Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Christian Myth of Absolute Truth

Growing up in the church I have found that over the years the Christian community has developed its own form of language – I call it Christianese. Now this may sound exactly like the language of the region to the casual observer but on closer inspection one finds that it at times give completely new meanings to familiar words. Now Christianese, like every other language does have its share of swearwords. Unlike regular swearwords, which are a total taboo in the church, Christianese swearwords are used often and by all. You use them to show distain for your opponents and you never want to hear them applied to yourself. There is the C word for instance – compromise. (You want to see a Christian go into a frenzy of repentance, use that one!) However one of the worst words in all of Christianese is the R word – relativism!

Now when it comes to post-modern concepts like relativism, I get why we have it. We, as a society, certainly needed to move away the old school colonial era mindset of “We are white, we are right and the rest of you barbarians better learn to do things our way”. When it comes to culture, we need relativism I think. After all, different doesn’t equal wrong. Well, sometimes it does (when it comes to scientific fact vs. esoteric superstition for instance) but that’s still no reason to be a tool about it. See, that’s the thing, while in church you may hear how “the world” is all relativistic and evil with no right or wrong, that’s a little out of touch with reality. Atheist skeptics also decry relativistic thinking, the kind that says a fruity new age “remedy” like crystal therapy is just as valid as conventional medicine since all ideas are equally valid. All ideas are most certainly NOT equally valid, not when one can be proven right and the other wrong. Funny though how Christians are more than happy to get down with relativistic thought when it comes to the origins debate – when it comes to that then suddenly all ideas are equal and schools should totallty “teach both sides”…

Of course “complexity” seems to be another Christianese swear word since simple black and white concepts make far better sermons. In fact, stark black and white seems to have become the cornerstone of the church. When Christians found some of their doctrines and ideas challenged by science and reason in recent history we missed a great opportunity to grow and expand our understanding. Instead we decided that in order to stay relevant (relevant is only a swear word when you don’t like what it implies. Kind of like “ass” in normal English) we had to be right and we had to be right all the time about everything. So then, we the Christians, closed ranks and declared that our doctrines, our culture, the Bible and our understanding of it was Absolute Truth – no room for different opinions or interpretations, that’s what the heathens do! No sir, no relativism here! If your beliefs are Christian they are right and if they are right they are absolutely right and therefore everyone else in the world is absolutely wrong.

If you have ever debated with someone who has a passing knowledge of apologetics you can bet good money that sooner or later the subject of absolute truth will make an appearance. I think it was Ravi Zacharias who first used the: "Do you believe in absolute truth? If you don't, can you be absolutely sure about that?" line and since then various excitable Christians keep that line taped to their PC's in the hope of one day using it. I think deep down they believe that when they use it on an atheist it would immediately make his/her head explode - much like using the old "Every statement I make is false" paradox was used in old Sci-Fi movies to explode evil computer intelligences. The obvious problem with this brilliant argument is of course the annoying fact that no one except the most existential of philosophers would actually argue that there is no such thing as absolute truth - and even then only through a thick haze of bong smoke. No, I think we all believe in absolute truth. It’s just that no one thinks EVERY truth is absolute. But of course if you happen to be a highly excitable Christian, you may be under the impression that nothing is supposed to be relative and therefore you believe in only absolute truths. If someone therefore differs from you on any subject whatsoever then – since good Christians are the only people to believe in absolute truth and the rest of the world are evil and relativistic – that must also imply that they utterly deny the existence of absolute truth.

But this line of reasoning has always annoyed me to no end. So then I started a survey on Facebook to collect some absolute truth. (I'll be honest, my original idea was to use the list to post a MASSIVE reply next time somebody used the "do you believe in absolute truth?" line. I still might.) By my definition, these would be things that are always true - for you, for me, for Inuits, Navaho's, Aborigines, in short, something anyone, anywhere will agree with you on because it is clearly observable and provable.

