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The problem of what “tolerance” means is in fact more difficult than these few comments on dictionary entries might suggest. For in contemporary usage, both meanings continue in popular use, and often it is unclear what the speaker or writer means. For instance, “She is a very tolerant person”: does this mean she gladly puts up with a lot of opinions with which she disagrees, or that she thinks all opinions are equally valid? A Muslim cleric says, “We do not tolerate other religions”: does this mean that, according to this cleric, Muslims do not think that other religions should be permitted to exist, or that Muslims cannot agree that other religions are as valid as Islam? A Christian pastor declares, “Christians gladly tolerate other religions”: does this mean, according to the pastor, that Christians gladly insist that other religions have as much right to exist as Christianity does, or that Christians gladly assert that all religions are equally valid? “You Christians are so intolerant,” someone asserts: does this mean that Christians wish all positions contrary to their own were extirpated, or that Christians insist that Jesus is the only way to God? The former is patently untrue; the latter is certainly true (at least, if Christians are trying to be faithful to the Bible): Christians do think that Jesus is the only way to God. But does that make them intolerant? In the former sense of “intolerant,” not at all; the fact remains, however, that any sort of exclusive truth claim is widely viewed as a sign of gross intolerance. But the latter depends absolutely on the second meaning of “tolerance.”
Here’s the thing: In a society obsessed with tolerance, we are actually not tolerant at all. It’s all a big lie, a big fiction, and we’re all playing along. In order to claim tolerance we’ve had to rewrite the definition of the term and in so doing we’ve put ourselves on dangerous ground. Tolerance has become part of the Western “plausability structure”–a stance that is assumed and is not to be questioned. We are to be tolerant at all times. Well, almost all times, that is.
Carson begins by showing that tolerance presupposes disagreement. That’s the beauty of being tolerant–one person expresses disagreement with another but still tolerates him, accepting that differing views exists even while holding fast to his own. He puts up with another person even though they do not believe the same thing. But over time there has been a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle shift in the word’s meaning. Today’s version of tolerance actually accepts all differing views. We’ve gone from accepting the existence of other views to believing that we need to accept all differing views. This brings us into the natural outworking of postmodernism, a philosophy that denies the singular nature of truth.