Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Poison of Subjectivism

It was just two years ago when I learned about moral relativism. Of course I had experienced some of the modern/ post-modern tension before, but I never knew it had a name. In the last few years, I have grown quite aware of the modern/ post-modern cultural shift that is permeating every part of our society... including the Church. Talking about religion with non-believers, I often heard come up: "If that's what works for you, that's great." "Whatever is true for you is fine." Do you realize how difficult it is talking to people about a concrete belief system when they seem to find your moral convictions relative? I got so frustrated dancing around in circles in religious conversations. U of M's religious is a "do not judge" type of secular humanism. You could think or do whatever you wanted... you could have a 6 foot vagina in your hallway, have a pot-smoking festival, or run a race naked (yes, Ann Arbor does have those things). The only thing you couldn't think is that you couldn't do whatever you wanted, that there is definable, objective truth. Ironic.

Then I started getting into some literature by people from the emerging church, which sent me into a theological crisis. The past few years, I've digested articles, podcasts, and books on the emerging church, and over and over I see the church struggling with postmodernity. The church is clinging on to objective truth claims, but a certain wing of the church is going, "Let's not be so fast to say we have the truth. Jesus did say not to judge. Who are we to say that what people do is wrong? Let's just love like Jesus loved and follow Him."

Interesting that C.S. Lewis wrote about subjectivism before this whole emerging church debate even came up. With this idea, logic becomes "merely subjective," as "there is no reason for supposing that it yields truth." Lewis truthfully said judgments began to be treated as "sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another." To counter this, Lewis turned to Hitler: is what Hitler did wrong? Um, yeah. If nothing can be judged, however, and morality is all relative, then who is to say that the Holocaust is wrong? Why is there an instinct to "preserve our species" at all?

Lewis wrote two propositions concerning this:
1. The human mind can't invent new values
2. Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it, and promoting it

Then Lewis went into the problems with moral subjectivism in his typical rational socratic method. I agree with everything Lewis argued here, and I think our society seriously needs to hear his message. I don't want to go into any more details because this part of the essay is not really what struck me.

I found it most interesting that Lewis then turned to the dangers of subjectivism in the church. One thing I'd like to note is that Lewis referenced "Flatlanders" at one point and I got really excited. I had never heard the theory of Flatland until Rob Bell presented it in his new tour, Everything is Spiritual. I can't believe no one brings Flatland up anymore! Anyway... I love these points,

"A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity... has nothing to divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin."

"The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy... But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his creaiton."

Lewis obviously goes into tremendous detail with the implications of subjective ideas, and it is easy to get lost into details. Essentially, however, Lewis thought that post-modernism, subjectivism, moral relativism, etc. were VERY dangerous. He said these things in the essay:

"Unless we return to the crude and nursery like belief in objective values, we perish."

"Out of this apparently innocent idea (subjectivism) comes the disease that will certain end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its 'ideology' as men choose their clothes."

You rarely find people who are so-so about the modernism/ post-modernism shift in society. People are either extremely angry toward these "post-modern relativists" or they're extremely angry toward this "judgmental narrow-mindedness." Part of the emerging church trend in our culture is the reaction against the excessively "modern" evangelical Christianity. By that I mean that Christians can get too caught up in truth propositions and forget that Jesus did say that we shouldn't be pulling specks out of people's eyes when there was a log in our's. The church struggles with judgment. Oh, I'll admit, I struggle with judgment. When is it okay to call someone out? When is it okay to speak up? Will we come across as arrogant? Judgmental? Are Christians too judgmental? I think there is a definite answer to that: yes. The emerging church tries to go back to the "do not judge" mindset, but unfortunately that can lead to an "anything goes" subjectivism. Where is the balance?

I come back to Francis Shaeffer's theory of "speaking the truth in love." As I heard Shane Claiborne say once, you can have all the right Christian viewpoints, but you can still be mean. Who wants to listen to that? As Christians, we must emphasize objectivity integrated with love. It's not either or: either we accept everyone and make sin permissable OR we judge all sin we see because they need to hear it. Why is it not both? We should be uncompromising on truth but also loving- I would show you to Shaeffer on more of this subject.

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