The Limits of Tolerance

Reading 1:

Edict of Torda
Issued by King John Sigismund, 1568

His majesty, our Lord […] reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone […] and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which [hearing] is by the word of God.


Reading 2:

I Call That Church Free
By James Luther Adams

I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate of existence,
that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.
It binds together families and generations against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.
This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.
I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship,
that protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom;
that yearns to belong to the church universal;
it is open to insight and conscience from every source;
It bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and
living language, to new and broader fellowship.
It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.
The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.
It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings
of the spirit “that bloweth where it listeth...and maketh all things new.”



“We need not think alike to love alike.”

These eight words make up what is one of the most potent statements of our Unitarian religious ancestors.  This phrase has become a touchstone in our long history of religious tolerance.  The man who uttered these words was Francis David, the 16th century court preacher to the King Transylvania.  King John Sigismund bears the unique distinction of being the first and only Unitarian King in history – at least so far – there is always hope!  This Unitarian King did something else extraordinary in the history of human religion.  With the benefit of Francis David’s counsel, John Sigismund issued the historic Edict of Torda in 1568 – making religious tolerance the law of the land!

“We need not think alike to love alike.”  The words echo across five centuries that have been filled with only occasional religious tolerance and far too much religiously inspired hatred, suspicion, and worse. David’s words strike me as a remarkably modern dream as we consider the violence we see in the news every day.  

Before I go any further, I think that I should say something about the word tolerance itself.  It’s not a perfect word.  It can have a rather elitist connotation of one simply tolerating another who is beneath him – the sense of “putting up with” rather than engaging more openly.  

The story is told of a rather formal church, where members of the congregation dress to impress, where the ushers wear tuxedos, and where the atmosphere is more than a little bit stiff.  One Sunday morning, the service has already begun and in walks a bedraggled looking young man.  Torn jeans, bare feet, unshaven, and long unkempt hair.  He wanders down the central aisle and – seeing no open seats – he sits himself down on the floor about one third of the way back from the chancel.  Well, naturally, the worshipers are appalled.  “We just don’t do that here,” they think.  To their relief, an elderly usher, elegant with his silver hair and his formal attire, begins making his way toward the young man. The minister stops talking. The room is silent except for the tap, tap, tap, of the usher’s gold-tipped cane as he slowly approaches the young man.  “It’s too bad,” some of the worshipers think to themselves, “but the usher must do what must be done.”  The usher finally walks up to the young man, reaches down, and slowly, gingerly, lowers himself to the floor to sit beside him. There he remains.  When the minister gains control, he says, “What I am about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.”

My friends, the way that usher acted – that is what I mean by tolerance.  It is not ignoring or putting up with difference, but engaging with it. In this same way, tolerance is a central element of how Unitarians are religious.

Religious tolerance has long stood as a key part of a Unitarian trio – of religious values: freedom, reason, and tolerance.  Some call them the “Unitarian Trinity.”  These three values have been a guide to how we are as religious people.  Together, they assure us of the freedom to believe what our reason guides us to believe, and tell us that we can expect that the beliefs we arrive at will be greeted with tolerance by our clergy and our congregations.  

Freedom, reason and tolerance have led us – this congregation with its radical dissenting roots – to where we are today.  We are a community that includes people who hold many different beliefs about the sacred and the divine.  Among you are those who may describe their beliefs with one or more labels such as Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, Atheist, and Agnostic.  (I’m sure I’ve missed a few.)  And, of course, you may simply call yourself Unitarian – recognising that this word and this faith promises to support and not constrain your spiritual path – wherever that path may lead.

I love Unitarianism.  I love its openness and I love the fact that Unitarianism makes it possible to change your mind without losing either your integrity or your community.  

It is fair to say that Unitarians “do” religion in a most unconventional way and hearing of this sort of openness – some are inclined to wonder if Unitarianism is just too tolerant.  They take our theological freedom to mean that Unitarianism places no constraints upon us whatsoever – that it is a religion where absolutely anything goes.

Many of the joke about Unitarianism play on this impression that we stand for nothing.  There’s the one that asks what you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah's Witness. The answer – someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.  Another one: How can you tell when you've ticked off the Unitarians? Somebody burns a question mark on your lawn.

And so it may be fair to ask “Isn’t there anything we should are intolerant of?” – and some have indeed asked me this question.  My response is an immediate, absolute “yes.”  Tolerance of everything would mean belief in nothing – no values, no morals, no ethics... It would also be paralysing: keeping us from the good we wish to for one another and for the larger world.     

Religious freedom, reason, and tolerance are not absolutes.  They are not unqualified and they do not – on their own – comprise a sufficient set of values for our religious community.  And although some have taken them too far, they were never intended to stand alone.  What we miss if we take freedom, reason, and tolerance in isolation are the important assumptions behind them.  Unitarianism proclaimed the importance of freedom, reason, and tolerance because of what else we believed.  Simply stated: that foundation is our overwhelmingly positive view of human nature.  Of course, this has been a fairly novel notion for a religion emerging from a Christian history.  As Matthew Smith – our former Unitarian information officer put it: “One of the orthodox Christian doctrines which many Unitarians have been happiest to leave behind is that of Original Sin - the belief that every person is essentially sinful from the moment of birth because of what Adam and Eve supposedly got up to in the Garden of Eden!”

