Category Archives: Relativism - Page 2

Exclusivism that welcomes all

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:29-30

I have given a lot of thought recently to what makes Christianity unique among the religions to which it is often compared.  I think the answer hangs on the exclusive claims that Jesus Christ made about who he was and why he was on earth.  No other religious leader (of any major faith) claimed to be God.  No other religious leader promised to destroy death; followers of no other religion claim its leader’s resurrection.  So I contend that Christianity is either “better” or much worse than all other faiths.  I use the word “better” simply because Christianity makes a claim of unique truth that (if valid) supersedes all other truth claims.  That is, either Jesus was in fact God and was in fact resurrected from the dead, or he was not God and/or was not raised from the dead.  If the latter is true (in either variation), Christianity is a farce based on lies.  I accept that.  But if the former is true, it has far reaching implications. I believe the most important question a man must answer in his life is whether or not Jesus’ exclusive claims have been borne out by history (recommended reading on the historical validity of the Biblical accounts: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Richard Bauckham).

I recognize the intellectual problem presented by exclusive truth claims (such as this), particularly for thoughtful modern people.  The notion of unique, exclusive or True Truth is often perceived to be dangerous and/or obtuse and naïve.  I’d like to try to respond to those criticisms in the hopes that we can consider the nature of the Christian Truth claims and what they might mean for our lives.

Admittedly, history has demonstrated that exclusive truth claims can be dangerous.  The Crusades—designed to propagate Christianity’s unique truth claims—are not a bright spot in the history of that faith; just as the September 2001 terror attacks did not do much to mollify the world regarding the nature of Islam’s unique truth claims.  Sadly, many other horrifying examples can be cited, but misuse of truth does not negate a truth in itself—and I think it unfair to reject the thing itself before we even consider its claims. An exclusive truth claim can undoubtedly be dangerous, but it depends on the nature of the Truth it claims.

As for the obtuse and naïve nature of unique truth claims, I quite disagree with modern prevailing wisdom.  The general form of the argument against exclusive truth claims is often illustrated with a story about blind men trying to understand the full nature of an elephant they come to meet.  One feels its trunk and believes the elephant is soft and agile, perhaps snakelike.  Another man feels a leg and thinks the elephant much like a tree.  Still third man, feels a tusk and has quite a different interpretation of what the elephant is.  Each man understands a part of the elephant, but none of them has the full picture.  Such is life, the illustration suggests.  All any of us can hope to bring to the table is the unique piece of understanding we can derive from our experience, but none of us can understand the full elephant, as it were.  That is to say, yours or my unique truth claim will reflect yours or my limited understanding, but it cannot be the complete picture.  The problem with this argument (which admittedly comes in various forms) lies in the question of who is telling it.  After all, who could tell it? It can only be told by someone who sees the complete elephant.  Otherwise, how can the teller know that any individual has an incomplete picture?  In other words, the argument that no truth claim can be the full truth is itself a truth claim of being the full truth!
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Ideas are bulletproof

And the diminution of ideologues

after a hail of gunfire doesn’t stop V

Creedy: Die! Die! Why won’t you die?… Why won’t you die?
V: Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.

—Taken from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta

***

I was watching a favorite evening news/commentary program this week, when one of the most opinionated and partisan hosts on television denied the accusation of being an ideologue. It got me thinking….

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know what the term ideologue means. It occurred to me that its root must be “idea”—a word with innocuous or even positive connotation—and yet my sense is that ideologue is most often used in a pejorative context. I’ve never heard anyone claim to be one, but have heard people deny it.

A William Safire article confirmed my hunch as it recounts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation in 1847 that ideologue was “a word of contempt often in his mouth.” Safire claims the term ideologue is synonymous with “dogmatic”, “doctrinarian” and just short of “zealot”—labels virtually nobody wants ascribed to them. In 1957, the critic Clifton Felton summed it up: “An ideologue may be defined as a mad intellectual. He is not interested in ideas, but—almost the exact contrary—in one idea” (Language: The Evolution of the Ideologue, New York Times, 13 November 2005).

