Beyond Tolerance

Jo-Mead-Beyond-ToleranceTolerance … usually has an elitist lining; either an elitist lining in the sense that you can be tolerant because for you it is not that important, or an elitist lining of noblesse oblige I know, but I cannot expect the other to know as much as I do. – Krister Stendahl.

Words matter. The meanings of words also change. Consider the ongoing discussions about the differences between interfaith and multifaith or between interfaith and interreligious. That debate is a topic for another book, but it points to the evolving picture of this work.

We could say the same of the word “tolerance.” I’ve often seen the “Practice Tolerance”tolerance3 bumper sticker, with “Tolerance” spelled out with symbols of the world’s religions, and know that it’s meant to be an inclusive sentiment. When Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he spoke of “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity.” Since the Congress was the first formal gathering of representatives from both Eastern and Western traditions, it is easy to understand why he paired persecution and intolerance in his speech. Tolerance was then a great improvement over prejudicial beliefs and actions.

But there are problems with the word tolerance. It can imply a willingness to put up with something disagreeable or disliked. If I say that I tolerate you, I convey a very different thing than if I say that I admire or respect you. The issue came to the fore in the global arena in the year 2000 at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit. As reported by Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the head of the Hindu delegation proposed that the term “mutual respect” be substituted for the word “tolerance” in the Summit’s final document “Commitment to Global Peace.” According to Malhotra, the words became a fierce topic of debate, in which adherents of the Abrahamic religions were strongly challenged to respect the non-Abrahamic religions as equals. Mere tolerance was not enough.

This was not a matter of mere political correctness. Christians, by agreeing to go beyond tolerance to mutual respect, begin to swim into the deep waters of church teachings about salvation. Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict), head of the Vatican delegation, objected strongly to the wording of the resolution, “mutual respect” won the day. However, the Vatican quickly issued a statement that affirmed that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Inherent in these challenges is the Christological question: in light of our religious
diversity who and what is Jesus? If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

It is not merely a matter of political correctness at the congregational level either. The question of tolerance or respect may relate to our willingness to be open to the real people we meet in interfaith encounters, to engage in dialogue which goes beyond tolerance. As Swami Dayananda and Cardinal Ratzinger found, however, moving from tolerance to mutual respect is not without challenges.

(This is an excerpt from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?)

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