© Paul K. Davis, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 26, 2012

In the past I've offered a dozen or so messages here. In general I have sought, if there is a relevant topic on which I've learned important items in my life, to share my conclusions with you. Today I'm speaking from a different motive. The topic I have chosen is one which I have pondered over a period of time without coming to any fully satisfactory conclusion. I'm speaking to encourage you to consider the issues as well.

We Unitarian Universalists, along with some other religious and philosophical points of view, generally pride ourselves on our tolerance, but we also find circumstances in which tolerance is difficult, wrong, or impossible. So I ask you to consider the limits of tolerance.

First I'd like to explain the question, then I'll provide some concrete examples, and I'll conclude by sketching some possible answers.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary gives several meanings of the word "tolerance", of which their definition "2-a" is the one relevant to my topic. That definition is: "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with ones own". This can already be seen to be more complicated than appears, since there are eight different possible combinations of sympathy versus indulgence, of beliefs or practices, which may either simply differ or actually conflict with ones own. The easiest tolerance would seem to be indulgence for beliefs differing from ones own, and the most difficult would be sympathy for practices conflicting with ones' own.

I have also consulted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where I find out the topic is even more complex, of course, and where I also find that I am far from the first person to consider the issues involved in tolerance, of course. I will not go into all of these complexities, but I will draw on two of their examples later.

My first example will concern marriage. My own marriage involves certain beliefs and practices, and I am quite aware that there is considerable variety in beliefs and practices concerning marriage. I consider myself generally tolerant of a variety of marriage customs. Slightly over four years ago I was standing on a walkway here in Fremont, in front of a business I often patronize, when I saw a man and a women toward the end of the building. He held her by the sleeves of her jacket, fairly close, and then with his right hand did a fist punch to her left cheek. I took a couple of steps toward them and called out "what's going on". He took her behind one of the pillars, and I called out "I'm going to phone 911". She called out not to, and he shouted that she was his wife and this was none of my business. This did not stop me. I phoned 911. My limit of tolerance had been reached.

Another example - a couple months ago I was in a group of acquaintances, and one of them said that Barack Obama is a Moslem. I said "no", he isn't. The other was insistent, and the dispute ended with my calling him an "Un-American Liar". Perhaps I over-reacted in this case. In any event, this raises the issue of how best to respond when one's limit of tolerance has been reached.

In the story we heard earlier, a small island nation's limit of tolerance has been reached with a situation in which a neighboring island is an enemy. The Queen of that island pulled of the feat of converting an enemy to a friend, but we are disappointingly not told how she went about achieving this. Perhaps she relied on those maxims of the Buddha which we read earlier in the invocation.

The Stanford Encyclopedia provides a couple of perplexing cases. In one, a racist believes there are inferior races, however he has decided to tolerate their being treated equally. The question is asked, should we praise him for his tolerance, or provide him with the evidence that he is wrong about inferior races. Perhaps we should do both. Should we be afraid that trying to convince him he is wrong about inferior races might anger him, so that he becomes intolerant?

This brings us to some of what the encyclopedia article identifies as paradoxes of tolerance. Is it a virtue to be tolerant of intolerance. If we decide to be intolerant of intolerance, are we already contradicting ourselves? I followed the lines of reasoning involving the paradoxes, up to concluding that there must be a limit to tolerance, but I'm not convinced the philosophical discussion can tell us where that limit is.

Various solutions to the issues involved in tolerance have been tried.

One solution which has been adopted all too often is strong intolerance. This resulted in the depopulation of entire provinces of Germany during the wars following the Protestant Reformation, and more recently in the slaughter of millions in tribal conflicts in central Africa. Few people would say this is good, but how do we respond to it? In some cases it would seem the only practical response is the response which halted Hitler, namely war, but then we have the unsolved problem of how to determine if war is justified.

The opposite solution is strong tolerance. I associate this stance with groups such as the Quakers, the Amish, and some branches of Buddhism. This can even result in complete passivity in the face of violence against others.

What most people do is simply follow a pragmatic path, but this tends to result in relying on anger to determine how serious a situation is. Without serious thought, for instance, one responds to bullying by trying to out-bully the bully. Unproductive escalation can easily follow.

In the invocation we read, the solution seems to be one of considerable intolerance: intolerance towards hatred, towards violence, towards evil, miserliness and lies, but of always responding with the positive alternative: love, peace, gentleness, good, liberality and truth.

Indeed, I believe our response, when we must be intolerant, is as important as where we draw the limit of what we tolerate. Our response may vary from just observing and learning, to speaking up gently, to speaking firmly, to physically intervening, to calling in the assistance of others to intervene, to working toward laws and other forms of social control.

And now, having said all this, I will end as I began, by stating the question: what should be tolerated, and what should not be tolerated? What should we do when our limit of tolerance is reached? Please ponder these issues. If you come up with a brilliant solution, let us know. Even if you merely develop a somewhat useful idea, come forward. We will continue to have opportunities for guest sermons in this pulpit.


For benediction I offer you a maxim based on the words of Albert Einstein. He is quoted as having said, "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." I would encourage you to be as tolerant as possible, but not more tolerant. Go, and return, in peace, and love.

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