Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Language to stop using...

1. Stop using "absolutes" as an argument. We're muddling it.

First, people don't distinguish between absolute truths and absolute rights and wrongs. For example, it could be the absolute truth that there are no rights and wrongs at all. I don't believe it, but you see how people accidentally mix the categories. One category has to do with what is true (epistemology); the other has to do with what is wrong (ethics).

2. I believe in certain absolute rights and wrongs--meaning that there are no exceptions to the rule. Love God and love neighbor--these are Christian moral absolutes to which there is no exception.

But there are obviously many Christian values that are universal, but not exceptionless. For example, Christians are to obey those in authority over them. But there are exceptions, when we must disobey those in authority over us. So the value of obeying those in authority over us, by definition, is not a moral absolute.

Christians, indeed everyone thus has a hierarchy of values, even when it comes to universal values. When a higher value comes into conflict with a lower one, it would be wrong not to make an exception.

3. This is an important point. It can be morally wrong to treat some values as absolutes. It can be morally wrong not to make an exception to a general rule. God's will is sometimes to keep a higher value and make an exception to a lower value.

This is not sinning! I get so frustrated with such slop thinking. I remember a student once concluding that sometimes it must thus be God's will for us to sin. NO!!! That's circular reasoning, where you assume the standard is absolute and so say making an exception is a sin desired by God.

NO!!! Sometimes it is God's will to make an exception and it would be a sin in that instance to treat the value as an absolute!!!

4. You can see that to pit absolutism against relativism is a fallacy of false alternative. There are other categories. The most important is the position that argues for universal right and wrong, but with exceptional cases. This position believes in right and wrong! It believes in a universal scope to right and wrong, so it is not relativist. But because of exceptions, it is not absolutist either.

The argument that it is either one or the other is slop.

5. When we used to talk of having personal convictions, we were talking about issues on which the correct Christian position is relativist on an individual level. Romans 14 is all about issues on which the correct Christian position is relativist. Do you have a conviction not to go to any movies, but you recognize that other Christians can do so with a clear conscience and not be one bit morally inferior to you? That is a completely appropriate position, and it is an example of a relativistic position on that issue.

Similar is when something is wrong for a Christian in one culture but not wrong for a Christian in another. It could be that it is wrong for an Arab Christian woman in the Middle East not to wear a veil. The meaning of many, many actions are a function of cultural context. To that extent, there will always be actions that are wrong in one place but perfectly acceptable for a Christian in another. It all has to do with the playing out of more fundamental values in a specific context.

6. Many people assume that they are following the Bible more fully if they treat its commands as absolute moral commands, but this is flat wrong. If the Bible never intended the command to be exceptionless, then you are being less faithful to it if you treat it as an absolute. It doesn't honor God or the Bible to treat its commands differently than it ever intended!

7. Finally, and this is the hardest of all, since the Bible presents itself as God's word to specific groups at specific times and places, then we take it at its word when we read its words first as contextualized, "incarnated" truths rather than treating the first meaning as timeless and absolute. When God speaks, he wants to be understood, so God spoke the Bible in the categories and languages of the first audiences of the Bible.

It is premodern or postmodern to read the words as if they were spoken directly to me today--premodern if you don't know you're changing the audience by doing so, postmodern if you do it knowingly (which I do not oppose). God uses this hermeneutic, yes. Probably it is his dominant way of using Scripture.

But when we get into disagreements and we have to open the hood to see why the engine isn't running, then we profitably look into the most likely original meanings, which were written at and to specific times and places.

8. All that is to say is that most Christian rhetoric about absolutes and relativism is a complete muddle. We should stop using it because half the time we don't know what we're talking about and the language just doesn't do what we want it to do.

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