Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ramblings about Relativism

This is what I get for talking about religion on my blog...

I don't mind healthy debate. I really enjoy discussing issues related to my faith, and hearing your responses on my thoughts. And I have a few more things I wanted to add to the current discussion, for which I even drew diagrams, which will be included below.

But just like eating the same thing every day gets old, so does discussing the same topic constantly. So if I seem to abruptly drop the subject and start talking about the weather again, please take no hard feelings. I'll still be thinking about it, but I will have set it to a back burner for a while until I feel like I have something to say again. Until then...

This isn't the first time I have been accused of being a relativist, and I completely understand what Earthenforge was saying when she suggested that I was verging on relativity. So, here's what I think about relativism:

When most people think of relativism, they think of the philosophy that basically states that there is no absolute truth. Truth for you is whatever your truth happens to be. Enter badly drawn diagram number one:

See how all the little blue people have their own little truth that is equally true for each of them? I don't buy this.

But just because "relativism" has the same root as "relative" and "relativity" doesn't mean that those concepts rise or fall on the validity of relativism. I might not buy into philosophical relativism, but I have no reason to doubt that E=mc² and I'm pretty sure that I still have relatives. I will come back to badly drawn diagram one momentarily, but first, let's look at badly drawn diagram number two:

See how all the little blue people are all in different locations all around one, big, universal Truth? This, I believe. The truth doesn't change, but it is relative to us in the same way that the sun goes around the earth. And of course, the sun doesn't actually go around the earth; it only looks like it does because of our perspective.

There is an old Hindu fable that was converted into a humorous little poem in the 19th century by John Godfrey Saxe. It's a cute poem about six blind men who go to "see" an elephant, and each one, having touched a different part of the elephant, imagines the elephant to be something entirely different. (Read the poem here.)

This parable is often used in support of the philosophy of relativism. The moral of the story, relativists say, is that your truth might be Christianity, but someone else's truth might be Hinduism, or Islam, or Mysticism, or Pastafarianism. They're all just parts of the same elephant, right?

I don't believe they are. But I do think the elephant analogy is apt, and I would like to claim it, in part, for Christianity. What if there were a whole bunch of other blind men who went to "see" the elephant? Sure, six of them actually touched the elephant, and came away with their varying conclusions about what the elephant looked like. But one of them thinks the elephant is fluffy, because he actually touched a rabbit. And one of them thinks the elephant is wet, because he fell into the river. And one of them thinks the elephant is squishy because he stepped in a pile of the elephant's dung. And one of them thinks the elephant is an angry, angry person, because he accidentally grabbed the zookeeper in an unwelcome manner.

This is where I give up as a philosopher, and tear my hair. How am I supposed to know who has found the real "Truth" and who has just stepped in a pile of dung? This is where I seriously contemplate deleting this entire post and talking about the weather instead.

I'm humble enough to admit that I don't have all the answers. But in the midst of all this, some things do make sense. If I was a doctor, and I had one patient who was a compulsive overeater, I would advise her to eat less. And if I had another patient who was anorexic, I would advise her to eat more. Does that make me a relativist?

One of my friends recently wrote about her conversion to Orthodox on her blog. She discusses the protestant fascination with the concept of "faith alone", and how she discovered, through reading James, that works are necessary, too. (I'm not doing her arguments justice, though, you should read it for yourself.) I appreciated what she had to say, and I think she is right, but I also think she is on the other side of the elephant from me. I grew up in constant fear that I would die in the middle of a sin and go to Hell. I always worried that I wasn't good enough, and that I wasn't a good enough Christian. I even had a Sunday School teacher tell me once that I could never be sure that I was saved, so I should pray the "sinner's prayer" every day, just in case. Can you imagine my relief when I discovered that forgiveness was FREE? That I could never do anything to earn my salvation, and that ALL of my sins were paid for, not just the ones I had committed before I prayed the sinner's prayer?

But this is where my friend and I agree: It's not enough to just "believe". (Even the demons believe in God, and shudder, James 2:19.) If I truly believe something, I will act upon it. That's the nature of true belief. So, as James explains, if we say we believe, but we don't do good works, then we don't really believe, do we? It's like a slave owner saying he believes that slavery is wrong, but refusing to free his slaves. If he REALLY believed that it was wrong, his actions would reflect his words.

