“Relativity has replaced absolute truth,” is a common Christian complaint. Yet, while we have been working very hard to maintain our worldview on absolute truth, perhaps we haven’t fully understood where relativity comes from.
Metamodern thinking cannot traffic in “absolutes” out of humility. “Absolute” is not a functioning word for a generation who is willing to admit that they don’t know everything. In modernism we thought we knew everything, or could know everything, but we’ve come full circle and the result is that no one wants to be so brazen as to make that claim anymore.
It was a notion of modernism that absolutes were discoverable and held authority. However, the affects of modernism on the globe have been catastrophic. History has proven that what we thought to be “absolute” birthed evil. The following is the personified voice of postmodernism mocking modernism – revealing its core flaws. While it is a bit crass, it drives home the point, and will eventuate in a positive conversation:
Modernity provoked Relativity
“If your truth is so universal…how come your modern, universal worldview has oppressed so many people and animals?
YOU CALL THAT ENLIGHTENMENT?
Let’s start with indigenous cultures. So when modern civilization showed up at Greenland and “civilized” the Inuits (by the hand of those pesky Danes), their culture crumbled like a house of cards. Unbelievable misery ensued and many of them became alcoholics at the very bottom of Danish “modern” society. If you go a little farther back in time, the Europeans consciously and deliberately conquered and exploited others in the name of civilization and modernity, claiming that this was the scientifically supported order of things. But even if you don’t go back to colonialism, today most indigenous and traditional cultures around the world are taking heavy hits as they face an endless onslaught of commercialization, instrumentalization, bureaucratization and social degradation. Are those just road kill on the path to the universal truth you say you found in a high school physics class?
Or how about the process of modernization itself. You said there are no science wars. But did you ever notice there are other wars going on, stemming directly from the vanity of the modern project? Look at how China and the Soviet Union modernized – millions and millions of people died. Oh, that wasn’t realmodernization? Only Western modernization is real? They did become modern countries, you know. And what about the US, if it’s so enlightened, how come its black book of human rights abuses is so thick? Those victims don’t get a say in the universal truth found in chemistry 101? Speaking of chemistry, did you know that the British Empire started using chemical dyes and then instantly collapsed the Indian indigo cloth dye market – that the Empire had created – and let millions starve to death? Oh, that wasn’t real modernity either, was it? How about the Indian traditional society, they don’t get a say on this? Do you know that the biggest and bloodiest war going on right now is in the Congo? A long-term result of some of the worst atrocities in recorded history, committed by enlightened, modern Westerners who used their oh-so-hailed rationality to force native Africans to produce cocoa and rubber instead of food so that you can enjoy that delicious fine Belgian chocolate. Have you thought about that? Oh, and where do the minerals in your Smartphone come from?
….Or how about the patients? Modern medicine is powerful, you’re right. Vaccines are good, most of the time. But the history of modern medicine is a marathon of abuses by doctors who were convinced they had objective science on their side. How much power have they not misused to lobotomize and lock up and castrate people – until political, not scientific, currents in society changed? Oh, those patients were weak and crazy. They don’t get a perspective on universal truth, of course.” – Hanzi Freinacht
The original quote is actually twice as long as what I have posted because the list just goes on and on and on! In light of this, how can we refer to anything as deserving the title, “absolute” unless it can be verified as having transparent results that elevate humanity without any blind spots, favouritism or injustice. From the world’s perspective, who would be so bold as to claim humanity is going to achieve any absolutes?
Ultimately, from a philosophical standpoint, the world is no longer interested in “objective” (or inter-subjectively verified) truths. The world is interested in results. Whatever provides the highest results gets to take the highest seat presiding over reality – it doesn’t have to be absolute, it just has to function. This is a resignation to an evolutionary view of society – The belief that we are always progressing. We are not perfect, and don’t need to be perfect. We just need to take one step at-a-time toward something better.
Without the faith that there is a personal Creator, with a loving character, who made the world and is redeeming it from its real problem: sin, can we blame secular society for arriving at these conclusions? As Christians, we should try to understand the context of this worldview, so that we can converse meaningfully with those who hold it. However, the issue of “absolutes” is obviously not something that can be entirely dispensed with – particularly when the discussion turns to morality (see post 6). Stay with me as we unpack how symbolism steps into this void.
More than one Stamp of Approval
In order to more fully understand relativity, we have to do some critical thinking about axiom. In a relativized world something that merits authority is no longer prescribed on the basis of single-faceted axiom. This means that if Christians want to stand up and speak with authority, their timeless truth has to be verifiable on a multi-faceted basis.
Think about the failures of axiom.
Absolutes in the form of mere axiom have long been proven unstable because they change and develop through new discoveries. At any given moment, humanity lives according to a limited measure of revelation. As soon as we discover something new our sense of “truth” (objective reality) changes. Science has endless examples of this, to name one –
Until the late 1990s, scientists thought that gravity must be slowing down the expansion of the universe. “Recent discoveries told us that the universe is flying apart—faster and faster,” It changed everything we ever knew about the cosmos. (article here).
Thus, axioms are true until proven wrong, and replaced with new axioms. This proves their imperfect relationship to reality.
When it comes to theological axiom & moral absolutes we are faced with a similar cultural response. In essence, do doctrines merely prescribe morals on the basis of right and wrong, or can morals be derived from a deeper (multi-faceted) relationship to reality?
The Beauty of Truth
The problem is that, as modernists, Christians approached the Bible through axiom. Modernism treated the Bible as a law book, full of useful phrases we could spout off or attach to any situation that required their authority.
Interestingly enough, Christians can take some heat out of the battle on absolute truth simply by dispensing with the word “absolute” and going back to the Biblical word unadorned: truth.
“Absolute” is a modern notion that provides a false sense of security, and even a heavy-handedness. But if we are humble and say instead, that we know Truth (the person), then we are experiencing and witnessing His example. Truth becomes our example to live by rather than our axiom to prove. This is the shift, and our starting point for engaging the world, by first meeting them where they are at.
At first pass it might sound like I’m being wishy-washy, or dismissing the notion that truth needs to be taught and adhered to. However, I’m actually pointing to our hypocrisy as Christians where we preach but don’t walk. Its easy to talk about love, but in this generation, if the church does not incarnate love, it has already passed out of the minds and hearts of the people.
The idea of “truth” being understood as a person rather than a teaching, means we require a more direct connection to our Teacher. It doesn’t change who Jesus is, it just swipes the baggage of church tradition off the table so we can begin again to radically follow Him.
In the end, the world has been rightly humbled by modernism. We meet them by being humbled by the same thing and stripping ourselves of an authority that Jesus did not sanction. Do we know Truth? Yes, in part (I Cor. 13:9-12). Do we speak Truth? Yes, according to the revelation of the Scriptures. Do we have the corner on Absolutes? Only God does. We’re the followers. Let’s slow down our pace and keep in step with those whom we are seeking to share Jesus with.
If you’re wondering: How do symbols specifically work on a multi-faceted level? Come back for Part 5 and we’ll round out the rest of this truth/symbolism dance.