Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?

Matthew 17:17

To Tolerate or not to Tolerate, is that Really the Question?

It is almost considered axiomatic nowadays to treat tolerance as a virtue. After all, we are taught at all levels of society to tolerate all kinds of things, differing religious beliefs, races, convictions and sexual orientation. It seems sheer madness to question the virtue of tolerance, almost like questioning the moral depravity of infanticide or torture. However, Bernard Williams, a famous atheistic moral philosopher in his paper Tolerance: An Impossible Virtue does have a rather interesting argument demonstrating that tolerance is largely impossible.

Now, one must take care to note that he is not arguing that that tolerance is bad or that it is a vice, he’s arguing that tolerance is impossible, that it is an inherently self-contradictory idea. Tolerance as a virtue, according to this argument, will be like the idea of non-spatial green objects, an impossibility. By the fact of something being green, it has to be composed of photons and electromagnetic waves, and it has therefore be spatial, so there can’t possibly be a non-spatial green object.

Naturally the concept of tolerance, like any other concept in moral or political philosophy, is necessarily vague and does not have the same clarity as space-time physics, thus, its impossibility may not be very obvious at first. But yet, Williams by teasing out how the concept of tolerance is commonly employed, has demonstrated that tolerance is as a matter of fact self-contradictory, and often collapses into something else.

Tolerating the Intolerable; Or Tolerance as Acceptance

First, consider the types of differences we are asked to tolerate. We don’t, for example, ask people to tolerate differing tastes in ice-cream flavours or to tolerate differing preferences of pets types or differing hobbies. And why not? Because these are not significant differences, or, in other words, they are not differences that matter to us. To put it another way, they are not differences that makes a difference. It doesn’t matter to me if you prefer vanilla while I like chocolate.

So what are we asked to tolerate? The answer has to be that we are asked to tolerate differences that matter to us, or differences which would as a matter of fact, offend us. Take an extremely vivid example of what we are normally asked to tolerate: Religious differences. As a Christian, I am asked to tolerate Muslims, because the Muslim believes in claims which differ from mine which is of the greatest and deepest significance to me. It is central to my being and who I am that Christ is God and that he gave his life for me on the Cross, without which I am nothing. While the Muslims is supposed to deny both the divinity of Christ and his sacrificial death.

So, in effect, I am asked to tolerate blasphemy of my God. But here comes the contradiction. If, as a matter of fact, I consider the denial of the divinity of my deity to be something central and essential to who I am, this denial is, paradoxically, intolerable. It is deeply offensive to me and strikes at the core of who I am. Whilst I am convinced that Christ my God does have sovereign claims of Lordship over all creation, the Muslim utterly deny what is my deepest conviction, thus, attacking at what deeply matters to me.

So, if the proper object of tolerance is the intolerable, then how is this contradiction resolved in practice? Normally, by tolerance, we are asked to accept what is intolerable, to incorporate it into oneself. But how is it possible to accept what contradicts one’s own most deepest convictions? By virtue of it constituting the core of one’s being, one can’t possibly be asked to accept what would go against one ownself. So, normally what has happened is that the object of tolerance is reduced in significance. For example, in the question of race, normally asking to tolerate another race is made based on the fact that race is not a significant part of who one is. One can interact, work with and even marry a person of another race because race doesn’t matter. Its not so important to the sense of who one is. Of course, I realise that this is very much more complex than what I’ve made it out. For example, it could be that the differences do not contradict in the way that religious differences do contradict. To be Chinese is not contradictory to being Indian in the way that being a Christian contradicts being a Muslim. Or racial toleration could also be made on the basis that most activities and forms of life does not involve racial components, thus, tolerance of racial differences is simply a recognition of this fact. Of course, if it is true that most activities in our lives does not involve any racial components, then that just goes to show that race, as a matter of fact, doesn’t occupy a large or significant part of our lives anymore, which is simply the initial argument, that we can tolerate “intolerable differences”, by rendering the “intolerable differences” insignificant. Stanley Hauerwas once quipped that most Christians nowaday says, “Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour of All, but that’s just my personal opinion”. 

But I’m sure you can spot the contradiction by now. If the differences in question are as a matter of fact insignificant, like preferences of ice-cream flavours, then as a matter of fact, there is nothing left to tolerate because we are only asked to tolerate significant differences. So, it seems that we have come full circle. To tolerate is to tolerate the intolerable, and the intolerable is what contradicts a significant and important part of who one is. But in practice, the call to tolerance becomes a call to acceptance, which can normally only be accomplished by reducing the significance of the intolerable. But in so doing, then there is nothing left that needs to be tolerated. So, it seems that tolerance is an impossible virtue. It seems that its path is always towards its own destruction. 

Suffering the Intolerable; Or Tolerance as Suffering

So far I have made no value judgements as to whether tolerance as acceptance is a good or bad thing. May be it is a good thing that differences between people be neutralised and rendered insignificant. I do not know. But then again, I am a moral nihilist and I couldn’t care less if it is a good or bad thing. But as a Christian, I definitely cannot contemplate the possibility of accepting blasphemy or heresy. What’s the Christian alternative?

Today the word suffer has come to have almost purely sensory meaning, to undergo or endure pain. But the older use of the word “suffer” does overlap significantly with “tolerate”. For example the 1662 ordination rules of the Anglican Church stipulates that Church of England shall suffer no cleric to perform any ministerial function unless he be ordained according to the form of the ordinal or have episcopal ordaination. Another famous use of this sense of suffer is the famous phrase “I do not suffer fools gladly”, which does not mean to undergo the pain or whatever, but simply to put up with them.

As Christians, we are called not only to suffer fools glady (which, in case you didn’t know, the phrase originated from the KJV translation of 2 Corinthians 11:19), but to suffer all things and all persons gladly. We are asked to tolerate all kinds of offense and repulsive things, not by neutralising their offensiveness via playing down their significance, but by patient long-suffering and endurance. We are called to bear with the unclean, the intolerable, the offensive, the perverse and the repulsive, because Christ himself bore our sins and our curse on the Cross. Did he “tolerate” our sins in the contemporary sense of the word? Of course not. Our depravity and uncleaness is intolerable to his divinity, our corrupt practices and minds open wounds in his Body. He did not and cannot accept it, but his response is to suffer it through patience and long-suffering love, all the way to the Cross. He touched the unclean and dine with the outcasts and sinners. He did not empty their sins and corruption of their significance, but he saw beyond them, he accepted their persons and saw beyond their sins, saw that they had a future and a hope of redemption beyond it, in Him and in His enduring love, which has a depth able to suffer all things. To touch us offends His Holiness, to eat with us demeans His Majesty, but he suffered it with joy, that we might rejoice in Him, he despised the shame of the Cross and accepted the humiliation of his lowliness that he might honour his saints and glorify his sons. And so he patiently suffered their corruption in love that they will recover with his healing touch, for by his wounds suffered by our sinning, we are healed.


As Christians we must be wary of the rhetoric of the age and not buy into contemporary talk of “tolerance”, etc. Our practices and speech must be shaped by the Christian faith, not secular ideology. We are not called to render the intolerable tolerable, but to suffer the intolerable, in the hopes that the one day, the suffering will be healed through the redemption of the Cross. For it is through the Suffering of the Cross that our Saviour draws all man to himself, so likewise are we called to suffer, if we are to draw man towards His Body, the Church, and through this will his Kingdom come and his Will be done.

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