Is Toleration Possible? – On Personal Differences in Belief

“The walls we build, to keep us in, to keep them out, in the end, divide us all.”

Over the course of my life I have switched back and forth between “liberal” and “conservative” theologies more times than anyone could count. One day, I will trust in the historical reliability of the gospels and another I will dismiss all of it as early church politics. The same thing happens when I ponder the reality of a final judgment.

If God is so loving then surely that love must be able to overcome even the most heinous of evils in the world? If God desires all to be saved, then wouldn’t God cease to be God if God could not follow through with that desire?

Then the next day…

If God is so loving, then a hell must exist otherwise allowing even the most evil people into heaven would be a declaration that evil is okay; that wrongs do not go unpunished, and it would be a slap in the face to everyone who has legitimately suffered under such grave evils as human history is accustomed to. If everyone goes to heaven, then God too is a moral monster, forcing God’s will upon all in a domineering fashion whether they want to receive love or not.

And sometimes I just throw up my hands on issues like these under the pains of agnosticism. It seems that either viewpoint is left with a God who is overly violent and patriarchal. In the first sense, because God sends people to hell for eternity, and in the second sense, because God’s will trumps all human decision against God and legitimizes evil itself.

Palestine GrafitiesI explain this situation only to highlight that often we are in our own continual cycles of belief and opinion. Sometimes it even depends upon our own experiences more than we would like to admit. Whether or not we passed a homeless person on the street sometimes sways our opinions towards liberal or conservative political agendas.

These examples are not given merely for their own sake, but to point out the importance of toleration. I’m not talking about the toleration that says everyone is right and everything is relative. Rather, the kind that refuses to label and dehumanize any opposing viewpoints. Within Christianity, this is extremely important at the present moment. As the era dominated by conservative evangelicalism comes to a close, more conflict is bound to emerge: on one side, by those who feel secure in faith only when dogmas are pronounced unashamedly, and on the reverse by those who wish to mock the irrationality and stupidity of others’ lack of rational inquiry.

The truth often is that we each belong to denominations largely because of tradition mixed with chance. We go to church with our families or we come across certain books or teachers who happen to change our opinions. Just because I am educated does not mean that I should look down upon those who’s view of scripture and theology is not influenced by trained theologians and biblical scholars. Most people have reasons for what they believe, but often they are not in the form of well-thought out rational explanations weighed by a sufficient amount of evidence and argument from either side. I’m not saying that we should all give up, and let those who differ from us have their way in everything without challenge.

berlin wallOn the contrary, I advocate open dialogue. One that examines the beliefs of everyone and not just those of the opposing side. I cannot just go into a church and begin preaching that Paul did not write Galatians or Ephesians. Whether or not I believe that to be true, the means of dialogue is important. Often times those with an education idolize the truths of Christianity (as well as theology and bible criticism) without thinking about the means in which Christianity recommends this knowledge be deployed. In the example of authorship I just gave, it must begin with a discussion of canon, a question of whether or not who the author is actually matters, what the nature of scriptural texts even are, and whether these issues ultimately matter. It is not enough to cite evidence of non-Pauline authorship and say that’s it. As Christians, we are called to use means in keeping with our faith.

And that brings me to my final point. We should always be promoting a culture of open dialogue between one another. It hardly ever helps when we label others as liberal, progressive, conservative, or fundamentalist. These labels, though helpful in distinguishing thought patterns, cannot be thrown around for the purpose of drawing dividing lines between believers.

One of the grandest truths I learned while in my undergraduate education was that my own tradition of Christianity (at the time conservative evangelicalism) was not the sole way Christianity had been practiced throughout its history. The “Gospel” my pastors were preaching was not the only version of the good news that existed. Surely it does work for people who come from similar backgrounds as I grew up in. My life was full of rich discipleship and community. But I had the mistaken belief that my understanding of Christianity was THE only way to understand Christianity. I didn’t realize the historical development of my own denomination, what predated it, and which direction it was heading toward. The process of finding this out was not one in which those more educated than myself ridiculed my conservative background, but one in which influential figures in my life asked me to examine my beliefs, ask where they came from, what they were based upon, and how they related to my vision of God.

gatedhomeThese are the types of questions that theologians try to ask. It is our job to examine belief structures and see whether they are compatible with truths about God and God’s relation to the world. But once we find errors, it is not enough to point them out and draw up battle lines in the sand. Christianity is a process and a way of life. In times when we are tempted to divide the Church and possibly harm the faith of others, we would do best to realize the call of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. A search for truth is never a bad thing, but once it is found, it should be employed with means compatible with that love for our neighbor’s well being, and not just our own satisfaction in knowing the correct answer.

Too many times our arguments against one another are merely based on how we have been told to behave by our own faith traditions. We learn to consider conservatives as idiots, or liberals as denying the truth of the gospel. We are taught that arminianism promotes a shallow version of God, or that Calvin was entirely wrong. What we miss in this moment of division however, is that truth that can be found on either side. We don’t recognize the sincerity of other’s approach to religious truth. We don’t recognize that others have different experiences leading them to different beliefs, and we don’t understand how many theologies are culturally conditioned to a particular situation. The theologies we espouse today would be of no use in the early Church period, just as medieval penance theology is no use today in a culture of individual expression.

I know this post has went many different directions, but I hope the questions and the answers of this brief piece has allowed you to see your own beliefs and those of others in a new light. Ultimately, all of us Christians are looking for truth about God. Some of us think we have found it dogmatically, and therefore ridicule those who are different from us, all the while not realizing that they too think they have found the truth dogmatically. What we are left with in these situations is the mud we sling at one another and not the love we should have for all of our brothers and sisters. There is always room for truth and error, but when the search for truth stops, there one is most likely to err in their thought.

Keep thinking and keep conversing, only don’t oppress those you are trying to win over or victimize yourself by failing to understand that these categories divide more than they help any given situation.

In case you missed it, check out my post on God’s desire for human flourishing. It was my first in the rudimentaries series and discusses whether or not our purpose is only for the glory of God.


3 thoughts on “Is Toleration Possible? – On Personal Differences in Belief

  1. Pingback: Race and Christianity | School of Religion

  2. Pingback: Is the Gospel All About You? | School of Religion

  3. Pingback: Christianity and Culture – Use Your Faith for Good | School of Religion


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