The Absolute on Absolutes

One of the biggest paradoxes in Western culture is the prevailing perception of truth. It seems as though the notion of absolute truth has fallen by the wayside — except when it must be adhered to at all costs.

Let me explain. We have two very popular epistemological assumptions, one broad and one narrow, which must be believed in order to be a good citizen of the twenty-first century. The problem is their direct opposition to each other — a fact which is entirely ignored. On the one side is scientism/empiricism. To be true, something must be capable of being verified under direct observation à la the guidelines of scientific inquiry. Of course, the core tenet of scientism fails its own test (the statement “all things must be empirically verifiable to be true” is not itself empirically verifiable and therefore can’t be true in its own system), but that hasn’t stopped anyone from promoting it as a foundational paradigm. On the other side, and in direct conflict, is moral relativism. What is right for you may not be good in the eyes of someone else, and so you can’t enforce your own moral code anywhere but on your own personal behaviors. I say this conflicts with scientism because without core moral absolutes, morals degrade entirely; they cannot be verified in any way and therefore cannot exist. (Consider, for example, if we cannot agree on what precisely constitutes murder, theft, or rape; if we can’t match the activity to an absolute definition, then it could be argued the activity doesn’t exist according to empiricism. All that exists are uncategorized behaviors devoid of moral content.) Yet we’re bound by social convention to believe they do exist, just not in the same way for everyone. At best we’re left with some ephemeral type of something called “morality”; at worst, we hold a rather large contradiction in our heads because of social mandate.

I realize that probably comes across as splitting hairs or a weird reductionistic stance to some people, so let me broaden the second element from moral relativism to a relativism of all truth. Again, truth must be verifiable to be true; science says things are in fact verifiable; therefore, truth, absolute truth, must exist in the scientistic schema.

But we don’t want to believe that, schema or no. People say that what is true for you may or may not be true for me or anyone else. Absolute truth doesn’t exist — but when people tell me that, I typically laugh and say they’ve just made an absolute truth claim, so they clearly believe absolute truth does exist. (Seriously: if stating your position requires you to contradict it, you might want to get a new position.) We don’t want to believe that, though. Absolute truth creates moral absolutes, or least opens the door for them.

And that’s uncomfortable.

Consider the far-ranging results and implications of the absence of absolute truth. Science, and therefore scientism, fails. Everything based on the acquisition and manipulation of data fails: science, mathematics, history, anthropology, all of it. Even the arts break down once we remove necessary definitions for things such as “blue,” “Middle C,” and “square.” If those no longer exist, what about language? Architecture? Love? Yes, that’s a bit on the reductio ad absurdum side, but other things aren’t.

Scientific fact: humans come with twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell, each chromosome comprised of genes linked together as either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. (Exceptions are made for gametes and those suffering from rare genetic disorders.) They can only combine in one of two ways, resulting in an individual being limited to one of two biological sexes, an XX chromosome pairing for females and an XY pairing for males (again, extremely rare cases of things like hermaphroditism exist, but I’m talking about the other 99% of the time). These are absolute truths. There is no room in this truth for things such as transgenderism, non-binary genders/sexes, otherkin, etc. There are a number of people putting themselves in wheelchairs, casts, braces, etc. who are medically fine; they simply identify as “transabled,” a disabled person in a healthy body. Adults declare themselves to be children and wear diapers, or, worse, turn themselves into animals simply for sexual identity and gratification. These sorts of things are only permissible if we abandon absolute truths (here offered by biology) in favor of relativism. If we are free to reject what is real for what we want to be real, if we accept a sort of functional subjective metaphysical antirealism, we lose our very selves in the process. In short, self-destruction is the final end of relativism gone rampant.

The logical question to follow this isn’t “is truth absolute,” but, rather, “who determines what is absolute.” Here again our contemporaries offer up science and empiricism as the mediators of the absolute — but remember my earlier caveats. Some people believe such truths are obvious, available freely to anyone with ears to hear, but that leads to a subjective form of truth. After all, we might disagree on a few things due to differences in our sensory perceptions, and then who gets to break the tie? An individual is insufficient to establish absolutes, and those who try actually represent the guiding force of relativism (namely, my word against yours). A related warning: if we do know absolute truths to be absolute, we cannot let them make us arrogant, contemptuous, cruel, or callous. (This is why so many dislike Christians: we speak the truth, but we fail to do so in love, instead offering condemnation for those who fail to live up to our versions of the absolutes.)

