Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I’m Okay, You’re Okay

Are you an absolutist or a relativist?

My freshman year of college, I heard Ravi Zacharias speak one night. While I don’t remember his talking points with much precision, I do remember that he railed against relativism, ‘proving’ that there are absolute truths by pointing out that a relativist’s premise that “there is no truth” is an absolute statement in itself.

I thought that was very clever, and I also adopted that worry that our society was moving toward relativism as the dominant worldview or ethic, and that God, faith, Christianity itself was quite directly threatened by this perspective. So for many years I concerned myself with knowing Truth (capital “T”!) and with evangelizing others to believe that same Truth.

Today, I would say I am functionally a relativist, but mostly because once I really started examining my faith, I had trouble discerning what the Truth is. My theological wrestling to try to uncover Truth as between various strands of Protestantism and Catholicism led me to more questions, not less – yet most of those same denominations clamored loudly that they have the corner on Truth – they are right! Their interpretations are correct, they understand the context properly!

But how was I supposed to know who was right, and therefore who to join up with?

It eventually dawned on me that all of us humans bring our filters and biases to the task of discerning Truth. And that spiritual-realm Truth is always mediated, and therefore interpreted, by finite and fallible humans. So even if Truth is out there, what are the chances that we humans have figured it out, and how would we determine which humans really had got it right?

Eventually, I threw up my hands at the impossibility of ever truly knowing Truth, at least as it relates to God, to matters beyond the physical realm. And that’s when my whole faith foundation started crumbling away.

Today, I would say that I am still open to there being an absolute Truth, and I would say that in matters of morals or ethics, I still hold to fairly firm lines as to what behaviors are okay and not okay. But I have come to a place of granting others much more space and leeway to believe as they wish because I certainly can't claim to know the Truth in spiritual matters.

Polonious's adage "To thine own self be true", which leaders in my college fellowship used to skewer with criticism, has become a meaningful touchstone. And I am absolutely okay with that.


Heather said...

I think people are a combination of both. For instance, I believe it's wrong to kill, and I believe that in an absolute sense. But at the same time, that has to be balanced with pragmatism. We do live in a world where war is sometimes necessary, because of tyrants or murderers or worse.

If my friend came to me, and said she had to kill someone or he'd kill her baby, the morality of the situation becomes relative. She didn't set out to kill anyone, but she was defending her child. I don't think (but am not sure on this) that any court would find her wrong. Because in a way, she didn't "kill," in the sense of maliciously taking a life, or taking a life due to greed or apathy or any of that. She was defending life, and making the choice as to which life had more worth, because one life would be taken, regardless.

In my mind, morality is absolute. It simply doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the situation itself has to be taken into account, and thus becomes relative according to the situation. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, because it sounds contradictory. And somewhat is.

Jonathan Blake said...

I've come to a very similar place. There may be absolute Truth, but we cannot know it perfectly. That makes whatever truth we know subjective and relative.

On morality, I don't think an absolute morality exists. Morality is and always has been an expression of human preference which we attribute to the commands of our deities after the fact to give it the air of authority.

Yet morality serves the practical purpose of keeping our communities running smoothly. I'm much more pragmatic these days.

Zeke said...

We need to keep in mind that in all things, knowing what you don't know is just as important as knowing what you know.

What we don't know is in the realm of Mystery. When we cover over Mystery with the illusion of Truth, we no longer know what we don't know.

And then you become... I don't know... an evangelical I guess.

Rainer said...

Growing up in a small Pentecostal church - and going to the same small church every Sunday with my parents - I thought I knew the "truth".

Then I went to University, and got involved in a small "cell group" with 3 other guys. All of us from completely different backgrounds. All of us "committed" Christians. I quickly realized that we had very different beliefs about some of the fundamentals of Christianity...

I also quickly realized that these other three guys were intelligent, wanted to follow Jesus, and there was actually a chance that they could be right about some things that disagreed with me. I was certainly not stupid enough to think that I was the only one with the truth. Of course, that would mean that maybe I was wrong about some things!

