Among others, dictionary.com defines tolerance thusly:
tol·er·ance /ˈtɒlərəns/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[tol-er-uhns]
1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
In other words, it's permitting another to have an opinion or belief different from my own while being fair and free from bigotry.
Tolerance is easy to demand but difficult to truly extend.
Tolerance is about embracing the person not necessarily their beliefs.
Tolerance requires humble conviction.
One thing I have noticed about my friends' idea of tolerance is that anyone who has a belief that excludes others' beliefs is intolerant. In other words, they're not asking for tolerance, they're asking for universal acceptance of all beliefs. It usually sounds something like this "why can't Christians just be tolerant of others and stop being so closed minded". me: "what do you mean?" "well, Christians say that their way is the true way. That's so intolerant". me: "so, you're intolerant of their intolerance?" *said with a smirk*.
We all believe something. So really, there aren't believers (Christians) and non believers (non Christians) - a phrase which I don't like anyway. There are simply those who believe in various things.
Jesus followers have a very bad reputation as being closed minded and intolerant. Know why? Because we have been and still are. Those who claim to be Christians are constantly being disrespectful and outright rude toward others.
They do things like refuse to let their kids play with a Buddhist kid. They hug their child closer when they see a lesbian couple walking by. They go to the other side of the sidewalk when there's a homeless person playing a banjo to get some change in their hat. They avoid any kind of intelligent discussion on issues they hold dear for fear that those types of interchanges will melt their sacred cows.
We have done a very poor job at being fully BUT HUMBLY convinced of our own beliefs while tolerating and fully accepting other PEOPLE. So my friends have a "right" to feel the way they do. Christ has often been poorly represented to them. They haven't really been introduced to the Jesus of the Bible. They have been introduced to the fringe Jesus of American Right Wing Evangelicals who have a loud platform in the Church and politics.
And for that I ask forgiveness of my friends who do not claim Christianity as their religion and to those within Christianity who have been hurt by such bigotry.
But here's the tricky thing about tolerance - it has to be both ways. This is something I try to explain to my friends and something that needs to be grasped by Christians.
Even within Christianity, bigotry runs rampant
big·ot·ry /ˈbɪgətri/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[big-uh-tree]
1. stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own.
One thing I am finding increasingly frustrating is that most "progressive"/postmodern Christians I know are at least trying to link arms with those in Christianity who adhere to a more modern practice of their faith. Sometimes we're reactionary and zealous and present a caricature of modernism and fundamentalism instead of an accurate and fair characterization...but most are truly trying.
They recognize the need for cooperation in the age in which we live. They know that there is still a need for modernist ways of thinking about and doing church.
But the frustration is that by definition, modernism does not allow for the "flex" and wrestling with the Scriptures, doctrines and ideas that postmodernism embraces and celebrates fundamentally.
So I guess what I would like to see is followers of Jesus who celebrate individuals and embrace communities of diversity. Christians who can at least be tolerant and respectful of fellow Christians even if they are not willing to consider the person's beliefs.
I would like to see Christians who reject the notion that unity equals uniformity (thanks David), Christians who reject the idea that in order to work together, we have to not only share a common creed but a common doctrinal statement, method of evangelism, style of singing and way of preaching.
I would like to see us embrace a unity of overarching vision: to do the the work of bringing the Kingdom to earth. To unify to do the things that Jesus did - to LOVE generously, extravagantly and unconditionally, to bring justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God, to be peacemakers and to bring reconciliation and restoration to others.
I'm not suggesting that we all go to one big happy ecumenical church. Orthodox First Apostolic Episcopal Baptipresbycharismaticatholutheran Commity Bible Reformed Brethren Church of the Saints or something. I'm suggesting that at least in small ways, we demonstrate the unity and love that we're supposed to be known for.