Safire goes on to suggest the term idealist may be construed more positively than ideologue, the former connoting a “high-minded, visionary, if somewhat impractical”—idealist coming from the root ideal, versus ideologue coming from the root idea…a “model of perfection” instead of “a concept” (ibid). Though I’m sure his history is correct, I don’t believe there’s much of a distinction in today’s town square—I think both labels are used to diminish.

It was not always so:

Before the French Revolution, the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac took an empiricist idea from John Locke that knowledge came from experience and sensations and not, as the rationalists believed, from innate ideas. Condillac’s disciple, Destutt de Tracy, was known as an idéologiste espousing idéologie after the Revolution (as quote by Safire).

So while ideologue may have originally been a label of esteem—noting the value ascribed to knowledge from experience in place of innate ideas—this would eventually reverse. Today, the most feared individual in the public square is the one who believes in innate ideas—the ideologue.

(Chorus gasps as villain enters!)

The hero of this production (life’s sociopolitical drama) is of course the free-thinking, moderate pragmatist (also very handsome), who does not kowtow to these innate ideas. Innate ideas are a collar that the hero throws off—so he can move the lines where our modern sensibilities suggest they belong, rather than letting it be determined by some archaic and esoteric idea. He is able to take inventory of what the world needs now (love, sweet love) and thus make recommendations on how to proceed. He offers hope for what we can achieve.

The hero’s idea is that an ever-evolving humanity should let human history inform its future goals and aspirations—the way we govern and set up our societies. We can correct so much of what we’ve gotten wrong.

Many of today’s heroes, for example, believe religion was the worst construct ever (while often protecting votes by paying lip service to its value). Sure religions filled a need for ancient people (the logic goes)—helping them construct an understanding of the world and maybe giving them a basis on which to organize communities and care for the disenfranchised. But look at all the war and death they have brought—hatred between nations and peoples. Plus, now we’re sophisticated enough to know they’re mystical and nice, but none can actually be true—certainly not any more than another. Clearly, any new society would want to exclude them; particulay those that make a unique claim to truth.

This type of analysis continues through all aspects of society and culture, driven both by the hero and his focus groups. For example, in our generation advanced Western states have often concluded that religion, nationalism and personal charity should be diminished. State run programs and multinationalism should replace them. The list goes on.

So with the very idea of innate ideas rejected, we move the line to a place where it suits us.

The hero’s new idea simply creates a new ideology—a new set of truths; it’s called relativism. We believe it’s freeing but we’re really just escaping from innate truths, only to bind ourselves with constructed truths. Most often, we’re trading ideas for the hope of desired results (see here); and assuming the means will justify the ends. As those desired results change, so moves the new ideology. So moves the line.

Right now, the prevailing wisdom of Western civilation is that a man should be able to do whatever makes him happy—that no one should impose his ideas on another.

I often wonder how this ideology works, because it seems to create some very difficult conundrums.

What happens when your happiness start to infringe on mine? What happens when a behavior starts to compromise social order? What happens if I still love my religion now that we’ve decided that the new order will exclude it? What if my nationalistic pride comes off as arrogance in the new (superior?) multinational world order?

And assuming we can answer these questions and implement the plan, will we like all the consequences?

At the state level, in the most constructive cases, the result of rejecting innate ideas tends to take the form of social engineering. This is the ultimate reversion to the mean, where focus groups determine allocation of resources, values, standards and laws. It strangles outliers with its fraternal embrace—saying: “Believe anything you want, except the existence innate ideas—believe what you will, as long as it maintains no claim to being uniquely correct”. If you make an absolute truth claim, you will be labeled an ideologue—and you will be demonized.

In the more tragic cases, it has resulted in oppressive fascism; but in reality only a fine line separates the two. Personal liberty and freedom diminish in both, and it’s a short jump to fascism once the will of the people is softened by its mild despot (a.k.a. The State).

Neither is a result I think we want.

