But, but, why can’t you liberals be tolerant of my intolerance? Guess you’re not really tolerant at all!

These remarks, and any variation thereof tend to be among the most asinine that a liberal will ever hear in their socio-political career. Frustrated to be hearing this once again, I offer thus; an explanation of positive and negative tolerance, with a goal towards never hearing this crap again. Sly is nothing, if not optimistic.

I obviously owe a conceptual debt here to Berlin’s discussion of freedom. But I’m taking this to a slightly different place, mostly because I’m not treating the individual here as an ultimate agent, assuming a power structure that exists over them that mediates their interactions. Namely, Yale Divinity. What I mean here, briefly…

Negative tolerance can best be described as the outer bounds of any particular expression. For instance, Marquand Chapel regulations stipulate that there is no tolerance of images that conflate sin and blackness. There’s no singing about being washed whiter than snow at Yale Div.

Positive tolerance is both the cumulative effect of negative tolerance and the theological-political leanings of authority. It is comprised of the statements, messages, and ethos that are supported, affirmed, and valorized by an agent. It might be best described as the distribution curve, the weight of the instances of communication that lie within the bounds of negative tolerance. Where prohibitions leave off, positive tolerance shapes the space as the primary content. In Marquand, the positive tolerance is constructed as intentionally broad, trying to supply messages, forms, and concepts that are desired by various students and traditions.

Which leaves student reactions. Thus far, I haven’t pictured the students as having power. We either attend, or not. Day to day editorial control of the chapel occurs at a level not available to most students, and even… If you plan a single service, you have some theological expression in that space for a single day. If you’re a chapel minister, you might have choices on a certain percentage of days. But because the narrative is formed by the distribution of varied and individual theological messages, it’s almost impossible to swing the balance.

Which is where student reactions get very interesting. Some conservative students have made great hay about being “censored” or “dismissed” in Marquand. Gender inclusive language for God is requested out of all services, and some conservatives decry that such requirements leave them unable to participate.

The claim usually relies on an idea of positive tolerance. “We only want to be able to use the language that feels most comfortable,” they say. They ask why their viewpoint can’t be included. But it is. Every single service this year so far, there has been at least one address to God as “Lord.” What the request is really about is their negative tolerance. Even a single feminine address seems to be too many. The cultural and theological authorities under which these folks operate (I don’t mean literal subservience, but rather formation and identification) have negative tolerance for feminine language, and a strong positive requirement for exclusively masculine language. One student at the discussion this Friday wisely noted that she probably didn’t even hear the familiar language, and only really noted the exceptions. If only others could be so reflective.

This isn’t about liberal intolerance. This is about control of the message. Seeking greater definitional authority over the content of chapel than any other group here has, some of these students have conflated tolerance with total agreement. Liberal tolerance might call us to allow, even promote, some uses of masculine language around God. But when that language is present, and the shrill call is that YDS is censoring “Lord,” the picture is changed.

If the range of options presented by the Chapel includes material that you can’t stand even a bit of, then you probably won’t go. But don’t make the mistake of saying that it’s intolerant. The breadth of expression that is allowed in Marquand is stunning, even disturbing to a flaming liberal such as myself. I’ve griped about it many times. But it is a pretty remarkable representation of the varied theological opinions here. The secret to going isn’t to be without convictions, but to know your own well enough. I don’t much go anymore, a fight that I’m having with Christendom in general at the moment, but when I did…one of the things I knew how to do was to stop talking, to listen to what was going on, and to withdraw my participation when I needed to. If you haven’t practiced being angry, upset, or alienated in church, I suggest that you give it a try.

Thus far, it hasn’t been fatal.

So when the conservatives say that they’re “under someone’s theological thumb” and being “manipulated,” I have to laugh a bit. I feel badly for them, it’s a difficult thing to feel that way. But it’s how the game is played. If your negative tolerance is such that you can only stand to be around a message over which you have near total control…I believe the term is “Does Not Play Well With Others.”

Talk about what you need in this space, and talk about positive tolerance, the level of reinforcement, comfort, and validation that you require. Talk about what you need to see as part of the message. Then we can get somewhere.

In Christa,

-Sly Civilian