I am surprised how many faithful Christians argue pointlessly with each other, triggered by strong feelings over the terms, “absolutist” and “relativist.” Sometimes the discussions end in an awkward standoff, but they almost always seem to include insult and judgment.
I’ve been branded a “relativist” for so much as suggesting that any number of claims by other posters of something we can and must believe is “absolutely true.” So if we even question another’s claim of absolute knowledge of a topic, then we are branded “relativist, as if that is a Bad Thing.”
So let’s examine the word “absolute.” I believe that God is absolute. I believe He can incarnate anything our collective imaginations can contain, plus much, much more, with no recognizable or even intrinsic limitations. Everything we know together as a population is insignificant compared to His complete knowledge. Basically we know zero compared to Him. I believe God can answer questions with absolute authority. I believe He comprehends truths with absolute authority. Jesus can make judgments that are absolutely right in every sense.
These things (above) are what I think of when I think of the term “absolute.” IMO, if one cannot accept those things above, then the value of our entire system of spirituality is diminished for that individual. Our belief system is based on these assumptions, and I do not wish to change them or insult them by calling them anything other than absolute.
Now, the apparently popular meaning of “absolute” that I wish to take to task, implies that there are facts that not only are absolutely true (which I don’t have a problem with) – but also implies that we can actually know and understand these facts in that we can be absolutely correct when asserting them and applying them. I have major issues with this, as I see multiple difficulties and even sinfulness in claiming this sort of knowledge. Essentially, we claim we have infallible understanding of an absolute truth. I say, “not so fast!”
I’ve asserted that even church rules that “sound” absolute absolute may not be absolute in the mind of God, and that a well developed heart is necessary to discern whether this rule should be dogmatically followed in any given set of circumstances.
For example, our usual interpretation of the rule “you shall keep the sabbath day holy” was one that Jesus trashed by healing on the sabbath. So Jesus was accused of sinful behavior because He did good on the sabbath rather then evil. To follow the rule literally against working, He would not have performed the healing. In other words, the leaders of the church thought they had him over a barrel for blatantly going against a very clearly stated prohibition of working on the sabbath. Jesus rebuked them and then taught them the intent of the rule, so that they may from now on treat it relative to the situation, rather than absolute in a literal sense. He told them that the sabbath was made for man, not the man for the sabbath. To me, that means that God thinks we need rest from our regular work on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean our hands are tied so that we may not do the least work, even if it is good and not evil. So we are not a slave to the rules about observing the sabbath, but we have some discretion. In my terminology, that means the prohibition against work on the sabbath is relative. There can be circumstances that create exceptions to any rule that is stated in any finite number of human words.
Same way with eating the forbidden bread. Few doubted how absolute the rule was against non-priests to enter the holy of holies and eat the forbidden bread. Apparently that rule wasn’t absolute either, because Jesus condoned and defended the behavior. Why did they eat it? They were hungry. The simplest of human minds can grasp that, but if I were to suggest Jesus used a “relativistic” mindset toward the prohibition against eating the forbidden bread.
For now, I will set aside discussion of whether “lying” is absolute, because our claims of absoluteness on that one particular sin, seems to be so above and beyond other claims of absoluteness I don’t want to get into it that far. I’m not trying to cover all bases; sufficient for me to illustrate that it is dangerous and presumptuous for anyone to claim they know a rule to be absolutely true, and that they can describe with absolute certainty and with no ambiguity, when and how it applies.
That way of thinking comes across to me as overly simplistic thinking at best, delusional and/or deceptive at worst.
Can anyone claim they know exactly what God says about something, and how to apply it, after considering the following scripture with an open heart and open mind?
By this passage alone, I challenge anyone to justify a claim they know something absolutely, especially when their are Good Catholics who may believe the exact opposite.
Now, about relativism. I don’t know why it is seen to be a dirty word. I think it is vital that we be capable of relativistic thinking, if we are to get the full meaning of the scripture that God intends for us each to get. By “relativistic” thinking, I mean that we concede that no written rule can adapt to every circumstance that will come up in the future. It may hold for the vast majority of situations, but if there is a single exception then we must remove the “absolute” label from it.