Monday, April 28, 2008

Christian Tolerance: Paul's Message to the Modern Church.

Here's something I just handed in!

Book Review: Christian Tolerance: Paul's Message to the Modern Church
by me!

Robert Jewett's Christian Tolerance: Paul's Message to the Modern Church was published in 1982, and in his introduction he places his book in the political and social context of that time. In America in the 1980s, the so-called “Moral Majority” was making open inroads into politics, and as the book's editor states in the preface, attempting to corral other denominations into conforming to one vision of Christian activism. Jewett states early on that he sees Paul as “an unacknowledged ally in the quest for the foundations of a tolerant society”(10).

In light of that context, it becomes a bit easier to see why Jewett chose Romans as the centerpiece of his argument. As he states, Romans has been frequently cited by Christian figures who want to enforce their brand of Christianity on others, ignoring what Jewett feels is the true message of the letter. Worse still, the appropriation of Romans by these agents of intolerance has caused more tolerant Christians to shy away from citing some of the best evidence available that Paul wanted tolerance: Romans itself.

In arguing his case, the first thing Jewett does is essentially to define his terms. In his first chapter, “Strenuous Tolerance Flowing from Vital Faith,” he distinguishes between two kinds of tolerance. The common definition of tolerance accepted in America is similar to what Romans were inclined to accept, which means that Paul and Jewett were writing in social contexts that are at least similar in that key factor. This so-called “formal tolerance” is viewed as the grudging acceptance that others are perfectly within their rights to express their incorrect and uninformed views, though it certainly would be nicer if they expressed “correct” views. Jewett argues that at best this keeps people from persecuting each other too violently, but inevitably results in the kind of social pitfalls Rome ended up with, and that he feels America is falling into in the 1980s.

The problem with formal tolerance, according to Jewett, is that it goes no further than mere tolerance. It leaves Christians merely suffering one another instead of loving and supporting one another. In Jewett's interpretation of Paul's letter, this is quite simply not enough. He frequently cites Romans 15:7, in which Paul insists, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.”

Formal tolerance is criticized later in the book for more than “missing the point.” Jewett sees serious harm in it. Jewett describes it as “based on 'unconcern' about either the doctrinal issues or the personal convictions that lead others to disagree with us” (34). From this view, formal tolerance fosters an environment where people are encouraged simply not to care what anyone else is doing. Jewett argues that Christians can do better. This is where “strenuous tolerance” comes in.

In keeping with Paul's mission of embracing and including non-Jews in the Christian faith, Jewett argues that true tolerance must be more than a willingness to ignore people who disagree. Because Paul argues that Christians are benefiting from the loving tolerance of God, Christians must also welcome and embrace one another as partaking equally in the grace of God.

Jewett offers another dimension to this in his second chapter, “Conscience and the Measuring Rod of Faith.” Paul was writing in an environment where the word “conscience” could mean many things. It could mean anything from the ability to distinguish right from wrong to the guilt that stems from falling short of one's own standards. Neither of these definitions must be discarded, according to Jewett.

In placing a high value on the individual consciences of Christians, Paul encouraged other believers to respect and value both the ability to discern right from wrong, and the sincerity of their commitment to their own standards. Enforcing one's own standards on other Christians could do great harm in Paul's view. Even if a particular act (in Romans, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols) is not objectively immoral, nothing good can come of forcing other Christians to act against their convictions. Individual Christians and even whole congregations must be allowed to measure the merits of their own behavior and as long as their practices are grounded in thankfulness to God no other Christian has the right to criticize them. Only when this standard is accepted, according to Jewett, can Christians truly be supportive of each other's spiritual growth.

Jewett's next chapter, “Faith Without Tolerance and Tolerance Without Faith,” is probably one of his most compelling, if only in his ability to pare down the conflicts caused by intolerant Christianity to an improperly-resolved conflict between two commandments. The First Commandment and the Second Commandment create a tension in which Christians must simultaneously hold nothing above their God and avoid boiling God down to something smaller and more intelligible (which is, as Jewett explains, the whole point of idolatrous practices in those times). Taken as broader imperatives, Christians must hold strongly to their own faith and practices without forgetting that God is too large and ineffable to be contained in any one vision of him.

This tension can be improperly resolved in two ways. The first is to err closer to the First Commandment and treat a single narrow Christian practice as the only one partaking in the grace of God. The second possible error is to be so permissive of other paths that one's own practices begin to seem like “nothing special.” Jewett does not advocate either of these resolutions, and indeed seems to argue for no resolution at all. It is this very tension which allows Christian groups to simultaneously encourage one another to grow and accept them as valid just the way they are.

Not all Christians will obviously do a very good job navigating this tricky zone between Commandments. Jewett's next chapter, “Limits of Tolerance,” offers some more guidelines. The most pressing question of this chapter is how to balance keeping some kind of orthodoxy with allowing pluralism in Christian practices? The most engaging question is "can tolerance tolerate intolerance." Jewett argues rather compellingly that it cannot, though he waxes a bit more obscurely philosophical here than might be wished.

The bare bones argument is that intolerance of certain varieties is not merely a danger to the views it denounces while benefiting from the tolerance of others. A very pressing danger is that tolerance of the intolerant allows the erosion of that core value Jewett cites as “welcoming one another.” He cites Glenn Tinder's argument that, “The principle that we are justified in being intolerant of all that destroys tolerance, and of all that destroys the conditions rendering tolerance productive of community and truth, seems to me unassailable in theory.” In practice, as Jewett mentions, Tinder understands that such lines are difficult to draw, but in theory even tolerance must sometimes call for intolerance of its enemies (99).

