Truth Demands Charity—Not Mere Tolerance


The words we choose disclose our beliefs. These beliefs can be characterized by reverence, by neutrality, by coarseness. The words "knighted" by a society give us a key to its philosophy of life. This is particularly true regarding the vocabulary that people use when referring to God or to the intimate sphere. St. Teresa of Avila refers to God as "Su Majestad" ("His majesty"); I once heard a priest referring to God as "the nice guy upstairs." The first description breathes awe and reverence; the second, cheap familiarity. One is aristocratic; the other is plebeian.

It is a sign of the moral decadence of our society when a word like charity, which emanates a spiritual perfume, is replaced by tolerance, a secularist icon. Tolerance is the solution offered by progressive politicians for the enmity among men. This enmity is found not only between different races, different nations, and different social classes, but tragically among members of the same country, the same family, and even the same faith. That enmity can quickly degenerate into hatred, and nothing is easier than to spread hatred: A clever slogan, like a burning match and dry wood, can trigger a huge conflagration.

The proponents of tolerance promise universal reconciliation by waging war on the key evil: intolerance. Tolerance, they say, is the panacea that will bring about world peace. Christians, however, are called to much more than mere tolerance; we are called to love.

A Mandate to Love

From the days of the early martyrs to today, for Christians the way to peace is by practicing charity. St. John wrote: "God is charity" (1 Jn 4:8). At the Last Supper, Christ ordered us to love one another as he has loved us. These words were his last testament and were uttered hours before he sacrificed himself for our salvation.

The gospel’s key message is that it is possible for sinful man to partake of the "holy, fluid goodness" of divine love, through baptism, the sacraments, and the full acceptance of God’s revelation in the Old and New Testament. One of the seven words spoken by Christ on the cross was to ask God to forgive his murderers. Saints live this doctrine. St. Stephen, while being stoned, followed in the steps of his master. Centuries later, St. Maria Goretti, mortally wounded by the man who wanted to rape her, prayed that she might be united with him in heaven. This is not a natural but a supernatural response.

Kierkegaard was right when he wrote that Christianity never entered a man’s head: Its message has the imprint of divine madness.

What is the concrete attitude required of those who truly want to partake of God’s love for his creatures? They should never lose sight of the fact that every single human being, whatever his background, his race, his degree of intelligence, his physical appearance, etc, is a child of God, made in his image and likeness, infinitely loved by his Creator who sent his only Son to redeem him by his holy blood. This is the attitude that every Christian worthy of this name should have. This act of faith (for many men’s beauty is hidden from sight) will give the Christian a key that will teach him how to approach his brothers. The Old Testament was keenly aware that love and love alone can bring peace on this earth. It commands: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

We Can’t Do It Alone

The New Testament is similarly unequivocal: Every single child of God is our neighbor. Christ gives his disciples a new commandment: "love your neighbors as I have loved you" (emphasis added). He said these words shortly before he shed his blood to save us. Humanly speaking, this command is not only impossible to fulfill, but even seems to be against nature. Is it not inhuman to request that a mother whose child has been kidnapped, abused, tortured, and killed, should love the criminal as God has loved us? Humanly speaking, the answer is yes. What is lovable about a Hitler, a Stalin, a Saddam Hussein, an Idi Amin, that would justify the sacrifice of our own lives? But the command and the grace to obey were given simultaneously: It was also at the Last Supper that Christ gave us the ineffable privilege of eating his body and drinking his blood. This divine gift gave sinful men a supernatural strength that enabled those who fully collaborate with grace—that is, saints—to share in his divine love and to embrace those who hate and persecute us. "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). Once man accepts the divine means offered him, that is, supernatural life, he becomes "a new creature," and "all things are possible to God." These words pregnant with hope are mentioned several times in the New Testament. If ever the abyss separating natural morality from supernatural morality has been highlighted, these words give us the key. It is through God’s grace alone that we can love our neighbors as he has loved us.

The most noble pagan ethics (consider the admirable insights of Plato) never could have perceived, much less understood, this "unnatural" ethic. Yet, this is the holy doctrine that conquered the world. "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate and persecute you." It is only supernaturally that its beauty can be perceived and lived.

Small Things with Great Love

Christian literature is rich in examples illustrating this divine teaching. In his holy rule, St. Benedict writes these illuminating words (mindful that he was writing for monks—men who have freely chosen to give their lives to Christ): "Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character . . . Let none follow what seems good for himself, but rather what is good for another. Let them practice fraternal charity with a pure love" (The Rule, ch. 72).

