The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

April 23, 2009

A Response to Walker Morrow #4

Dear Walker,

Thank you for your gracious offer of an exit strategy from this conversation. I believe conversation is important. I want to be open to having my thoughts and ideas challenged by different understandings of the world. It is vital for the well-being of our culture that people who may see the world from slightly different perspectives be able to speak to one another with mutual respect and deep listening. As long as this is what is going on in our exchanges, I am happy to continue.

Your idea of “a subjective objective truth” (see Comment to "A Response to Walker Morrow #3) is quite lovely. But it challenges people. In fact, although on the one hand you acknowledge the subjective nature of the human apprehension of truth, at the same time you run a little fearfully from your own insight.


In almost any conversation in which the reality of the “subjective” nature of our ability to grasp and express truth is honestly and humbly acknowledged, the specter of “relativism” is immediately raised. You say, “We have to grasp onto some things as absolutes, or else we could find ourselves falling into the dangerous waters of complete relativism.”

It is intriguing that you do not feel compelled to list these “some things,” we need to “grasp onto” in order to save ourselves from “the dangerous waters of complete relativism.” What are you afraid of here? And where does this fear come from? Who have you seen who has fallen “into the dangerous waters of complete relativism”? What is your list of “absolutes” that will save me from this threat? Who told you that this list is the correct list of “absolutes”? What if our lists are different? Who is going to decide whose list is really absolute?

My suspicion is that, as soon as anyone starts to list their “absolutes,” they will discover that their absolutes are in fact not quite as absolutely absolute as they thought. Then we are rather quickly enmeshed in a debate about how absolute our “absolutes” really are, or at least about how our “absolutes” should be applied in a given situation. Who gets to decide that your absolutes are in fact the absolutes that should absolutely dominate, especially if they do not seem absolute to me? And how do we know what it will look like eve if we agree to live by your list of absolutes? Might it look different to live by your absolutes in different contexts? Obviously, it is going to take some conversation to work out exactly what we mean by “absolutes.” The whole matter of establishing absolutes is extremely complex, requiring a lot of conversation and a willingness to be open and flexible. Suddenly our discussion starts to feel less absolute.

So what really does lie behind this fear? What threatening monster is being conjured when we are warned of the “dangerous waters of complete relativism”?

I get the impression that you are afraid that if you allow for the possibility that human beings may not be able to absolutely establish some agreed upon code of conduct, pretty soon we will slide into chaos.

I do not think that this “slippery slope” argument is a particularly credible line of approach. It is not immediately obvious to me that the admission that it is difficult to establish hard and fast absolutes to govern human behaviour, automatically means we abandon the human community to a chaotic morass of relativity in which anything goes.

It seems to me that when people raise the specter of relativism, the real problem is that they do not trust the human spirit. We are being offered a vision of the human condition that views human beings as victims of barely controllable forces that are bent upon destruction and evil. There seems to be a fear that we will spin wildly out of control unless careful boundaries and parameters are laid down to confine human behaviour within certain norms. I feel as if I am being told that an ax-murderer lurks deep in the innermost being of every human and we must keep vigilant guard lest the chaotic dark forces that dominate the human heart run wildly out of control.

I do not subscribe to this pessimistic, gloomy vision of what a human being is. We are not born as monsters into this world who must be rigidly controlled. (You should meet my granddaughter.) No doubt there is considerable evidence of a dark destructive streak that runs through much of the human condition. It would be foolish and naïve to assume that all human beings will always make positive life-giving choices if they are simply left to their own devices. Societies must establish agreed upon norms for the conduct of civil community and the establishment of safety and protection for the greatest number of people possible within a social unit. But these boundaries and parameters themselves are not absolutes.

When I say “Societies must establish some parameters for the conduct of civil community and the establishment of safety and protection for the greatest number of people possible,” I am suggesting that “civil community,” and the “establishment of safety and protection,” are values that should be afforded to all people. I cannot imagine that too many people would disagree with these “values.” However, if someone did suggest that civil community, safety and protection are not absolute values, it would be difficult for me to prove to such a person that my absolutes are in fact absolutely absolute.

So the real question is not are there absolutes. The real question is how do I come to know the absolutes I believe are absolute.

Ultimately, the only absolutely absolute is God. So, the real question we are dealing with here is, how does one know God.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” This sounds as if it is saying, if we stop our feverish activity, we will learn something about reality. We will learn that there is a God; we will discover the Absolute. But the English translation here can be misleading. The Hebrew in Psalm 46:10 consists of three words, “Rapha yada elohim” - “Be still; know God.” To “know” here does not mean “to know about;” it means “to enter into deep intimate communion with.” This verse is inviting us into a deep spiritual relationship.

This is reinforced by a possible alternative translation of “rapaha.” “Rapha” is traditionally translated “be still.” It could also be translated as “sink down.” So the psalmist is inviting us to open to a deep place within ourselves in which we will discover our connection to the Absolute as a living reality at the heart of our being. We are not being directed to uncover a list of rules and regulations that will tell us understand the absolute principles governing life. We are not being told to acknowledge some intellectual formulation about the nature of life. We are being invited into a living relationship with an active Reality we call God.

