Tolerance is a Floor, Not a Ceiling

Tolerance is a Floor, Not a Ceiling


A speech to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
at the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
July 5, 2010
By Gustav Niebuhr

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be among you. It seems as if, as a Presbyterian of more than two decades vintage, I have known members of the Covenant Network for many years—and happily so. I share the network’s essential goal of inclusion.

I want to do two things today: one is to provide an intellectual basis for achieving unity within the denomination, one of the network’s principle goals; the second is to suggest a fundamental spiritual argument for inclusion.

I title my talk today, “Tolerance is a Floor, Not a Ceiling.” The statement reflects a personal campaign I am waging to persuade people like you to re-think an all-too-often misused word—“tolerance”—for the many situations in which it does not apply.  Mere tolerance requires neither dialogue nor education, two activities that are vital to constructive human interaction. Indeed, tolerance requires nothing more than passivity as a response to others. It is not active, but signifies a state of intellectual and moral repose.

That is one of my subjects. The other—related—is the question of whom we believe is qualified to bless us spiritually, how wide we would cast that circle and how we would identify its boundaries.

To that end, I will tell you two stories—one now, one at the conclusion of this speech—in each of which I served as observer. The earlier story derives from my experience of a previous General Assembly, in Minneapolis nearly a quarter century ago.

I came as a journalist. In the exhibition hall, I spotted two groups whose booths stood in close proximity to each other: One organization advocated “biblical marriage,” that is, one man-one woman; the other sought inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. The two groups, clearly, understood differently what was morally right in human relationships. But calm prevailed between them, an atmosphere that struck me then—as it does now—as noteworthy. Neither group spoke to me unpleasantly about the other. I interviewed members of both as a reporter, providing by my identity each an opportunity to level pointed criticism at each other. They did not. And something else—better—occurred. One of the biblical marriage folks told me he certainly disagreed with the message he heard from the gay organization, but he had examined their theology and he could respect the argument they were making.

I repeat this story now because his choice of verb–respect–carries a power—let’s say, a humanity—often absent from divisive discussions. Responding to ideological or theological differences with a focused, calm approach takes courage and self-discipline. Doing so does not imply agreement, making concessions or false glossing over of fundamental differences. It shows instead willingness by the parties involved to accord each other a moral standing such that each listen to and speak with the other. It is not tolerance—far from it. What I am describing is “the third position,” or, perhaps, “the third option” in interaction with people with whom one differs.

Of the other two, one is intolerance. Calling people names as a way of belittling their identity is unfortunately common. Cable television can serve us as the cultural culprit here; some of its stations enrich themselves on crude shows of such antagonism. They influence broader society by pushing this anti-social behavior. The second position for dealing with “the other” is to show her or him tolerance.

Now, tolerance can be useful, especially in situations in which the alternative is mayhem. Remember, nearly two decades ago, during the terrible riots in Los Angeles, an anguished Rodney King, standing before the television cameras and asking, pleading, “Can’t we all get along?” Can’t we stop fighting, he meant.

But outside of dangerous situations, tolerance is a low bar to clear. Tolerance, by its basic definition, is a synonym for forbearance.  Doctors speak of what a person can tolerate medically, by which they mean endure. When I was a child, I recall my family dentist asking me, with some exasperation, “Can’t you take any pain?” He meant, what could I tolerate?

In my book, Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, I argue that appeals to tolerance are inadequate to our dealing constructively as a society with expanding religious diversity.  I also hold that the argument applies to other types of diversity, including race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Tolerance should never be mistaken as radically different from intolerance. Thomas Paine best responded to this common error in his book, The Rights of Man, when he wrote that tolerance was “not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms.” The one, Paine wrote, assumes the right of withholding liberty, while the other assumes the right of granting it.

So, what’s the third position I mentioned? I call it engagement. That word does not imply acceptance in the face of differences, but represents a more demanding activity. Engagement means taking others seriously enough to listen to what they have to say and to speak to them from one’s own convictions. It is about being authentic and expecting authenticity in return, and doing so as part of a process that seeks common ethical ground. It is about the responsible use of the great gift given to us by America’s Greatest Generation—by which I do not mean those who achieved adulthood during World War II, but rather our nation’s Founders, particularly Jefferson and Madison. Their gift was freedom of speech, on which serious communication depends.

When I say free speech, I do so with an image in mind—one inextricably linked with the idea of community, which is to say it’s about something more than tolerance. Thirty years ago, I began work in my first job as a newspaper reporter for The Berkshire Eagle, a small publication in Pittsfield, Mass., with a big sense of its responsibilities. Its owner and publisher made it abundantly clear to the staff that he regarded the paper as elemental to local public life. He took great pride in the Eagle’s thoroughly covering its region—“like a blanket,” as they used to say in the newspaper business.  No birth, no wedding, no death passed without the paper’s notice, nor did a wide range of cultural events, high school sports and the doings of volunteer groups. No elected or appointed board ever met without an Eagle reporter present to record the proceedings.  When you opened the paper in the morning, you held the community in your hands.

