A very recent post had a moral bent, and the ensuing comment-discussion quickly observed that morals are based on values and eventually focussed on the question of what (if anything) underlies our values. In other words, are values grounded ‘on’ anything? Or, are they as free and changing as the various expressions of human cognition/thought? In this post, I want to try to explore this question further. Just one thing before I begin:
A request for discussion of this post:
I do not wish for this exploration and discussion to be hi-jacked by various statements (of any kind) about what ‘the Bible says’, and what that supposedly means. Do I think that the Bible has something to say in this exploration and discussion? Most certainly. But many assertions (both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ones – if I may put it like that) can derail the conversation before it leaves the station. My desire is not to have this conversation in the usual verse-quoting and scoffing fashion, but rather as thinking human beings – with whatever anthropology you bring to the table. And for Christian readers, it is my conviction (I believe C.S. Lewis once said something similar?) that if we can’t discuss our beliefs in non-religious –or non-‘bible’– language, then we either don’t actually believe those things or we are totally out of touch with the world. Now. Let’s think together about this question.
First, we should observe that a conversation about absolute or universal principles, values and/or morals is really a conversation about what is called ‘truth’. So we’ll use that word here. Secondly, the discussion is often characterised by what I see to be a false choice between two views (including views that are closer to one or the other of these two):
- The 1st view we will call ‘absolutism‘. This is the idea not only that there is absolute truth, but that we can and/or do fully know it.
- The 2nd view we will call ‘relativism‘. This is the idea not only that there is no absolute truth, but that we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t know it even if there were.
I suggest we have this false choice because (even though our beliefs may vary) our thinking and discussing is still largely shaped by Greek philosophical categories. More specifically, modern Westerners still think in terms of a dualist split between matter and spirit. Matter being the stuff that is less than important, and spirit being that which is most important. This directly affects how we still think about ‘truth.’ Popular culture still thinks of truth as unchanging, static, pure, ‘up there’, and needing to be ‘accessed’ and/or ‘brought down’ to us. [See diagram: I made it, isn’t it neat? :) ]
What happens, then, is that the ‘absolutists’ not only claim total (or at least partial) ‘access’ to this body of ‘truth’, but also claim to know precisely how it is to be worked out in the context of daily life or a specific situation. Now, the ‘relativist’ would say that this ‘truth’ is not absolute, but that it changes depending on the context. Some relativists (many atheists?) would even say quite simply that there no ‘up there’ kind of ‘truth’, and that we’ve got nothing but ‘context’, which we respond to in various ways, resulting in various mental constructs which are held to be ‘truth’ for that person or culture.
Why do we have this false choice? Why this spectrum between absolutists and relativists with no seeming middle ground? Could there be a third way of seeing how ‘Truth’ works? If so, how might we understand (or even imagine?) such a thing?
A more ‘down to earth’ Truth?
Indeed, the English word ‘truth’ can represent various ideas for various people, and even one person might use it to mean slightly different things at times. Often, it’s used in a kind of verifying way, with things that can in principle be verified: “Is it true that Dad is coming home early tonight?” Other times it’s used for inquiry into less verifiable things: “Is it true that Macintosh computers are more sleek and stylish than PC’s?” Other times the usage is to gain information that might be ‘hidden’ for various reasons: from “Did you eat the last slice of pie? Go on, tell me the truth!” to “Where were you last night? Tell me the truth!”
The interesting thing about all of these usages is this: They have nothing at ALL to do with an ‘up there’ kind of truth. Instead of having to do with floating principles in the sky, all these usages have to do with real situations – real life, the real world. So, in case you need me to say it clearer, truth ain’t ‘up there’! So, at least concerning the existence of an ‘up there’ kind of truth, I am in agreement with many relativists.
But, I am not a moral relativist, nor do I believe that truth (wherever it is ‘located’ or whatever shape it is, etc.) is relative. So what does my picture of truth look like? Well, I don’t plan on trying to ‘describe’ an idea as huge as ‘truth’ with a few sentences… that would be silly. But I do want to present one way of which I think truth can be ‘known’.
Now, my use of the word ‘known’ warrants an entirely separate discussion about epistemology, but suffice it to say that I’m not talking about ‘knowing the truth’ like one knows that 2+2=4. Rather, I’m talking about something much like ‘knowing’ you’ve just said either something entirely inappropriate which you wish you could take back or something entirely appropriate which simply had to be said at exactly that moment…
Truth Transcending Tensions?
When I picture truth, I think of Love. What a shame that the word ‘Love’ can mean mere feelings, as the phrases ‘falling in love‘ or ‘I don’t love you anymore‘ or ‘I love creamy Jif peanut butter‘ would suggest. But the attitude, mentality or disposition of selfless, patient, tolerant, kind Love remains.
I discussed this a while back in another post, but I’ll summarise here. Love resides in what might be called the ‘tension’ between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Tom Wright (who is drawing on the thought of Bernard Lonergan) puts it this way: “the point about love – the epistemology which love generates – is that love both affirms the other-ness of the object [objectivity] while remaining in deep, rich and close subjective [subjectivity] relationship to it. Love transcends the objective-subjective divide.”
I lov… um… well, I fully agree with that. :) Love transcends more than the objective-subjective divide, however. Life is just cram packed full of tensions which Love transcends. Male-female; Order-Chaos; Logic-Emotion and more.
Just before closing this post, I want to say one more intentionally paradoxical thing about Love. I want to suggest that Love is (as the title of this post suggests) both the most foreign and the most familiar thing to us.
On one hand, it is familiar; we know what it looks like. We’ve seen it – if but for a passing moment. In living rooms, at coffee tables, through tears – both of joy and pain. Strangely, we know what Love looks like as much from its absence as from its fleeting presence. Like a beautiful garden that has been ‘let go’ and is now over-run with weeds and tall, unkempt grass, we ‘know’ what it’s like to see Love fade away – just out of reach, just around the corner.
On the other hand, it is foreign – totally other. Hundreds of beds in a clothing factory providing a few hours of rest for hundreds of human bodies which will awaken the next day to produce thousands of garments underneath florescent light to be shipped across a body of water for other human bodies to purchase at ‘everyday low prices’ in various large retail buildings in other countries, underneath all-too-similar florescent light. Love is a pipe dream. A silly notion. All that matters here are dollars, cents, profit margins and stock dividends.
Yes, I am suggesting a contradiction. We know exactly what Love is, and yet we have no idea what Love is.
(I look forward to rationalising about such a wishy-washy thing!)