Monday, February 16, 2009

"Nihilism With a Happy Face"

Book Review: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air
By Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl (Baker Books, 2007)

Philosophers Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl have written a primer on relativism which explains what it is, offers arguments against it and describes some of its effects on education and public policy (public moral issues). In the end they convincingly unmask relativism for what it is: not a form of polite tolerance but a form of nihilism (the conviction that life has no identifiable purpose or meaning) with a "happy face" painted on it. While some may laud relativism as our pathway to a more "tolerant" culture, its effect on people is finally to produce a tolerance based on complete moral indifference. Relativism is the ultimate moral and spiritual poison: not only does it dull the conscience but it also renders people unable to reason to moral conclusions for the simple reason that for it there are no moral conclusions.
After discussion various forms of relativism, Beckwith and Koukl go on to offer seven arguments against relativism. One argument that is particularly significant is that moral relativists really can not engage in moral argument. If all moral standards are relative or subjective, then it is finally impossible to debate or discuss any moral issue since the premise of debate and discussion is that some standard of truth exists and can be attained. The consistent moral relativist can not really critique another moral position (on what grounds could this be done?), undergo moral improvement (measured by what standard?) or make judgments. What might a world of consistent moral relativism look like? It is not hard to imagine: "It would be a world in which nothing is wrong--nothing is considered evil or good, nothing worthy of praise or blame. It would be a world in which justice and fairness are meaningless concepts, in which there would be no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement, no moral discourse. And it would be a world in which there is no tolerance."
But, as the authors point out, there are few if any consistent moral relativists. Usually, the moral relativist deploys relativism against another's position to assert his or her own. For example, there is the central canon of multiculturalism, the idea that all moral judgments are simply the articulation of a cultural perspective and, therefore, must all be valued so as to promote "diversity". Promoting cultural diversity may be a worthy goal but it does not take much analysis to notice that this canon is a self-refuting claim. The claim that all moral judgments are the articulation of a certain cultural perspective is a claim that aspires to universal validity so that if it is true then the central claim of multicultural ideology self-negates--there are universally valid truths.
In practice, then, moral relativism is a selectively deployed skepticism. When used in support of unlimited abortion rights or same gender marriage, relativism can make it appear that what we have is a choice between people who simply want people to be able to "choose for themselves" and people who want to "impose their (usually religious) values on other people" and who are, therefore, "intolerant". The fact that the so-called relativist is really promoting a philosophical position which might be called "radically individualist utilitarianism" is thereby hidden (largely because it is the commonly held philosophical assumption of the day). Both the relativist and the opponent of unrestricted abortion and same gender marriage both hold philosophical positions, the difference between the two is that the position of the former is more amenable to current degraded notions of freedom than that of the latter. In the final analysis Beckwith and Koukl are correct to conclude that relativism is not really a moral system at all but a kind of anti-morality.
In the end, if we embrace relativism we will arrive at a certain kind of freedom, a freedom which will involve the liberty to do and to think what the relativists dictate. When no objective standards exist, as C.S. Lewis observed, then the final arbiter of all moral questions will be power. It may be power exercised by democratic institutions or power exercised by the mob (as in revolutionary France) or power exercised by a totalitarian state (as in North Korea) but the final arbiter will be power. When this is true, then we will not have arrived at freedom at all but at the abolition of man.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The New Solution to the Problem of Sin: Pretend That It Does Not Exist

Book Review: See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism
By Harry Lee Poe (Kregel Publications, 2004)

