SEOUL, South Korea–Confronting both secularism–which opposes Christianity–and fundamentalism–which fragments the Christian community–Baptists need an ethic that encourages tolerance without compromise in the essentials of Christian faith, says a British scholar.
What is needed is a “productive tolerance” for conversations in the public arena and within churches, said Nigel G. Wright, principal of Spurgeon’s College in London, in a paper delivered this week at the Baptist World Alliance’s General Council meeting in Seoul, South Korea.
Noting the Christian church’s history of intolerance, Wright said “a case could well be made that Christianity has been consistently more intolerant than the religion of Muhammad.”
“Both Islam, in the Crusades, and Judaism, in the pogroms, have had cause to fear the sign of the cross which Christians themselves revere as a symbol of the overflowing love of God,” Wright said.
In addition to its history of intolerance toward other religions, Christianity has a record of intra-religious intolerance as well, said Wright, chair of BWA’s study commission on Christian ethics and former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
“There is nothing quite so mean and unlovely as the intolerant religious spirit, most of all when passing itself off in the name of God,” said Wright. “This spirit is readily discernible today dressed in Christian, Jewish or Muslim clothes.”
While some Christians associate tolerance with compromise and view it as a dirty word, Wright said it is essential for living amid diversity.
“What is at stake is how they deal with others,” he said.
“By tolerance we mean the willingness both to accept and respect differences between people; the recognition that diversity rather than uniformity makes for richness and life,” he said.
Wright said some secularists use tolerance as a code word implying that all religious beliefs are equally untrue. He labeled that “skeptical tolerance,” which is in fact intolerant because it doesn’t tolerate a faith perspective.
“Productive tolerance,” on the other hand, “acknowledges that people will truly believe what they believe and are entitled to believe it,” he said.
He decried hard secularism, a kin of skeptical tolerance, as “a materialistic atheistic worldview hostile to religion, which it sees as a force for superstition and is only prepared to tolerate in so far as it does not have significant social or political effects upon public existence.”
Hard secularism aims to privatize religion as “a containment strategy” and makes its own ideology “an established religion, albeit a non-theistic one,” he said.
Wright advocated instead a “soft secularism,” which “believes that the instruments of government should be implemented without excessive use of religious imagery and justification.”
“It is an alternative to the religious state,” Wright explained. “Understood in these terms, soft secularism may value the public contribution of religious communities and happily admit their insights into the public area for a fair hearing, while maintaining a clear and constitutional difference between any organ of religion and the means of coercion and compulsion.”
“Secularism of this kind does not of necessity imply the rejection of religious belief,” he said. “Rather it is an assumption of an approach to the social and political realm deemed to be most advantageous in a plural society where there is the potential for religious conflict.”
Wright said religion should be neither excluded from public life nor too closely associated with it.
“If politicians are not to be trusted with religious decisions, then neither should the religious professionals be trusted with political power,” said Wright, who writes widely on the Anabaptist tradition and about the church’s relationship to the state.
In terms of church life, Wright said the practice of tolerance maintains unity.
Explaining the Christian community in terms of three concentric circles, Wright said that dogma is at the core of Christian belief, and it is irreversible. Doctrine surrounds dogma and can be the grounds for disagreements among denominations over matters such as the method of baptism. Outside doctrine is the circle of opinion, where “personal judgments” reside.
“Maintaining these distinctions between dogma, doctrine and opinion is absolutely essential when it comes to understanding tolerance,” said Wright.
Wright said the tradition of the church through its ecumenical creeds can help Baptists distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion.
“We do believe that creeds should not be imposed, since we are committed to Christian freedom,” said Wright. “But Baptists have always been keen to identify themselves as orthodox Christians, have done so through a multitude of confessions, and have seen those confessions as statements of faith to rally around.”
Admitting his own sadness about the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to withdraw from the BWA, Wright said the SBC’s charges against the BWA of anti-Americanism, acceptance of homosexual practice and ordination of women were not grounds for separation. Instead, he said, these differences of opinion called for the exercise of productive tolerance within a “firm commitment to Christian dogma and Baptist doctrine.”
“The issues under dispute are not to do with fundamental Christian dogma, or basic Baptist doctrine, but with interpretation,” said Wright.
According to Wright, Judge Paul Pressler, one of the main SBC opponents of the BWA, said that recent Baptist controversies were not over interpretation but the nature of Scripture itself.
“Yet this is blind to the fact that his own position is an interpretation of the nature of Scripture, indeed an opinion about the nature of Scripture, and that this particular interpretation has become for him … the norm against which being ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ and therefore to be tolerated or not is to be judged.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.