February 28, 2010
American Christians and Moral RelativismBy Selwyn Duke
In this age of media insolvency and newsroom job cuts, I sometimes think that restaurant reviewers are doubling as religion writers. After all, both today seem to treat their subjects as matters of taste. In fact, I expect to soon open a modern newspaper's religion page and read something akin to the following:
The steeple was sufficiently impressive, although there were obvious stress cracks in the paint. As I entered the church, I was greeted by an all too obsequious usher, whose fawning attempts to please were rendered quite unwelcome by his dollar-store shoes, mismatched tie and sport coat, and noticeable dandruff. I was secondly accosted by the aroma of incense, which, although vaguely reminiscent of a potpourri, was overpowering and gratuitous. I entered a pew and found it had been finished with a dark stain wholly ill-suited to the pine of which it was constructed. My kneeler rotated easily on its hinges but emitted a perceptible squeak, and, more egregiously, its cushioning would probably be found wanting by someone suffering from patella tendonitis or another debilitating physical condition. Certainly, if your spirit is willing but your flesh weak, this may not be the church for you,
What brings this to mind is an article I stumbled across about Tiger Woods, his Buddhism, and his reaction to Brit Hume's January recommendation that he explore Christianity to remedy his woes. It was penned by David Gibson, a "religion" writer who says that he is, as I am, a convert to Catholicism. If I seem suspicious of his Catholicity -- of, in fact, his religiosity -- it's because I am. His biography states, "Gibson won the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award, the top honor for journalists covering religion in the secular press. In November he will receive the top prize for opinion writing from the American Academy of Religion." Both are quite fitting. His writing seems more secular than religious and reduces Truth to opinion.
That is to say, Gibson seems to embrace the relativism that defines our age. I have read two articles he has written on the Hume/Woods story, and in neither one does he exhibit the slightest understanding of the concept of Absolute Truth. I'll explain.
I know a man who is an orthodox Jew. He walks the walk, following all of the 613 Judaic laws he must and praying at the appointed times of the day, regardless of where he finds himself. Now, because he is authentic, he believes that his religion contains the full deposit of faith.
Of course, a corollary of this is that he believes that mine does not.
Does this bother me? Not really. In fact, while I disagree with his ultimate conclusion, I expect nothing less than his absolutism. Why sacrifice for a faith -- constraining your impulses based on its teachings -- if you think it's just a flavor of the day? Heck, if I thought religion was just a fancy name for opinion, I'd become a hedonist -- or at least a Unitarian.
In contrast, in Gibson's commentary, there is never an acknowledgment that Hume is behaving in precisely the way a true man of faith would expect a true man of faith to behave. Instead, it smacks of secularism. Gibson acts as if Hume seeks to impose a taste, as if he has had the temerity to ask someone with a distinctively different palate to adopt his favorite flavor of ice cream.
Yet this piece isn't about Hume or Woods; in fact, it's not even about Gibson. The reality is that if Gibson is the relativist he appears to be, then he simply reflects contemporary America. And the statistics are staggering. In 1994 already, a poll showed that 72 percent of Americans agreed that there is no such thing as Absolute Truth. Even more to the point here, 64 percent of born-again Christians agreed. Some sources even claim that by 2002, that number had risen among born-again church youths to 91 percent. But whatever the exact figure, that it touches the heavens is no surprise. I've long understood that moral relativism is the characteristic spiritual disease of our time (and the worst of all time). I've also long known that this portends rapid moral collapse, and then the civilizational variety by consequence. But right now I'll limit my commentary mostly to the impossible marriage between Christianity and relativism. (Non-Christians will find plenty here for them as well, however, so read on.)
Let us be blunt: It is simply not possible to espouse relativism -- which holds that right and wrong are opinion -- and be a true Christian.
Why? It's simple: Jesus did not die for our opinions. Jesus did not say that His blood was the blood of the new and everlasting covenant and that it would be shed for you and for all so that opinions may be forgiven; He did not say, "I am a way, a truth, and a life"; He did not say, "Let he who is without opinion cast the first stone"; He did not say to that dark tempter, "It is said, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,' but hey, Satan, whatever works for you."
There are many doctrinal differences among the denominations, and good people could debate them ad nauseam and still not settle every one. Yet if anything is central to Christianity, it's the belief that Truth is spelled with a capital "T" -- that it is absolute, universal, and eternal. And also central is a corollary of this belief: that there is an absolute, universal, and eternal answer to every moral question; that right and wrong are not a matter of opinion, and that they don't change from time to time and place to place (although the perception of them certainly can. Ergo, swords lopping off heads.).
In fact, understand that moral relativism does nothing less than render the foundational act of Christianity, the sacrifice on the cross, incomprehensible. Why? Simply because Jesus died for our sins, and this presupposes that sin exists. However, if what we call morality is simply opinion, then there can be no such thing as sin. For who is to say? "Hey, I have my truth, you have your truth. Don't impose your values on me!" protests the relativist. And if there is no such thing as sin, then there was no reason for Jesus to sacrifice himself. After all, what does anyone need to be forgiven for if there is no sin?
Now we come to why this piece isn't just for Christians. The concept of Absolute Truth lies at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and, in fact, philosophy itself. Why philosophy? Because, properly defined, philosophy is the search for Truth. Now, some -- including many philosophy professors -- would dispute this, but they not only are babies in philosophy, but they also have adopted the endeavor of a madman: searching while claiming there is nothing to find.
If there is no Truth and only opinion, then there are no answers to be found. But then why ask questions? It is like setting out with ship and sail in search of treasure while convinced that no treasure exists. It is like the Wright brothers having sought the secret of heavier-than-air flight while believing such a thing impossible or scientists seeking to split the atom while believing fission could only be fiction. Thus, it's no wonder that college students roll their eyes at their philosophy requirement. They enter class and hear, in essence, "Side with Aquinas and believe that Jesus is the living God and the life, or with Nietzsche and believe that God is dead and that, by extension, there is no reason to live. Believe in the Ten Commandments or, as occultist Aleister Crowley said, 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' Pick your flavor. And if you can still find a reason to rise in the morning, I'll see you in class tomorrow." Instilled with the idea that there is no treasure, students just aren't illogical enough to want to search anyway.
Of course, it's tempting to embrace religious-equivalency doctrine in a multi-religious society because it's thought that it enables us to get along. Like two little boys in a schoolyard who each agree to relinquish any claim that his daddy can beat up the other's, we make the following unwritten pact: "I won't say my faith is better than yours if you don't say your faith is better than mine. Deal?" And it does work. Only then there is not only no reason to fight about religion, there is no reason to even discuss it. There is, in fact, no reason to even adopt it. That is, unless it somehow makes you feel good. But adherence to the principle "Do whatever feels good" is a pathway to something. It's called sin.
Through his embrace of relativism, modern man has made Christianity incomprehensible. He has made philosophy incomprehensible. He has, in fact, made civilization itself incomprehensible. For if there is no right or wrong, then civilization can be no better than barbarism.
Relativism also makes the existence of religion writers incomprehensible -- and, increasingly, the writers themselves uncomprehending.
Contact Selwyn Duke.