Charity is difficult to practice—even in a place where all the monks strive for holiness. This proves that life in common is a daily challenge that we cannot meet without help. All of us, in varying degrees, have idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, strange habits which, to others, can be extremely irritating. These can be the way we blow our nose as if it were a trumpet, an unmusical way of laughing, our eating habits, lack of education. A small pebble in our shoe can make us limp. It is sheer illusion to believe that only "big trials" can lead us to a fall. If Pascal was right in writing that "a drop of water" suffices to kill us, the same is true in spiritual life. St. Benedict was aware of this when he ordered his monks to exercise "the greatest patience"; he asked not that they just swallow unpleasant experiences but that they wrap them in charity, never losing sight of God’s image in our neighbor’s soul.

Most of us are likely to make someone with unpleasant habits aware that he gets on our nerves. Not so the saints: St. Therese of Lisieux writes in her autobiography that in the chapel, she sat next to a nun who had the habit of making an unpleasant noise, as if she were rubbing two shells together. To Therese’s sensitive ear, this was not just unpleasant but actually a refined form of suffering. Most of us would have made it clear to the sister that her mannerism was irritating. But Therese, rather than humiliate her sister, accepted suffering. She did much more than "tolerate" the unpleasant noise, she loved the one causing her suffering. She never lost sight of the beauty of this child of God. When a sister doing the laundry next to her was splashing dirty water in her face, Therese lovingly accepted this "small" trial that most of us would find unbearable. Once again through God’s grace she managed not only to put up with the annoyance but to love the person causing it.

Saintly Virtue . . .

What has been said applies even more to character traits that are venial sins: unkindness, ingratitude, selfishness, irritability, insulting language or behavior—alas, the list is long. The average man’s spontaneous response to offensive behavior is "an eye for an eye; a tooth (usually teeth) for a tooth." This is not the attitude of the saints. Does it mean that they have a bovine temperament and do not feel the offense? Far from it: but instead of thinking about the hurt they have suffered, they are not only ready to forgive, but are mostly concerned about the harm their neighbor does to his own soul, and how he has offended God. Immediate and spontaneous forgiveness goes hand in hand with a loving prayer for this brother who intended to wound us, and in fact, has badly harmed himself. Socrates had an inkling of this when he said (as mentioned in Plato’s Gorgias): "It is better for man to suffer injustice than to commit it."(479).

The saint will pray for him, and even try to find excuses to explain a behavior that is inexcusable.

One great saint overheard a young man making a sinful proposal to a girl. Pressed by God’s grace, he turned to him and begged him not to offend God, wound his immortal soul and the soul of the girl he was trying to seduce. The man brutally slapped him in the face. The saint responded joyfully: "Slap me if you wish to, but do not offend God." Touched by grace, the young man converted. Charity conquered.

True humility is incompatible with an unforgiving spirit. The saint is always conscious that we ask God to forgive us "as we forgive those who sin against us." The sublime virtue of humility—a key to forgiveness—cannot be obtained on a purely natural level: It is God’s gift, but a gift that should be ardently prayed for, and gratefully received.

. . . and Worldly Virtue

The secular model of virtue, on the other hand, is tolerance. Schools and universities—not to mention the media—preach tolerance as the primary virtue, the practice of which will guarantee universal peace and good will. It is a key that will open the door to an earthly paradise. To be sure, we should be tolerant of those whose ethnic background, language, and culture are foreign to us. To reject our neighbors on these grounds is nothing but concentrated stupidity. The difficulty arises when religion is put on the same list as language, skin pigmentation, gender, and the like. For religion and skin pigmentation are very different things. Whereas there is no such a thing as true or false skin color, every religion has a truth-claim, the claim that its fundamental beliefs are worthy of being believed. (If no such claim is made, we may question whether even to call it a religion.)

Because there are many religions and they espouse conflicting views, the word error inevitably arises. Consider: It is intrinsically impossible that monotheism and polytheism could be true simultaneously. Or: One cannot be an orthodox Jew and a Christian. These are fundamentally opposed beliefs. The problem with tolerance is that it too often calls for the sacrifice of truth.

May we tolerate error? The secularists have a ready-made answer to this troubling question: "There is no such thing as objective truth. All views are relative; all points of view are complementary and illustrate different approaches to the same problem. It is sheer arrogance to claim truth for one’s own views." This is relativism, which contends that nothing can be in error because nothing is true.

Tolerance sounds attractive, but it is at loggerheads with the ABCs of logic. As we have noted, two contradictory propositions cannot be true simultaneously.

