"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When Charity and Tolerance Converged


My sister recently sent me David Brooks' NY Times article about Google's ngram viewer. This tool involves a massive database of words from 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. It allows the person to type in various words, choose a particular corpus (e.g. "American English" or "English") and then it maps out the word usage. Of course, I set to work in my spare moments searching for words that relate to my work (which was why my sister had sent it to me in the first place). One of my favorite graphs involved the words "authority" (blue) and "freedom" (red) in American English between 1955 and 2000:










Isn't it fascinating that those two words follow an almost identical usage curve? Unfortunately, the ngram viewer doesn't tell us how the words were used although presumably during this time "authority" most likely occurred so frequently because it was a concept under attack, with a negative connotation. It was probably mentioned in the context of questioning authority and not trusting authority and so on. And we could probably surmise that the popularity of freedom was related to this concept of challenging authority, the "contagion of liberty" as Philip Gleason names it in his Contending with Modernity.

But of course, there's a lot of inference and supposition involved in the ngram viewer, and I am not trying to make any strong arguments here, just observe what I found that was interesting in my ngram playtime. So here's the other chart that I found really interesting:
Charity (blue) and tolerance (red) converged in 1968, which was a big year for many ecclesiastical and political events and so it is interesting that the convergence occurred in 1968. Prior to that, charity had greater popular usage in American English. The above chart only represents 1950-1980. Seeing this chart caused me to reflect a little about the difference between charity and tolerance. I was raised in the 80s and 90s, and I recall tolerance being an important concept. I remember having the sense that I didn't have to agree with other people's opinions or preferences, but I was supposed to tolerate them. Tolerance was a word that implied equality; it's fundamentally a non-religious word to apply to situations of difference without appearing judgmental, although it does actually imply judgment. It's a word of non-interference, and in that sense it is individualistic, for the relationship of tolerance is not really a relationship of engagement; it is not personal. Tolerance is not confrontational, but it is sort of a "cold peace" as political scientists might say.

Charity, on the other hand, is a religious word, tied to the greatest of the theological virtues, having God as its object. Because the object of charitable acts is God, charity also often implies difference and judgment, and we see this reflected by our use of "charity" to name an organization that helps people identified as in need of services (people we judge as in need of "charity"). Charity does not imply equality of values or ways of life but it does imply relationship, a personalistic gift of self, that forms a bond among people, aiming toward unity. Charity can be extended to people we judge to be different than us, but it aims at human unity given the supernatural object of God. In that sense, charity can involve more than just hand-outs of needed resources, but also fraternal correction, the noting of others' faults, intellectual argument on moral convictions, and encouragement to improve upon weaknesses that inhibit the path to one's final end in God. Charity calls us beyond our own selfishness to an active and sometimes difficult love of others, rather than a passive tolerance for opinions or preferences that are not our own.

Of course, we are all likely familiar with the gospel point that Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them. But this would not be described as tolerance. Jesus extended charity, not tolerance, to sinners. His charitable engagement was one that called people away from their sins to a better and more authentic human life, with God as object and end. He did not "judge" or condemn the woman caught in adultery according to the procedures of human law, but he did judge her to have sinned and instructed her not to do it again: "Then neither do I condemn you: go an sin no more" (Jn 8:11). Charity is not just being nice nor being tolerant of sin, but wanting the best for the other person, although that sometimes means calling the person to a new way of life.

Interestingly, it seems tolerance, after its brief rise in popularity of usage in the American English language, is now on its way down. Charity and tolerance once again converged in 2007. One possible contributing factor is that tolerance has ceased to be a compelling concept, perhaps because, as I noted above, it does imply judgment and difference, the acknowledgment of disagreement and cold peace. Now, perhaps, the emphasis is on acceptance without judgment and a new level of relativism that seeks to normalize most things, hence shirking at distinguishing difference or implying any kind of objective morality. No longer, an I'm OK--You're OK individualistic and tolerant attitude, but rather now an "all-OK" post-individualism attitude that precludes the judgment implied by tolerance and now concludes that there is no real difference, save for unevaluatable preference. The only people to be judged in this schema are those who emphasize difference and believe in objective morality rather than moral relativism. In an "all-OK" mindset, these alone are not OK because they won't accept what the post-tolerant world regards as fact, or, as Gavin D'Costa phrases it, they won't ascribe to the "false gods of modernity." To them, particularly those with supernatural and religious worldviews, will all the remaining identifiable problems of the world be attributed because they stand in the way of a unified acceptance of the post-tolerant all-OK world where sin does not exist and where the biggest mistake is to try to identify sin and fight against it.


The above chart is a snapshot of 1965 to 2008, and you can see here that in 2007, charity (blue) once more rose above tolerance (red) in American English. The current increase in the usage of "charity" in the post-tolerant world must be primarily unrelated to the theological virtue, but rather perhaps should be attributed to the naming of those organizations with virtually any objective. Such "charities" may in some way wish the best for the people they aim to help, but not in the context of a final supernatural end in God, but rather with the end of natural well-being in the context of the "all OK" post-tolerance perspective. As such, the aims of "charities" may be almost anything that its founders regard as worthwhile, so long as they do not challenge the false gods of modernity. Those charities that put into practice the theological virtue of love of God through the assisting of others in the hopes of forming bonds tending toward humanity's common end in God will be judged and found wanting because they do not prescribe to the post-tolerant all-OK mindset. Rather, they truly desire the best for each person, knowing that the best is God and that the path to God involves the imitation of Christ's gift of self, not to judge, not to tolerate, but to love in a way that challenges the person to grow in sanctity.

In case anyone's wondering, "love," (blue) though on an overall decline for several centuries, nonetheless remains much more popular in the English language than either charity (red) or tolerance, and may even be on the way up.









The above chart's time range is 1800-2008.

Where charity and love prevail
There God is ever found
Brought here together by Christ's love
By love are we thus bound.

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