A professor at New York University recently raised a question for his history class. Were the students willing to pass an absolute judgment upon the Nazi regime in its creation of the holocaust? A majority refused, indicating that this was hard to do without knowing the social and political circumstances of that era.
Some years ago a professor at the University of Chicago called the tune on this trend. “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the student’s reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them. These are things you don’t think about. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best thing they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. “What right,” they ask, “do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others.”
William Kilpatrick, at Boston College sums the story up: “Even if we ourselves continue to keep certain laws and customs, we are increasingly unwilling to impose standards on others. ‘That’s where they’re coming from,’ or ‘That’s where they’re at,’ we say, as though this were the ultimate justification for any and all behavior.”
In summary, the one absolute that rules in contemporary society is this: you shall not pass judgment upon the opinions or conduct of others. They have a right to their beliefs and way of life.
How did we get this way? How did we come to believe that deeply held convictions are merely matters of individual choice and taste? Morals and religion matters of personal preference? A question of cultural background and individual needs rather than a question of truth.
There are probably a couple of reasons. First, I suspect, is the sheer force of American pluralism. Like few other nations, we are a people of literally hundreds of religious persuasions, cultural backgrounds and historical experiences. We once spoke of America as the great melting pot, but the reality is, it didn’t melt —make us one people in any deep fundamental sense. And with immigration we are becoming even more multicultural.
And if we want to live together with a modicum of civil peace and harmony, there must be respect for diversity, willingness to tolerate difference. Suggesting that others are in any way wrong creates distance, conflict, hard feelings right at a time where there is already too much ill feeling and uncertainty in our world. Why create more problems by being dogmatic, judgmental?
Now the result has not been a decline of interest in religion. We remain, along with India, the most religious country in the world. 96 percent of all Americans believe in God and pray regularly. The vast majority believe that the Bible is somehow the Word of God. Most people still think that religion is probably a good thing. But that is not the problem. The problem is how to maintain the passion of a healthy life-giving faith in the midst of pluralism. So many do not experience their faith any longer as a public truth to be asserted and defended in the marketplace or political arena or classroom. As a result, religion has been reduced to the private and personal. You invent or select your own religion, I will mine, and for the sake of social harmony we won’t talk about it. Anyway, who knows for certain about the truth in these matters. When was the last time you heard a public figure argue for a course of action by appeal to his faith in God.
It is no wonder that this scene of moral and religious mushiness spawns some pretty harsh fundamentalisms. Many will always choose dogma over chaos. Forced certainty is always easier to live with than moral confusion. Better to be sure about everything than sure about nothing.
But if fundamentalism is for many of us no answer to the confusion descending upon us, neither is good natured liberal toleration of diversity under the banner of cultural relativism. We need to recover the courage of our convictions, the conviction that we do in fact know something of the truth, we are determined to try to live by it, and we believe that others without conviction would be better off if they joined us. We need to say that graciously, but we need to say it. I believe the way a lot of people are believing and living is wrong, wrong because it is destructive of their lives, wrong because it is contrary to the will of God, which is the same thing.
We ought to believe in tolerance not because truth is a matter of opinion, but because God hasn’t yet turned his role over to us n spite of what some authoritarian figures seem to think. We have no right to stand in ultimate judgment upon any other human being. We are not yet perfect ourselves. Life is not over yet. But tolerance does not mean easy acceptance of whatever is believed, whatever is lived. It means civility even though we may fundamentally disagree. But how do we know the truth, cries the modern? Science says the only truth you can know is that which you can test, prove, establish by experiment, and then it sets out to know nothing of any ultimate importance. For how can you replicate experiments about the matters that really count. The very methodology which science uses so fruitfully with atoms and genes excludes the very possibility of knowing about the nature of God and the meaning of life.
But there is another way of knowing that is worthy of the word. It is the way of faith lived out. Paul writes to Timothy, “I know in whom I have trusted. I am persuaded.” Jesus says to those who ask whether he is speaking the truth, “He who does the will of my Father in heaven will know whether I speak the truth.”
Now this is a very different way of approaching the question of truth than that of the scientist. The scientific era began with the enthronement of doubt as a way to knowing. The scientist doubts in order to know. But there is an older way of knowing just as legitimate and powerful. And that is the knowing that comes of faith lived out.
Let me give you a homely example. Imagine a young intellectual comes to me with a problem (this is not entirely fictitious). I ask him, “Well, tell me about it. What is your problem?” He says, “Well, there is these two girls I have been going with, and I think I would like to marry one of them, but at the same time I have my doubts about which is really the right one..” He shows me reams of paper. “I have analyzed the situation. Here is a study of all the pros and cons of our relationships. I have had them take several personality profile tests. I have had them interviewed by a psychiatrist. I have done everything scientifically possible to know for sure which way to go, but I haven’t been able to prove up the case one way or the other. I am really in a quandary. How will I ever really know.”
So what is my answer to the young man? The only way you will ever discover which is the right one is by making a leap of faith and marrying one of them. Then you will know. But the poor fellow sits there paralyzed by his doubt, and misses out on the real life of marriage.