But if we admit that some beliefs must be in error, the question remains: What should our attitude be toward erring persons? We begin by assuming that many men who hold erroneous or partially erroneous beliefs do so in good faith. "God is close to all those who seek him in the truth" (cf. Ps 145:18). They are sincere, and this sincerity will inevitably be coupled with an inner readiness to give up their views if they discover that they are mistaken. Most men accept the religion of their parents, of the society in which they were born and raised. Most do so naively, and many might not even raise the question: Are these beliefs true? Alas, societal pressure often discourages us to raise the crucial question: Is the religion I practice the true one?

Contemporary man, raised in a society dominated by dictatorial relativism is systematically discouraged from raising questions that every single human being should raise—and most probably does raise—when he faces death.

Everyone Longs for Truth

Tolerance of another’s errors on crucial questions is nothing but watered-down charity. If our neighbor is in error—and every weighty error inevitably poisons the person endorsing it—it is an act of charity to pray ardently that his eyes be opened and to beg God to use us as unworthy instruments. Deadly erroneous ideas should be opposed by every legitimate means, for on the key questions of human existence, they are poisonous. They harm not only the individual endorsing them, but the society as a whole. But, as mentioned in St. Matthew, holy prudence must determine the best way of combating them. There is nothing lovable about errors and we should not love them. But the tactic used to eradicate them should be supernatural and rooted in charity: prayer, sacrifice, and the apostolate of being.

Alas, tragic world history shows that erring persons have been persecuted because their error—like every error—is detestable. The climate of the time is to show a total indifference to the question of truth and as a result to approach with equal equanimity true and heretical teaching. It is sad that many people have religious beliefs which are (in various degrees) tainted with error (of various degrees of gravity), but this fact, while fully acknowledged, is a call to love our erring neighbor and pray ardently that all of us may be one in the truth. For as St. Augustine wrote: "What does man long for more than truth? This will inevitably lead us to the one who said ‘I am the truth.’"

One cannot change one’s ethnic background. But one can and even should give up a religion when convinced that it is tainted with error.

We have heard of people who, at great price, give up the religion in which they were brought up when they became convinced that it is contaminated by error. Protestant pastors who convert to the Catholic faith lose their jobs and their financial security. Muslims who convert to Catholicism risk their lives. When Jews become Catholics, the congregation to which they belonged pray the prayer of the dead over them. In fact, not only are they truth-lovers but they prove that in serving the truth, they exhibit that radical charity to which Christ called his disciples at the banquet before he died.

SIDEBAR

Locke: The Prophet of (Limited) Tolerance

Central to John Locke’s Essay on Toleration is the idea that "toleration" is a virtue par excellence, and that inevitably intolerance should be anathema. But, according to him, this toleration should not be extended to atheists because atheism necessarily involves a lack of moral principles and disregards the binding character of covenants and promises (F. Copleston, The History of Philosophy, V:122). Is it true that atheists are by definition immoral?

Locke should have known that there are many kinds of atheists. There are men who call themselves atheists simply because they are tortured by the fearful reality of moral evil. They find it fairer to deny God’s existence than to make him responsible for a creation which often triggers metaphysical nausea. There are those who put the atheistic label on themselves because it is so undemanding and therefore convenient. There are also atheists whose core motto is the hatred of a God whose existence they illogically deny. But experience shows that—even though supernatural morality is closed to atheists—many of them try to follow however imperfectly (like most of us) the dictates of the natural moral law.

Furthermore, Locke refuses to extend toleration "to those whose religion involves an allegiance to a foreign power, and to those whose faith does not permit them to extend to others the toleration which they claim for themselves" (Copleston, The History of Philosophy, V:122). He is referring to Catholicism, though it is not explicitly mentioned.

Locke denies the right to assert a truth-claim for one’s belief. Such a claim necessarily implies that those contradicting these beliefs are in error. In other words, not only should all religions be welcome, but any truth-claim should be denied under the banner of tolerance. Locke implies that to deny that truth and error have the same rights is intolerant. He justifies the persecution of Japanese Catholics on the ground that Catholicism is, by its very nature, intolerant. He even hints that such persecutions should be welcome in England.

The consequences of this idea are in plain view today. If a pastor, priest, or bishop dares preach in his own church that certain sexual practices condemned by the Bible are immoral, or that certain claims directly denying Christian dogmas are heretical, he may well be accused of intolerance. This is not an imaginary scenario: It has actually taken place in Canada, and it is very likely that this violation of people’s conscience will spread and open the door wide to fearful religious persecutions. Under the banner of tolerance, intolerance will achieve a diabolical victory, if no one religion is allowed to claim that it possesses the fullness of revealed truth. Once the notion of truth is eliminated, religion loses its legitimate meaning.


Alice von Hildebrand is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hunter College of City University of New York.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 6.