I know it`s a sweeping statement- but I think it`s true that every generation finds its young people largely incomprehensible. For example, I remember hearing a young person call something `wicked`. And in my naivety- it never occurred to me that this actually meant – `really good`. And then another called something `bad`- and apparently that meant `really good` as well.
But this tendency for words to be used to convey the exact opposite of what we might expect isn`t confined to youth culture. I mean I`m old enough to remember when calling someone `discriminating` was the highest of compliments. But nowadays to show discrimination is a cardinal sin isn`t it?
And it was this hobbyhorse of mine that got me thinking about another word that has been re-defined in recent years. It`s the word `Tolerance`. Because this, I believe causes us, as people of faith considerable challenges. There was a time when the word tolerance was defined, in the dictionary as: “To accept the existence of different views”. In more recent times it`s defined as “The acceptance of different views”.
I wonder if you spotted the difference? What used to be defined as accepting that an opinion exists and that people have the right to hold it has become Accepting that all opinions are equally valid and equally true.
In other words we`ve moved from the free expression of opinions that clearly differ with one another to saying all opinions as equally correct. That we all have our own truth. Now the problem is that this is causing considerable tension, particularly, as I say, for people of faith.
You see, in this new environment where every individual`s beliefs, values, lifestyle and perspective are regarded as of equal value and equally true, truth is therefore relative. It was summed up beautifully by the title of a CD released by a pop group back in the 80`s. It was called “This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours”.
But this leaves us and people of other faith traditions in an impossible position. For we are left with the apparent unacceptability of saying that something is objectively true- and that by definition, other perspectives will be wrong.
We`re not allowed to say that we believe that we have a window on the truth- and that by definition any contrary view is mistaken`. We are not allowed to say that Christ is who he claims to be. You can stand here and say the creed today- but statements like `He shall come to judge the quick and the dead` can only ever be a matter of opinion- otherwise you`ll labelled as `Intolerant`
Tolerance, I want to suggest, is now the great virtue of our age. We are told that we must accept that all world views and lifestyles are equally valid. But ironically, there is no tolerance of those who question this definition of tolerance. No tolerance for those who say: `We are content to live in a world of different perspectives- but not every viewpoint or lifestyle choice is equally correct or true`.
Now, all of this might this might sound a little obscure but trust me this has a really important effect on the way you and I are allowed to live and to conduct everyday conversations. For this new definition of tolerance has huge power in our western culture. And this is, of course, where it flourishes. Not so elsewhere.
I mean, just notice for example, how many in our society jump to condemn people in the Middle East and their assorted cultures as being rather `un-enlightened` and intolerant. They, of course in turn regard our culture as devoid of principle; holding nothing as sacred except material goods.
But `Tolerance` is like a badge that many people wear. Signing up to it and it`s new definition is the only way you`ll get employed in certain parts of our society. Because the discriminating person- (I use the original meaning of the word) is easily accused of being judgemental.
Perhaps you`ll remember how, recently, one Member of Parliament used the word `bigot` when describing his opponents. Now, he retracted that word but the point is, it was a word that was so easy to use because this is the default position under this new definition of tolerance. Anyone who claims they have a perspective which contradicts that of another is not engaged with or allowed to hold their position honourably- no they must be bigoted by definition.
And you see, this is the clincher: to accuse them of being intolerant is the way to shut them up. And if you can add the word `religious` in front of the word bigot you go to the top of the class, because this labels their view as invalid and inadmissible. As somehow less worthy of our attention- as if to say- well, they would say that wouldn`t they?
Now, it took me ages to realise that this is what`s going on when so many people of a certain generation say things to me like- `Vicar, I know I`m old fashioned but….` What they are describing are the effects of this definition of tolerance. They are made to feel out of touch; ill-informed; past their sell by date; ignorant; foolish and yes, bigoted because they were brought up to believe the older version of tolerance. That we accept that other views exist- but that doesn`t mean that all views or life choices are equally true or valid.
What I`m saying is that, it is this that lies behind much of the tension between church and nation at the moment and I don`t see it getting any easier. It`s this for instance, that gives us the distinct sense of unease at articulating our basic claims about Christ and his uniqueness. This is why people are so keen to insist that faith is a `private` matter; It`s just our `point of view`; a matter of opinion.
I remember the introduction to a nativity play I once saw which began- `Welcome to an imaginary world`.
Just like those who try to contradict the huge historical evidence by claiming Christ did not exist- if you can reduce a nativity play to a fairy-tale that`s just one more way; one more convenient way of removing any claims to truth. And if you can do this, you see, then you don`t have to change. You can continue to make yourself and your own perspective and convenience the only thing that matters- you are God of your own little world.
So I turned to the Book of Daniel. It`s the story of the people of God held captive in Babylon. An alienating and all-embracing culture- ruled by Nebuchadnezzar. He has erected a golden statue, in honour of himself of course. And he instructed everyone at a certain signal to bow down and worship him. Bowing down was the badge of conformity the people had to wear or else you faced the fiery furnace.
But three faithful young men -Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to toe the line. Standing out as they did, informers told the king: `These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, in stirring fashion: ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
Firstly, notice their sense of perspective. Their vision of God –who could save them from their fate but was in no way diminished if he chose not to. And secondly, notice their refusal to conform- to bow down to the golden statue that has been set up.
In this Advent season we are invited to become aware of the longings of our forebears in faith. We hear of their hopes, dreams, pleas for deliverance and the often challenging contexts in which they tried to be faithful. So, this is a season in which we get in touch with the bigger picture.
With the hand of God at work over centuries and the coming and going of great empires and despots who thought to rule in God-like fashion. And by reflecting on their experience, we gain both perspective and encouragement.
Next week we will proclaim that the Christ born at Bethlehem was Saviour of the world. So I want to ask if you prepared to be called a bigot? To face the fiery furnace of people`s disapproval? For this we hold –in humility- to be objectively true- not as a matter of opinion.
In his letter to the Philippians St. Paul describes Christ in this way: `God …highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is a claim to truth which our culture labels bigoted and intolerant- because by definition others must be mistaken. Well so be it. It is becoming increasingly clear that our culture has set up a golden statue called `tolerance`. It is a redefinition of an otherwise honourable notion. And it is a sham.
It will take courage. But we do not have to bow down to it.