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Faces on Faith: Religious tolerance is a virtue

By Staff | Oct 5, 2012

Dr. Daryl Donovan

My dad sat me down when I was very young and told me there were three things you didn’t discuss in public: religion, politics and, well, you know what.

Why are those issues so tough for us to discuss with an objective, gracious attitude, especially in an election year? I really think it is because those things mean so much to us. They are issues that are connected with passion. They go beyond opinion into the realm of emotion, to the very core of who we are.

Religious tolerance is a wonderful virtue. Formally defined “tolerance is a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.”

Bigotry in any shape or form is an ugly beast.

Passion, however, is a virtue as well. Alexis de Tocqueville, French historian in the 1800s. wrote, “This so-called tolerance in my opinion, is nothing but a huge indifference.”

In the 1900s, G. K. Chesterton, an English Catholic theologian said, “Tolerance is the virtue of those who don’t believe anything.”

Frederick Buechner, a respected Presbyterian theologian in the United States wrote, “Toleration is often just indifference in disguise.”

I am always perplexed when I witness so-called “fair-minded tolerant people” who seem incredibly intolerant of passion. While attending seminary, I remember one of my professors saying, “A fanatic is anyone who is more zealous than you are … and none of us thinks highly of fanatics.” Passion, seasoned with gracious tolerance, is a beautiful thing.

In 1738 John Wesley, founder of Methodism, attended a meeting at Aldersgate, England. He wrote that in that meeting his “heart was strangely warmed.” (That was the birth of passion). With that passion, he labored enthusiastically to share the good news of God’s grace that he had discovered. Since that time, thousands of lives have been enriched because of that message. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army was a man of passion who would boldly preach on the streets of Nottingham calling people to know the Living God.

I wonder how Wesley’s passion would be embraced in our tolerant world today? I ponder if William Booth would find acceptance by the tolerant culture of the 21st century? Or would they find themselves entangled in a lawsuit for being so bold?

Or even worse, could they find themselves among the hundreds of Christian martyrs around the globe who have paid the ultimate price to passionately live out their faith? (More Christians are being martyred in the world today than any time in history.)

Tolerance is a virtue, and so is passion. As long as tolerance respects the passionate religious opinions of all, and as long as passion edifies and liberates the two are a wonderful compliment.

That is what has been my experience on Sanibel Island. There is not only a wonderful spirit of cooperation, but a culture of respect. With that cooperation, and that valued respect, there is passion that moves us to action. What a rare and precious gift.