So then, here are some of the absolute truths I have come up with so far*:

  • Spam emails for penis enlargement products will always manage to find your inbox
  • No one is so bad that a dog cannot love them
  • People getting tackled out of nowhere is always funny
  • Getting hit in the privates is never funny when it happens to you
  • A statement that begins with "I'm not a racist but..." will always end in an incredibly racist statement
  • The first casualty of war is truth
  • The only thing we learn from history is that no one learns from history
  • "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering"**
  • Everybody needs to be needed
  • Guns don't kill people, people kill people
  • Isolation is a poison to the soul
  • You will never be able to please everyone
  • Tori Amos is a musical genius
  • The pen is mightier than the sword, except in an actual duel to the death
  • No human being should be allowed to own another human being
  • The more you love someone the deeper they can hurt you
  • We always hurt the ones we love, especially ourselves
  • You simply cannot trust the media for the whole story
  • Hurt people hurt people
  • You cannot help the willfully ignorant
  • Crowds bring out the worst in people - none of us is as dumb as all of us
  • Innocence lost can never be regained
  • We have stereotypes for a reason
  • Ditto for clichés
  • No matter how long you live, people will surprise you
  • There are no limits to human stupidity
  • Everybody’s equal in the glow of radiation

[Have more? Disagree with these? Let me know!]

Notice the problem yet? Things like “Jesus was both God and man” or the “Trinity is both three and one” or the “Lord is my shepherd” and all other Christian "absolute truths" have no place on this list. Now this is the point where I usually lose my more excitable, hyperactive yorkie type brethren – you say something like that they assume you mean it’s all false. Not at all. I’m not saying they are not true, I’m saying that in order to be absolute truths they need to be provable, you need hard evidence and the burning conviction in your heart does not count. See these are not scientific truths, they are mystical ones.

Now, I have been there and I have done that so I know how scary this sounds to someone who is fully convinced of the absolute truth of the Christian faith. But the thing is, it’s not scary at all, it’s exciting! Accepting this gives us a chance to grow, a chance to learn and best of all it means God still has a reason to speak to us because we don’t yet have all the answers. Being right all the time and having to have all the answers is a terrible burden and it serves no purpose. Some may think that if the Church can no longer claim absolute truth and inerrancy then it loses all the authority to lead and teach. Well, relevant as that sounds, I have to tell you – I have a sneaking suspicion the world out there already knows we are not absolutely right about absolutely everything. Aside from a handful of professional Christians I don’t think anyone is fooled by our statements. I think by now it’s pretty obvious that the world out there – you know, the one you are supposed to be reaching and impacting – sees right through this kind of hypocrisy. Don’t you think that a church that is willing to discuss, consider, change and admit faults will draw more people than it will drive away?

Making statements of absolute truth that we cannot back up with proof is not helping our case. As a skeptic, I hate any form of disconnect from hard reality - it doesn't make you relevant to ignore evidence, it makes you ignorant. As a mystic, I’m OK with not being 110% sure of everything. It’s OK to not know, it’s OK not to be sure. It doesn’t make you a doubter, it doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your life, it just makes you less of a dick. Go on, embrace the mystery!

* Originally this list started with the statement “Jessica Alba is smoking hot”. I stand by that statement as absolute truth since the undeniable truth is that she is hot. I'm not saying she is the hottest girl in all of history. I'm not saying she is the most attractive person alive right now. However, no matter what your gender, sexual orientation or species may be, it’s pretty obvious that she is hot. Bacterial life forms on asteroids will agree Jessica Alba is hot. However, since this is a temporary truth, (i.e. it will not always be true) I removed it. One day, Jessica will end up as the same pile of rotting flesh and bone as the rest of us and will only be “hot” to those with serious psychological problems.

**It may have been spoken by a fictional green midget but you only need to open a history book or turn on the news to see just how true that statement is.

1 comment:

Tania said...

We do not live a life of absolutes, I think that would be daunting. We need to be flexible, or else Life will hurt us too much. The challenge lies in being flexible without losing who you are.