That would also mean that maybe our church, our pastor, my parents, etc... might just possibly be wrong about some basic beliefs as well. It was a shock for me.

That started me on my "journey" of questioning just about everything - because I would really like to know the Truth!

I know I have a glimpse of it, but the more I learn, the more I realize I have yet to learn.

jennypo said...

***Polonious's adage "To thine own self be true", which leaders in my college fellowship used to skewer with criticism, has become a meaningful touchstone. And I am absolutely okay with that. (Slapdash)

I'm with you on this one, Slapdash. I am no relativist, but I can't imagine where else you might start than being true to yourself. Myself may not include the highest truth that I know, but it certainly includes the ones I know the most authoritatively!

Slapdash said...

thanks for the comments -

jennypo - my college group fellowship people often emphasized that you CAN'T and shouldn't trust yourself, your fallible, sinful self... you needed to put your full faith & trust in God and the Word. Therefore anytime something within you clashed with the Word, obviously you were in the wrong.

I think it did some real damage to me to be taught that I couldn't trust myself.

Slapdash said...

oh, also wanted to reference a related blog entry:

To quote from it:

"There is an organization here in Iowa that is almost universally respected and has posters and materials in almost every school I have visited. It is Character Counts. The basic idea is that if you teach kids the "six pillars of character" (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship) than we will raise up a generation of character...

"If you add Righteousness and Absolute Truth, then you can have a character developing program. Without Absolute Truth - specifically Biblical truth - the six pillars of character can be made to justify any position. That's not the kind of character I hope we strive for."

I think I can agree that the idea of "doing right" (righteousness) is important, but I also think it's already embedded into the six pillars. Not sure why Absolute Truth is relevant.

Heather said...

**Without Absolute Truth - specifically Biblical truth - the six pillars of character can be made to justify any position. That's not the kind of character I hope we strive for."**

I think their critique in this area is interesting ... ususally, when we see those six pillars listed, we assume there's some standard applied to them. I think we'd all make that assumption, including those doing the critique. For instance, trustworthiness or responsiblity. If you're making sure to teach your kids those aspects, chances are, whether atheist or biblical, you're going to teach your kid not to lie, or to own his/her own actions, look after himself and so on. Those who can twist those words into meaning anything tend not to teach their kids to be truthful in the first place. Plus, that kind of destroys the whole concept of truth/respect/responsiblity -- to make them work in whatever justifies a certain responsiblity. The idea behind those concepts are that lines get drawn, and do not get crossed.

jennypo said...

***Therefore anytime something within you clashed with the Word, obviously you were in the wrong. (Slapdash)

I'm not quite getting the connection your fellowship members have made here. There is a vast difference between being true to the best that you know and thinking that you know it all.

Claiming that there exists a capital-T Truth does not equate to ignoring our questions or the holes in our thinking. I would argue it's just the opposite. It is only after we have asked the questions that we have any right to talk about Truth.

Being honest about our questions and seeking answers for them is never, never a step away from Truth, no matter what that Truth is. A person who admits they don't know may never reach the place where they do know, but they are certainly farther along the road than someone who chooses to ignore their own questions.

"Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place." (Psalms 51:6)

Richard Dahlstrom said...

there are times when I get deeply tired of the relative/absolute conversation - I've heard it all, on both sides, and part of me wants to just say, "We don't KNOW" - and then to just say it again slower, letting the words sink into our modernist, formulaic little minds... WE DON'T KNOW.

And then, once we've settled that, to add, equally, slowly: 'but we believe' - and then say that again too, so that we can learn once again that whatever life we choose, we choose by faith. Faith is, admittedly, a response to revelation - we get data from the universe, whether science class, philosophy, a night under the stars, the Koran, or the Holy Bible, and we process it - sifting, accepting, rejecting, based on any number of criterion. And then we go with it.

