December 23, 2006

Living Inbetween Relativism and Fundamentalism

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:37 am

Via Melissa Rogers, an interesting article on relativism vs. fundamentalism by Peter Berger. Read the whole thing, but my abridged version of his thesis is as follows:

Contemporary culture (and by no means only in America) appears to be in the grip of two seemingly contradictory forces. One pushes the culture toward relativism, the view that there are no absolutes whatever, that moral or philosophical truth is inaccessible if not illusory. The other pushes toward a militant and uncompromising affirmation of this or that (alleged) absolute truth. There are idiomatic formulas for both relativism and what is commonly called fundamentalism: “Let us agree to disagree” as against “You just don’t get it.”

Beware of concluding too quickly that both can be legitimate components of civil discourse: Imagine the first being the response to an interlocutor who favors pedophile rape, the second uttered by someone who favors the mass murder of infidels. Rather, both formulas make civil discourse impossible, because both (albeit for opposite reasons) preclude a common and reasoned quest for moral or philosophical agreement.

But why is this such an issue in our times? Pluralism:

Through most of human history, most people lived in communities in which there was a very high degree of consensus on basic cognitive and normative assumptions. [… W]hile pluralism is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, modernity has enormously increased its scope and accelerated its impact. Today it is a global phenomenon.

[…]

There is now a veritable market of worldviews and moralities.

[…]

But pluralism also has profound consequences for individual life. As ever-wider areas of life lose their taken-for-granted norms, the individual must reflect upon and make choices among the alternatives that have become available. Indeed, modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice. […]

The net effect of this transformation can be summed up as follows: Certainty becomes much harder to achieve. […] For many people, at least at an early stage of the process, this change is experienced as a great liberation—as indeed it is. But especially after a while, it may be experienced as a burden from which one wants to be freed.

So pluralism and the resulting free market of worldviews leads to two different but related responses: moral relativism on the one extreme, or fundamentalism on the other. Berger’s solution is to reject the extremes and find someplace in the middle. In this regard, he mentions a characteristic of Protestantism:

[…] the readiness to have faith without laying claim to certainty—from the sola fide of the Lutheran Reformation to Paul Tillich’s “Protestant principle.”

There it is: doubt. Doubt occupies an important place in my religious life, because embracing doubt is what leads to faith. Unlike the moral relativists, those of us inbetween the extremes understand that we must make moral judgments. Unlike the fundamentalists, we understand that many moral questions are not black and white, but fall in the ambiguous gray zone. This isn’t to say there are no absolutes – God’s will is certainly absolute – but our ability to perceive God’s will is anything but absolute. So we make our reverent best guess, while understanding we may get it wrong.

But doubt means we have to give up the idea of certainty. It seems this is the way God wants it. God could reveal God’s self fully and indisputably, but chooses not to. It seems to me that God is far more interested that we undertake the journey rather than arrive at its ultimate destination. That’s the point of free will, which after all is a gift from God.

6 Comments

  1. …but our ability to perceive God’s will is anything but absolute.

    Unfortunately, that’s a truth that many people forget. Personally, it’s not people’s insistence on that some things are absolute — whether it be morality or truth — I tend to take issue with. It’s the often present if unspoken corollary that their particular perception and understanding of said absolutes are unquestionably 100% accurate and unnecessary of thoughtful scrutiny.

    Thanks for bringing the topic up, as well as alerting me to the existence of such an interesting article.

    Comment by Jarred — December 23, 2006 @ 1:39 pm

  2. The “free market of worldviews”, like all “free markets” is a myth.

    In many cases it is the market itself that creates the demand, and the current state of flux within Christianity is a prime example. Becuase the Religious Right has had a prominent role in American politics, the Left (the Democrats) are now in demand of ideas to combat them. And like all nearly all ‘businesses’; they are more than willing to contort the absolute Truth (the Bible) to serve their own ends.

    Of course, the Religious Right has been doing the same thing.

    Comment by Kris Weinschenker — December 24, 2006 @ 12:20 pm

  3. I received this via email from dr-wills@sbcglobal.net

    Bob:

    I know this is just a little dated, but..

    I came across your post titled “Living Inbetween Relativism and Fundamentalism”, which ended with a few of your comments.

    It appears to me that you misunderstand the central idea that defines and distinguishes relativism and fundamentalism, respectively. That idea involves the question not of the nature of truth, but the question of the very existence of truth.

    Whereas, relativism (which Berger correctly described in his original article, which you referenced) denies the existence of truth; fundamentalism, on the other hand, affirms the existence of truth. ((Beyond that, however, Berger maliciously (mis)characterized fundamentalism, in fact, radically redefining that term.))

    You call yourself a Christian. Then, you must acknowledge that there is truth; for, Christ called himself “the truth”. The Bible declares the God’s Word is Truth.

    Relativism is an outright rejection of those claims on the part of God and of Jesus Christ.

    One cannot be a relativist and a Christian. The two positions are antithetical.

    Is there, then, a so-called “middle ground” ‘Inbetween’ relativism and fundamentalism? Relativism emphatically says, no: there is not some truth, but there is no truth.

