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01 July 2008

A conversation about true tolerance

A conversation about true tolerance

Executive Director Joel Edwards examines what looks like an intractable conflict...

As I write this I am in the middle of a tour promoting my new book An Agenda for Change. The tour is going well; we have put together an impressive multi-media presentation, and audiences have been engaging with the issues.

I feel like I am starting what I wanted to start: a conversation about the future of evangelicalism. It's a future about grace, Good News and long-term social transformation. It's an evangelicalism that's not afraid to talk about truth and absolutes and holiness, because when it does so, it always does so in the gentle spirit of Christ.

The book and tour are addressing the big internal challenges we face as we move forward in the 21st century. But while the tour is consuming a lot of my time, I am still making diversions into other territory, which continues to remind me of one big external challenge our faith is also facing. This is the challenge of tolerance.

And while I am loathed to talk yet again about human sexuality, it seems that it is around this issue where the tolerance debate is proving to be most starkly illustrated.

When I was asked to speak in the University Church at Cambridge on the Gospel and human rights, a leader of a gay and lesbian Christian organisation said I had no right to do so. I presented material from An Agenda for Change at an Anglican training college and was also asked to say a few words at the European Forum Conference of the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians. While I was received graciously and with love, the discussions afterwards made it clear just how easily I could be dismissed as intolerant because of my views on human sexuality.

It was not just me who was likely to be regarded as intolerant: it was also the God I represent

What struck me most at these events was that it was not just me who was likely to be regarded as intolerant: it was also the God I was turning up to represent.

This is the God I believe is the God of the Bible, a God who has an annoying habit of sometimes placing boundaries on our moral behaviour. And this God has become something of an inconvenience in the modern age. He just doesn't quite fit in.

A troubling redesign

And so the answer is inevitable: either we get rid of this intolerant God altogether, and in a somewhat strange perversion of the tolerance rhetoric refer to His followers as deluded simpletons, or we redesign Him. It is this redesign which troubles me when speaking with my friends in the gay and lesbian Christian movements.

Please don't misunderstand me. These Christians are totally sincere in their belief in God, and the fruits of their lives in terms of service and grace put many of us to shame. But their version of God is one I simply do not recognise from 2,000 years of Scripture and tradition. I am concerned that there is an attempt at trying to remake God in our image.

Our challenge in the years to come is how we resolve this tension of presenting a God as we find him in the Bible - who remains true to Himself and His exclusive claims - but without being immediately dismissed as the Intolerant Brigade.

How do we communicate the fact that God is passionate about justice, holiness and moral absolutes, as well as being thoroughly loving and humanitarian?

I don't think there are any easy answers. All I do know is that the God I worship is a God of tolerance because He is infinitely tolerant with me, my weaknesses and with the gross inadequacies of His Church. Like any loving parent He is always pulling us up to something better than we think we are. And yet, for reasons that we cannot always work through, He reserves the sovereign right to put boundaries around our ethical, moral and political norms. God cannot be limited to my definitions of tolerance without me, in the process, neutralising the idea of His sovereignty.

The intractable conflict we come up against is presenting this God in a context where politics, morality and ethics have all been made relative. Even our medical ethics are becoming detached from the idea of absolute and transcendent values.

I suspect that we will face more and more opposition over this issue in the days and weeks to come. We will come under further attack, but like Christ we will triumph not by fighting back. This battle will be won in another way.

If we want to be worthy to talk about tolerance it will not be because people subscribe to our God, our ethics or our morality in every instance. They will not. It will be that they have heard a worldview which differs widely to their own and have rejected it, and yet they continue to experience an inclusive love and commitment to serve them whatever they believe about our God.

Jesus did not say we would be known by the strength or cleverness of our arguments. He did not say we would be known by the strident nature of our protest or complaints. He said we would be known by our fruits and by how we love each other.

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