We do not enter into relationship with God by identifying a series of absolutes and then conforming our lives and the lives of others to the values we have determined are absolute. We know God by being in loving relationship. I John says, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7,8) There are no rules and no limits to love. Love requires opening to the depths of our being and discovering the vulnerability and wisdom that reside within.

When Jesus was asked to sum up the whole teaching of the Hebrew tradition in which he grew up, he did not give a theology lecture; he did not make a list of “absolutes.” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…. and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:29,30)

It is important that we do not confuse this “love” with sentimentality. It is not loving for me to let my granddaughter run out into a busy street. But eventually she must grow up to the point where she knows within herself what is good for her and what is harmful. For my granddaughter to mature means she must come to the point in her life where she is able to choose freely that which is best for her own becoming and for the well-being of all forms of creation. As she learns to open deeply to the presence of God’s Spirit within her life, she will know truth and the truth will set her free. (John 8:32)

This is why Jesus tells his followers,

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you…. the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything.” (John 14:16,17,26) Jesus seems to be willing to risk everything on the presence of the Spirit in our lives.

What does this mean? If “the Father” will “teach you everything,” is Jesus risking complete relativism? Why does Jesus feel no need to make a list?

Faith means trusting that the inner reality of God’s Spirit dwelling in my life is bringing me to truth. But, equally, faith means that I must trust the work of God’s Spirit at work in your life leading you to truth. If you can honestly say, from the depths of your being, that God has shown you that eating only chocolate ice-cream for three meals a day is absolutely the best way to a healthy, trim body, I must trust that you believe this is true. And, as long as you are not harming someone else by forcing chocolate ice-cream upon them, and do not demand that I be your chocolate ice-cream supplier, I must leave you free to act upon your convictions until you discover that they were in error. At the same time, as you stuff your face with chocolate ice-cream, I will continue to ask you to open to the voice of truth within, asking yourself, “Is chocolate ice-cream really leading me to know God more fully and deeply? Is chocolate ice-cream the path to love?”

Love is always the true human goal and the means of achieving that goal. I cannot agree that there is ever a point where “self-preservation becomes more important than love.” Jesus called his followers to self-sacrifice, self-giving, self-death, not “self-preservation.” To be a follower of Christ is to “take up” our cross “daily” and follow him. (Luke 9:23) When we discover within ourselves the absolute nature of love, we come to know that there is nothing we need to preserve, nothing we need to fear or protect. We discover the presence of God within our lives and know an immense security that resides in knowing the fullness of God’s presence. This is why love is the absolute; everything else is just application.


Jaqueline said...

"I get the impression that you are afraid that if you allow for the possibility that human beings may not be able to absolutely establish some agreed upon code of conduct, pretty soon we will slide into chaos."

I have been wondering if this fear is not one of the mistaken roads to what we call evil. I think at heart every society that has participated in some form of destruction of others has this fear somewhere.That unless everyone believes and acts according to what we understand is the way of life then chaos will take over and we will be destroyed, by those very "others" that live and think differently to us.

The obvious example that comes to mind of course is Nazi Germany: What chaos did this society rise up from and never want to return to again? What attention to detail and order drove the destruction of everything and every one that was not "absolute" and pure?

The need to remove any obstacle to an appropriate way of life becomes a necessity. It is not hatred of others that is at heart or a desire to be right, it is fear of chaos and death. It is that fear that prevents us from recognising the other as ourselves.

In fact there really is no other and that idea is a construct simply of our own making.The deepest irony here that in wanting to make all things one we have actually divided the blood and bone of humanity.Ironic that in forgetting that it is the spirit that travels between us far more deeply than blood, blood needed to be shed to remind us.Ironic that a God that says "The Lord your God is one God" decides to make life possible through diversity. In fact without it there is not life, just wonder the worlds' greatest attempt at making things one has inherited forever the image of millions of dead as it's memorial.

It could be that relativism is more deeply true than we fear.
What if the porousness of this concept leads us into apprehending God more fully because in relativism no box is big enough to contain the divine. But here I stop before it is implied relativism is the absolute. I think it worth saying however that this idea is telling us truth about life that we would be unwise to ignore.

Perhaps we need to take seriously that it is God that is one, not us. And even then how does this Christian God seem to want to be known?-as trinity and as one who comes to dwell within the chaos and mess and variety of it all.

This seems to be a God that is terribly committed to bringing us all home with all of our diversity and a God that can allow me to let go of the need to put my trust in any absolute other than the divine's love for all of us.

Thank you very much for your post Christopher,your ideas make me think of put your hand in it and it gives way but nothing is as strong as water to shape a stone.

best regards

Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher,

I'm glad to continue for as long as you are. I just thought I would check to see that both sides of this debate are fully willing to keep participating; and aren't simply feeling obligated to do so. And all that I knew was that I wasn't.

In response to relativism, I think you hit upon an insight: I am indeed afraid of the non-existence of absolutes, because I personally feel that the non-existence of absolutes would lead to a handicapping of logic. For logic depends on a truth, upon which can be built other truths in either reasonable or factual assumptions. Without the underlying truth, then logic is meaningless - pure speculation, and nothing which can be depended upon.