    What about fundamentalism, then? Is there a place between truth and no truth? To be sure, there are many times when it is tough even for Bible-believing fundamentalists to discern–and rightly apply–truth, in particular circumstances. Still, our ignorance or immaturity in handling the truth does not necessitate–nor does it condone–our disavowal of the existence of truth in every circumstance of life. In fact, the truth of God commands us to apply ourselves to grow in the knowledge of the truth.

    Your brief comments strongly suggest that you have uncritically bought into the lie, that Christians, for the sake of civility, so-called, must be willing to deny, at least sometimes and in some situations, that there exists relevant and unchanging truth.

    The world is perfectly willing to accept (generally) the truth forbidding murder, for example; except, when murder suits their own purposes (abortion, euthanasia, genocide, to name a few).

    If you truly are a Christian, your very identity is bound up with the Truth. It is not true that “embracing doubt is what leads to faith”. The Bible says that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word [of God]”. The Bible furthermore says, “How can they believe in whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher?”

    Faith comes not by doubt, but by truth. It is truth concerning hell, for example, that causes people to turn to God for forgiveness of sin. And what is it that makes people think that there is a God who is willing to forgive their sin? Again, it is not doubt, but truth.

    Your comments–brief as they are–go a long way to reveal a real danger that threatens your ability to be a faithful witness for the Truth (Christ), if not your identity as a Christian.

    It is a not-too-subtle lie, that there is a middle ground between denying–and embracing–truth. It is a lie which, I am quite certain, God is not O.K. with our preaching that, instead of the truth.

    David R. Wills

    Comment by Bob — February 14, 2007 @ 11:28 am

  4. My reply to David Wills:

    As I made clear, I am not a relativist, and I am a Christian. Of course
    there is truth, absolute truth. But do you really believe you
    understand perfectly absolute truth? Do you really think your
    interpretation of the meaning of Scripture is 100% correct? I don’t
    believe for a second my understanding of God’s will for us is 100%
    correct, hence the role that doubt plays in my Christian life. I submit
    myself entirely to God’s transcendence and my imperfect state as a
    sinner. This means that I can never fully understand God’s will or the
    absolute truth.

    A stark example of the difference between your theology and mine — you
    have already judged me and found me wanting as a Christian, while I
    would never presume to judge you or your Christian identity. Doubt
    leads to humility, while your certainty leads to an amazing arrogance,
    presuming to put yourself in God’s place — something that Jesus warned
    us against when he told us not to judge.

    Grace and Peace,

    Bob

    Comment by Bob — February 14, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  5. A response from David Wills:

    Bob:

    My email to you was very carefully worded. The only place I came close to making any judgment concerning you, was where I wrote that your comments “strongly suggest” you have “uncritically accepted” a particular idea, one that I thoughtfully tried to show you is erroneous–and dangerous.

    In fact, I did nowhere impugn your Christian identity. Rather, I did say that the lie of relativism is a “danger that threatens…”

    No, you did not at all make clear in your article that you are not a relativist. I probably would not have emailed you in the first place, had you done so.

    Do I perfectly understand absolute truth? In a great many instances, yes, I certainly do. Doesn’t the Word itself say, “Ye shall know the truth…”?

    Do I understand ALL truth. Of course, not. Do I in every possible circumstance of life perfectly understand and correctly act according to the truth? I seriously doubt that.

    But that is not at all to say that I therefore must accept the alternative, which is to deny that truth exists and that there is no truth that is relevant to all of life. That I don’t know ALL truth by no means implies that I don’t know ANY truth, or that what I do know is nevertheless imperfect.

    God is transcendent, in that he is greater than man. Still, (redeemed) man’s nature corresponds to God’s; while even fallen human nature retains certain attributes of God’s nature. Our ability to know and rightly apply truth is not merely a privilege given us by God, but it is our duty, concerning which we are and shall be accountable to God.

    We are not called to live in a fog of uncertainty and doubt. God said that he is “not the author of confusion”; that “the entrance of [His] word giveth light [understanding]”.

    Importantly, humility does not come from doubt, any more than faith does. Rather, humility is a fruit of the Spirit of God–who is also called the Spirit of Truth.

    Lastly, your ad-hominem remarks concerning myself I think are completely uncalled for, but that’s a matter between you and God. It is no obstacle to our discussion, as you may wish.

    David

    Comment by Bob — February 14, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  6. First, let me apologize if I was a bit out of line in my last reply — I am frequently told on this blog that I’m not a Christian, something that I take particular offense at (hence the blog’s name), so I suppose I’m a bit quick on the draw in that regard. I appreciate you engaging with me on this topic.

    There is much you say that I completely agree with in your last reply. I think our key area of disagreement is how much confidence we can have that we truly understand God’s will. I suppose this is why I’m not a fundamentalist — I continually look not just to Scripture, but also to the Holy Spirit, prayer, and reason to understand God’s will, but always understand that I only see through a glass darkly. My doubt makes me realize I must rely on God and God’s grace to show me the way — it drives me to my knees. That doesn’t mean I have no certainty regarding God’s truth, but that I’m on a walk with God and there’s much I don’t know yet.

    Grace and Peace,

    Bob

    Comment by Bob — February 14, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

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