In practice, congregations must contend with theological diversity regularly. In “Guidelines for Tolerant Congregations,” Jewett offers a few common approaches to this diversity. The first is to avoid the issue entirely by only admitting people who seem certain to disagree on nothing of consequence. Jewett gives the example of denominations setting up churches in relatively homogeneous areas to prevent the introduction of diversity. The limitation is that it prevents anyone in the congregation from truly encountering anyone else's faith, and that is not a situation conducive to strenuous tolerance.

A less extreme approach shows up in congregations that are willing to allow diverse populations to practice with them, but are not willing to actually become involved in anything that would bring this diversity to the fore. Congregations that refuse to get involved in controversies of any kind are taking this approach, according to Jewett. This suffers from the same shortcoming as the previous one.

Jewett also presents crushing out diversity as an alternative. These congregations tend to focus heavily on doctrinal and behavioral orthodoxy, separating out believers from “others” in an effort to create a homogeneous group out of a heterogeneous one. Jewett already discussed Paul's evident discomfort with forcing Christians to act according to another's conscience, and for that reason this alternative does not seem to be in line with Paul's message either.

The last option is to allow differences among congregations and among individual Christians to stand as they are. Jewett, through analysis of Paul's letter to the Romans, advocates a strongly pluralistic Christianity. "Just as liberals should avoid putting pressure on conservatives to act with more freedom than their conscience allows, so conservatives should avoid pressuring liberals into accepting more restrictive standards. Each side has the obligation to see that the other side lives up to its own standards, rather than submitting to alien norms” (135). Only with this approach, Jewett argues, can Christians be supportive of one another in a way that Paul would affirm.

His conclusion, “Tolerance and Mission,” raises a tricky question and does not precisely answer it. How can a church that is strenuously tolerant of gentiles do missionary work? Is it even possible to set out with the goal of changing another person's beliefs without devaluing those beliefs in some essential way? It is a worthy topic indeed, but clearly not the topic of this book. It is only occasionally hinted at, and only as a side note. Unfortunately, in a global environment characterized by wide religious diversity, this question is so relevant that its mere mention is distracting from the evident point of this book, which is only to discuss diversity among Christians.

That is not to say that diversity among Christian groups does not deserve a central focus in discussion. This book was written during a political conservative-Christian upswing similar to the one America has been experiencing in the last few years (over two decades later). Many of the same questions arise, such as where tolerance should be aligned: with the liberals or with the conservatives. Jewett argues that it belongs to neither, and is a crucial requirement for both so that each may benefit from the perspective of the other.

It may seem obvious to some that Christians should treat each other like they're part of the same religion. After all, to a casual outside observer, Christians are quite frequently just Christians. It is hard to imagine how Christians can somehow walk away from Romans with the message that they ought to denounce other Christians.

Nonetheless, many Christian figures and denominations do just that. It is because of them that Jewett's book is necessary. The same political forces at work when Jewett wrote are still highly influential today, and that means that the position of "strenuous tolerance" among Christians still deserves to be articulated clearly (and even exhaustively, as Jewett has done).

Jewett, Robert. Christian Tolerance: Paul's Message to the Modern Church. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982.


Eric Helms said...

I believe that the political divide and the mobilization of the Christian Right over the past almost 30 years contributes significantly to the Christian divide. Politicians effectively created wedge issues to divide the population into 50/50. Those wedge issues found their way into the church so that despite human sexuality being a fairly small bit of scripture finds itself at the center of many of the intrachurch debates. This is ultimately very destructive, but I am beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel as a new evangelical movement that emphasizes economic equity, and justice issues as central is mobilizing and changing the conversation..

Cobalt said...

What's really shocking for a lot of people (me included) is the way that Christians end up treating each other like they're not part of the same religion. This goes further back than the Christian Right. It goes back further even than the Reformation, which is one reason it seems to come up in Paul's letters. The question of "Which Christians are real Christians?" seems really silly from the outside, because unless I sit and think (Mainly about which denominations make asses of themselves and which don't), y'all pretty much look the same. The idea that there's so much infighting is hard to grasp from that viewpoint, so I kept reading this book and thinking, "Wow, gee, ya think? Why did this have to be written again?"

Except it did. And that's odd to me. I certainly hope you're right that a new focus on economic justice will help. It seems like the kind of thing that'll be nice to see, since for the first time in a long time we actually heard the words "social gospel." If I remember my American religious history class, that term fell out of vogue decades ago, but I think it's something we as a country need to revisit. The whole notion that Christians should make themselves useful to their fellow humans doesn't seem revolutionary to me, but it's coming as a revelation to some. Which is... kinda sad.

Eric Helms said...

It is a good point that Christians arguing about who is and is not a real Christian is silly. At the same time, without these types of conversations, we are unable to define orthodoxy. That may not seem like an important distinction to an "outsider" but for the early church it was an identity issue, and for the modern church it is a holiness issue. In addition to reaching non-Christians for Christ, Christians are also called to grow in holiness--which raises the question, "What is holy."

Part of the reason Christians are subject to critique from the outside is because of the expectations we set for ourselves. It is much more dificult to critique disorganized groups that do not have any reason to work towards something called orthodoxy. Anyway--good thoughts.