But even at the moral level, I’m not sure we really accept the natural conclusions of relativism. If Nietzsche was correct in his claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations”, we are left to ponder how we can defend an Idea that we know in our hearts is right and how we can reject behavior that we know in our hearts is wrong (see Are all truth’s equal?).

On what grounds will we defend the value of human life? Many in history have drawn a line that allows for genocide to achieve some “greater end”.

How will we defend the right to personal liberty? Today, Iranians peacefully protesting a rigged election are being killed in the streets.

And on what basis can we condemn the mass murders and rapes of Darfurian civilians or the Iranian regime’s unwillingness to recognize the voice of its people?

These Sovereigns have drawn their lines as we have drawn our own. In the absence of innate ideas, I would suggest all we can do is advance our own interests. Who cares what happens to them?

…But then again, I’m an ideologue.

I understand that scares people, and admittedly not all ideologues are Good. It all depends on what that one idea is.

My idea is a Man.

He started an upside-down, inside-out Kingdom where glory comes only through service (see here). A Man who lived this out by dying to win his great victory—a victory that demonstrated the value of human life and the dignity of each person (see here). And it guaranteed the ultimate restoration and Shalom of this fallen world (see here).

Consequently, I believe what we do on earth matters, both in relation to each other and in relation to the created world. I believe in human dignity, the right to personal liberty and the obligation to defend the defenseless, to enfranchise the disenfranchised (see here). And I believe that we are not granted the privilege of ignoring any of the above in the interest of pursuing other personal or national interests.

I’m interested in lots of ideas, contrary to what Mr. Felton might have suspected, but I will not forsake the above for any other. No end is greater than what is required by this Idea.

***

By the way, I think John Locke was right, at least halfway. We should have a worldview that is informed by experience and sensation. Truth should not only be right, it should feel right (we know this in our hearts)—it should be consistent with what we see around us (see also here, here and here). But his argument does not offer logic that allows us to reject the notion of innate truth.

We’re left to ask, what if there are some ideas that are innate?

True, many are the claims of innate truth; and they are different in nature. But shouldn’t we at least understand what those claims are before rejecting even the possibility? I can tell you this; they wouldn’t go away just because we thought them inconvenient. They wouldn’t die just because we wanted them to. Ideas are bulletproof and innate ideas are eternal. An idea can still change the world.

***

Evey Hammond: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot… But what of the man? I know his name was Guy Fawkes and I know, in 1605, he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. But who was he really? What was he like? We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love… And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man… A man that made me remember the Fifth of November. A man that I will never forget.

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore.


As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true. Common men have less brains, but more sense.

—William T. Stace

The problem of good in the world (Part 2/3): good that consumes

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—Romans 1:25a

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies—Romans 8:22-24

I started this 3-part essay (here) with the contention that if the world and humankind were created by an intentional creator, it stands to reason that we can understand the nature of the creation by understanding the character of the creator.  Admittedly, I continue to presuppose that there is a knowable true Truth (discussed more here), impervious to time or location, and that this true Truth is a person—the Judeo/Christian God.

Part 1 discussed God’s nature as a Triune God who created mankind in His image, sculpted the universe to house a Garden (and more broadly, the Earth) to sustain us; and declared that both were ‘very good’.  From this we concluded that:

  1. We were designed for a relationship with God
  2. We were designed for relationships with one another
  3. The things in the world are good
  4. Culture is good

Or said another way, being created in God’s image suggests we were made first for a relationship with Him (point 1), then for relationships with one another (2) and that we also have a relationship to Creation itself (3 & 4).  We deduced from God’s nature and motives (a good God creating a universe for people He loves) that the essence of Creation reflects God’s goodness—that it’s a gift to us and therefore the things in this world are good.

But if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves, the world doesn’t always feel so good, does it?  And as I alluded to in the conclusion of Part 1 (concluding remarks have been edited), I think we’re left to ask: how can I hold my belief in the value and dignity life and still acknowledge humanity’s clearly failing (/failed?) history?   How can everything created be good (1 Timothy 4), but the whole of creation be groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8)?  And for what does it groan?

