Book Review:  “Beyond Tolerance” (Gustav Niebuhr)

Junaid Afeef

Posted Oct 18, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Book Review:  “Beyond Tolerance” (Gustav Niebuhr)

For there to be real peace, we must get “Beyond Tolerance”

by Junaid Afeef

Gustav Niebuhr is an engaging writer.  He has a wealth of experience on the subject of religion in America drawn from his personal life and then his professional life (as a journalist first and then from the Academy).  “Beyond Tolerance: Search for Interfaith Understanding in America” is a solid resource for those engaged in interfaith dialogue.

What Makes this a good book?

Niebuhr draws from his personal experiences as a religion writer for the New York Times in order to analyze interfaith dialogue in America.  “Beyond Tolerance” is a combination of a personal account and a researched/surveyed academic analysis.  This unique perspective makes the book engaging and readable while providing very useful facts, resources and insights as well.  Niebuhr’s personal opinions are included in “Beyond Tolerance” but he distinguishes them from facts.

It is a short book (only 213 pages) and it is a very easy read.  While it has six (6) chapters and a conclusion, the preface, introduction, notes and bibliography are integral to the book.  The preface and introduction help set the right expectations for the reader by disclosing Niebuhr’s personal and professional background, his personal religious affiliation and his own attitude towards interfaith dialogue.  Niebuhr notes that he was raised in an observant Christian home where prayer was a part of his family’s dail life.  Interestingly but not surprisingly he notes that as part of his religious Christian upbringing he was taught that he

“shared the world with a great variety of religious (and nonreligious) identities, all of which belonged to people who deserved as much respect as we ourselves would want.”

The notes and bibliography are wonderful resources for additional reading.  This is particularly important for a book on interfaith dialogue.  This subject matter is not well represented in many public libraries.  Book stores do not carry a lot of titles on interfaith dialogue either.  Furthermore, many valuable resources for studying and undrestanding interfaith dialogue are found in periodicals and journals and less in books.  The notes and bibliography are useful in highlighting some of these resources.

What would make this book better?

“Beyond Tolerance” has many stories of interfaith dialogue drawn from Niebuhr’s career as a religion writer for the New York Times.  These stories include brief sketches of the religious people he has encountered.  Another 100 pages worth of details on the people, the conversations and reflections of those who engaged in interfaith dialogue would be extremely valuable and would make the book more valuable as a resource.

What is the most important point Niebuhr is trying to convey?

Niebuhr wants to promote interfaith dialogue in America.  Niebuhr does not see tolerance as a virtue.  To him it is a fundamental responsibility in a pluralistic society like America, but it falls short of building understanding.

He uses examples of interfaith dialogue to illustrate what it looks like to go beyond tolerance.  Most of his examples are success stories but some illustrate what it looks like when interfaith dialogue falls short of developing an understanding between faiths.

In the beginning of “Beyond Tolerance” Niebuhr tells his readers that the book will not spend much time talking about religious extremism.  The underlying motivation to encourage Americans to go beyond tolerance and towards interfaith understanding, however, is his fear of religious extremism. 

Niebuhr conveys a clear desire to couner religious extremism by promoting religious dialogue that goes beyond niceties and basic religious doctrine and builds relationships between committed adherents of different religious traditions.  Neibuhr closes the book by noting that

“They - we - have our basic humanity in common.  We share a world, but one threatened by violent fanaticism…And so we have a choice, a possibility of community before us, and so much about which we can speak to one another.  The stakes are very high.”

Recommendation & conclusion?

“Beyond Tolerance” is a comendable addition to the discussion of interfaith dialogue.  Niebuhr writes for laypersons and non-academics.  Religious people who are thinking about getting involved in interfaith dialogue and those who are already involved and want to go beyond the niceties and the basics can gain years’ worth of knowledge from “Beyond Tolerance”.

Book Details

Title: “Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America”
Author:  Niebuhr, Gustav
Year Published:  2008
Publisher:  Viking Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-670-01956-4
Number of Pages:  213 (six chapters, conclusion, notes, bibliography, index) plus preface & introduction

Please visit Junaid Afeef’s site - An American Muslim Journal at