Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why Reject Absolutism?

I received some strong comments regarding my posting about relativism, so I feel the need to address that issue further--but from the opposite side. What I wrote on September 11 stands. But in addition to my rejecting relativism, I need to make it clear that I also reject absolutism.

In my book "Fed Up with Fundamentalism" (FUF) I spoke out rather strongly about absolutism--and those words stand, too. "Arrogance and Certainty" is a section in "The Problem with Fundamentalism," the fourth chapter in FUF. I wrote (and still believe): "If people are absolutely certain that they are correct in their most basic beliefs and that those who disagree with them are completely wrong, these people are usually seen as being arrogant as well as intolerant" (p. 89). Some who read what I wrote in "Why Reject Relativism?" may have concluded that I am arrogant and intolerant.

But I also said this in FUF: "Just as most, if not all, fundamentalists do, I affirm the concept of absolute truth, and I firmly believe that Jesus is 'the truth' and 'the way' to Absolute Truth, which is found in the triune God. But this must be recognized as a belief to be affirmed, elucidated, and witnessed to, not as a 'fact' that makes it possible for me to be 'judge and jury' for all opposing viewpoints" (p. 91).

In other words--and perhaps I should have said this more clearly in FUF--I reject absolutism as well as relativism. (In fact, I reject most "isms" and basically agree with whomever said that all isms are contrary to the Gospel.) I condemn all of the atrocities, such as against indigenous people, that have been done by those who were absolutists--although I think that those atrocities were committed primarily because of power, greed, and selfishness rather than because of some philosophical (or theological) position.

Still, absolutism can be used to justify aggression and oppression of others--and people with power have done so through the centuries. But I do not and will not condone violence, including any suppression or violation of religious freedom, and I resolutely reject any type of absolutism that fosters violence, oppresses people, or denies the religious freedom of individuals or groups.

But, as I wrote before, I reject relativism also—and that rejection is partly because of the logical contradiction of any declaration that relativism is true. I agree with Dr. Braaten, who wrote in an e-mail, "I like the statement, 'There are no absolutes, and that is absolutely true.'" On a deeper level, I reject relativism partly because of its link to religious pluralism, which tends to oppose and criticize Christian missionary work overseas--and I will no doubt write about that matter before long.


  1. You concluded your second post on relativism by saying, "I reject relativism partly because of its link to religious pluralism, which tends to oppose and criticize Christian missionary work overseas..."

    Perhaps that's the statement you most need to explain. I suspected myself that your simultaneous (absolute!) affirmation of Jesus (the Christ) as the "truth" and the "way" to the Absolute Truth found in the Triune God, and your disaffirmation of absolutism, (oh what paradoxes we Christians spawn...)grew from both a kind of sweeping epistemological eclecticism and some very pragmatic and deeply held commitments growing from personal experiences. Both are useful in maintaining a personal worldview.

    They may serve more to conceal truth at a social and public level though. Eclectics--and I consider myself such a one--search far and wide and discover truths that get them through the day. But the truths they find also create some extraordinary contradictions, too. Eclectics find it difficult to blend their personal store of truths into systematic systems of truth that can be scrutinized at a public level. And I can understand that; often, we are driven to search for meaningful truths, because our experiences don't line up with the socially available systems of knowledge that we have inherited and studied. What else can we do? On the one hand we know the excitement the archaeologist feels when he or she begins to uncover a small section of a tell and hypothesizes about the potential connections to other parts of the tell even though they still lay buried. On the other hand, publishing those limited finds, incomplete as they must remain oftentimes, is quite another matter.

    Now, back to your statement about Christian missionary work overseas; isn't the real question not one of a Christian presence in non-Christian cultures, but one of what those Christians do in those cultures? It's not even a question of whether Jesus is the way, but rather what way Jesus is. If the way that is modeled and taught by missionaries to Muslims, say, is one that requires Muslims to become Christians, I could not be convinced that that is Jesus' way. If on the other hand the way that is taught and modeled to Muslims is one of self-sacrifice for the sake of truth and justice--that's different. The problem is Christians have so long practiced the former in lieu of the latter, the opportunities to practice the latter in ways that previous missionaries had are drying up--thankfully. It may be time to find new ways to practice the true way of Jesus.

    I would like to hear you talk more about this point you've made (that I have quoted above). I suspect that it generates a lot of the emotion that stands behind your somewhat paradoxical public-private affirmations.

  2. MPH is the most faithful reader of and commenter on my blog postings, and I appreciate greatly his many thoughtful and dialogical remarks—and none more than this one, for it spurs me to continue writing about a subject that is close to my heart, world missions. It also gives me the opportunity to say that Chapter Nine of “The Limits of Liberalism” (my forthcoming book) is about this very subject. (Within the next week I will be completing my second draft of that chapter, the next to last one.)

    The above-mentioned chapter deals with the important issue MPH raises in the next to last paragraph of his comments above, so I will not say more about that here. But I will address briefly his comments about paradoxical affirmations and “epistemological eclecticism.” First, I want it to be known that I do not consider what I have said about relativism/absolutism to be paradoxical in any way. (And, generally, I don’t have trouble with paradoxes when they are necessary and well grounded. My doctoral dissertation was “The Meaning of Paradox,” and I affirmed the logical possibility of paradoxical statements.)

    If I had said I believe in both relativism and absolutism, that would have been paradoxical. Since I said I reject both relativism and absolutism, I don’t see how that is paradoxical. There is, I believe—and I plan to write more on this in the near future—a legitimate position between the extremes of relativism and absolutism, and that is the position I want to hold and advocate. (In short, that position is that there is absolute Truth but all attempts to know that truth are relative; this might be referred to as metaphysical “absolutism” and epistemological “relativism.”) I have yet to come up with a good “label” for the position between relativism and absolutism. (Does anyone have a suggestion?)

    In passing, let me point out that the statement “There are no absolutes—and that statement is absolute true”) is not just paradoxical, it is a logical contradiction.

    [To be continued.]

  3. What about epistemological eclecticism? True, we are all eclectics to a certain extent—but the “charge” made by MPH, as I understand it, is that my public and private affirmations don’t quite hang together. That may be true, but I don’t think so. My epistemological understanding was greatly influenced by the brilliant Hungarian scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi—and I will write more about him in the future, and probably more than once. My stance on religious pluralism was both influenced by and expressed by the revered British missionary/missiologist Lessie Newbigin. (In many ways I held much the same position when I read his book "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society," 1989, for the first time.) Newbigin’s (and my) stance toward pluralism is rooted in Polanyi’s emphasis on “personal knowledge.” Thus, I see my position on relativism/pluralism and missions to be of “one piece of cloth” rather than eclectic.

    Well, this is enough for now, for there will be more opportunity to dialogue about this important matter in the weeks ahead.