One of the most intriguing aspects of the discourse surrounding the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is the notion of tolerance. The word itself appears with unrelenting regularity in current discourse — both formal and popular. The idea seems to inform — at the very least in a vaguely subliminal way — every discussion of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the retaliatory actions that have followed in their wake. It seems to function as a moderating influence on our rage as we seek to remind ourselves and everyone else that, even in our pain and anger, we are a tolerant people.
On the surface of it, there seems little to be said against the notion of tolerance. Most of us view it with something approaching a fuzzy benevolence. After all, we tolerate the eccentricities of our housemates, our family members, and the cranky old woman down the street.
Tolerance is good.
And not simply good, but fair and just and democratic. And that’s the essential thing, I suspect, because for most of us tolerance is an ultimate expression of the liberal democratic ideal.
Americans can afford tolerance, because we no longer concern ourselves with divisive religious conflict. In truth, we never did, and we have always considered that a blessing worth celebrating. The great institutions of the United States and the sacred documents that frame them have effectively marginalized religious devotion as a viable form of expression within the public square. Liberal democracy has not so much demonized religious faith as it has sought to prove it irrelevant and redundant in light of the rational, secular and civil religion of modern American society.
All this begs the question, so what? Believe what you want, worship however you wish; just leave the rest of us alone.
These are the modern articles of tolerance. As a result, we tolerate everything and understand very little. There is the rub: If we presume to bestow our tolerance on an idea, an article of faith, a religion, a people or a culture without first seeking a greater understanding of the issue at hand, what meaning does our profession have? Virtually none, I’m afraid. It is hollow; a facile and meaningless trope without depth or substance.
It may be worthwhile to consider the issue from another perspective. What must those who are the object of our tolerance think of all this? Would it seem patronizing to them? Or disingenuous? I am not laboring under the pretense of any profound insight into this. Maybe they’re deliriously happy about it — the idea that a defiantly secular society would presume to express tolerance for a religious faith of which they are largely ignorant. It’s possible, I suppose, although it does seem overly optimistic when you really think about it.
So, what are we to say of tolerance?
If we lived in isolation, we wouldn’t have to say anything at all. But if we have come to understand one irreducible fact over the past year, it is that we longer live in isolation.
We can no longer afford to be cavalier, to play fast and loose with the sensibilities of our fellow travelers. So, in the place of tolerance, let us instead consider the notion of toleration. It strikes me as somehow more active — as if it were carrying the weight of responsibility. The responsibility not simply to bestow the privilege of religious faith, but to develop a foundation of awareness, knowledge, understanding, respect and, ultimately, sympathy that will allow us to share in the commonalities that unite us and engage constructively the issues that continue to divide us.
Todd Vetter is a third-year student in the Yale Divinity School.