Of Tolerance and Tyranny
In our modern age there is nothing praised so much as tolerance, nor despised so much as tyranny. This is because we prize individual freedom above all else, and we worship it in nearly every form and at almost any cost. In a very real sense, we view freedom as the essential quality which makes us human. And in this we are indeed not far wrong.
The only restriction on individual liberty which generally makes any sense to us is what is known as the “Harm Principle.” This idea was first articulated explicitly by John Stuart Mill in his seminal work, On Liberty:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
This, in short, is the guiding moral principle of modernity.
And it is on the basis of this principle that Christianity is today most often criticized. Not so long ago the attacks made on Christianity were primarily scientific: Christianity was alleged to be incorrect and ignorant. Now, the attacks are primarily moral: Christianity is alleged to be bigoted and tyrannical.
It should be abundantly clear to us that we cannot counter these criticisms merely by making a vapid appeal to the moral authority of the Scriptures, any more than Christians a few generations ago were able to silence the claims of their scientific detractors simply by citing the Biblical account of Creation. Christianity is indeed founded upon the revelation of God, but the power and truth of that divine revelation must be made manifest in the life and thought and speech of every Christian; it cannot be treated merely as some sort of encyclopedia to be picked up off the shelf, cited in the course of a dry intellectual argument, and then put away again. We err catastrophically if we trivialize either our opponents on the one hand, or our own Faith on the other.
Yet this is not at all to say that we should rely upon reasoned argument and discourse alone to somehow “prove” the truth and goodness of Christianity. Rather, we must obey the command of the Apostle to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” This means that our answer must flow above all from inner sanctity and unwavering personal faith in God. If people do not encounter divine beauty in our lives as Christians, then it is all but certain that they will not encounter it in our words.
To put it another way: people are far less likely to believe that Christianity is inherently hateful and bigoted if the actual Christians they encounter are undeniably loving and compassionate. Pagan morality was overthrown not because Christians presented cogent arguments based on natural law theory, but rather because the beauty and power of the Christian way of life was clearly manifest. It is as our Savior said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
But with all that said, we must also understand that the modern understanding of freedom and morality (as expressed in the maxim of John Stuart Mill quoted above) inherently conditions the world to view Christianity as bigoted and immoral. Sir James Stephen, whose work I have referenced several times before, explains:
I know not what can be a greater infringement of [this] theory of liberty, a more complete and formal contradiction to it, than the doctrine that there are a court and a judge in which, and before whom, every man must give an account of every work done in the body, whether self-regarding or not. According to Mr. Mill’s theory, it ought to be a good plea in the day of judgment to say ‘I pleased myself and hurt nobody else.’ Whether or not there will ever be a day of judgment is not the question, but upon his principles the conception of a day of judgment is fundamentally immoral. A God who punished anyone at all, except for the purpose of protecting others, would, upon his principles, be a tyrant trampling on liberty.
It is quite evident that Stephen’s argument is correct, since after the widespread adoption of Mill’s theory of liberty there followed the widespread adoption of precisely the kind of attitude towards God which Stephen describes. Even if we leave aside the question of punishment, it is clear that modernity does indeed consider the Christian God to be “a tyrant trampling on liberty” and the Last Judgment to be “fundamentally immoral.”
How can we Christians answer this charge? Why is God so “intolerant”? Why is it that Christians cannot simply “live and let live,” just like everybody else?
The answer, I think, lies in this phrase: “According to Mr. Mill’s theory, it ought to be a good plea in the day of judgment to say ‘I pleased myself and hurt nobody else.'”
In the face of such a reply, the true Christian can only marvel: what tragic smallness of both mind and heart! Is this truly the best that humanity can expect of itself? Is there nothing higher for which we ought to strive? Is there nothing more beautiful for which we are meant to seek? Is this truly all that life has to offer?
The Gospel commandments are given to us by God precisely because He desires something far better for us than lives of such paltry and prosaic self-interest. God created man in His own image and likeness, and even after our Fall He raised us up and glorified us above all other created beings. Each and every one of the commandments has been given to us precisely in order that we might attain “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” And we dare to scorn such a gift as nothing more than “intolerance” and “tyranny”!
And yet the fact remains that we are perfectly free to reject His commandments. God commands, but does not constrain. He honors even the most foolish exercise of free will. And He will continue honoring it until the bitter end.
This brings us back to the question of punishment: is the threat of Hell not the ultimate expression of tyranny? What could be more tyrannical than for God to eternally punish those who have merely chosen to exercise the free will which He Himself gave? Is this not the most extreme form of intolerance imaginable?
But the truth is precisely the opposite. Hell is not a prison constructed by God in order to torment sinners; it is the outer darkness to which sinners flee from before the face of God. It is not in a spirit of tyranny, but rather precisely in a spirit of tolerance, that God allows each person to freely choose whether to unite themselves to Him, or to reject Him forever. On the Day of Judgment, every single person will receive from God exactly what they themselves have chosen. He tyrannizes no one. His tolerance truly knows no bounds.
And His tolerance — along with the true magnitude of the freedom which we have been given — is far more terrifying than any tyranny could ever be.