Krista Tippett says it’s time to ditch the notion of tolerance. I agree. Host of the public radio program “On Being” and author of the new book “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living,” Tippett recently gave a luminous talk at Drake University in Des Moines about the need to find a new verbal construct to approach our common life together.
“We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth, the 1960s, to grapple with what was truly the onset of genuine diversity in this country,” Tippett said. “It was only in the 1960s that American truly began to integrate—racial, religious, ethnic and social differences—into our national sense of self. We did so by pursuing the… civic mandate of tolerance. Tolerance has value as a civic tool, but it is not big enough in human, ethical, spiritual terms.”
Tippett’s words struck home.
I was also born in the 1960s, in an enclave on the south side of Chicago so Catholic that you would ask a new acquaintance what parish they lived in, rather than their street address. In my parents’ generation, there was a separate church for every ethnicity—the Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles and Lithuanians. By the time I was born, Catholics were willing to mix in the same congregations, but newer immigrants were still perceived as “the other.” The Greek Orthodox family who lived directly behind us—admired for transforming their backyard into a garden worthy of Eden—were known only as “the Greeks.” (“The Greeks gave us tomatoes,” my sister would say, spilling the scarlet contents of a brown shopping bag onto the kitchen counter.)
We are inherently tribal people, and the notion of tolerance has become insufficient to bridge our gaps. “Tolerance is not a lived virtue,” Tippett explained. “It is kind of a cerebral assent—too cerebral to animate guts and hearts, and thus behavior when the going gets rough. Tolerance has not taught us to engage, much less care about the stranger. Tolerance doesn’t even invite us to be curious, to be open, to be moved or surprised by the other.”
Because social structures were changing when I was a child, and kids are naturally curious, diversity crept slowly into my consciousness. I remember a friend invited me to attend her youth group at her Protestant church, where the practice of praising Jesus spontaneously was so foreign I might as well have been kidnapped by aliens. But the safe space of friendship facilitated a crack — a new perspective and connection with other.
The first Jewish person I met was my freshman college roommate Shelly—which was thankfully before the era of finding your dorm mate in the echo chamber of Facebook. She was also the first person I met from the north side of Chicago. Shelly and her friends were a kind of cool I had never experienced in my parochial suburb, a sophisticated cocktail of smart and witty and ironic and kind. I developed a girl crush so massive I actually tried to pledge the Jewish sorority (something Shelly talked me out of). Her friendship was another bridge out of my narrow worldview.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I got my master’s degree at an urban divinity school where the student body was mostly African-American, of every possible denomination (and where, ironically, I studied Greek). In the safe space of our common ground of faith, people spoke honestly, eloquently and heartbreakingly about their experiences of race.
I learned to listen in a way I hadn’t before, something Tippett says is essential to creating our common life anew.
“Generous listening involves a kind of vulnerability, a willingness to be surprised; to let go of assumptions and be ready to take in ambiguity,” she said.
“The generous listener really wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions… These are not the ways we turn up in our political spaces. In American civic life we trade in competing answers.”
In my 30s and 40s, as I had my own children, I chose to live in places that offered the kind of racial, ethnic, religious, economic and gender diversity that simply didn’t exist in my childhood. Tippett’s talk prompted me to think more deeply about this choice. I realized that my personal reckoning with otherness, while sometimes uncomfortable, has been a profound place of growth and joy and healing. An experience of practical love, of the manifold imagination and goodness of God.
Tippett suggests we dare to replace tolerance as a civil virtue with love—“as politically weak and intellectually suspect as that may sound in modern ears,” she said. Because although we’ve “fetishized love as romance… love’s audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines… its truth is equality of practical, sustained care.”
Love requires we relate to each other with honest and dignity, but “without insisting on a goal of achieving common ground too quickly,” Tippet said.
She gave the example of group of moms in Iowa who voted three different ways in the most recent election, but have decided to meet to discuss their concerns about the effects of the cultural discourse on their children. The goal is “understanding you’re in relationship,” she explained, and “not picking up an issue, but a shared question. And then asking of that question, ‘what is its stake in human terms for all of us?’”
It’s time for all of us to create safe spaces for delving into the difficult questions with different others, Tippett said, to be “nourishers of discernment, fermenters of healing… To discover how to calm fear and plant the seeds of the robust common life that we desire, and that our age demands.”