Friday, February 29, 2008

morality and the concept of the absolute

Hitler. No other name is needed to picture a frozen, rigid statue of vitriole and vehemence. His is a powerful picture of force and relentless cruelty. His is the modus operandi we recall to lay claim that there is evil in the world and that moral relativism has an extreme, logical conclusion: if this system of thought is true, then Hitler is justified in his actions. We may not even call his actions "crimes."

W.H. Auden, the English poet, after witnessing man's inhumanity to man during WWII, wrote this short poem to rebuff his peers on the dangers of a world without moral absolutes, a world in which morality is not grounded in the transcendent:

Either we serve the Unconditional

Or some Hitlarian monster will supply

An iron convention to do evil by.

We live in a different generation, but much of it is the same in that relativism, now no longer limited to the ancient stone corridors of the English poet's halls, or trapped in the smokey cafes of French professors, reaches into the psyche of most every common man whether sacred or secular, church-going, or not. Even many Christian intellectuals like to consider themselves in this vein of postmodernism, having an affinity for the idea of subjectivity concerning the nature and program of truth.

Auden, in his poem, recognizes the dire need of our kind to ground its moral standards in the "Unconditional." He is calling us to a morality founded upon the immutability of a bedrock upon which we can stand and say to one another, "Here is your foundation. Build, and live from this solid ground, and let all others live also."

Ethics is not isolated. Ethics, knowledge, and reality can be isolated from one another no more than a living plant can be removed from its root system and the water and soil which feed it. Truth, reality and morality are unified and inextricably linked. They're like a lava lamp--you can't have the swirling, hypnotic lava without the liquid in which it swims. And don't forget the light. Without the light, you can't gaze in endless, wandering daze. Most important is the glass container in which are held together the symbiotic relation of all the substances.

Jesus makes a real statement when when he says he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is our epistemological, ethical, and metaphysical standard. The truth is a Person. It follows therefore that knowledge and morality are inseparable: "In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3).

Truth and morals may be context specific, but the concept and veracity of these things must be absolute. For example, a Dutchman might lie to a Nazi about hiding Jews under his floorboards. He's telling a lie--which is wrong. Right? However, he is not wrong, because he is affirming life in his lie. His lie to the tyrant at his door is "holy deception" (Jim Jordan). The Dutchman is telling a lie because he knows a greater truth: to save life. The Dutchman is "telling the truth" in the ultimate sense, by saving a life by means of telling the lie. The "telling the truth" is simply that he is living according to a higher standard: "You shall not murder," (Ex 20:13). The command not to lie is overruled by the Dutchman's context: he is in the presence of a tyrant who is bent on murder. The Hebrew midwives lied to Pharoah to save the Hebrew babies, and God commended them for it (Ex. 1:15-21).

So there is a sense in which truth, ethics and knowledge are context specific and may be immediately existentally subjective, but never ultimately so. Morality, like truth and like our knowledge of what is real, is always grounded in the "Unconditional." And that Unconditional is a Person, Jesus. With Auden, we must resist the temptation to prognosticate upon the nature of truth and morality without giving recourse to the consequences of our conclusions.

Ours is a dire situation when not a Hitlarian monster or even a college professor, but our own conscience confirms our intellectual enterprise that we can build our own ediface, that we can carve our own monument, that we stand on solid ground in subjectivity. Our rescue is in acknowledging that truth and morality and all of life is subsumed in one person, the man Christ Jesus.

thanks to Os Guinness for the inspiration from Auden's poem. Guinness' book, Unspeakable, p214.

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