Monday, August 22, 2011

Wanting to be liked

In "No Offense" Dean C. Curry revisits the predictions of a 1987 book by James Davison Hunter and finds them prescient. Being "tolerant" is not the same thing as desiring to be "tolerable."
.... Drawing upon an early 1980s survey project that targeted "the coming generation" of evangelical leaders—i.e., students at evangelical colleges and seminaries—Hunter anticipated, among other things, that a social agenda would slowly supplant traditional evangelical spiritual concerns. Regarding this shift, Hunter concluded in 1987 that "the significance of this trend is highlighted by the precedent set by liberal Protestant theology in the twentieth century, where the Social Gospel achieved proportions unintended by its original advocates."

.... Of particular note is Hunter's insightful parsing of the dimensions of "civility," one of modernity's unassailable innovations. The essence of civility is tolerance, arguably the primordial concept of our post-modern age, and a habit now widely embraced by evangelicals. But there is another dimension to civility that Hunter identifies as the inversion of tolerance, namely tolerability, and it is this side of civility that Hunter argues is key to understanding the dynamics of transformation that have taken place within American evangelicalism.

The ethic of civility requires not only that individuals be tolerant of others; it also requires that they must be tolerable to others. The implications of this ethic of "studied moderation" are clear: "Convictions are to be tempered by 'good taste' and sensibility. It is an ethic which pleads 'no offense.' The greatest breach of these norms is belligerence and divisiveness; the greatest atrocity is to be offensive and thus intolerable." The appropriation of both dimensions of civility—tolerance and tolerability—is a major reason why the boundaries of evangelical beliefs have become increasingly fuzzy and uncertain. Besides being tolerant of others, "the critical dogma is not to offend but to be genteel . . . in social relations," with the consequence that the contents of traditional evangelical theology and ethics that are offensive in the prevailing cultural zeitgeist are deemphasized. "Anything," writes Hunter, "that hints of moral or religious absolutism and intolerance is underplayed." Indeed, having appropriated civility as a central component of Christian theology, evangelicals face "tremendous social constraints to be less strict, less fanatical, more open-minded, and so on." [emphasis added] ....
No Offense
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