When the data we accepted becomes suspect, or up for review because it doesn't jive with new data, we embark on a slapdash journey - we're just trying to be honest after all. And we hope that such a journey will lead us toward the ultimate reality - I BELIEVE it will, but of course don't know that.

As a rock climbing, roller blading, yoga practicing pastor who watches Napolean Dynamite annually, I must say that I like your blog. Thanks for the provoking entries.

Jonathan Blake said...

Richard Dahlstrom,

And because we do not know (and I'd say cannot know) doesn't that make all our knowledge and morality subjective?

Richard Dahlstrom said...

Mr Blake...
that word 'know' is so messy isn't it? If the account of Paul's encounter w/ the blinding light and voice of Jesus on the Damascus road was, indeed, a historical event (and I agree that we can't 'know' that) - then I wonder, would Paul say that He 'knew' Jesus as certainly as I claim to 'know' my wife or children?

On the other hand, any time an encounter is outside the constructs of scientific method (x-files kind of things) we can't claim to 'know' w/ any certitude. Of course, these days even science is losing it's sense of certitude, but that's another story.

So we're stuck w/ this very limited sense of knowing. Yet if we're to move beyond some sort of nihilistic paralysis, we still need to get up in the morning and live our lives based on something - will we live to get rich or will we live to get by? will we sleep around, or be faithful, or sleep alone? will we care for people living on the margins or let the poor be damned, or help damn them through our choices?

I'd argue that I can't fabricate these choices out of thin air - that nobody does that. Rather, all of us, BELIEVE something about reality and live out those beliefs in our choices. By the way, what I say I believe matters little - the proof of my belief system is in the choices I make.

And where do these beliefs come from? Response to revelation! (see original response to slapdash's post). Does this clarify?

Jonathan Blake said...

I believe that I agree with you. :) None of us know anything with certitude. Any good scientist will admit that they are willing to change their mind if the evidence dictates such a change. Even appeals to a higher authority must be filtered through our fallibility. It should therefore be nonsensical for us to believe that any moral system that we follow is absolute, because we are human and fallible.

So in the human condition, all our morality is subjective, hence relative.

What I don't seem to understand, is your appeal to revelation. How does revelation save us from subjectivity?

Richard Dahlstrom said...

I don't think revelation saves us from subjectivity. Rather, the point would be that our beliefs systems, be they atheism, theism, monism, agnosticism, or otherwise, are based on response to some sort of revelation - whether that be scientific inquiry, Bible study, a night under the stars, a good merlot with friends, or outrage over Darfur - all of that is revelation. Without revelation, we've nothing to respond to - nothing to believe.

Taking it a step further, I ponder whether Jesus' complaint with the religious establishment is that, though they had eyes, they 'chose' not to see - which I'd say is a pretty fair indictment of many of us in the west these days as well.

jON said...

"...I think it did some real damage to me to be taught that I couldn't trust myself..."

if there were a prize for hammer nail head hitting, you would win with that entry.

i remember thinking once that "nothing is absolute." but, ravi is right, that statement can't exist. so then i changed my mind and now i say this. some things are absolute. some. things.

it's up to each one of us to decide how we feel about any given topic. because i don't think that we, as humans, are all on any sort of a level playing field in our experiences. even if two people go through the same experience. like riding a roller coaster. i love them. my wife hates them. she hates them for the very reason i love them. that's just the way it is, yo.

i think it's absolutely different for each one of us. word.


Jonathan Blake said...

I guess we had a conflict of semantics. I am more familiar with "revelation" in the religious context meaning a communication from God.

dufflehead said...

i'm of the school that there's no such thing as absolute or absolute truth.

dufflehead said...

and semantics are incredibly relevant to this discussion. to use a word with the idea that a word can stand alone and have no other meaning is an absolutist sort of view. when we must use other words to explain our original words is where we should see the relativism of text. we can never know what any author truly meant by only reading their words.