Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Mallet of Absolute Truth

I was Google-ing the Truth Project today and found that my blog articles are some, of very few, that critique it. So I started to drift through the many blogs and articles that praised it.

One of the more common praises is a relief amongst Christians that the Truth Project is standing up and defending "Absolute Truth". In fact, I think in many circles, clinging to absolute truth has become synonymous with (or has even surpassed) clinging to Christ.

Somewhere in Christian history the notion that some truth is not relative became NO truth is relative. In fact, the word relativism has become a swear word or an insult. In fundamentalist camps it would be a low blow to refer to someone as a "relativist".

Well, I am a relativist. I think we all are. God sees the whole picture. The rest of us are peeking through our lenses and vested interests from our different perspectives and angles. How could it be any different? The difference between myself and someone who claims to cling to absolute truth is that I recognize that the ground on which I stand is positional in reference to God. Therefore, I must keep moving to gain a better view of God. The absolutists believe their position to BE the baseline and if everyone would just come and stand where they are standing - all would be clear.

This is why I feel programs like the Truth Project can be so damaging. It makes the listener feel they are putting on layers of armor... when actually it is mere papier-mâché. You have all seen this or heard it in action. A Christian who has read a book, or seen a DVD, or heard their Pastor, has become an expert and tries to engage someone from the "other side" - except it doesn't sound like a discussion, it sounds like a lecture. The Christian gets befuddled by the most sincere contradictory questions (because their beliefs have been given, not earned) and goes back to repeating what they have already stated. Finally the Christian, in frustration, walks away muttering something about the other not "having ears to hear the truth" or other such nonsense. The Christian tends to learn NOTHING from an exchange like this because they usually make very poor assumptions:
  • He or she already has the Truth
  • The other is against them
  • Anyone not of the Christian Faith brings nothing of spiritual value to the table
  • If the other does have a spiritual insight, it must be tainted
To me, phrases like "absolute truth" are the shield and club of the lazy. They want everything ready made and pre-packaged (like the rest of our lives) so that nothing requires work or effort. We just want to be in the right group with the proper beliefs, and we want an iron clad solid response to anyone who would say otherwise. Mystery and ambiguity leave too many loose ends. Let us simplify God so he can be properly sorted out.

Paul was a relativist. He was completely comfortable being a Jewish believer. He just felt that Gentile believers didn't need to be Jewish believers. Many Jewish believers felt that there were obvious markers to who was in the Faith and who wasn't. Paul rejected this - not the markers themselves, only their enforcement on others. However, he gave grace for people to personally do what they felt they needed to do, "If anyone regards something as unclean... then for him it is unclean." Today in Christendom, we would want to press Paul for a straight answer. He would give none. He would shrug and say, "It is a matter of your conscience". I tend to think most of the Christian Testament writers would be unpopular in Christian circles today.

Paul spoke positively about freedom. Why is the Christian community so afraid of it?


Mystical Seeker said...

For some people, it is just too scary not having that security blanket of absolute truth to wrap themselves in.

Redlefty said...

In college someone accused me of being a relativist. I said, "Of course, aren't we all?"

He was very offended!

Excellent writing, Andrew.

Brook said...

I'm going to play the devil's advocate (or Evangelical's advocate, which may amount to the same thing) for a moment:

For some reason the relativist stance strikes me as somehow odd coming from a schoolteacher. How do you teach your kids anything? how do you mark anything wrong (or right for that matter)? Is there a place for saying "this is what mathemeticians believe about numbers" and "these are the rules of the English language" and "this is what scientists believe about the way things work" and "this is what historians believe happened in the past"? and if you can somehow teach these things to others without always devolving into "I don't know if this is true or not...who think 5+5=13? well, who's to say?" kinds of statements, then is there not a place for religious folks to say "as Christians, this is what we believe"? Granted, folks like Einstein and Hugh Everett III and Hawkings come along every once in a while and change many things we thought we knew about science, but does that mean you stop teaching science until they've arrived at the absolute indesputable truth? I'll grant that there is a level of uncertainty that must be allowed for (just as in science, or history for that matter), and to come to absolutist conclusions about that which requires humility of approach and openness to human error is itself at least an error of approach or understanding. But I think there is the alternate danger of rendering concepts and language itself meaningless. What do you mean by "Christ" when you use the term "clinging to Christ"? a disenbodied ghost? an idea only? someone who actually walked the earth? Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? don't know, can't know, and therefore the word is ultimately meaningless in practical terms? Is there not a place for those who claim to follow this Christ to say who they believe they are following? and if someone says "Christ is only an idea created by men", is there not a place for Christians to say "no, we believe he actually walked the earth, died, and rose again"?

