November 25, 2004

A World of Absolutes

I'm a Christian, which means that I'm not supposed to like the culture that surrounds me. Most people in the church tend to say it by saying something along the lines of "be in the world, not of it." Obviously I agree with the general sentiment of this statement, that "the world" is a sinful one and we, as followers of Christ, are supposed to try to live up to Jesus' standard of thought and action.

However, this does not mean that we can't learn anything from the culture around us. I've been toying with a few ideas lately, and one of the thoughts I had (as dumb as it sounds, in the shower of all places) is that this world has its vocabulary confused. With one word in particular: relativism.

The thing about relativism is that its definition is exactly the opposite of what it seems to be actually saying; it is, in a word, a paradox. While relativists claim "you can have your truth and we can have ours (or I can have mine and everyone can have their own) and everyone will be happy!", what they really are saying is "I will live by what I perceive to be true and you can live by what you percieve to be true, just don't try to change my mind." In other words, we are living in a world of absolutes. We used to live in a world of an absolute truth, now we live in a world with lots of absolutes.

The difference? In today's postmodern all-you-can-eat society, everybody seems to have their own set of absolute guidelines - absolutely do not impinge upon my moral world, because you won't understand it. We all have things that we say to ourselves "you can do this, you cannot do this, you will not do this (and do it anyway)." In some ways, I could argue that it's always been like this, and the double standard is only now becoming erased (behaving one way in church and another outside of church); you may notice that this society is an awful lot like Rome was.

But honestly, isn't that interesting? A world of absolutes. We call it relative, but really, the truth is not relative to anything! It's absolute in everyone's own personal world. It may change from time to time, but the rules tend to stay fixed IN EACH WORLD. Our little frameworks would demand no less.

This brings me to my next nugget of insight. I've been taking a class called "Theories of Religion" and it's a doozie. It's insanely hard, namely because we have to read these books by guys who knew how to write so that nobody could understnad them. Then we have to write it down so that somebody can understand us. Hard?


I've discovered that I've learned some stuff from this class. And while that may go against a traditional Christian framework (the world can only corrupt you), I think that a lot of these guys have some good things to say! I don't think that's being a heretic, merely pointing out that God can and does inspire ideas in everybody; some of us just choose to follow him. As it turns out, you can arrive at a correct conclusion from false premises and logic. I'll give you an example:

From Wayne Proudfoot I learned that there are two ways to tell somebody that "I think you're wrong." There's the blunt way, saying "sorry, you're wrong." He calls it "descriptive reduction." Then there's the other way of saying "you're wrong." When I first heard it described, I thought that it was simply another way of saying "you're wrong" and making it sound nicer. Turns out I misjudged him. He calls this "explanatory reduction", and it works something like this: "I can see why you'd say that, but I think you're wrong and here's why." As it turns out, Most people tend to do the first kind. Why? It's easier. You don't have to say why you think somebody's wrong, that would just involve thinking, which (as quite a few liberals have shown me) is a waste of time. Explanatory reduction means that you first have to understand what a person is saying from their point of view before you gently correct them with the reasons for their fault.

I don't think Christians do this much, the same as most of the rest of the world doesn't do it at all. As followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to understand a person before we tell them they're wrong. As Paul said, "always be ready with an answer." To tell a person they're wrong, you have to know what they're REALLY saying.

I'm ashamed to say that when I read Proudfoot, I didn't try this. Now that I've finally come to understand much of his argument, I can say "sorry Wayne, you missed a few things", but I can also say "here's what you did right." If we were talking face to face, I'm sure this would make him more ready to listen to what I had to say, rather than a blatent attack on his life's work.

So next time you're having a discussion with somebody, whether or not you're a Christian, and whether or not they are, try to understand what they're saying. Don't let your own biases get in the way. See, if you're right, you've got nothing to lose by considering their point of view. But if you're wrong and they're right, then you have everything to gain. Don't reject the truth because it doesn't fit what you like to believe - accept it because it's true!

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