IT WAS TOLERANCE WEEK AT THE LOCAL ELEMENtary school where my 8-year-old gets her "rainbow of friends" education. I have never heard the word unpacked (though of course it is ubiquitous), and was looking forward to being edified, but, alas, the school's messages home contained no explanation. It is assumed, I suppose, that everyone is on board with what Tolerance means, and, in fairness, I grant that most words with which we pepper our speech are never looked up in a dictionary but mastered in a thousand life encounters that fine-tune their semantic boundaries.
Most of my formative encounters with Tolerance must have been negative because my knee-jerk reaction to the word is not warm and fuzzy. It registers on the dial somewhere between "politeness" and "contempt," with sufficient vitamins to keep you from rickets and beriberi but not enough to nurture you. It finds emotional affinities with "sterility," "putting up with," and "gnashing of teeth." I picture rigid rows of stiff-armed, Red BookÐcarrying Cultural Revolution youth circa 1966 chanting Mao's name in unison. Maybe this is just my problem.
Alternately, Tolerance conjures up the softer face of Pacifism-which is probably the one the school board had in mind. What's troubling here is the suspicious ease with which this philosophical mantle may be donned in a bedroom community where the hot issue is how the proposed Abington High School stadium will affect the neighborhood. The devil himself spews disdain for those who are "vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men, and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism" (The Screwtape Letters).
Thus, Tolerance, with its soft connotations, presents a Teflon resistance to any definition, which in turn makes attempts to discuss it-with my daughter or anyone-like grasping at gossamer in a dream. We know what Love is: It is patient, it is kind, it rebukes, it disciplines, it does not grasp rights, it bears others' burdens. But what is Tolerance, for heaven's sake? I have a feeling that Satan himself would say, in like manner as to the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:15): "Love I know, and Hate I recognize, but who are you?"
But Tolerance is not (I cynically suspect) meant to be pinned down with hard facts, but to be elusive, watery, and weightless, so that it may inspire vague good will without the baggage of content. The emptier the better. To fill it would be provocative, potentially divisive, and therefore not ... tolerant.
Francis Schaeffer coins a phrase for such phenomena in The God Who Is There-"upper-story" concepts. He explains how when a society evicts God, it elevates in His place other virtues, like Tolerance. By unexamined consensus it places those virtues in an "upper-story" realm impervious to facts and empirical investigation (the latter being, by contrast, "lower-story" categories). Upper-story beliefs are leaps of faith that do not submit themselves to the test of scrutiny. "It's Tolerance, stupid. Don't confuse me with the facts!"
But in that vacuum of transcendent meaning where our society now resides, with Tolerance deified and enshrined as its God-substitute and its rallying cry, something unexpected is happening. Believers in Tolerance are demanding that all bow before their god-so Tolerance over time will more and more morph into Intolerance. Pundit David Horowitz says a cockeyed idea of Tolerance contributes to the current phenomenon in American colleges where "conservatives have become almost as rare as unicorns." He notes that "there is no bottom line in the university for bad ideas or discredited doctrines."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once imprisoned in the Russian Gulag, had another word for the Tolerance practiced in many world capitals: "Obsequiousness" (too long a tongue-twister for an elementary-school bulletin board). Speaking at Harvard in 1978, he said that when we eschew moral criteria in politics, "thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute evil in the world."
My 8-year-old hasn't shown much interest in the school motto, Tolerance, perhaps in part because it's been so poorly defined. But if she does ask, I'll steer her toward more meaty ideas, like Patience, and Kindness, and Goodness, Courage, and Truth. We can open our Bibles together and learn what they mean.