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The Relative Years

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It will not be a large surprise if our current era is one day referred to as ‘The Relative Years.’ It seems like just about every cultural issue can ultimately be reduced to a matter of morality, a matter that many firmly believe is relative. The past election, inundated with the usual political rhetoric, almost completely discarded other issues and thrust the issue of morality on to center stage. What became clear very quickly was that each party was more interested in making a proprietary claim to the entire concept of morality rather than actually taking a meaningful position on any number of the moral issues at hand.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Many who defend a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion propose that those who do not support that right simply not have one, but stay out of the way of those that do. They often say things along the lines of ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it.’ Yet, this does not adequately deal with the disagreement from either side of the opinion; it merely diverts the discussion to a matter of preference. This ‘answer’ fails to deal with the inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of abortion, thus the objection to abortion, that it amounts to the murder of an unborn life, has not really been addressed, nor truly refuted. This is what is often at the heart of the problem, that claims of preferences are confused with claims on behalf of morality.

The difference can be made plain by addressing two statements:

  1. I like discussing morality.
  2. It is wrong to deliberately deceive someone.

The first statement is certainly a statement of preference, since it describes a particular person’s (my) subjective point of view. This is not a normatively applied statement. In other words, the statement should not be construed to suggest that all people should enjoy discussing morality. However, the second statement is a moral claim. It tells us nothing about individual behavior, but addresses only the concept of deceit and whether or not it is appropriate. Even a statement such as ‘I like to deliberately deceive people’ would not be making a moral claim. It only describes the behavior of an individual rather than addressing the moral value of that behavior. In fact, the mere existence of preference claims implies an objective standard to which they preferences would relate. The right to prefer one thing over another is certainly an objectively understood right in and of itself. What then, are some objections to the view advocating objective morality?

One common objection is that moral variance from one culture to another proves that morality is relative. However, both logic and history can quickly show otherwise. Were it not for the general consensus among the allied forces that Hitler was doing something morally wrong, the United States, among others, may not have gotten involved in the second World War and put an end to the Holocaust. If this seems like less of a cultural issue and more of an abuse of one man with too much power, consider then the issue of female genital mutilation, an issue which the United Nations, among others, has clearly voiced opposition to and enacted programs to change policies concerning its practice. Even our own country has confronted its own culture and put an end to practices that are in opposition to moral standards (e.g. slavery, racial segregation). Disagreement over morality does not imply the absence of truth. Nor does a disagreement over a moral issue lead to the conclusion that the issue does not exist. If, however, disagreement were enough to support the relativism of morality, then we would not have had reason to end slavery or stop the Holocaust, nor would we have reason to bring murderers, rapists, pedophiles, or thieves to justice.

Additionally, on an individual level, the proposition that disagreement shows the non-existence of objective truth is self-defeating. I certainly do not agree with such a claim, so by its own standard, it cannot be true, nor should I be required to affirm it. One way to test a proposition like this one is to address its logical consequences. If it is true that morality is relative to people, places and times, then it would be incorrect to say that things like rape, incest, abuse and torture are always morally wrong. Yet, such a conclusion is absurd! If moral relativism is true, then the many historical heroes of our own culture, such as the likes of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for sweeping moral changes in society, would have to be judged as immoral. J. P. Moreland has said, ‘If relativism is true, an act is right if and only if it is in the society’s code; so the reformer is by definition immoral (since he adopts a set of values outside the society’s code and attempts to change that code in keeping with these values).’

Another common objection to the proposition that morality is objective rather than relative emerges out of the misunderstanding of tolerance. The proposition that objective morality does not exist, therefore all views should be tolerated is self-contradictory. If everyone should be tolerant, then tolerance is an objective standard. Yet, tolerance is being invoked on the basis of relativism. Tolerance does not mean the general acceptance of all views, but to endure error. The definition itself presupposes an objective rather than a relative standard. What relativism truly does is bind the relativist to other moral positions, rather than freeing him from any. To refer back to the issue of abortion, many a political candidate has stated, ‘I support the right to abortion though I don’t personally agree with it.’ The problem here is that the reason for the moral value of abortion has been discarded. If life begins at conception, then abortion does amount to murder- so the appropriate political stance should be toward life, rather than abortion procedure. If life does begin at conception, abortion should not be tolerated. If life does not begin until birth, then no one should have any greater problem with abortion than with contraception. The candidate that affirms the right to abortion while disagreeing with it personally has simply blown a smokescreen over his agnosticism and submitted to the moral judgment of someone else. In other words, those that choose to ‘tolerate’ another conflicting moral issue are actually agreeing with the apposing position!