But at the same time, I cannot help but acknowledge that our way of viewing the world is entirely subjective. We do not have the ability to be objective, even if we wished to be so, which I feel some of us don't wish at all. And so if I wish to hold to both beliefs, I must find some way of reconciling them: namely the hope and belief that there are actually absolutes in existence - even if we are not totally aware of their existence.

You're right in that it is hard to be sure of what is and is not an absolute. I would point toward good and evil as both being absolutes - not in the sense of 'this action is bad and this action is good', because I think much of that is still in question, but in the sense of our common understanding that there are actions - which we may not agree upon - that feel right, and some wrong. Whether a particular action is right or wrong may be in question, but the existence of 'right' and 'wrong' isn't. Furthermore, existence and non-existence are both absolutes ( and by absolute I mean that we can be sure that they are there - truths ), due to their being on the opposite sides of the spectrum of existence and non-existence. If only in theory. Existence, of course, can be questioned - what if this is not real, and what if we do not exist? But if something does not exist, then its very non-existence would seem to be a truth. And so I feel that that is yet another absolute, even though we may not be totally certain of its exact parameters and terms.

And if one is to look at relativism itself, it needs the existence of absolutes in order to exist. If everything is relative as opposed to absolute - all principles, theories, facts, and observations - then the very existence of relativism becomes a principle - or a form of truth or absolute.

But you're right - it is very hard to nail down an absolute. Indeed, considering our subjective viewpoint, we may never be able to be entirely certain. And I do not want to go about saying that this or that is an absolute - because I could well be wrong. But that does not mean that absolutes do not exist - simply that we are not aware of them, or that I am not aware of them. We both acknowledge the depth of our inability to understand the greater picture - perhaps that greater picture includes some great absolute. I may never know. And even if I become aware of an absolute, that does not mean that I will be able to understand its depth, and its paramaters. But I would much rather believe that absolutes exist and be wrong, than believe that they don't and be wrong about that instead.

I think one of the reasons for my wishing to believe in the existence of absolutes is because I just want a place to start exploring. I simply wish to take one belief, and see how far it goes, and if I am wrong then I will have to re-evaluate the path which I have taken. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong, and maybe I'll never know, but I would much rather start with a declarative belief and go from there, than be doubtful about where it is that I'm starting from to begin with. It's not so much chaos that I am afraid of, so much as confusion.
Although in both cases, order is the common factor. And you're right: I do want to apply order to the world around me. Maybe that's an effort doomed to failure, but it is one which I would much rather try than the alternative. Mainly because it just makes it much easier to think in calm surroundings than in turbulent ones.

And in regards to human behavior, I agree to an extent that values cannot be imposed. They can be suggested, and they can be implored, but for the most part they cannot be forced upon people - or at least morally. There are some exceptions - behavior that is dangerous not only to the person in question, but to myself as well, or to others, should be curtailed - even if the person whose actions are being curtailed does not understand that what they are doing is dangerous. But in most cases, if people wish to do something - like eating nothing but chocolate ice cream - then I will be there if they want somebody to talk to about it, and I can try to convince them that they are wrong, but I cannot force them to change their behavior.

And when I say that some people's actions should be curtailed, I do not mean that a rigid set of rules and codes should be enforced upon everybody for 'the greater good'. I tend to think that much of what we call 'civilized' and 'decent' behavior has been developed over time within society by thousands and millions of interactions between people. We find that this action is good, and this one is condemned, and this one becomes acceptable over time, not because of a rigid set of hard and fast rules, but because of a sort of evolution in our culture and society. I think many of the things which we call 'bad' are simply things which the society and culture has evolved to condemn - sort of like peer pressure, only in a good way. That doesn't mean that the society is always right - but it's a good place to start.

And finally, in response to surrendering to and trusting God to bring us to truth - you may well be right. In fact, it's entirely possible that all efforts of ours to find the truth on our own are doomed to failure. But my main thought is that I think we must be cautious that this surrendering does not turn into apathy - that in our willingness to trust God to reveal the truth to us, we do not give up on the possibility of our having to work at it, too. And also, I think we must be cautious that we do not confuse the method with the worker. Perhaps God is using a form of relativism, His living reality, and to surender to that living reality is to find the truth. But at the same time I feel we must be careful that we do not portray the relativism in and of itself as the truth. God may be using it, but it is simply a method, and one which may apply to Him alone - perhaps we are too limited in our own understanding of the truth to use relativism without falling prey to it - becoming too uncertain of anything to ever act. I'm not saying that that is what you are saying; just that I think we must be cautious when seeking to translate the work of a being such as God. If He is truly using a form of relativism to reveal the truth to us, that does not mean that we are capable of using it well in our own decisions and actions. For that matter, it doesn't even mean that we are capable of translating the means or the method of how God could reveal the truth to us.

In short, we don't know what's going on - we can't see the big picture. Perhaps surrender to a higher power is truly the way to go, but I would rather continue trying in my vain efforts to capture a part of that larger picture than not attempt it altogether, in the face of my own smallness in the greater scheme of things. I don't know - does that make sense?