Jesus, Paul, and relativism

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.

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How is it that Paul didn’t even take his own conscience in consideration when around people with a differently formed conscience. He would follow their rules because he, being born of the spirit, had those rules written on his heart, and they went beyond what written rules could do. So that means that the rules were not absolute in the first place, and that Paul is using relativistic thinking in that his own rules were to be considered only if they were useful, with no concern over whether they were permissible or not. All things are permissible, but not all things are useful. To me that is relativistic. The rule says one thing, Paul says, “sometimes that rule isn’t the best course of action.”

Moreover, the law that we are claiming is absolute, or at least to have absolute parts to which God gives no exceptions, has no authority over St. Paul. When around those who disregarded the law, he purposely allowed them to believe he was neither bound by the law.

So I claim that any written rule (except lying – we will get back to that eventually I hope) and our understand of it is available for our use as spirit-born Christians, in helping to make moral decisions. I submit that God, working through the Holy Spirit, will never lead us into error, but will always give us the proper understanding of the not-so-absolute laws at the time we need that understanding. So God is absolute and God’s word is absolute, but we cannot presume to fully grasp any words to the extent we can say to God, "thank you for teaching me, Lord. I know now that I have a complete understanding of fact X, so I’m happy to say I won’t ever need to bother you again to help me apply X because I know all I need to know about it.

So far I’m not trying to organize a particular argument or claim; I’m just making some observations that I hope will help take this discussion in a useful direction.

Oh, once a poster claimed that the written rules are absolute for us, but that Jesus, being God, was allowed to break them at any time – but we can’t because we are not God. If that’s the case, why did He come to us in human form as an example of how we are to behave, if we can only guess if we can or can’t do whatever He does. It’s like “don’t do what Jesus would do, because He has freedom that we don’t.” If St. Paul has it right, then I would have concluded instead that Jesus has given His life to free us from the anxiety that comes from trying to follow written rules literally and absolutely.

Alan

Firstly, I think you need to put what Paul was saying into context. paul was dealing with some troublesome Corinthians. He was trying to wean them off their pagan gods and to accept jesus as the sone of* the* God and as their saviour. Don’t forget he actually paid them a visit and had to leave in a big hurry. His “sorrowful visit”, I suspect, meant he came pretty close to getting his head theumped. To me, it seems pretty obvious that some hard heads amongst the Corinthians hought they knew everything and weren’t going to let go of their “knowledge” easily. In fact, Corinthians 8 is Paul telling the Corinthians that there are no idols on earth, there is but one God and then in Corinthians 7 he says “However not all men have this knowledge”. He points out that the Corinthians, or some of them anyway, are just accustomed to the old idols and wont adjust the way they do things, which threatens to corrupt others. He says at 13 he wont do anything that might make his brother stumble.

So as I read Paul, he is talking about recieving “new knowledge” and how we need to adjust. I admit I’m no bible scholar and a true scholar might have a different slant on what I’m saying. If I believed I knew what I was writing was absolutely correct, I’d be falling for the trap that Paul makes us aware of in Corinthians 8:1 where he says “…we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant.”. I can say, however, until someone comes along with “new knowledge” that can show me the errors of my ways, I’m damned well right and so there!:smiley:

So what is knowledge? I read a long time ago that knowledge was “justified true belief”. Paul was telling the Corinthians that there belief system was not justified, even though they probably justified to themselves that sacrificing food to idols was a good thing to do. Pauls message was that they shouldn’t be too cocky about what they knew. I think that applies to all of us.

However, that doesn’t mean that a lot of the knowledge we possess is not "ultimate’ knowledge. We have the capacity to compare and contrast knowledge and so arrive at truths that are more valid, that have greater justification, than other ‘truths’. The world once was flat, now it’s round. Once, if you suggested that a man could fly around the world, you’d have been locked up. Today, man can fly around the world. In a sense, our knowledge of the world we live in, of even the universe, is a never ending journey of discovery and new knowledge is added all the time. No sane man would profess to know everything, or profess that what he knows today will be relevent tomorrow. However, I think where the concept of relativity applies, and is applied the most, is in relation to what is good and bad. We have examples of different knowledge from around the world. For example, Aborigines in my country had an intimate knowledge of their environment and lived comfortably where white settlers starved without their more modern aids. However, put an Australian aborigine into, say, New York City and his knowledge would be irrelevent. Not because his knowledge was wrong knowledge, but because his knowledge was relevent to his environment.

