The Abomination of Toleration

It has been a while since my last post, but I have a really good excuse. My wife in I were able to spend the last two months in Germany. While we both learned a lot, we did not have much internet access there so it was hard to share. However, now that I am back I will try to update you on some of the things we learned.

Germany may be one of the most tragic places on earth. It is blessed with some of the most beautiful landscapes and home to some of the most important and great events in the history of the world.  However, because of the rise of Adolf Hitler and WW2, many people, both inside and outside of the borders of Germany, have trouble seeing anything but evil. Eric Metaxas describes the damage done by this period in German history saying,

… It would not only destroy Germany, but would do so more completely than he had ever dared to fear. The German culture and civilization that he, Dohnanyi, and Bonhoeffer knew and loved would be obliterated from history. Future generations would be convinced that nothing good could have ever existed in a country that produced such evil. They would think only of these evils. It would be as if these unleashed dark forces had grotesquely marched like devils on dead horses, backward through the gash in the present, and had destroyed the German past too.

Destruction of this kind requires a massive rebuilding effort. 1945 may seem like a long time ago, but the destruction of WWII was so intense that they are still rebuilding 65 years later. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city of Berlin. Our tour guide said, as this picture suggests, Berlin is home to 75% of the nation’s cranes because they are still repairing the damage of war.

According to our tour guide, one of the problems with the city’s reconstruction attempt is that it lacks a clear plan. Buildings have gone up to serve immediate needs, however little thought was given toward beauty or cohesiveness. He complained that rather than recovering the previous glory of the historic city, the boxy skyscrapers of the 1960’s took their place. In fact, 65 years later, the city lacks a sense of architectural homogeneity that make some of the other great European cities so beautiful.

I think that Germany may be making a similar mistake in their effort to rebuild their social image after the war. WWII cast Germany as a place filled with prejudice, racism, and hatred. The Holocaust in Germany stands as one of the worst displays of these traits of all time. It is completely understandable that Germans are among the most eager to correct this image of anyone else in the whole world. However, in their haste to fix this horrible image it seems that they may be using a tool, or misusing a tool, that brings its own new kind of damage.

Tolerance has become the highest virtue in Germany. The country embraces all sorts of diversity. In our language class alone we studied with people from Taiwan, Cyprus, China, Afghanistan, Israel, Canada, France, Italy, Iraq, and Croatia, to name a few. There were several religions represented too. Buddhism, Islam, Greek Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism were the probably the most represented, while others claimed to be atheist. Throughout the city we saw that styles of dress were equally diverse. The Gothic crowd seemed particularly prominent.

There is much to be said for the country’s new found tolerance. There is never a time and place where it is okay to hate another person. On the other hand, I am worried that they misunderstand the way tolerance works.

Our language teacher, who happened to be one of my favorite people in Germany, helped demonstrate this error. She often talked to our class about the importance of tolerance. She explained that in our classroom there were many people who believed many different things about religion. Some people believe in God some don’t. Some people say God, some say Allah. Some are Catholic, some protestant. However, she always tried to explain that none of these differences really matter. To her, it doesn’t really matter what we believe, or even if we believe, as long as we are all nice to each other.

But that struck me as missing the point of tolerance. Why should tolerance force me to say that what I believe doesn’t really matter. One of my favorite Germans, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had a similar complaint about the way Americans embraced tolerance to the exclusion of truth in the 1930’s.

The voice of Lutheranism is there in America, but it is one among others: it has never been able to confront the other denominations. There hardly ever seems to be “encounters” in this great country, in which the one can always avoid the other. But where there is no encounter, where liberty is the only unifying factor, one naturally knows nothing of the community which is created through encounter. The whole life together is completely different as a result. Community in our sense, whether cultural or ecclesiastical, cannot develop there.

For Bonhoeffer, as for today’s Germans, and hopefully as for us, there is a goal of a loving community. However, the method for achieving this community was not in denying that our differences mattered. Instead, he urged us to encounter each other in our differences.

The great progress of the German people has been their impressive attempt to eliminate hate based on race, color, or creed from their society. The great failure (Americans share this failure) is to do so by denying the importance of truth. True peace will not come from telling two people that there is no truth to pursue. Instead, it will come when the two people pursue that truth together, in spite of the difficulties that may rise in the pursuit.

Perhaps the problem is that we have forgotten some fundamental theories of virtue such as Aristotle’s “Doctrine of Means.” He explained that the virtuous option is not the polar opposite of a bad option, but is the middle (mean) ground between two equally bad options.  To Aristotle it was not either humble or arrogant. Good humility lay in between the two extremes of self loathing and self aggrandizement.

J. Budziszewski explains this point really well in his work Written on the Heart. He states,

From the way the debate is usually framed, however, one gets the impression that all one has to do to achieve tolerance is to avoid the vice of narrow-minded repressiveness. On the contrary, like other virtues, tolerance is opposed not by one vice but by two, with grave dangers in each direction. The diagram should not look like this:
 Intolerance —–Tolerance
but like this:
 Narrow-minded Repressiveness  —- Tolerance —- Soft-headed Indulgence.

As Germany seeks to rebuild its reputation I hope it will avoid moving past tolerance to the land of soft-headed indulgence. While it is good for Germans to flatly reject the narrow-minded repressiveness of racism and hatred, it will be equally destructive to embrace a kind of soft-headed indulgence that denies the existence and importance of truth. What you believe about God is important. If God is lost in the hearts and minds of the German people it will result in a destruction far worse than the destruction of WWII.

True tolerance, the kind that encourages love and community, will never settle for a head in the sand approach. It will seek out loving personal encounters where the truth can be sought and hopefully found.