Humility as the Antidote to Intolerance: A Response to the 2012 Kuyper Lecture by Miroslav Volf

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June 8, 2012

By Emily Boop

In one of my undergraduate classes, we were asked to identify and rank the attitudes or behaviors that our culture considers to be vices. My group at once unanimously decided that intolerance was the gravest of sins in our culture today; intolerance is, paradoxically, simply not tolerated.

For the 2012 Kuyper Lecture, presented at the annual Christians in Political Science Conference, Miroslav Volf attempted to address this very issue. He noted that religious exclusivists, people who believe their faith is the true faith, are often believed to be incapable of participating in a pluralist political order because they are intolerant of others’ viewpoints. However, Volf contends that religious exclusivists can embrace a pluralist political project and that they can embrace it not merely as a pragmatic concession, but as an outflow of their own religious convictions.

This argument is an important one, for today people of all faiths are asked to come together and to work alongside others who come from radically different faith traditions. Such people hold drastically disparate notions of truth and disagree on what it means to live a good life. Yet somehow, we must all work together to make our political order work.

Volf claims that a majority of religious persons in the world are religious exclusivists. Persuading such people to become religious pluralists is impossible and, in many cases, would be perceived as a violation of the convictions of that group. Understanding their relationship to a pluralist political order is thereby an important subject not only for domestic policymaking, but also for international diplomacy.

Many Christians can easily be classified as religious exclusivists. Volf defined religious exclusivists as those who believe that that their faith is the only true, life-giving faith, while religious pluralists as those who believe all religions are equally true. He distinguished religious pluralism from political pluralism, which he believes determines “how we live together under one roof.” While he acknowledges that there is a natural affinity between religious and political pluralism, he does not believe that religious exclusivism must go hand in hand with political exclusivism, as it has many times in the past.

While I am sympathetic to Volf’s claim and also desire to seek constructive political engagement between people of different religious traditions, from what Volf presented, I am not sure how this is accomplished. How can people with exclusivist faiths work together constructively to shape the political order? Given the highly contentious nature of exclusivist beliefs, it is often difficult for Christians to expound upon their political viewpoints without being branded with the dreaded label “intolerant.”

I believe that the beginning of this answer lies simply in the virtue of humility, one of the most difficult virtues to attain, especially in politics. Christians should be less focused on asserting their own opinions and beliefs and should instead, in humility, focus on listening to others’ perspectives.

There is a fine line between defending the truth for the purpose of working toward a just political order and attempting to impose one’s religious convictions upon another. The first is both helpful and necessary, for a pluralist political order is comprised of a multiplicity of people doing just that. The second is unhelpful and polarizing.

Participating in a pluralist political order does not mean giving up deeply held convictions, but learning to live and work alongside those who have convictions—held just as firmly—that  entirely contradict one’s own. Christianity is uniquely equipped to participate in such a system because our scriptures teach us to have a high view of other people who, like us, are made in the image of God. In Philippians 2:3, Paul clearly states, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Cultivating the virtue of humility is key for Christian engagement in politics, for it is difficult to label anyone who approaches politics with humility as “intolerant.”  

—Emily Boop graduated this spring from Gordon College with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.