What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 33-34.

[Symposium Contents]

Glenn Tinder

Our clear awareness that there are many different ways of looking at the world, and at man and his place in the world, is one of the most troubling circumstances of our time, and it is sure to endure well into, if not throughout, the third millennium of the Christian era. It is troubling simply because it makes it hard to think that one’s own particular way of looking at things is altogether true. The idea that there are numerous and conflicting truths, or, to put the same idea in other words, that there are numerous and conflicting illusions—all shaped mainly by the historical situations of those clinging to them—is, for many people, nearly irresistible.

Manifestly, present cultural diversities, which not only appear on a global scale but encounter one another within single societies, must on the whole be tolerated. But tolerance easily becomes acquiescence in the submergence of truth into a shifting variety of opinions and impressions. To those with a merely sentimental attachment to a culture or group, tolerance of that sort may be acceptable. It cannot be acceptable to followers of the God of Israel, however, and Christians and Jews are challenged, as they enter the new millennium, to develop an attitude toward the religious and cultural confusions surrounding them that is tolerant, yet, in refusing any dalliance with relativism, is distinct from traditional tolerance. To mark the distinction I shall call this attitude "forbearance."

The nature of forbearance can be understood in terms of three principles, all drawn from St. Paul. The first, eloquently described in 1 Corinthians 13, is charity, or, to accentuate the aspect of charity that concerns us mainly, neighborly love. Our neighbors today, in a world of instant communication, swift travel, and extensive emigration, are Muslims, Buddhists, Confucianists, and Hindus, as well as Marxists, Freudians, and innumerable other kinds of agnostics and atheists. Ignoring them would not express neighborly love, but neither would trying to force them all to think, feel, and live as we do. The only charitable relationship to them is one formed by attentiveness, which is a readiness to listen in a genuine effort at understanding, and a readiness to speak truthfully, persuasively, and even, in proper times and places, evangelically. In short, neighborly love amid diverse faiths means communality, or dialogical patience.

Such is one mark of forbearance. Yet the God of Israel did not call his people into communality with the Canaanites. In view of God’s "jealousy"—a divine characteristic stressed about as forcefully in the Bible as are righteousness and mercy—how can communality, on the part of believers, be justified?

The answer may lie in a second Pauline principle defining forbearance. This is found in chapter 11 of the letter to the Romans, where the apostle grapples with one of the most distressing facts of his life: that most of his fellow Jews rejected Christ. Such "diversity" did not shake his faith, but it tried him sorely. The insight which quieted his concern—that the recalcitrance of the Jews was part of a divine strategy of redemption, encompassing Jews and Gentiles alike—seems to me of utmost significance for people struggling toward truth amid a multiplicity of creeds. It tells us that such a multiplicity is not accidental. It is set in the context of what Augustine calls "the beauty of the ages"—that is, the providential form of all historical time—and its ultimate consequence will be clarification. It has a place in the process of divine instruction that is fashioning the human race into a perfect and enduring community, the kingdom of God. Accordingly, the jealousy of God does not command intellectual tyranny but a heedful and articulate fidelity to His word, a truth not vulnerable to the doubts and perplexities inherent in human culture.

Forbearance cannot be understood, however, wholly in terms of a general rule of conduct like communality, or of universal human destiny. It needs to be sharply focused on the life of every individual. This is made clear in a third Pauline principle, the doctrine of election. The beauty of the ages is a drama in which every person is given a distinctive part. Every part is played by caring in one’s own assigned way for the truth. Election is often thought of as ordination to salvation, and of course it is. But it carries responsibilities, and these decisively affect the situation of the elect. Not only are they, so to speak, given custody of the truth; if they fail to meet their responsibilities they may, at least for a time, be cast aside. Such occurrences belong to what Paul refers to as God’s "unsearchable judgments" and "inscrutable ways" (Romans 11:33).

Hence there is no room for pride or complacency. One may be sure of possessing the truth—but only in a mood of fear and trembling. Nor is there room for contempt toward those still in darkness, for rejection is no more an inalterable determination than election is. Illustrative of the meaning of forbearance, given a fully nuanced consciousness of election, is Paul’s anguished love and inextinguishable hope for his Jewish brethren. Certitude, humility, and charity are perfectly reconciled.

Forbearance means bearing the discord of minds and hearts occasioned by our fallen state. (Since the word "tolerance" derives from tolerare, meaning to bear, forbearance may be seen as tolerance in its precise signification.) Given the complex obligations it imposes—embracing doctrinal and cultural opponents in a spirit of communal readiness, enduring diversity as mysteriously integral to the divine work of redemption, and discerning and meeting distinctive responsibilities for the care of truth—forbearance is demanding and severe. It must therefore be an art. Like any art, however, it does not only involve difficulty and labor; it can bring peace and happiness. Thus Paul ends his agonizing reflections on the Jewish rejection of Christ with an exultant exclamation—"O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!"—which breaks out when he realizes the providential power with which God will enlist every intellectual and spiritual disorder in the cause of truth (Romans 11:33). In an era that says to us every day, "There is no Truth," the art of forbearance might at least help us resist the temptations of relativism. And it might even help us enter with joy into a destiny that will finally show forth the Truth in such plainness and splendor that no one who has ever lived will be able to misunderstand or ignore it.

Glenn Tinder is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author ofThe Political Meaning of Christianity.