Absolutes Without Absolutism: True Truth
- 2004 11 Jun
Have you ever tried to debate moral principles with someone who doesn't believe they exist? If you have, you know it's an exercise in frustration. In our anything-goes society, even mentioning that there might be such a thing as a moral absolute truth is a good way to get branded intolerant, anachronistic, and a killjoy. And the more frustrated we get with this state of affairs, the more likely we are to turn the stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, our frustration can easily turn into anger, and our anger can begin to look very much like the arrogance that we're already accused of harboring.
The goal that Christians need to strive for, argues scholar Art Lindsley of the C. S. Lewis Institute, is "absolutes without absolutism." In his excellent new book, "True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World," Lindsley writes, "Just as a need to relate truth to all areas of life does not make us relativists, so believing that there are some moral absolutes does not make us absolutists. … Absolutism might be defined as being synonymous with a cluster of characteristics: arrogance, close-mindedness, intolerance, self-righteousness, bigotry, and the like." These are characteristics that many people already associate with Christianity, unfairly. And so these are the very characteristics that Christians need to work especially hard to avoid. After all, as Lindsley reminds us, the most fundamental doctrines of our faith – our fallen state and our desperate need for a Savior – are doctrines that make for humility, not pride.
But at the same time, we still need to be able to talk about absolutes. An explanation of the Christian worldview makes no sense without them. So how do we do it? Well, first remember that we can believe that there are absolutes – that is, moral truth binding on us – without being absolutists – that is, closing our minds to other propositions.
And Lindsley suggests that one of the best ways is to turn the tables on relativists. For instance, we can point out the absolutism in their own thinking. As Lindsley writes, "Relativists consistently stand guilty of the philosophical sin of making exceptions to their own absolute rules." They claim that Christianity is a religion of intolerance, that Christians have committed abuses in the name of their faith, that Christians shouldn't impose their values on others, but leave them free to choose their own value systems. But where did they get their ideas of tolerance and justice – of right and wrong in general – if they genuinely don't believe in moral absolutes? Without such ideas, how can anyone formulate a meaningful system of values?
This kind of argument was effective with as brilliant a thinker as C. S. Lewis. Many years after his conversion, he wrote of his days as an atheist: "How had I got this idea of just and unjust? … A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line."
If we're patient and persistent, it's not as hard as it might seem to make a relativist begin to see the truth about the "straight line." But we must never forget exactly who and what we're defending. Jesus was the embodiment of absolute truth, but never an absolutist. And so as Art Lindsley puts it: "The defense of the Gospel is most effective when combined with the demeanor of Christ."
Copyright (c) 2004 Prison Fellowship. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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