Written by Christopher Butler

January 5, 2006 at 6:24 am

The Transcendence Test

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Webster defines transcendence as ‘surpassing; excelling; extraordinary,’ as well as ‘beyond the limits of possible experience; existing apart from the material universe.’ (It should be added that when the word ‘apart,’ is used, it aught to refer to the state of being reserved in purpose and separate in essence, rather than simply by external factors of space and time.) God, regardless of the theological or philosophical perspective from which one approaches Him, is understood to be implicitly transcendent, as from a philosophical level we approach him as embodying that which we cannot be- supernatural, immortal, worthy of worship, etc. Anyone seeking to know Him does so out of the innate desire to transcend our physical existence. Our conscious minds force us to consider the nature of our existence on a metaphysical level, rather than simply a matter of chance and time, while our hearts yearn for eternity in a way that is unquenchable by worldly means.One way to begin exploring the concept of God is by considering objective morality, and how it seems to be in the nature of mankind to be governed by it. For the purposes of this article, I will bypass the systematic setup for establishing the relevancy of objective morality, and assume that it is recognized and accepted (for more information see Yearning for Eternal Purpose or perhaps a future post in which I will address a specific defense of objective morality). This objective morality by nature points us to God, as a law that is such and specifically developed for humanity must come from an intelligent source. However, the laws which constitute our objective morality are given for man, not for God. God, being all that we philosophically classify him to be (eternal, transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.), would have no need of governing Himself- in fact the suggestion of a self-governing god is somewhat ridiculous. Laws are given in relation to a defined standard; in this case, the law relates to the standard of God’s very existence- his Holiness. If God is holy, or set apart from all that is not God, then only He may set the parameters for how one may be reconciled to Him. When He commands that we shall worship no other gods except Him (Ex 34:14, De 4:19, De 8:19, De 11:16, De 30:17, etc.), it is implicit in this law that He would not be bound by it- not that God would have the freedom to worship other gods while we do not, but that it would be impossible for God to worship any other gods, as there are none. Worship is reserved for that which transcends its creation; God is the apex of transcendence.

In comparison, the 'god' of pantheistic thought is considered to be in and of 'all,' therefore that god is bound in essence by that which he creates. If that is true, then the pantheistic god cannot be fully transcendent. If he is not fully transcendent, then what does it profit anyone to worship him? By the ‘transcendence test,’ pantheism fails. It cannot adequately explain a source of objective morality, though many followers of pantheism affirm the existence of such a law. In another comparison, the gods of polytheistic thought are all bound to particular dominions. One can be worshipped apart from another; one has power in areas that another does not. If there are many gods, then they must each be ultimately finite. If each was not bound to dominion, then there would be one god, rather than many. What would it profit anyone to prefer one of these gods over another, as it would ultimately boil down to a case of cosmic side-choosing? This would certainly be a decision that a mortal could not adequately make. Furthermore, it is ironic that the gods of the pantheon are depicted as squabbling amongst each other in an almost sibling-like rivalry. They are often described as fighting for dominion, even bickering over the favor of mortals! A transcendent God would have no need of gaining the favor of His people- it certainly aught to be the other way around: that man would strive to meet and be reconciled to God. In fact, the Bible reads that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23),' a statement which clearly affirms man's separateness from God.

With monotheism clearly passing the test of transcendence, the next logical question is this: Of what nature is man’s reconciliation to God in regards to transcendence? It would seem that a fully transcendent God would require a transcendent means by which His people would know Him. This immediately presents a problem, even for the Christian, for, in our understanding of the scriptures, we recognize the passage of means from the carnally sacrificial to the spiritually sacrificial. God’s initial covenant with Israel involved a system of law and atonement through which man could be reconciled to Him, though at a distance. If this were simply the case, though it may have been changed by His fiat at a later point, one might question His methods. However, God spoke time and again through the prophets of a means that He would provide that would accomplish the reconciliation that even the law could not. When Abraham obeys God and prepares his own son for a sacrifice, God halts the offering and confirms what Abraham had said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb (Gen 22:8).’ A lamb is found caught in a thicket and presented to God, but the provision spoken of by God is one that is transcendent, not simply another of the same kind. Isaiah speaks of this: 'But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken (Isa 53:5-8).' This lamb of God, the transcendent sacrifice, is spoken of by the prophets as being the only sacrifice by which man can truly be saved, and promised by God for His people. Thus, when Jesus presents himself to John the Baptist, called by God to prepare the way for Him, John instantly recognizes this truly spectacular event and exclaims, ‘behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)!’ The means of the hope of transcendence for man is in itself (an necessarily so) transcendent!

So what if we apply this ‘transcendence test’ to other religions? Judaism fails as it remains promising eternal salvation by man's effort through carnal sacrifice. Pantheism fails as it endeavors to make man himself his own sacrifice through a recurring process of paying back. Polytheism fails as it seduces man into quasi-transcendent experiences in worship of quasi-transcendent deities. But Christ Himself is the transcendent one, by whom man is reconciled to a transcendent God, in whom man has hope of transcending death, and from whom all transcendence emerges.

