What Ever Happened To Absolutes?
Pastor Stephen Feinstein
Yesterday, I opened with a call for Christians to think about thinking. This is one of the most important tasks for us in this day and age. Truly, Christians of all generations before the 20th century did not have the same need to heed this call as we do today. So what happened? What changed? Well, first let me say that the very thing that changed is what accounts for the form that the culture war is taking today. Gay marriage, abortion on demand, polygamy, and a host of other issues did not gain ground in previous generations for a reason.
So what did change? Simply put, the world’s understanding of truth changed. For most of history, humanity understood and believed that absolutes truly existed. There was absolute truth, absolute standards of beauty, absolute laws of logic, absolute morals, and so on. It must be noted that fallen humanity could never account for these. After all, how could finite man ever account for absolute truth when he places himself at the center? He cannot. Christians, on the other hand, realize that absolute standards exist because we are created in the image of God. God is the absolute person that is distinct from creation, and yet sovereign over it and He exists as a Trinity. So much can be said about this, but that will perhaps wait for another time. The bottom line is that God is the ground for all absolutes since He Himself is absolute and gets to define all things. It is clear to human observation that there is order and unity in the universe. The laws of physics and chemistry operate in a uniform manner. Human beings are all moral, meaning we make judgments concerning right and wrong, and we create legal systems that punish and reward people on such a basis. Through rational thought, humans realize that there are laws of thought known as logic, and in most cases logic can help us deduce truth even without having to conduct physical experiments.
Fallen man was right to believe in absolutes simply because such absolutes are everywhere. We stare them in the face every day. The problem was that fallen man could never account for such truths. In a universe based on random chance, how could you have uniformity? In a reality that supposedly is only made of matter, how could you have nonmaterial laws of logic that are shared by different humans across the globe? In an earth where life allegedly came about through evolution and advanced through natural selection, why do all humans have a sense of morality that says certain things are right and other things are wrong? Bear in mind, according to the theory of evolution, life advanced through a long process of the strong mercilessly killing the weak. Yet, humanity rejects this in practice. You see, all of the fallen man’s assumptions and presuppositions were impossible. From the Christian worldview, all of these things make sense. Nature is uniform because God sustains it in a uniform way. Logic exists because it is grounded in the mind of God. Humans are moral beings because God is a moral being, and we are made in His image. Our daily practice accords with the basic truths of the Christian worldview.
Well, it all changed in Europe after 1890 and in the United States after 1935. Eventually, certain philosophers understood that their commitments were impossible. If there is no God, and the world truly is random, and we truly are products of blind chance-based evolution, then there are no absolutes. There cannot be any absolutes in such a universe. They then noticed that from one society to the next moral standards varied. They noticed that in the history of philosophy, all theories and paradigms are overthrown by newer ones that then get overthrown themselves by what comes later. So it seemed clear to them that absolutes are a myth that needs to be done away with. All of history operated off of absolutes and antithesis. Antithesis simply means that if one thing is true, then its opposite is false. If one thing is right, then its opposite is wrong. This makes sense, but not on fallen man’s assumptions. So rather than tossing out their assumptions and finding new ones to accord with the existence of absolutes, they instead threw out absolutes and have tried to build a society that exists without them.
This began in Germany, spread throughout continental Europe, and eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. This type of thought is called Postmodernist thought. It holds that there are no absolutes. Truth is relative to each individual, beauty is relative to each individual, morals are relative to each individual, etc. It started with the intellectuals, then moved into the universities infecting the educated classes, and then eventually spread to the working and middle classes. This thinking crossed all disciplines too. It first started in the discipline of philosophy, then it moved to art, and then music, and from there it moved to the general culture. At the very bottom of the flow, it then moved to theology. For some strange reason, the discipline of theology only jumps on the intellectual bandwagon once the culture at large buys into the new way of thinking. The liberal theologians that think themselves to be fresh are actually unoriginal and truly are decades behind the other disciplines.
So I want you to now think about this. Look at the world today. In fact, let’s just focus on the United States. What is the prevailing way of thinking? Most people do not believe in absolutes on anything. In the field of philosophy, relativism is the accepted standard. They scoff at the ideas of absolutes. This certainly has affected American art forms. Since absolute standards of beauty are rejected, it is a free for all where all sorts of abstract oddities are awarded. Music in the U.S. has probably undermined absolute standards more than anything else in the eyes of the culture. Music can be about anything these days—romance, gang-banging, homosexuality, or just random nonsense. Ever since the 1960s, the youth of our country have been driven by the music industry into greater degrees of immorality and licentious living. The general American culture at this point believes the only thing that is truly wrong is to say that something is wrong. They misquote Matthew 7:1 and say that it is wrong to judge. Therefore, abortion, homosexuality, and now polygamy are simply matters of a person’s private life. And the liberal theologians gain cultural acceptance by promoting these same false ideas.
This in a nutshell is the first chapter of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. He calls Christians to be aware of this huge shift in thinking. The general culture has bought into this without even giving it much thought. They are brainwashed. When sharing the gospel, Christians are going to run into this way of thinking. People often don’t think in terms of right and wrong anymore. They suppress it. Sadly, many who claim to be Christians have bought into this way of thinking. They are products of our society, and their churches have failed to teach them God’s Word and to warn them about these false ways of thinking. As Christians, we need to prepare our minds for action. We must understand the landscape that is before us and proclaim God’s awesome truth to this world that is shrouded in the darkness of sin.
Ultimately, fallen man can try all he wants to deny absolutes, but his life proves that he cannot. Fallen humanity still operates off of absolutes. They still use logic. They still have criminal justice systems. They still seek justice if someone robs their house. Their professors still fail students for plagiarizing. People still expect exact change from a cashier when they pay for a product. People still declare who is at fault in car accidents. Scientists still operate off of the assumption that nature is perfectly uniform, thus assuming that it is safe to conduct experiments. This all goes to show that these people threw way the wrong thing. When absolutes did not match their assumptions, they should have done away with their assumptions and then ask what presuppositions will actually work with what we see and experience in the real world? Had they done so, perhaps they would have seen that only the Christian worldview provides the GUT (Grand Unifying Theory) they were always seeking to find. Schaeffer is right to say that had Christians confronted the world with presuppositional reasoning and apologetics prior to 1890, things may have turned out far differently. Christians did not do this, and so the intellectuals of that day threw away their commitment to absolutes. We now live in the consequence of this—a day where people with more education act and think like people with no education, walking comfortably in the midst of a million contradictions.
So Christian, what say you? Do you believe in absolute truth? Do you believe in moral absolutes? Do you live life as though the God of the Bible truly does exist and is the ground of all things? I call on you to start being intentional about your thinking. When you start to agree with the world on these matters, it is because you are not thinking about thinking. Schaeffer provided a great introduction with this first chapter. Tomorrow, I will summarize chapter two, which specifically focuses on how this shift away from absolutes started in the field of philosophy. Until then, have a blessed day.