Today, we are far more homogenous and so the cultural relativities are less pronounced and we are better educated, armed with new knowledge, about the different cultures amongst peoples of the world. However, the adaptive capabilities of humans has caused many of the old beliefs of other peoples to change and they have adopted the more useful attributes of human inventiveness and ways of living which has caused the increasing homoginisation of the human species.

So where does the concept of relativity arise? Maunly, today, in relation to moral discourses. In the western hemisphere, under Christianity, we have built our civilisation on a strong belief in what is called the Natural Law. Of all the moral belief systems, it is the one which has the strongest claim to being truly objective and therefore absolute. Many try to break it down, denigrate it, deny it even, but it keeps asserting and re-asserting itself. As someone once said “The Natural Law always buries its undertakers”. Other than that, I absolutely exist!:smiley:

In your example of the “keep holy the sabbath” you have provided an excellent example of what the Israelites did to the commandments given to them on the tablets. The command did not say “do no work on the sabbath”. This was an addition made by the Israelite religious authorities. In other words, humans corrupted the original absolute command by adding a man-made amendment to it. This is what Jesus pointing out. He did not soften the original command and make it optional depending on the circumstances.

Nice. That is a way of looking at it that I never heard of. I will take it into consideration and see where that leads me. :thumbsup:

Alan

John21652,

Thank you for you time and consideration in sending me a reply. I don’t think we are so far apart on anything material. Maybe we are both describing something to which I’d see fit to apply the term “relativism” or at least reject the mindset I call “absolutism.” If we can agree on the essence of the truth as we see it from our different perspectives, then what word we use to describe it becomes an academic discussion. :slight_smile:

Thank you for setting the context, and I think I agree with you here completely about what’s going on. Now, what label shall we apply to Paul? To the Corinthians? Was one of them relativistic and the other absolutist? I’ll leave that open for the moment.

First, I do net see your argument as absolutist, in the sense that I find the term troubling. If it were, you would not have said, “… need to put what Paul was saying into context.” If you were someone I consider an absolutist, that would be a very bizarre statement for you to make. According to my image of absolutism, truth is truth and context is irrelevant.

I might have considered this an absolutist argument from you, if you had instead written, “you have to quit trying to change the truth to fit the context,” or “truth is truth, regardless of context. One cannot operate in truth without a firm, solid, standards which is true independent of any context where it arises.”

I hope you don’t find it disturbing that I don’t see you as an absolutist. To me, that’s a good thing. :wink:

Absolutist mindset kills the “living” part of the “living” Word. It takes one teaching from the past and assumes not only that through enough scholarly study we know precisely and in all situations that will ever arise in the future, what lesson Paul is teaching, and now it applies to every possible situation. If the written law were capable of capturing and promulgating that whole truth, then Jesus died for nothing.

They were hardheaded and limited in their knowledge, clinging to their old ways and thinking they knew everything. They would cling tenaciously to their beliefs, and I assert that is the mystical equivalent of idolatry. Paul is trying to break them of that.

To me, here’s how an “absolutist” sounds: "I know exactly what the Church says about this, I know exactly what it means, and I know that what you have said, in all senses, literal and otherwise, is wrong and I know that with absolute certainty. Further, you are trying to change Truth to fit your wrong, dangerous, and anti-Catholic beliefs. In true love, I offer you the information that you are on a path to hell with your reasoning so it is my duty to warn you of that. I know with no doubt that your behavior is disturbing to God Himself.

So as I read Paul, he is talking about recieving “new knowledge” and how we need to adjust. I admit I’m no bible scholar and a true scholar might have a different slant on what I’m saying. If I believed I knew what I was writing was absolutely correct, I’d be falling for the trap that Paul makes us aware of in Corinthians 8:1 where he says “…we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant.”. I can say, however, until someone comes along with “new knowledge” that can show me the errors of my ways, I’m damned well right and so there!:smiley:

I can fully support this! :slight_smile:

So what is knowledge? I read a long time ago that knowledge was “justified true belief”. Paul was telling the Corinthians that there belief system was not justified, even though they probably justified to themselves that sacrificing food to idols was a good thing to do. Pauls message was that they shouldn’t be too cocky about what they knew. I think that applies to all of us.

