Tolerance is a popular word in our present culture. Any dictionary will remind us that tolerance has to do with “tolerating the views, beliefs, and practices of others.” To tolerate means we are not “to interfere with; allow, permit … to recognize and respect (others’ beliefs, practices, etc.) without sharing them.”
Virtue has to do with “general moral excellence; right action and thinking; goodness and morality.” Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, spoke of it as “A mean state between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” Too much or too little in either direction destroys the meaning of virtue and tolerance.
From childhood I was taught to allow for others what I wanted for myself. They should have the same privilege I have of believing, choosing, and doing what I thought was right. It is embodied in what we often refer to as “The Golden Rule” which tells us “to treat others as we would have them treat us.”
There are limits to tolerance. Tolerance deals with the maximum and minimum of acceptable standards. The dictionary speaks of “the ability to endure.” In surgery, for example, we do not want the surgeon to tolerate just anything. We want him to be precise and accurate. To tolerate means “to bear, or put up with (someone or something not especially liked).”
A thought on how much a tolerant person may permit: “You have a right to swing your arms, make your hand into a fist, thrust it into your own space, but if it ever hits my nose that can no longer be tolerated. That is the end of tolerance.”
My experience and study have brought me to a point where I freely allow others to believe whatever they choose whether it is right or wrong. I have no power, or right, or authority to keep them from doing that. They are as free as I am to believe whatever they choose.
Tolerance really becomes an internal matter. It is personal. So often it involves what I tolerate in my own life. Whatever others believe only becomes a legitimate concern of mine when those beliefs are designed and calculated to change, limit, or destroy my ability to live as I choose to live within accepted norms. If that ever happens, tolerance is no longer a virtue. It has become a vice that must be controlled or eliminated.
One of the most scholarly, interesting and thought provoking books I have read in a long time is titled “TEN LIES ABOUT GOD”, from the pen of Erwin W. Lutzer. It is published by WORD and can be found in most good bookstores. Lutzer reminds us that: “God’s nature does not change. God’s truth does not change. God’s standards do not change.” There are trusted limits within which tolerance operates.
Is it possible that we are guilty of tolerating too much? Tolerance loses its virtue if it tolerates everything. Many of the problems we face in America and in the world will only be solved when we become less tolerant of evil. We must not to roll over and play dead when faced with evil. That is not what is meant by “turning the other cheek.”
Tolerance is no longer a virtue when its tolerates ungodliness, anarchy and terrorism. Tolerance can only be a virtue when it embodies morality, righteousness, integrity and honor. Tolerate the things you do not like only as long as they are not a threat to the things you love most. Evil does not disappear by simply being tolerated. Tolerance must, at times, and in the face of evil, cease to be tolerant if it is to continue being virtuous.
Dr. William “Bill” Ellis of Scott Depot is a weekly syndicated columnist who writes on a wide variety of subjects. Ellis has spent 25 years as a radio and television broadcaster and as a guest speaker and teacher on college campuses.