Few words in the vocabulary of Western man today are more revered than “tolerance.” This word suggests the disposition to be patient and understanding toward people of differing opinions or practices. It suggests freedom from severity or bigotry in judging the conduct of others. One of the Bible’s great chapters speaks of it in this way: “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

The word “tolerance” derives from the Latin tolerare, meaning “to endure.” The thing to be endured is always some person, idea, attitude, or action that one believes to be wrong. It follows from the definition, then, that tolerance involves one’s attitude toward error, or at least toward what one believes to be error.

This is a tall order, of course, and it indicates that a tension must always exist between tolerance and truth. Tolerance demands that one treat charitably persons or groups espousing convictions contrary to one’s own understanding of truth, graciously granting to them the right to contradict, to believe differently, to speak their minds. On the one hand is commitment to truth, on the other an obligation to be generous-hearted toward those opposed to that truth. Unable to resolve this dilemma, some men have traditionally sought to escape it by embracing one extreme and forsaking the other.

Some have chosen to pursue truth zealously and despise toleration as softness. Ardor for truth has forever been the assassin of tolerance, a cloak for ...

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