Now there are whole realms of human experience, the most important ones in fact, where the only way to knowledge is something like this leap of faith. It is not an irrational leap, but it is a leap. “He who does the will of my Father, will know.” Arthur L. Schawlow, Nobel Prize for Physics, 1981, “Religion is founded on faith. When confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. For me that means Christianity, to which I was introduced as a child and which has withstood the tests of a life-time. “
That’s the way we know. Jesus submits himself not to our laboratories, but to our lives and says I am the way, the truth, and the life. Learn my attitude and spirit, live from and for my love, follow my way, honestly, earnestly over the years and you will know, you will really know.”
No one can make the choice for another. But choices must be made, whether it is wives or worship. You cannot sit neutral without missing out on life, for life is impossible without a system of meaning and morality, hope and faith.
The reason for the moral confusion and decay of our time, is the loss of religious foundations for the moral. To say morality must have religious foundations is to say that we must experience our moral standards as more than human inventions, cultural conventions, kindly suggestions. We must accept them, surrender to them, experience them as absolutes that transcend us, that are imposed upon us, that we violate at our peril, just as we do if we violate the law of gravity. They must have that ultimate quality in our lives.
The fact is we do know some things for certain, we know certain absolutes. We know that murder, rape, torture, cruelty, deceit, bigotry are wrong, wrong in any culture, not just a difference of opinion, not just an example of cultural diversity, but wrong, without qualification or equivocation. We know we ought to respect one another, care about the less fortunate, work for the common good. We know that.
Even the secularists are beginning to catch on. Frank Gannon writes in the New York Times Magazine, “Why is it that we, apparently unlike any other species on the planet, insist on seeing certain things as right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, flotsam or jetsam, marvelous or ‘smarvelous? Even more interesting is the fact that all human beings more or less agree about what is moral….despite the wide variety of human cultures, it is remarkable to note that if you borrow something and don’t give it back, almost all human beings agree that you should stop being so sloppy about things because that wasn’t the way you were raised.”
And because we know this in the very core of our being, we reveal that we know something of God and his will. George Washington made the point a long time ago, “…let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious faith.”
Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech republic, said it. “Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of authority of a universal order. “Only someone who submits to the authority of the one we call God, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors. The Declaration of Independence, adopted 218 years ago, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
So at least here in the community of faith, and the homes of that faith, we need to be clear about it. Our children and grandchildren need to hear it from us for they are not likely to hear it in the culture at large. And they need to hear it early, so that they internalize it. Not ”please that’s not nice,” Not “we would rather you didn’t do that.” But that is wrong, wrong because God tells us it is wrong. Don’t be so afraid that they will develop an overbearing conscience. Better than no conscience at all. The moral compass inside all of us must have an absolute quality as imposed by our Lord himself, or it is no longer a solid foundation for life.
A New York author, Christopher Buckley: “Dad?” my daughter Caitlin, 6, asked me one day when she was about 5, “what’s God?” I broke out in a sweat. This was the Big One. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Will we have to change planes in Atlanta? …her question made me feel I had failed, big time, as a father. I’d already filled in about 20 nursery school applications. I’d already started to put money away for her college education…clearly it was time to get cracking on the spiritual side of things.
And yet, how to proceed. A practicing Roman Catholic for almost 40 years, I’d recently gone over into the agnostic camp — which I think of as the “just-the-facts-ma’am” school of philosophy —so I wasn’t quite sure how to answer “what’s God?” I did want Caitlin to grow up open to God and spirituality…What she needed, in other words, was a firm grounding in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Besides, I’d rather she knew something of Abraham and Moses and Jesus than of Barney and Lambchop and Thomas the Tank Engine. She already knows about them. I went out and bought a beginner’s Bible.
In fact, the Bible was an easy sell on Caitlin. She gobbled it up. One morning she insisted on reading the entire New Testament. We were halfway through Jesus’ ministry when I asked, “How about a video?” Anyway, she got a firm grounding in her heritage. For example, she now knows that God is present in everything…Caitlin (pointing to her foot): Is God in my toe? (Confidential to agnostic parents: Expect a barrage of questions intended to provoke you, such as “Is God in bubble gum?” The good news is that eventually your kids will tire of provoking you – by which time you are on Prozac.)
But it didn’t end there. One day Caitlin said (sweetly): Dad? Dad: Yeah, honey? Caitlin: Does everyone die? Dad: Say, how ‘bout a Flintstones pop-up ice cream bar? Caitlin: But Dad, am I going to die? Dad: Well, uh, I guess everyone dies. I mean it’s part of…what’s your favorite part in the video, The Rescuers Down Under? Caitlin: But what happens after you die? You can postpone this moment, but you can’t avoid it. Ultimately, the important thing is to remain true to your convictions. If you lie, they’ll pick up on it and never trust you again. Which is why, as an agnostic dad—difficult as it was – I looked her right in the eye and said, “What happens when you die? You go straight to heaven.” We do know. “I am not ashamed, for I know in whom I have trusted, and am confident of his power to keep me safe until that great day.” Indeed.