Liberal Intolerance, Or, an Occasion for Public Theology

Earlier this summer, a short item in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the story of Dr. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, a scholar recently dismissed from his teaching position at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta. The story was that this was the result of Hopkins’ adherence to so-called “biblical orthodoxy,” which differed from the mainstream culture of the seminary. At the heart of the case of Dr. Hopkins, who is an evangelical Christian, is the concept of tolerance—or lack thereof.

This past February, according to reports, Hopkins invited Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Black Campus Ministries in the New England Region, to speak to a group of conservative students on campus. Moreover, it was also reported that the faculty was more liberal than the student body, which came largely from orthodox churches. 

After her presentation, Brown-Collins reportedly gave a student a copy of The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon—a 500-page attempt to demonstrate biblically that gays and lesbians should stand outside the beloved community. The next day, the department chair met with Hopkins about the book and his association with InterVarsity. As the meeting concluded the chair reportedly told Hopkins that he had put his job at risk. Three months later Hopkins was dismissed, and is now filing suit for breach of contract, saying he was “harassed for [his] conservative religious ideals.” 

ITC has professors whose emphasis includes womanist, liberation, and “queer” theologies, and boldly touts its commitment to tolerance. 

Moreover, its code of ethics includes:

“We commit ourselves to respecting the diversity of ecumenical, theological, ideological and personal expressions of the various faiths and traditions found in our community.”

Since the aforementioned is an ongoing case that most likely contains more details than those I’ve offered, I use it only as a backdrop to illustrate the ease in which orthodoxy can—potentially—morph into idolatry.

Our Ideals are Not Our Actions

What is tolerance? Is it a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own? Is it the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others? Is it sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own?

Perhaps the best answer is some form of all the above.  

In the Christian context tolerance is portrayed as one of the divides that separates liberal theology from its conservative counterpart—although I suspect there are parallels in other traditions.

But there are troublesome moments within the human condition where a chasm exists between our vaunted claims of tolerance and the inconvenience of praxis, where we are forced to reconcile the tension that our ideals are more moral than our actions.

Those of us who subscribe to a liberal orthodoxy wish to believe that intolerance is somehow beyond our moral sphere. But the challenge presented by orthodoxy of any variety is the failure to see humanity out of the corner of its eye.

Intolerance is perhaps easier to attribute to those who claim an observance to biblical orthodoxy. From gay rights to science, proponents of biblical orthodoxy have assumed the role of self-appointed guardians of the truth. Such claims are the feeble attempt to provide answers to moral questions using a litany of biblical texts that support their presuppositions. 

Historically, this type of application has been on the wrong side of human suffering and inequality. Support for slavery, segregation, denying women the right to vote, the Holocaust, Apartheid, as well as opposing marriage equality have depended on the less-than-adequate arms of biblical orthodoxy for support. This not only requires an ahistorical relationship to the human condition but an idolatrous one to the rule that has been embraced. 

But the unhealthy adherence to orthodoxy is not the exclusive property of those who embrace a conservative approach to scripture. 

An Inclination to Injustice

Those who profess tolerance as part of their canon stand to be just as hypocritical as those who claim biblical orthodoxy. Like loving our neighbor, tolerance is a utopian goal that lies just beyond our reach—but one that we must vigorously pursue because it is foundational to the tradition we follow.

Intolerance also blinds us to the fact that we need those who see the world differently lest we become endowed with the false notion that only our perspective is normative. Conformity does not inspire us to examine our assumptions. 

Tolerance should therefore be measured by our discomfort rather than our comfort. In my tradition I would say that it is our willingness to engage in the inconvenient love of Jesus—this is the ultimate lesson of the cross, where the gospel narratives coalesce into a single account of Jesus providing comfort, forgiveness, hope, compassion and love to others, at a most inconvenient time for him personally. 

The place where the vertical crossbeam of God’s perfection intersects with the horizontal crossbeam of human imperfection is the place where the possibility of tolerance exists. The cross is central to Jesus’ project. Therefore, any Christian theology that places its own orthodoxy above the cross diminishes its capacity to be tolerant, regardless of its pretensions to the contrary. This is moral line that all theologies risk encroaching.

As Reinhold Niebuhr offered in Children of the Light and Children of the Darkness: “Man’s inclination to justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” We might also conclude that our tendency to do good makes tolerance possible, but it is our tendency to do evil that makes it necessary.

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