For several months, I lived in Stockbridge, at the home of my great-aunt, Mrs. Ursula Niebuhr. Stockbridge attracted individuals of great talent: Jonathan Edwards served as director of a mission to local Indian tribes in the 1750s; for a few years in the late 20th century, Norman Mailer lived there. Around Mailer’s time, local citizens established a museum to honor another resident, Norman Rockwell. Rockwell may have put his talents to the service of a largely sentimental vision, but he created images that can move us. His museum houses a painting, titled, “Freedom of Speech.” It shows a young man standing among and speaking to a crowd inside a New England town meeting. The speaker wears an old jacket over a work shirt, suggesting he’s come in from the fields or from beneath a vehicle in an automotive shop. By contrast, the two individuals seated closest to him are older men, wearing coats and ties. Yet from their expressions, we know that these wiser, more experienced individuals are listening carefully, weighing the younger man’s words.

What I like about the painting is not just its portrayal of a Constitutional right – free speech – but the context in which it occurs. People are shown paying attention. Presumably, they will have an opportunity to talk, too, and the current speaker will then give them his attention. There are two intrinsically related activities going on, speaking and listening. This isn’t a picture of people tolerating each other, simply allowing each other space. The implicit message is that free speech is at its most valuable in a democracy when it involves the community.

Rockwell created that image in 1943, as one of a quartet of works illustrating “The Four Freedoms,” enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt linked freedom of speech and worship with freedom from want and from fear as basic human rights.    You cannot truly be concerned about human rights unless you believe that each individual has an inherent worth and dignity. And to assume that is to do more than simply tolerate people. It is to extend to them recognition of their uniqueness in the world.

How is a person’s identity formed? This is a crucial question, particularly as we consider the issue of tolerance versus engagement. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes that individuals and groups do not come to understand who they are entirely on their own. Rather, he said, identity develops through an ongoing series of social interactions, a process that for individuals begins at birth with one’s parents and continues lifelong, with friends, colleagues and general society. “Thus,” writes Taylor, “my discovering my own identity doesn’t mean I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others.”[i]

The key word is “dialogue.” That doesn’t mean shouting and it doesn’t mean forcing a group of people to confront the worst stereotypes about themselves. Dialogue represents a state of relations well beyond tolerance. Put simply, you can co-exist with people without ever having to speak meaningfully with them—or listening to them.

And when it comes to listening, whom do we allow to speak to us spiritually, perhaps actually to pray for us? In asking this, I am coming back to the second question I raised earlier—one linked with our subject of tolerance.  Whom is it that God speaks to and through? What kind of limits do we place on our recognition of how God might do that?

I said I would tell another story. Here it is: A while ago, I attended a conference on spirituality; one workshop included about 10 people. We went round the table introducing ourselves: Some identified themselves as Presbyterians and some as gay. Those groups, unsurprisingly, overlapped. And following the introductions, two or three of the gay individuals present asked us to bow our heads while they prayed for our time together. I do feel moved when someone offers to pray for me, to bring God into our midst. It creates a special intimacy.

Some years ago, when the Episcopalians were amidst their very divisive fight over the consecration of a gay bishop, I wrote a radio commentary asking how it was that sexuality—a particular type of sexuality—should be valued as such a mark of holiness. Could there be a similar debate over charity—love of neighbor—a subject about which Jesus talks a great deal? What of the desire to follow God, to value God’s total creation—are these equally important?

I have thought about this in the context of literature—prayers, poetry, autobiographical reflections—that we have been left by some of the most spiritual people of past. Think about this, as I recite a remarkable depiction of divine glory:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind – [ii]

How much does it matter to us that the author, Emily Dickinson, was a recluse who never married and, I suspect, lived her life a virgin? Do we regard those distinguishing marks as merely “tolerable,” or are her gifts so brilliant so that we should prize those gifts above all else?

My great-aunt, whom I mentioned earlier, long sustained a friendship with another, more recent poet, W. H. Auden. They were contemporaries, British by birth, both studied at Oxford and later moved to the United States. Auden, by the way, was a gay man—never a secret and certainly part of his identity. For our purposes, let us also recognize him, as he grew in adulthood, as a serious Christian, who brought an increasingly serious reflection to his faith that shows in some of his poetry. Auden sustained a transformative experience in 1933, at age 25. He would later call it a “Vision of Agape,” which came to him as he sat on the lawn of the school where he taught, with three of his colleagues. “[Q]uite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” [iii]

When I read this recently, it reminded me of another writer’s epiphany, in this case experienced by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in 1958. “In Louisville,” Merton would later write, “at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was,” he added, “like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…” [iv]

These people, disparate as their life experiences are, have an enormous amount to tell us, enrichingly, about living faithfully. I cannot imagine focusing on their sexualities—at the expense of what they have to teach us spiritually.

We don’t “tolerate” them, do we, because of cultural ideas we have about how they might have lived? No, instead, we listen to them through their work as teachers. They engage us and we speak to them with our inner thoughts as they guide us into reflection.

I enjoy reading aloud with my sons. And Robert Louis Stevenson is an author I’ve shared with my oldest. Stevenson had an interesting, restless, rather bohemian life. But I find more moving words he wrote that I came across a few years back, when I discovered a prayer book, given as a gift by my grandfather to his mother. I quote them here, in closing:

We beseech Thee, Lord, to behold us with favor, folk of many families and nations gathered together in the peace of this roof, weak men and women subsisting under the covert of Thy patience. Be patient still; suffer us yet a while longer—with our broken purposes of good, with our idle endeavors against evil, suffer us a while longer to endure and (if it may be) help us to do better… Amen.

[i] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 32

[ii] The poem is available on the Internet and in collections of Dickinson’s work; one such is Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), pp. 248-9.

[iii] W.H. Auden, Selected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. xii.

[iv] Lawrence S. Cunningham, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), p. 144

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