An ancient maxim reads, "About matters of taste, there is no disputing," while another one advises, "About matters of truth, we should engage in dispute."
These two sayings nicely capture the essence of the solution to the contemporary problem of tolerance and truth.
On the one hand, we hear much in public discourse about the need for tolerance, usually presented as the non-judgmental acceptance of all perspectives. On the other hand, those who stand for truth are often branded as narrow-minded, intolerant and judgmental. Unfortunately, this is often the case when it comes to Christianity. All too often Christian beliefs are said to be matters of faith, not matters of truth. As a result, Christians are told tolerance must override faith. After all, with so many religious and non-religious perspectives in the world, isn't tolerance to be desired over dispute? Are Christians really so prideful as to think they have the corner on truth in certain areas?
What is Truth?
In reality, the matter of tolerance and truth is not as simple as it appears. To clarify matters it will be helpful to define two terms: truth and tolerance.
In the Gospel of John, Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" but did not stay for an answer (John 18:38). Dictionary definitions of truth usually identify it as a "quality or state of being true … that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality." In slightly more philosophical terms we could say that truth is that which corresponds with reality. Consequently, what is real is true and what is true is real. A statement is true, then, if it coincides with the way things are.
But let's not make this more complicated than it needs to be. At a basic level we all have a pretty good idea of truth. We know, for instance, that when someone is caught in a lie they did not tell the truth (what they said did not correspond to reality). When it comes to facts, we know that it is not true that the capital of the United States is Los Angeles, rather it is Washington, D.C.
When it comes to moral matters, truth also applies. For instance, either abortion is wrong or it is not. Either a fetus is actually a human being or it is not. Truth in religion also applies. Either Jesus is Lord or he is not. Either God exists or He does not. In these and other questions, whatever corresponds to reality is the truth.
Truth and the Bible
But how does truth apply to the Bible and, specifically, to Christianity? Below are eight relevant points, offered by Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis:
- Truth is revealed by God. It is not constructed or invented by individuals or communities …
- Objective truth exists and is knowable … Objective truth is truth that is not dependent on any creature's subjective feelings, desires or beliefs.
- Christian truth is absolute in nature.
- Truth is universal.
- The truth of God is eternally engaging and momentous, not trendy or superficial.
- Truth is exclusive, specific and antithetical … For every theological yes there are a million no's. What is true excludes all that opposes it.
- Truth, Christianly understood, is systematic and unified.
- Christian truth is an end, not a means to any other end.
Groothuis concludes his chapter on "The Biblical View of Truth" by writing, "Without a thorough and deeply rooted understanding of the biblical view of truth … the Christian response to postmodernism [a worldview that often denies or distorts the reality of truth] will be muted by the surrounding culture or will make illicit compromises with the truth-impoverished spirit of the age."
What is Tolerance?
But what about tolerance? What's wrong with the non-judgmental acceptance of all perspectives? What's wrong depends on what one is being tolerant about. Remember the opening sayings about taste and truth? "About matters of taste, there is no disputing" and "About matters of truth, we should engage in dispute."
Being tolerant is more than acceptable under certain circumstances, especially when it comes to taste. Authors Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl demonstrate this well in their book Relativism (Baker Books, 1998) where they discuss liking a certain flavor of ice cream, adding, "Tastes are personal. They're private. They're individual. If you didn't like butter pecan and favored chocolate instead, it would be strange to say that you were wrong. You should not be faulted, it seems, for having different subjective tastes about desserts than someone else. What if my claim was not about flavors, though, but about numbers? If I say the sum of two plus two is four, I'm making a different sort of claim than stating my taste in ice cream."
Do you see the difference between being tolerant of tastes and of truth? Being tolerant of someone's personal taste for ice cream is fine, but what about in the area of mathematics? Two plus two equals four, but doesn't it seem narrow-minded to say so? After all, why should there be only one narrow answer to that problem? Does this mean all answers to the problem that are not four are wrong? Well, that seems so judgmental! The point is, there are some instances where truth—what corresponds to reality—is exclusive simply because it is true.
Tolerance is one thing, but truth is another. Now if by tolerance one means being respectful of the beliefs of others, then Christianity is in full agreement, as Christians are called to defend their beliefs "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). But to confuse tolerance with truth is not helpful.
Putting Tolerance to the Test
Can tolerance pass a worldview test? Since tolerance is often applied to morality, let's briefly explore moral relativism in relation to this question. Moral relativists claim that whatever one happens to believe is true or right for them. Morality becomes completely subjective. What's wrong with this approach? If moral relativism is accepted then nothing can be considered wrong, but we know some things are inherently wrong, which is why we have a legal system and criminals serving time. There are many other problems with moral relativism, but this one is enough to destroy it as a viable system.
We should not tolerate behavior such as murder, child abuse, rape, or robbery, for instance. In short, some things are simply intolerable.
The God of Truth
Psalm 31:5 reads, "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth" (NIV). Truth is real and it matters. Moral truth is written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), but we must also use our heads (Matthew 22:37) if we are to faithfully serve "the God of truth."
Robert Velarde is author of The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press) and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.