we did even a quick survey of how our culture’s changed in the last 20 years—heck, even the last decade—it’s easy to see the shift. Where once there was a fairly significant debate over whether or not it was appropriate to prominently feature homosexual characters on television shows, today, if you don’t have at least one, you’re considered either bigoted or outdated. If you express your belief in the traditional, biblical view of marriage as being between one man and one woman to the exclusion of other options, you’re likely to be branded a hate-monger or worse (as Kirk Cameron learned not that long ago).

The new tolerance—one rooted in relativism—is anything but. While we’re often told that a dogmatic view of absolutes leads to tyranny, Carson shows us that it’s actually the opposite that is true. “Put simply, tyranny is not the inevitable outcome of an absolutist view of truth, but is, rather, the direct product of relativism, “he writes. “Likewise, tolerance arises not from relativism but from the very thing that our society anathematizes – the belief in absolutes.”

Responding and Suffering to the Glory of God

Carson is cogent, clear, convicting and more than a little acerbic as he moves through his examination of the new tolerance and its fruit (indeed, he is a master delivering an understated cutting remark). But most helpful in this book is its final chapter, “Ways Ahead: Ten Words.” There, Carson offers practical advice for how Christians ought to respond to the new “tolerance” with the following:

  1. Expose the new tolerance’s epistemological and moral bankruptcy
  2. Preserve a place for Truth
  3. Expose the new tolerance’s condescending arrogance
  4. Insist that the new tolerance is not “progress”
  5. Distinguish between empirical diversity and the inherent goodness of all diversity
  6. Challenge secularism’s ostensible neutrality and superiority
  7. Encourage and practice civility
  8. Evangelize
  9. Be prepared to suffer
  10. Delight in and trust God

His explanation of each of these points is incredibly helpful, but most helpful for me was the reminder that this new view of tolerance—this demand to not simply accept that there are different beliefs and opinions out there, but that we must accept them as all being equally valid (unless, of course, you hold to some “old-fashioned” notion of exclusivity)—is as astoundingly arrogant as it is intolerant (and honestly, ludicrous). The new view holds no weight because it simply doesn’t make sense. That is continues to gain traction in our culture is a testimony to our mastery of self-deception.

It’s more than fair to say, then, that The Intolerance of Tolerance is a wake-up call for Christians. We need to be aware of this severe values shift, one that, if you survey the Christian landscape (particularly in North America) has either gone unnoticed or been unwittingly embraced. If we are to be salt and light in the world, we cannot embrace a foolish and bankrupt system of belief. Instead of playing along, let’s counter it with gospel clarity, Christ-exalting humility and maybe a willingness to be seen as “intolerant.”


Title: The Intolerance of Tolerance
Author: D.A. Carson
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2012)

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  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com/ Kim Shay

    Great review, Aaron.  Adding (yet another!) one to my wishlist.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      It’s a heavy read, but totally worth it

    • http://twitter.com/domwth Becky Pliego

       I agree with Kim. Great review, Aaron… now I have one more book to add to the list :) 

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