Some people tend to get lazy in their faith, thinking that just being "converted" is enough, and it doesn't really have to affect their daily lives. Those people need to hear Nicki's message, get off their butts, and live what they say they believe. Others spend their lives in fear that they aren't living good enough lives (like I did), or, weigh themselves against their neighbours on an imaginary "goodness" scale and decide they are good enough on their own without being redeemed through Christ. This latter group need to hear the message of Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."

Does that make me a relativist? If it does, then the Biblical writers were relativists, too. The very next verse of Ephesians goes on to make Nicki's point, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." We are saved through faith, to do good works. Both messages are present in the Bible, and I don't want to devalue one or the other. But, going back to my badly drawn diagram number two, if I'm off to the right of the big T, and you want me to find the T, you'll have to tell me to go to the left. That same instruction, given to the little blue dude on the left of the big T, will lead him astray.

Maybe I'm a micro-relativist?


EarthenForge said...

heh heh - love the diagrams. Kinda funny how relative is such a relative word, no?

yeah, this is probably where I stop making intelligent comments and go, "now about that weather." I pretty much agree with what you said and can only stand to write about it so much. Philosophy, in some ways, is a road to insanity...

Nicole said...

"I even had a Sunday School teacher tell me once that I could never be sure that I was saved, so I should pray the "sinner's prayer" every day, just in case."

This is exactly what Orthodox Christians believe, and what we do... repent daily, if not continuously. Salvation is not in our hands, but God's, so we'd better stay in His hands as well. The point is that without self-examination and repentance, we easily stray. What better reason for St. Paul to tell us to pray without ceasing?

"Eternal Security", "salvation is a free gift", and sola fides are all recent innovations no more than 500 years old, mostly younger. For me, that is a BIG problem with them all.

Ryan Platte said...

Hey, and repentance is a very freeing thing to do. We're not called to some kind of self-flagellation, we're called to stop sinning and walk with the incarnate God, to be perfect as he is perfect.

If I sin (and I am guilty of many sins), I need to turn around, and guess who that puts me face to face with when I do that?

So repentance isn't something I should avoid, it's an opportunity I should savor to become united with God, to become godly.

Jule Ann said...

Nicki and Ryan:

I don't have a problem with repentance. I think it's a good thing to do, and we should repent continually of our sins. But I do have a problem with living in constant fear. I don't believe that God wants us to live like that, and I don't believe that he is so linear-thinking as to send us to Hell if we die in between having a lustful thought and repenting of it. And THAT is the mindset my Sunday school teacher was pushing on me when she told me to pray the sinner's prayer again. (And by the "sinner's prayer" I do not mean a general prayer of repentance, I mean the specific, evangelical concept of a prayer that pinpoints your "conversion".) It was like telling me to get baptized again - negating my membership in the family of God except for during those split seconds between repentance and another sin.

Eternal security (the idea that, once you have been "saved", nothing you do can take that away) can be a very laziness-inducing concept. Maybe it's just my Wesleyan roots, but I believe that if we've got free will to choose God, then we've got free will to reject him, too, so I don't buy into eternal security in those terms. But I don't think that means we should live in constant fear, either. We should be able to rest in God's presence, too, and not always be scurrying to wipe the slate clean.

But honestly, I understand that we are coming from very different places, and we're not really going to get each other perfectly. I know you think that you know where I'm coming from because you used to be Protestant, too, but from everything I can tell, the Orthodox church does not address my issues with Protestantism in the same way it did yours. Mostly, I have found my answers within Protestantism, and I am happy where I am. I know you're not explicitly trying to convert me, and I guess it's just because we're friends and I would like to be able to see everything the same way you do. But I'm afraid this is going to have to go into one of those "agree to disagree until we're in Heaven and it all makes sense" categories.

Nicole said...

"I don't believe that he is so linear-thinking as to send us to Hell if we die in between having a lustful thought and repenting of it."

Neither do we. What we do believe is that sins we have not confessed are held against us at the judgement, and weighed against whatever good we have done. This statement is in the category of utter heresy for many protestants, which is why I havn't had the guts to type it before now. That is, good works aren't "merely" evidence of faith, they are part and parcel to our salvation.

Sorry to sound contentious. I'm really not. :)

Jule Ann said...


I know you're not trying to be contentious, don't worry about it.

I don't think it's heretical to think that our good deeds and bad deeds are going to be weighed against us in some way. It's definitely supported by parts of Scripture. There is also a lot of talk about "treasures in Heaven" and it seems that Heaven is not just an all-or-nothing proposition. But, I could go both ways on this one. I tend to think that if we do, indeed, earn "jewels in our crowns" for good deeds, that it all evens out when we lay our crowns at Christ's feet. But that's really just a hunch, and it wouldn't shake my faith to find out that I was wrong. (Much like all of my eschatology musings and my thoughts on evolution, I'm content to have theories, but not be sure.)