I think that to say "we only know IN PART...we only see as through a glass darkly" (i.e. we understand the truth only imperfectly)is very different from saying that truth itself, absolute truth, is not there to be known.

Andrew said...

No, I think I take the centered approach you indicate. I don't want words and definitions to be meaningless, but I think absolutism causes people to stop short of depth for sake of security and simplicity.

Walter B. says that between absolutism and relativism is dialogic perspectivism - that it is in the dialogue that we get closest to the Truth, but you know at the end of the conversation that this in not settled and will have to be gone over again and again.

It is like subdividing a fraction, you always get smaller and closer to zero but mathematically you can never arrive.

I am comfortable that I will be forever fine tuning my theology and that there are always deeper layers to go to ... I think the alternative of "arrival" (in this life)is a fantasy.

I think we also have to admit that theology, like philosophy, is a "soft" science. However, even in math I can make 1+1 equal 10 if we switch to binary. In this life there are, as Spock said, always possibilities.

nickcarnes said...

I believe you are skewing a line of "Absolute Truth" and "Convictions" based on your article. Only those Christians that are guided by a religious set of rules or guidelines to live by would show the frustration and the attitude that you express in your post towards someone's rejection of their views, however this does not distract from scriptural evidence of "Absolute Truth" -

As you have put Christians that hold strong to absolute truth into a narrow box, I could do the same to those who do not embrace it, and say they really have no backbone and are not willing to stand for something, they are not willing to defend the foundations of their faith as we are told to do in Jude 1, in fact they have no foundation to defend if they wanted to; they would rather soften and blur the lines to appease everyone. After all, who wants to be the bad guy? Many church leaders are embracing this approach because they have an institution in their church to build, its not that easy when you stand firm on specific issues.

If you take away Absolute Truth, you take away some of the most foundational elements that Christianity is founded on, Creation, Salvation through Christ alone, the Works of the spirit versus the works of the flesh, marriage between a man and a woman, the sanctity of life, etc...Things that the Bible are clear on, things that are not convictions.

When you quoted Paul you were using a scripture that is in the context of convictions. Talking about food and drink. There is a big difference between convictions and minor details of life versus Absolutes of the Bible which largely make up the doctrine of Christianity.

Andrew said...

Nick - I think in Romans 14 Paul is doing more that just addressing people's views of food and drink. These were issues that were dividing churches... both locally and in a broader sense. These may be things we almost look down on because we can't see why they are worth arguing about, but to them they were pivotal. These were issues that some believe put you in, or out of, the faith.

I just submit that we in the Christian body do similar things with our own issues today... toss people out of the Faith (in our mind) because they do not hold fast to issue X.

I agree with Walter Brueggemann who said, "When serious people of good faith disagree, they've got to go back into the narratives and come at it again. One of the problems in the church is that people are not willing to do that. People have arrived at a place where they think they have got the answer."

I think many corners of the Christian Faith have become shrill with one another over points of disagreement. Rather than give some room, the "absolute truth" card is pulled and fellowship is ended.

I would say that erring on the side of some grace is not a lack of backbone, but rather humility in acknowledging that I do not have everything nailed down yet. That perhaps what I am really on is a Romans 14 issue and that my brother in the Faith who can't see things my way may still be acceptable to God even though I feel he is a heretic. :)

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