Tolerating Intolerance

Besuch der drei Engel bei Abraham und deren

I’ve been thinking this week about tolerance. How do we practice tolerance?  Are there limits? Does tolerance by definition exclude the intolerant? I wonder about these things. Of course  when I wonder about them, my underlying assumption is that tolerance is a good thing. Not everyone one would agree with me on that. And I, tolerant as I may try to be, would not claim that tolerance means any and all behaviors or attitudes or ideas must be allowed or encouraged.  Abusive behavior should not be “tolerated”. Dangerous behavior should not be “tolerated”. 

It seems to me we need a working definition of tolerance. gives 8 definitions, you can read here. What I found interesting was the distinction found in first set of definitions, from the Random House Dictionary. Tolerance can be towards the ideas, opinions, practices themselves or toward the individuals who hold the ideas, opinions and practices.  This is an important concept for discussions about tolerance. Additionally, how we act and think about tolerance may be different for individuals than for institutions and nations. What is appropriate for an individual to tolerate may not be appropriate for a nation.

When I think about tolerance, I am primarily interested in my relationship with the individual not about my agreement or non agreement with their ideas or opinions.  A person’s opinions and beliefs are part of who the person is, but a person is more than the sum of their opinions and beliefs.

At the same time, there are some ideas and beliefs I am willing to tolerate and some I am not. 

In US politics, I have my opinions and I am willing to let you have yours. We can and probably should have vigorous discussion. We can try to change each others mind. But at the end of the day, I need to respect your opinions.  There are, of course, some opinions that I think are outside the limits of tolerance. I am unwilling to tolerate the belief that slavery is permissible, for example.  I don’t think killing  people is an appropriate solution to any problem.

It does seem to me, I am supposed to practice tolerance toward the persons, the individuals who hold these beliefs. As a person of faith, there are ideas and beliefs that I cannot condone. But there are no people I am exempt from caring about, there are no people I am allowed to hate, there are no people who are not also beloved children of God. My faith teaches me that no one is beyond the care and love of God. No one is beyond salvation.

Personally, I don’t find it difficult to be in a relationship with people who have different beliefs, as long as they are willing to be in relationship with me and my different beliefs. If everyone is willing to be tolerent of the other, in general, things aren’t too difficult.

But what if the other person isn’t interested in being tolerant? How hard to I have to try?  How often do I have to try? Once? Twice?  Seventy times seven? What is my responsibility? 

I think it is to to offer hospitality.  By that I mean hospitality as Henry Nouwen described it.  ( I have to apologize here, I can’t find the original source and I am working from memory.) Nouwen wrote about hospitality as the creating of a safe space where the other person can be who they are and can be unafraid.   But before we can truly listen to each other and hear each other, we need to feel accepted and safe. This can be hard to do. Certainly it is only the begining of a long process. Hospitality creates the environment where respect and trust can begin.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


The aniversary of Darwin’s birth is this next week. I have no doubt there will be lots to read and lots of discussion, some of it more thoughtful than others. Read the Spirit has couple of helpful links  you might want to check out.

8 thoughts on “Tolerating Intolerance

  1. Hospitality, it’s not about the food… it’s about the people. I consider myself chritian and religious at that, but also tolerant. I have GOOD friends who practice Islam, Demonolgy, Satanism and Buddhism. Have I gotten them into my church? No. Have I impacted their lives and showed how my God lives out in my life… yes.
    I think tolerance is the only way to get along. should we hurt each other? no. stand by during injustice? certainly not. But we can accept each other faithfully and respectfully. Nice thoughts you wrote out here, thank you for sharing!!!

  2. Inneridiot,

    Thanks for you comments on my blog. Your blog is quite thoughtful and nicely written.
    However after reading your post and rereading mine, I don’t think we are in serious disagreement. It’s more a definitional issue. The way you describe tolerance-as a superficial politically correct false niceness- I would agree is not helpful. In my discussion of tolerance, I was trying to draw a distinction between ideas, which I may disagree with, and the person who holds those beliefs, whom I need to value as an individual human being.

  3. Hi Nancy, you are right, in the end, what we say is not different at all. I especially like how you talk about hospitality as a way to approach intolerant people.
    I guess what I wanted to stress is that I don’t see the concept of tolerance as useful because it somehow implies that we do not care, that we just let the others have their opinions, whichever they might be. And I think that this unwillingness to go deeper and explore is one of the root causes of discrimination.

    1. We may need a new word besides tolerance. As we just showed, it means different things to different people and I suspect your take on it is the more common one.
      Quite right about descrimination as well. It is much more difficult to discrimiate against a group once you know a member of that group.

  4. you said:
    We may need a new word besides tolerance. As we just showed, it means different things to different people and I suspect your take on it is the more common one.

    The reason I describe tolerance the way I do is because this is how I see people understand it (as you point out, it is the common way to see it). And this is what matters, how people see it. It is not my take on it per se, because I would not even use this word in my thoughts in the subject.
    Perhaps using this word is only a reflection of most common state of mind?

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