December 17, 2013
Q. If I remember my one history course I had in college a long time ago accurately for a long time Christianity was the exclusive religion in a society where everyone was expected to be a Christian. Now we live in an age of pluralism. Once upon a time absolutism made sense, but I’m not so sure absolutes work in our world today. Since Christianity makes some absolute claims (such as Jesus being the only way to God), does this create a problem? I struggle with this personally because I’m pretty much a relativist in almost everything, but I recall the Christianity of my childhood being pretty absolutistic.
As most who read this each week have undoubtedly come to realize, I’m not going to answer that question—but I am going to discuss it.
As a retired history professor, I’ll first briefly gravitate to the comment about absolutism in the past and relativism in the present. During the first three centuries of Christianity relativity was the cultural context of the Mediterranean world. Indeed, had it been otherwise this sect of Judaism could never have risen to predominance so quickly. Ironically, that predominance eventually replaced relativism with an absolutism unrivaled in the ancient world (with more than a little help—indeed some coercion—from a growing empire). That led to a long period (4th century through 19th century) of Eurocentric Christianity and the close alliance between Church and state. We now live in a world that in important aspects has more in common with earliest Christianity than with the Christianity of our most recent ancestors.
How and why that long period of Christian dominance in the West collapsed is something I spent most of my career investigating, but the question was not really about history.
Let me begin the more serious discussion by saying that I do believe there are absolutes, and that from the perspective of God those absolutes are clear and precise. But our human perspective is far more limited, and I for one am less than absolutely certain about what God’s absolutes are. While our sacred writings are inspired by God, they nevertheless have human authors and interpreters, thus we are less than absolutely and precisely certain how much is the result of God’s inspiration and how much is the result of the author’s bias. Thus, my own perspective—and that of every other human being—is at least a bit relative.
“Relative.” We need to sit and contemplate that word a bit. Most of us have heard about Einstein’s theory of relativity and know that it is a principle of modern physics, but it has implications far beyond the physical sciences. The brief statement of this famous axiom is that all measurements of various quantities are relative to the velocities of observers and their positioning in space, time and dilate (the elapsed time more than one measurement made by the observer). Translating this more broadly, we each see things from a perspective. I would add to time, space and dilate the following: socio-economic position, culture, sub-culture, individual experience, and individual predilections.
My guess is that most of us would prefer a world of absolutes to one of endless relativity, but for each of us the preference would be for those absolutes that conform to our own specific socio-economic position, culture, sub-culture, individual experience, and individual predilections. The probability of any one of us living in a totalitarian society tailor-made to our individual specification is infinitesimal. Thus, many of us have settled on a relativism that allows for latitude in attitudes, opinions and beliefs. We have a similar, but significantly more restrictive, range tolerated behavior.
There are some Christian groups that are adamantly opposed to this latitude. Ironically, people like me who insist upon such latitude often find ourselves defending the rights of our absolutist brothers and sisters; however, that advocacy is limited to the realm of expression and does not extend to attempts to compel others to conform to their behavioral expectations. Thus, for people like me, pluralism and relativism have (again ironically) become absolute values—in some cases verging on the absolute values.
When I find myself tending toward that sort of absolute relativism I take a deep breath and remember two words: “Gospel” and “love.” These are two absolutes that give us a good deal of freedom to explore those areas that are relative because the human reality is so variegated, but allows us to be centered in the two principles that Jesus kept pointing to as the absolutes that are the unifying foundation of our faith and the source of our new life of reconciliation.
That is far too short an answer, but it hopefully will be useful as you begin to think your way through this endlessly fascinating and important problem.
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