What is the source of absolute truth and moral absolutes? To the theist, it is deity; to the Christian specifically, it’s the Triune God. We see this repeatedly in Scripture:

  • Psalm 33:4, “for the word of the LORD is right and true”
  • Psalm 31:5/Isaiah 65:16, “the God of truth”
  • John 1:14, “full of grace and truth”
  • John 14:16, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
  • John 16:13, “he will guide you into all truth”
  • John 17:17, “your word is truth”
  • 1 Timothy 3:15, “pillar and foundation of the truth” [referring to the Church]

As Christians, we accept the authority of the Bible, and thus we see God as the sole source of absolute truth. If anything is true, it is of God; if anything is false, it is from Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

With an external, objective source of moral and truth absolutes, we can make legitimate truth claims. Blue is blue because it possesses the qualities of blueness, not because I personally think it a bit different shade from green. Right becomes right, wrong becomes wrong. Biological fact remains as immutable as all fact is, and deviations can be diagnosed so the one suffering can be helped. We call things what they actually are, not what we wish them to be.

For our wishes are subjective, relative. But truth, like the One behind it, is absolute.

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F.A.Q.: A Reasonable, Rational Faith (Part I)

It comes as a surprise to no one that our contemporary culture is one of rationalism. The only acceptable way to know something, it seems, is through rational thought based on empirical evidence. Ever since the dawn of the Enlightenment, empiricism and positivism have been on the rise, and people of faith have discovered a need to express the truths of religion in logical, scientific ways.

The problem with this, of course, is that not everything capable of being known is empirically verifiable or quantifiable. For example, what’s the unit to use when measuring love? Do I love my neighbor with a force of 2h/s (hearts per second) and chocolate chip cookies with only 0.25h/s? Why, exactly, are things beautiful, and why is that beauty capable of being both subjective and universal? Can neurochemistry adequately explain why music makes us weep, even when it has no words? The religion of science — scientism — is a short-sighted worldview. Regardless, our fellow humans, while explaining that science will eventually be capable of explaining everything even though it can’t right now, demand religion answer all of those questions immediately.

Luckily for us, Christianity in particular (and theism in general) is a perfectly logical, coherent faith.

For two thousand years, Christian thinkers have systematically built logical explanations for the tenets of our faith. No stone has been left unturned; we can use scientific and philosophical principles to explain why God exists, how the Resurrection is perfectly reasonable, why miracles can occur, and a myriad of other things. In order to explain how we can know God exists, however, we need to establish what kind of God we’re talking about.

The God of theism (the God or Allah of Abrahamic religions) is said to have necessary divine attributes: He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and wholly good. (We call these the “omnis,” and philosophers of religion also drop omnipresent to call God an O-O-G God — omniscient, omnipotent, and good). Anything less wouldn’t be the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who loves His creation enough to send His son to die for its redemption. It certainly wouldn’t be the God revealed to us in the pages of the Bible.

But it’s at this early, definitional stage people begin objecting to God. I think we’ve all heard the various “gotcha!” paradoxes in some form used as a way to claim an O-O-G God is logically indefensible. “Can God make a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? Because since He can do everything, it means He can, but if He can, it means He can’t do something, so that means He can’t do everything.” Such a paradox is based upon a false definition of omnipotence. Omnipotence is the ability to do anything which is logically possible to do. So no, God can’t make a rock so big He can’t lift it, because that’s an illogical statement. Neither, as a professor was fond of saying, can God make a married bachelor. The two categories (married and unmarried) are mutually exclusive. God cannot violate the rules of logic. (Or, if He can and does, He probably doesn’t want us to know because it would blow our human minds. Oh, and I’ll handle miracles and other “violations” of natural law later.) The same goes for omniscience. Can God know everything? Answers range from “God knows everything and every possibility” to “God can only know what was, is, and will be.” Some people even say God limits His own omniscience in deference to our free will so that He doesn’t know the future — but I’m not buying that one. Regardless, it’s perfectly logical to have an O-O-G God, as long as we actually define what that means in logical terms.

(The problem of evil — or how God is wholly good when evil still exists — will also be treated later on.)