Throughout history, philosophers and religious thinkers have tried to answer these questions.  Gnosticism and Nihilism are two such attempts.

The main tenet of Gnosticism is that the human spirit is Good but that it is trapped inside a physical world of Evil—both the very body that holds it and the world in which that body resides—pushing us always to compromise our goodness.  It allows its adherents to maintain the belief in the goodness of humanity (at least in a spiritual sense) and blames evil on the physical world.  The challenge of life then is to be disciplined and master ourselves—to beat our bodies into submission of the sprit’s will (think Monty Python’s monks whacking themselves over the head as they sing in Gregorian chant).

Nihilism takes a different approach. It claims that there are no inherent values or truths in the world—that “…morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another…..(that) life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value” (Wikipedia) (ideas I refuted here and here).  Nihilism claims there is no such thing as good and evil, so there’s no riddle to answer.  Evil isn’t evil at all!—problem solved.  It’s a terrifying idea if you follow it through to its end.

I am sympathetic to the logic of Gnostics and Nihilists because I believe both philosophies are attempts at intellectual honesty in the face conflicting information and experiences.  Many who ascribe to these philosophies may not know the words Gnosticism or Nihilism but they seek to true up what they want to be true of human nature and what they see in the world.  In other words, we genuinely want to believe that human nature is good and that life has value, but we look around and see (and often experience) a world full of pain: hunger, broken relationships, man-to-man violence where we stand against each other, natural disasters where the world seems to stand against us—and even death.

Have you never looked in exasperation at how brutal a place this can be?  Have you never wondered how we are capable, at times, of being so cruel to one another?

So the logic of Gnosticism allows us to preserve the notion that the soul is good, while the logic of Nihilism allows an escape from the problem altogether.  But adherents to either must face their respective dire conclusions: the Gnostic stands against a hostile world with even his own body against him in the struggle for the spirit.  The Nihilist must stare into the abyss, recognizing the only findable absolute is that of meaninglessness—and is forced to conclude that not even the spirit within him can be deemed Good.

Both, I think fall short—they are neither true to our experience of the world nor of our instinctive sensibilities.  So how do we bridge the chasm?

I want to offer what may seem like a counter-intuitive answer: I think we’ve treasured too much the good things in the world, and in so doing have sacrificed the most sacrosanct component of ourselves—severing the relationship with God for which we were built.

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, in reflecting on the condition of humanity concluded that we were each made with a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  Idolatry is the biblical term for trying to fill that whole with something other than God, anything other than God.   And we have a lot to choose from—God has given us so many great things to enjoy!   But nothing else will fill that hole.

And since we were built in a way that our relationships to one another and to the physical world were tied intrinsically to a proper relationship to God, all of our lives are thrown out of balance when that vertical relationship is broken.  Multiply that times 6.7 billion people and you have a world that doesn’t perfectly reflect God’s goodness.

This is not good news, but it’s consistent with what we know, isn’t it?  There is much beauty and friendship and sacrificial love in the world.  There are sunsets that move us, landscapes that silence us, mountains that awe us, oceans that mesmerize us—there’s Ireland!  We’ve all known laughter and the hand of friendship.  But we’ve also known tears and loneliness.  We’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  We’ve seen wars and destruction.  We’ve mourned the deaths of loved ones.

Our experiences don’t show us a world that is evil or souls that are always good; and our instincts don’t allow us to cop out with the claim that there’s no such thing as either.  We’re not good souls fighting our evil bodies, we’re one entity of body and soul just as God is!  We’re capable of tremendous good but also of terrible evil.

And the world is full of things for us to enjoy—mountains, beaches, oceans, sunsets, marriage, sex, family, wine, money—they’re all good things from God, not evil things designed to destroy us.  But they will destroy us (and we will also destroy them!) if we worship them instead of the one who made them for us.

The world was not made for death and decay (other thoughts on this here).  It groans to be restored.  And so must we.

part 1 here. part 3 here.