Nicole said...

Okay, but what do you think is necessary to avoid being a goat when Matt 25 is fulfilled? This is something that one might want to take seriously, considering the length of eternity, right?

Christy're said...

Jule Ann--in support of not repenting constantly, Jesus taught us how to pray and told us not to pray blathering on. I think a lot of Christians use the constant repentance as a way of staying focused upon themselves instead of doing what we are called to do. I don't think God appreciates "me me me my sin my sin my sin my faith my faith my faith me me me."

We underestimate Grace and the Holy Spirit when we insist that every little sin committed, even after baptism, will earn us a ticket to hell. The Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf (per Romans). We are called to live for more than ourselves, and we can't do that if we're obsessing about ourselves, our relationship with God, etc. You can't love others as yourself if you're busy obsessing about salvation.

Rocket Surgeon, Phd said...

Well struck, Jule Ann.
You impress me.

I know how very frustrated with James Martin Luther must have been, seeing as he was emphatic that our Faith was based solely on Grace.

But Grace is a phone that never stops ringing until we answer it.
Once answered and received we then become obedient to Christ and his call to do good works.

I've tried good works and succeeded.

I've tried good works and failed.

I've brought people to Christ with my words and driven people away with the same lines.

At certain time in my life I've focused more on works.
At other times less.

Good works is a matter of obedience, not payment.

It's chicken and the egg, really.
First comes our salvation, then comes the fruit from the brances of the vine of Christ.

I'm getting spun out of orbit here...
I'll state it quickly before I get flung in the sun:

Good works has no ceiling and they have no floor.

but yes, you impress me.
Give my love and regards to your husband.

Rocket Surgeon, Phd said...

Nicole, did we go to school together?

To dismiss a notion just because it's relatively new is folly. (no pun intended. Wait, that was a lie) The early church didn't have to deal with Islam or even the bloat of Catholicism and indulgences and whatnot.
The Church has had to adapt, debate, split and so on as new poision enters the vein of truth.

Call it what you may, but really to suggest that repentence and good works are necessary for salvation is not the tone of the man from Galilee.
Salvation is entirely in our hands.

There is not one person on this spinning globe whose sins were not claimed by and taken blame for by Jesus.
What He did is done and irreversible. This then implies, I believe, that our salvation falls to our hands to hear the truth and believe it.
Blessed are those who hear the truth and keep it.

But I agree...If we are to believe we are to bear fruit. Something is off if we don't.

But lastly, I think in our mind's eye - thanks in part to Psalty and Dobson and Gospel Bill and so on - "good works" has the image of giving a homeless man a hug and a sandwhich of painting an orphanage in Honduras during spring break or of protesting down at the clinic.

"Good works" largely and Biblically, I believe, is the notion of just being obedient to the scriptures and being obedient to the truth.

All 12 of Jesus's disciples (and He too of course) were slain for doing the good work of telling the truth.

We've perhaps, be it Orthodox or Protestant, have made "good works" a little bit more earthy to make it easier in a weird sort of way.

I think all of us would agree, at least in our hearts, that it is more attractive to be a Christian by shovelling an old man's walk than to do the uncomfortable, bruising work of telling people how it is.

Abuse in today's cultural climate is never fun...

Ryan Platte said...

Uh, it's way easier for me to tell other people where to get off than it is to visit sick people or prisoners, or to volunteer to work at a soup kitchen.

And I wonder where, O rocket surgeon, you hear concepts of "payment" in what we've written about repentance? Like in the parable of the prodigal, there ain't payment going on, the father's taking back the wayward child and throwing a party.

Except that I go and become a prodigal again and we have to tell the story over again.

It's not that I'm Certainly Damned To Hell every time I gossip, it's that I'm not serving God at that point and need to repent and return home to be whole again. That sin is between me and God and needs to get out of the way. So clean it up already! What's controversial or problematic about that?!

Rocket Surgeon, Phd said...

Confession and repentence are wonderful and should be commonplace...

But I just stress they are not necessary.
"payment" was rhetoric, thanks for calling me out on that. truly.

But I just mean it in the sense that we like to think something we do as humans - on a consistent basis - affords us our salvation when it is a one time deal.
That's all. Didn't mean to offend.

Sin boldly- Martin Luther