Now. We know who God is. How can we prove He exists? Christians have long maintained a variety of logical proofs for the existence of God. The most obvious ones are what’s known as the teleological and cosmological arguments. The teleological argument gets its name from the Greek word “telos,” meaning purpose or end. It holds that the evidence we see around us points to a world which exists for a reason. It exhibits logical laws and evidence of design with a purpose in mind. This points back to the one who purposed or designed it, and therefore needs a designer. We call this designer God. A form of the teleological argument is called the fine-tuning argument: conditions for life are so extremely narrow, it’s as if someone turned all the knobs of the universe just right to make it exist. The existence of the universe is so incredibly improbable that it couldn’t have arisen unless someone fine-tuned the conditions necessary for it to spring into being. That someone is God.

The cosmological argument goes something like this: the universe exists; everything which exists has an origin; the universe therefore has an origin; its origin is God. God is the Prime Mover, the First Cause, the Creator. Everything which exists and moves has a point of origination, and God is the one who brought it into being.

There are, of course, objections to both of these. Evolutionary theory states that the universe didn’t change itself to meet the conditions of life, but rather life fine-tuned itself to the rest of the universe. It simply meets the conditions around it. Then there’s the classic question: if God made everything, who made God? A reasonable, logical faith can answer both of these. The rules governing evolution and the rest of the universe (things like natural selection, Planck’s Constant, the exact value of the weak nuclear force, etc.) could have been completely arbitrary. They may be totally difference in an alternate universe; who knows? But that these rules exist points to someone who established the rules. Life is still free to make itself according to these rules via evolutionary processes.

So who made God? Well, no one. Scripture tells us God was, is, and ever shall be. There was never a time when God was not. In philosophy, we call such a thing a necessary being. Its existence is necessary for all other things to exist (those other things being labeled contingent beings, as their existence is contingent upon the existence of something else). That gives us a fixed endpoint in the “who made what” game. If you don’t have an endpoint, something uncreated, it turns into infinite regress of x made y which made z which made a which made b . . . you get the picture. So if you remove a necessary being, you get infinite regress. You add one, you get the universe. Even atheists have a necessary being in their worldview: the universe itself. All matter being contained in the singularity before the Big Bang, well, banged, is necessary. The arrangement of that matter into contingent beings follows. But wait! Physics is now saying a total vacuum — literally nothing — will spontaneously create something given quantum gravity. Ok. So gravity becomes the necessary being (er, maybe necessary force). Either way, both religions — theism and atheism — agree that something had to exist without creation in order for everything to exist. Christians simply state this necessary, uncreated thing to be God. The same logical system is used in both, and so Christianity is only irrational at this stage if atheism is.

There are other proofs for God’s existence, of course. The moral argument says morality exists because it reflects the character of God. Without God, no morals. The argument has strengths and weaknesses. After all, some would say morals are evolutionary byproducts for the survival of the species. (I mean, it’s hard to survive if murder becomes a value.) And yet cultures exist where deception, murder, cannibalism, etc. are perfectly normal, even expected — and are immediately discarded upon an encounter with the living God. A final argument is called the ontological argument (i.e., the “being” argument). Saint Anselm of Canterbury came up with this one. Imagine, if you will, a perfect being. Something perfect in every respect to every degree. This is called God. Now, isn’t it more perfect for it to actually exist than for it not to? Therefore, it exists. God exists. It’s a bit of a logic game, to be sure, and people have written counterarguments and defenses for over a millennium now. Nevertheless, it shows another means of utilizing logic to prove the existence of God.

Hopefully it’s clear by now that Christians don’t just toss logic and reason to the wayside when we practice our faith. We’re not some cult which relies only upon mass delusion. We don’t say, for example, “God exists because I believe He exists.” I mean, that’s horrible reasoning, if reasoning it be. (Think of Russell’s celestial teapot: I choose to believe a teapot exists orbiting earth beyond the moon, and since I believe it, it really exists. Clearly belief does not equal reality.) Instead we practice a faith which uses reason, logic, and rationality to show truth, the truth of the existence of a logical, rational, O-O-G God. Even though pure reason is insufficient to truly know everything in our universe, it can still be used to know the God who knows us.

We should never mock those who are not of faith because they prefer to rely on their intellect. Our witness is horribly eroded if we call evolutionists stupid, or monkeys, or liars. We fail to show the love of God when we tell people God wants them to dumb down, to toss their intelligence to the wayside in the service of faith. Christians must reclaim the use of logic and rationality in our faith lives and in our public witnesses, evangelism, and apologetics. We must take a phrase from Isaiah 1:18 and make it our mantra: “Come now, and let us reason together.”