The Postmodern Vacuum

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‘But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

Chesterton’s quote, even decades ago, so accurately portrays the postmodern mind, forced to vacillate among disparate issues, non of which are capable of providing an adequate philosophical foundation yet many potent enough to fracture reason across the board and instill angst before essential questions can even be entertained. I might be appropriate to continue this section with a joke often invoked within a discussion such as this: What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a used car salesman? You get an offer you can’t understand! Postmodernism is a word not easily defined, yet it is certainly a contemporary ‘buzzword’ used in many different contexts; invoked frequently in the speeches of politicians, the criticisms of works of art, the discussion of higher education, and even the cue cards of television talk show hosts. Its ambiguity of meaning allows for the ubiquity of its use, and perhaps the root of the confusion stems from postmodernism’s implicit rejection of absolutes. Postmodern theory suggests that knowledge itself is contingent upon circumstances such as time, place, and social status, through which the individual creates his own knowledge. In fact, in this framework, the concept that knowledge may arise or exist from outside the individual is inherently suspect!

According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by its ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ The late literary theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida concurred, and argued that knowledge could not maintain integrity without invoking an ‘original utterance,’ the logos. The idea that man would be given or have access to the ‘original utterance’ is thus called logocentrism. Critics of postmodern thought would rightly agree and point out that without being grounded in an objective standard, postmodernism can masquerade as philosophy without having to account for the logical disparities that so clearly exist when such a system attempts to be practically applied. The Christian, regardless of his philosophical or logical capabilities in argument, should be expectedly and unabashedly logocentric. The Word of God, as preserved in the Bible is the first and last word- the source of the metanarrative from which we presume objective morality, elitism of ideas, and the convictions of the individual. This is fundamental to Christian theology and has clear and logical implications upon forming a Christian worldview. As observed by a Wikipedia author, ‘Many of these critiques attack, specifically, the perceived "abandonment of objective truth" as being the crucial unacceptable feature of the post-modern condition.’ This is absolutely the case, for there can be no compatibility between a philosophy reliant upon the reality of objective truth and a philosophy that elevates agnosticism to its objective truth (essentially, to state that truth does not exist and defend such a statement as being true).

We have all encountered postmodernism in its popular form of relativism, an attitude reflected in a phrase at this point cliché: ‘Truth is relative.’ Yet it is such a pronouncement which pulls the carpet from underneath itself! If it is so, then that must include the statement itself, thereby invalidating it. If it is not so, then such a statement is meaningless in its inability to adequately reflect reality. One who claims that truth is relative speaks into an intellectual vacuum; he can neither generate worthwhile response, nor express anything truly meaningful. This is the bankruptcy of postmodern thought, and yet Alan Bloom, in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, affirms the state of things as he writes, ‘Every professor on a university campus today can be absolutely sure of one thing: that almost every student coming in for an education is confident that truth is not absolute but relative.’

The Exclusivity of Truth

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Many begin to carve out a case against Christianity on the basis of morality, speaking of the exclusivity of Christianity as its “darker side.” This creates the implication that exclusivity is wrong, or that a preferable world view would be one that mediates among all the disparate views that exist. However, such a preference in and of itself is a moral judgment. From what basis does one make that judgment? If one makes his moral judgment from the foundation of objective morality, he must accept the consequence: that objective morality will ultimately have a point of exclusion. In addition, the sobering reality is that all religions of the world have a point of exclusion, and must also account for the same claims that are so often brought against Christianity.

So, while two major religions can both be wrong in their claim to truth, they cannot both be right if they are mutually exclusive. In other words, if Christ asserts His identity as God and His redemptive sacrifice for all mankind on the cross as the truth and only means of salvation, it cannot also be true that all is actually one, and that humanity is participating in a cyclical passage of understanding its own divine role in a pantheistic universe, as the Hindu revelation claims. It cannot also be true that Mohammed was God’s one and only chosen prophet, one who refutes the divine claim of Christ, and that the word of God is forever preserved in the words of the Koran. Neither can it be true that all faiths are compatible, as the Baha’i faith suggests, because to assert this would be to grossly distort and violate the fundamental tenets of all religions. You can see where this is going: Truth, whether only in claim or in actuality, is always exclusive. Some may try to escape this by allowing truth to always be relative, thus equally validating and affirming all claims to truth. Yet, the logical failure of this claim is manifest when one tries to account for those that claim that truth is not relative. Logic is tied to the rules of “either or,” not “both and.” As Ravi Zacharias wittily puts it, “Even in India, we look both ways before crossing the street. It is either the bus or me!”

Written by Christopher Butler

April 20, 2005 at 3:36 am