When pressed to justify an apathetic religious stance, many respond, “I’m a good person.” But what do they mean by “good person”? And do they really think a judging God would agree?
In our time, a man is considered good if he is tolerant. The tolerant man is loath to express judgment, open-minded in all things, accepting of all cultures — in short, acquiescing. The paragon of liberality, he never offends and always praises; he is the supreme self-esteem booster, the source of confidence that undergirds human success. Indeed, the tolerant man is a “good person,” the ideal to which each should aspire.
Has God, therefore, credited the tolerant man with righteousness? The tolerant man cannot answer, for he must not express judgment. But there is no such restriction on God. Further, God is not tolerant of error, for such tolerance would restrict His justice. God’s intolerance does not bode well for the judgment of the tolerant man; tolerance does not appear to be a divine quality. But before any claim can be rendered regarding the judgment of the tolerant man, it would help to ask what it means to tolerate something.
Common sense shows that acceptance of an action does not, in and of itself, constitute tolerance. If John accepts that Linda is eating a sandwich for lunch, John can hardly be called tolerant. Nor do respect for or admiration of another person’s characteristics in themselves constitute tolerance. If John respects Linda’s diligence and admires her vocal range, John is no closer to being tolerant.
Instead, there are two conditions that must be satisfied for a man to tolerate a condition or action: a negative judgment of that condition or action, and the decision not to act upon that negative judgment. In one sense, then, tolerance seems valuable. If a man makes a negative judgment regarding the use of public spaces by members of another racial group, his judgment is prejudicial, and it would be best if he did not act upon his negative judgment.
But if a man makes a negative judgment regarding the theft of a lady’s purse, his judgment is well-founded, and it would be best if he did act upon his negative judgment. In fact, such intolerance of evil is praiseworthy. But the same cannot be said of not acting on prejudicial negative judgments. Such tolerance is certainly better than intolerance under the same circumstance, but it cannot be praised as a positive good. It would be much better if the prejudicial judgment were not made in the first place.
Humans are imperfect creatures, and it should be expected that they will make prejudicial negative judgments; tolerance can be occasionally accepted as the lesser among evils. But human imperfection makes equally clear that man has a long way to go to reach righteousness before God. Tolerance does not provide any means by which to progress. A tolerant racist is still a racist, and will remain one forever if not challenged. The tolerant man, therefore, is not a “good person” in any meaningful sense of the term. God would not credit him with righteousness.
If tolerance is not God’s moral standard, another possibility is the higher calling of love. A mandate for tolerance would not have men of ill will suppressed; a mandate for love would have them transformed. Love confronts each man’s position; love is hard, but it makes men better. Voltaire thought men “ought to be tolerant of one another because we are all weak, inconsistent, liable to fickleness and error.” On the contrary, this very weakness, this inconsistency, and this liability to fickleness and error prove that we need the tough love of a community to tell us when it thinks we are wrong, to challenge our deeply-rooted assumptions, to hold up truth as an ideal and never cease in trying to find it.
Love, then, is the standard of righteousness. To be a “good person,” one must be absolutely loving. This is the ultimate test. If we stand before God on Judgment Day, He will not ask, “Were you tolerant?” Instead, He will ask, “Were you loving?” This is a tough pill to swallow. The standard of love is a painful existential crisis. For if love is the ultimate standard, then we know we are not “good people.” We fail the standard of absolute love; when God asks, “Were you loving?” we have only one response: no.
At least absolute tolerance is achievable; absolute love is not. Hence the irony: Tolerance is indifferent but achievable, whereas love is divine but a dream. Why are humans subjected to such cruelty, to a longing after an unattainable good? We cannot achieve the love necessary to avoid the condemnation of God. We are left in despair.
Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.