In this book Harry Lee Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University, offers a meditation on the nature of sin and the ways in which we ignore it--or attempt to ignore it. He begins by identifying what he considers to be the main reasons for our denial of sin or our attempt to make sin seem to be much less of a problem.
First there is naturalism. In a naturalistic world, a world in which physical laws explain everything and such things as purpose and value are simply human constructs (most likely the products of evolution), it becomes unnecessary and even impossible to speak of sin or evil. In a completely naturalistic worldview, we have not the problem of sin but the problem of beauty: How to account for the existence of altruism, art, music, philosophy and morality? Naturalistic explanations of these things tend to reduce them to surface froth on an otherwise bleak and meaningless world.
Then there is relativism. For Poe, relativism is the result of a confusion; it results when we are unable to distinguish between the fact that all people seek some kind of good but simply make different judgments about what this good is. The relativist sees the differing judgments and draws the (incorrect) conclusion that no objective good exists. Today, relativism usually appears in the costume of pragmatism with the insistence that questions of truth finally do not matter so long as there can be agreement on practical aims. For Poe, a good deal of relativism/pragmatism is simply rationalized hedonism: forget about some grand purpose for human life; we should simply agree to enjoy ourselves and not get too much in each other's way.
While these two things have certainly diminished our sense of sin, there is a third factor which may be the most damaging: Christian legalism. With legalism, sin becomes a mere breach of a law or social norm. With legalism comes its twin, moralism. Moralism is the notion that all that Christianity really involves is my own effort to "clean up my act" with the understanding that if I try hard enough I can do this on my own. Inevitably, legalism and moralism lead to self-righteousness (understood in the strict sense) in that I am the judge of when my act is sufficiently "clean" and I am the one who does the cleaning. Missing here completely is the biblical notion of sin as a breach in our relationship with God, a breach which plunges us into an abyss from which we can not extract ourselves.
Poe emphasizes one of the basic aspects of Christian anthropology, the fact that human beings were made in the image of God. What does this mean? Fundamentally, it means that we were created by God with the capacity to enter into a relationship with him and that entering into this relationship is the very purpose of our existence. Moralism says that the purpose of my life is to be a "nice person" (whatever that means--it may be an intentionally vague phrase); Christianity says that the purpose of my life is to enter into communion with a the holy God and to reflect something of his glory. It is important to note, as Poe does, that in Romans 3:23 Paul characterizes the essence of sin not as the doing of naughty deeds but as falling short "of the glory of God". On the Christian understanding of things, our purpose is not merely to "live a moral life" but to be "conformed to the image" of Christ (Romans 8:29). This is a purpose of a higher order.
For Poe, we need to see sin not in terms of moral lapses but in a far more profound way: "Made in the image of God, we aspire to act autonomously. We aspire to act like God. We will be our own gods. We make ourselves the ultimate standard of behavior so that what we do is the right thing." The uncomfortable truth is that moralism and legalism are actually forms of sin. Sin is not simply child molesters, terrorists or criminals; sin can appear in the most respectable of guises and we can be lulled into complacency by the thought that while we may not be saints ourselves, we are certainly better than the child molester, the terrorist and the criminal. Perhaps. But even so we are still far short of the glory we were meant to display.
One of the great values of this book is Poe's account of that from which we have fallen. It is not merely that we have made a few moral mistakes, possibly causing some hurt along the way. The real tragedy of sin is not simply that our moral standards have suffered but that we have fallen from God, God who is the Good, the True and the Beautiful. While we may settle for a relatively decent life (sometimes), what we have fallen short of is the only thing that can finally fulfill us by giving us what we truly desire (not merely what we happen to want): Goodness, Truth and Beauty. As sinners our desires are deformed and so we find ourselves in a (sometimes unconscious) search for these things in places and things that can not yield them. Life under sin can be a desperate search in which we take refuge in power, money, sex, material possessions or status inflicting upon ourselves a self-induced blindness and perversion.
Naturalism, relativism and legalism can never come to grips with the reality of sin because they finally can not come to terms with the reality of God. That reality is such that "God is so beautiful that we cannot stand to behold him in our present state. In order to experience God fully, we have to be changed by his Holy Spirit. This is part of the idea of salvation: that we are born again, that we are renewed, that we are transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can, in fact, behold him."
The consequence of sin is not merely that we have faulty moral and spiritual lives and not merely that we do damage to ourselves and others. The truly tragic consequence of sin is that it prevents us from doing that which we truly long to do: to behold the beauty of God.

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