Wednesday, December 23, 2015
How Can Faith Exist In A Relativistic World?
Economists are often criticized for being too ‘on-the-one-hand-on-the-other’, always seeing at least two sides to every question and to leaving decisions to others. They are quite happy living in a world where supply and demand rule human behavior, where value is a relative thing, and where all relationships are economically contractual and negotiable.
Religious fundamentalists live in a world of absolute truth. The Bible is the received Word of God, an inerrant account of the way things are, and a text to be followed as the only guide to living.
Those few in between are not particularly thoughtful, but wishy-washy. They neither believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that values are permanent, divinely-inspired, and eternal; nor do they conclude that all values are relative, contingent on time and place. They have staked out no position except ‘maybe’. They may have a sincere faith in a supreme being, never created, eternal, and all-powerful; but also accept that lying, cheating, avarice, and indifference are always subject to interpretation. A man who cheats on an unfaithful wife is not cheating.
It is hard understand this lack of position. Once one accepts the relative nature of things, how is belief in an absolute possible? If all things are relative, than there is no way that a living God could possibly rule a valueless, relativistic world? To do that would be to accept that God really doesn’t care about the quality of human performance, and for whatever peculiar reasons created the world as a no-holds-barred free-for-all.
Christians believe that once he realized that he had made a mistake in creating such a nonsensical world, God sent his son to set things straight. The world after Jesus Christ is anything but relative. There is a right way and a wrong way, period.
Dostoevsky, however, in The Grand Inquisitor, challenges the assumption that Man values free will. Why should he willingly accept the risky responsibility of choice when a wrong one leads to eternal damnation in the acrid fires of Hell? No, said Ivan Karamazov, Man only wants mystery, miracles, and authority. Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptation in the desert, a bad misreading of human nature, led to the establishment of a venal, manipulative, and arrogant Church.
Einstein and particular Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, both knew that the universe was a relative and probabilistic place. Planck said that if we can accurately measure a particle’s speed, we cannot determine where it is; and if we know where it is, we cannot determine how fast it is travelling. We can only assess probabilities.
If we do in fact live in a relativistic and probabilistic world, then how can we at the same time accept anything absolute? Even if there is a God, mustn’t his nature also be relative? All-powerful relative to what? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, asked Bishop Berkeley, does it make a sound? Or if the qualities we ascribe to God are necessary imputation of our own limited intelligence, then why should there not be other gods imagined by other universes? Gods perhaps even more ‘all-powerful’?
Despite the overwhelming evidence for a probabilistic, relativistic world – one in which there are no absolutes, nothing permanent, and all things a product of time, culture, and historical inheritance – it is quite surprising that there are so many religious fundamentalists and worse, so many people looking for the truth.
Tolstoy famously spend most of his adult life until the age of 50 struggling with the question of faith and the meaning of life. In A Confession which chronicled his trajectory from atheism to faith, he wrote about his persistent, obsessive search for the absolute truth. After decades of reading everything written on religion, theology, science, mathematics, and history, he gave up. If billions of people have believed in God, he wrote, who am I not to? And so he backed into faith; which is what most people do who fall into the wishy-washy category.
More and more evidence has come to light about the sheer subjectivity of perception. Behavioral scientists have concluded what philosophers and authors like Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book) and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) had written about decades ago. Ten people who witness and event will all report it in ten different ways. We are all so conditioned by our personality, character, genes, upbringing, and mood-of-the-day that we are incapable of suddenly stripping perceptually naked and seeing things ‘as they really are’.
Everyone from Shakespeare to Planck have agreed that there is such a thing as human nature and that the repetitive nature of history is a function of it. Yet scientists today are talking about the coming ‘post-human’ era when human DNA will be altered to such an extent that the old human nature will no longer be operative. Genetic modification and complete human-computer interface will change human nature and human society forever. So not even what everyone considered fundamental, God-given, and absolute is permanent.
If we assume that our conception of God is limited by the size, configuration, and power of our current human brains; and if we also accept that our intellectual range, depth, and insight will certainly expand geometrically with every new scientific advance in human engineering, then we must conclude that our image of God will also change. His existence, however conceived, has been relative to our own limited abilities of thought.
“Religion is the opiate of the people’, Marx famously observed; but his prediction that a secular society would satisfy them far more than a fictitious God was sorely mistaken. He was right, however, in concluding that the main purpose of religion is to relieve the anxiety of the relative with the absolute.
Dostoevsky also wrote about the unconscionable suffering that Christ had permitted in his worldly kingdom. Christ could have eliminated suffering if he had wanted or for that matter never even created it; but in his arrogant desire to have people freely choose him and his kingdom, he created suffering – even of innocent children – to help men and women understand God and his offer of salvation.
By his creation of suffering, Christ/God enabled the Church to offer religion as an opiate, thereby arrogating spiritual power to itself and enriching its treasuries more than anyone could have imagined.
It is therefore unfair and certainly unkind to criticize those who prefer the absolute over the relative. In fact, given current human nature, belief in the absolute in a relativistic, meaningless, and valueless world is both logical and understandable.
Many relativists have deathbed conversions. There is nothing so absolute as death, and better to be safe than sorry. Of course true relativists who have studied evolution are never afraid; since everything alive simply peters out, ceases to exist, and becomes an ingredient in the primordial mix that generates new life. Human existence is merely a blip in a very long cycle in which everything comes from something and becomes something else.
So why worry? Relativism is just fine.