Their belief system was limited at best, and totally false and satanic at worst. But where did they get the idea that food should be sacrificed to idols? From previous religious training, which served at the time but was not the complete truth and so shouldn’t be considered absolute the way they were using it. So basically, I’m saying that given their limited knowledge and their battle-worn blinders, they took an absolutist view that their knowledge was complete, sufficient, and infallible for all of eternity. They were wrong. They clinged to those beliefs and thought anyone who said they need to get out of that mindset must be one of us evil “relativists,” tempting them to go against the Solid Teachings they have always been taught to be the Whole Truth and nothing but the Truth.

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However, that doesn’t mean that a lot of the knowledge we possess is not "ultimate’ knowledge. We have the capacity to compare and contrast knowledge and so arrive at truths that are more valid, that have greater justification, than other ‘truths’. The world once was flat, now it’s round. Once, if you suggested that a man could fly around the world, you’d have been locked up. Today, man can fly around the world. In a sense, our knowledge of the world we live in, of even the universe, is a never ending journey of discovery and new knowledge is added all the time. No sane man would profess to know everything, or profess that what he knows today will be relevent tomorrow. However, I think where the concept of relativity applies, and is applied the most, is in relation to what is good and bad. We have examples of different knowledge from around the world. For example, Aborigines in my country had an intimate knowledge of their environment and lived comfortably where white settlers starved without their more modern aids. However, put an Australian aborigine into, say, New York City and his knowledge would be irrelevent. Not because his knowledge was wrong knowledge, but because his knowledge was relevent to his environment.

This is an excellent example that helps illustrate what I mean to say. We use a model of reality that works for us until we realize it isn’t good enough, or until Einstein comes and tells us they must be adjusted under certain conditions – extreme conditions that nobody has as of that time produced in a laboratory. The Newtonian model of physics did not cease to be “true” or “useful” – it works well enough for 99.9% of anything engineers need to consider – and for non-technical people, 100%. The earth may not have been flat, but it was a close enough approximation that it was a working model for the people. For purposes of getting to the grocery store, (especially in Kansas flatland :stuck_out_tongue: ) we can consider it flat, and anybody who says we must take the curve of the earth into account is complicating things unnecessarily. If I’m the pilot of a jet plane, then I care whether the earth is curved or not. Until then, let’s stick to Euclidean geometry.

Today, we are far more homogenous and so the cultural relativities are less pronounced and we are better educated, armed with new knowledge, about the different cultures amongst peoples of the world. However, the adaptive capabilities of humans has caused many of the old beliefs of other peoples to change and they have adopted the more useful attributes of human inventiveness and ways of living which has caused the increasing homoginisation of the human species.

I agree with you part of the way on this one. We are more homogeneous in some ways, and we have communications that allow people all over the world with all sorts of different beliefs (even within the group who call ourselves Catholic) and we clash on them. We are so focused at being right and the other person being wrong, that we fail to use technology to open our own minds; we use it as a tool to further spread our limited thinking and impose it on those who don’t have such limitations. So I assert that even though we have opened our ways of thinking somewhat to face the reality we are discovering as time goes on, the human heart and its viewpoint toward others’ opinions that don’t make immediate sense, is unchanged.

So where does the concept of relativity arise? Maunly, today, in relation to moral discourses. In the western hemisphere, under Christianity, we have built our civilisation on a strong belief in what is called the Natural Law. Of all the moral belief systems, it is the one which has the strongest claim to being truly objective and therefore absolute. Many try to break it down, denigrate it, deny it even, but it keeps asserting and re-asserting itself. As someone once said “The Natural Law always buries its undertakers”.

I think the idea of Natural Law is very good and useful. I think that sometimes when we claim to be speaking on behalf of “Natural Law” we make statements that are presumptuous and misleading, though.

I like the idea of Natural Law as something that is intrinsically true, regardless of whether we perceive it with our senses, or imagine it, or understand it.

However, when other human beings tell me that they know X to be true infallibly because it is Natural Law and not subject to opinion, we’re basically in the same boat with the same leak, we’ve just thrown a cover over the leak so we can pretend it’s not there.

Thanks again for the excellent and thoughtful post. I would ask you to join me in the “relativistic persons” club, but if you’d prefer you don’t have to wear a name tag outside our little meeting here. :wink: Borrowing a few lyrics from “Don’t let it show” on the album “I Robot” I give you the following permission. If it helps :

Other than that, I absolutely exist!:smiley:

Says you. How can I be certain of that? :smiley:

Alan

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