Anyone who believes that human beings are born enslaved to sin can not possibly trust individual conscience or reason in the discernment of religious truth.  Such a doctrine would have us be anything but tolerant to different beliefs – beliefs that come from minds that are presumed to be evil. Instead, it leads to the conviction that people must be told what to believe and what to think.  It suggests that we should not trust ourselves or one another.  Only the church, its scripture, its leaders, and its doctrine are then seen as trustworthy.

On the contrary, our core beliefs tell us that humankind has an innate goodness that we can access. Every single human being has an inherent worth and dignity. Although all are capable of weakness and cruelty, Unitarians stubbornly stand by the deep conviction that a divine spark lies within each of us.  If buried, it can be uncovered.  If flickering or dim, its brightness can be recovered. 

Our theologies are diverse and the language we use may be very different: We may speak of a soul, of a holy spirit, of the presence of God in each of us. We may say that all humans have Buddha nature or that we are all children of the Great Goddess.  However we express it, we recognise that each person is worthwhile.  Each person is valuable.  Each person is a treasure. Each person is sacred. Our view of human nature leads us to understand that each person can find within themselves a guide to lead us toward truth.

And so, our belief in human good enables us to treasure the values of freedom, reason and tolerance in religion, but it would be a mistake to think that it leads only to these values.  It leads also to many others: compassion, engagement, respect, a striving for justice… All of these values also inform the limits of our tolerance.  In considering the limits of our tolerance, I think it’s useful to consider the purposes of our religious community. 

I find it useful to describe the essence of a healthy religious community in three interrelated dimensions: spirituality, community, and justice.  Spirituality is the inner search – whether we use terms like the knowledge of God or the sacred, wholeness, nirvana, harmony...  It is the lifelong journey to touch and be in contact with the ground of our being.  

Community – the second dimension – is the sum of the relationships among us.  It is where we can share our joys and concerns, it gives us hope, it allows us to give and receive, it supports us on our spiritual journey. 

And finally, the dimension of justice speaks to how we interact with the larger world. Our values tell us to respect every person – not just those who are in our community, our city, or our country.  Not just those we like or who look or believe as we do.  We also extend our care beyond humans – to value and recognise the dignity of all living things.  This understanding calls us to action to alleviate suffering and to help create fairness and justice, wherever they may be lacking.

We – whether as a congregation or as individuals – are strongest and most whole when we balance the dimensions of spirituality, community, and justice.  Each one is necessary for a healthy religious life.  Each one nurtures and is dependent on the others.  

Where are the limits of our tolerance? We can not tolerate anything that works against our work for spirituality, community, and justice.

It is in the realm of spirituality where we can be most tolerant.  We welcome a wide diversity of beliefs.  They may be woolly, whimsical, wild, weird, and wacky.  That’s OK.  It is in the crucible of our community – in the open and honest exchange between people who use their own reason and conscience in the search for truth – that our beliefs are tested – where they shift and mature.  We must be intolerant, however, of absolutism – the tendency to say ‘I have the answer.’  There is no such thing as the answer. We must be intolerant of closed-mindedness and dogmatism.  We must be intolerant of religious and spiritual intolerance.

We must also be intolerant of action that threatens the health of our community.  I think we know the sorts of things that do this.  To tolerate rudeness, violence, abusiveness, or disrespect is to put our community in peril.   

There is another type of behaviour that may not be as obvious, but that is particularly harmful to community health.  For those who study group dynamics, it is known as triangulation. Triangulation is when we are indirect with our concerns.  It is when we have a disagreement with or a complaint about one person and take it – not directly to him or her – but to a third person.  This three-way relationship is why it is referred to as a triangle.

Triangulation is the easiest thing in the world to fall into. It comes very naturally.  We most triangulate because we are afraid of confrontation when we are afraid of the response we might receive if we raise a concern directly.  

But triangulation is immensely destructive.  Community is based on trusting relationships and triangulation is an acid that erodes trust.  It extends and deepens disagreements.  It sows the seeds of suspicion and fear.  If we truly want to resolve disagreements, we must find the courage to speak directly to those with whom we disagree. When someone tries to make us the third vertex of a triangle, we must refuse.  This is a behaviour we must not tolerate.  

And finally, the third dimension is justice.  Even beyond the demands of our own community, we must not tolerate injustice or any behaviour that promotes it.  Expressions of bigotry, prejudice, and racism are not welcome here.

Ours is most assuredly not a faith that says “anything goes.”  Yes – we strive to open our doors and hearts to everyone, and we strive to hear and respect every belief and perspective.  We strive to recognise the divine spark in each heart.  This is how we live our values in the world.  We choose to be infinitely tolerant of people in all their wonderful and wild diversity.  But we will be intolerant of behaviours – whether actions or words – that prevent us from living our values by closing minds, harming community, or working against justice.

What we are doing here in this community and this faith is critically important.  It is no less than dedicating ourselves to greater happiness and meaning in our hearts, in our community, and in the world.  This open-minded, positive, loving faith can be a beacon of hope in a world where difference almost always means division.  Let us march forward, arm in arm, toward that brighter future.

May it be so.