Thursday, January 20, 2011

If Everyone Gets To Be Right...Then What?

I read a post by a friend recently who was wrestling with the idea that God could really prefer one religion over another. I've spent some time the last few days thinking about moral relativism. I have also been listening some to Randy Harris from some of the ACU Lectures speak on the subject, and as always, I came away with new and better perspectives.

My favorite line from the movie The Incredibles is when the mom and the son are talking about how he shouldn't use his super powers to be faster than everyone else at school. In the conversation, she tells the son, "Everyone is special," to which he replies (to the best of my memory), "If everyone is special, then that really means that no one is special."

The idea of anyone being lost makes me very uncomfortable. I'm a Millennial, and though as a Christian I accept the idea of a final judgment, as well as eternal rewards and punishments, it's not an easy pill for me to swallow. I accept that my actions, for better or for worse, affect others around me and that no action is truly an isolated event. Again, the individualistic, self-centered culture I'm a part of makes this hard for me.

Some scattered thoughts about the issue at hand:
- I've long been convinced of the idea that to throw out a higher moral standard is to completely throw out the ability to declare any specific action right or wrong. Some have said, "If there is no God, then there's no reason why I shouldn't try to be Hitler." I've seen several atheists respond, "I find it deeply disturbing that the only thing standing between you and terribly misanthropic behavior is your belief in God." I kind of get their point, but on the other hand, really, if morality is determined by a popular vote, then why can't we commit genocide, or anything else that strikes our fancy? Why be so interested in being a "good" person, or in making the world better for anyone else? If all I've got is from now until I'm dead, with nothing beyond that, why not do as I please? "It may be right for you, but that's not what's right for me." That statement opens up some dangerous doors! For there to be any meaningful morality, I think it is necessary for there to be a higher standard than popular opinion.

- Something I had never thought of before that Randy mentioned: If we throw out a higher moral standard, so that morality is entirely subjective to each person's situation, then it is impossible to make moral progress. You can't be a "better" person if nothing you do is ever inherently wrong. If we all get to be right all the time, then it's impossible to get any better.

- On the plurality of religions: My friend's post was an interesting narrative dialogue which basically affirms that all religions were God's idea and are pointing to the same thing. On the one hand, if faith exists to teach you to "be nice"--a view that I think falls short of what Christianity is all about, this idea might be more functional, but I think the conflicts between religious faiths run all the way to the core. Christianity's claim that Christ is the Son of God, and that this belief is an essential component of Salvation, is directly in contradiction to Islam's claim that Christ was a good prophet, but not the Son of God. (The old Lord, Liar, or Lunatic scenario.)

It's easy to make comparisons like this about religions that stem from Judaism, such as Christianity (which fulfilled it), then Islam (which was a variation on them both, combined with some other ideas). In these discussions, in my experience, no one ever throws in the Roman pantheon, full of sex-driven vindictive deities. Nor do we throw in the worshippers of Dagon or Marduk, or any of the religions that called for human sacrifices, or fertility rituals involving temple prostitutes; not to mention animism. Buddhism is atheistic at its deepest level, making it incompatible with most of the world religions. If all religion was just about, "Being nice to people," then these would be more compatible, but as they make demands much greater than this, they are terribly incompatible.

I think a high point of Christianity is that at its core, it is about knowing, honoring, loving, and being with God. The Christian view of Heaven is also about being with God. The Christian view of Hell is primarily about being apart from God. (After all, God won't make you be around him if you spend your whole life letting him know that you don't want to.) I view Hell as the ultimate symbol of God's respect for man's free will.

But what about other views of the afterlife? It's interesting that the goal of Islam in the next life seems to center around becoming Hugh Hefner, with lots of virgins to serve you, fancy jewelry, and waterfalls. Sure, there are the elements of peace, no hatred or tears, but the virgins are a big attention grabber. (I have never really understood what about the afterlife in Islam appeals to women.) But this view doesn't seem interested in being with God as much as "Getting anything you desire and more."

Many religions center around getting blessings, healthy crops, and possessions in this life. Some people professing to be Christians preach exactly these things, I'm sad to say. But this is a selfish tendency. Again, I think that properly understood, Christianity is fundamentally not about me getting what I want, but about me really knowing and having a relationship with the Creator of the universe.

- I also believe that the existence of counterfeits points to the existence of the real thing. That's true of currency. It's true of precious artifacts and artwork. We would never think of something being a "fake" if a "real" item didn't exist. I think the fact that humans seem to have this inherent drive toward the divine is an indication that there must be a real option out there. In other words, "If there is no God, why is it that I want so badly to know about him?" Every other appetite we have in life has something that can fulfill it. Food, music, art, communication, sex...these all meet things that feel like needs to us. I think the inner desire that most humans experience for knowledge of the divine indicates that something must be there.

If everyone is special, then in a sense, no one is.
If everything is true, then nothing is false.
If everything is good, then nothing is bad.
If everything is the real thing, then nothing is counterfeit.

I know from experience, though, that some people are special. Some things are bad. Some things are lies and frauds.

Surely, there must be more to life than the few things I can comprehend. But I do think it is incompatible to believe both (1) God is good and that (2) God deliberately confuses the people of the world into believing contradictory things about himself.

I'm interested in hearing what you think.


  1. I'm willing to go so far as to say that there are generally elements of truth in all religions. A counterfeit must mimic the real thing with some of the elements of the real thing. As you pointed out, even the most basic truth: "there is something greater" is attested by awful religions (Dagon, et al). We can learn to value and respect nature from the Wiccans, we can learn to live in the tension between to opposing points of view from the Zen Buddhists, we can learn respect for God from the Muslims. It's not as if God inspired all those religions as an intentional group of false trails, or a multitude of equal paths to knowing him, but they were inspired by our yearning for a relationship with the divine.

    Also, Christianity is not about creating a moral system. Jesus didn't die so that we could live better, more moral lives. He didn't come to move us up the scale from villains to heroes, but to throw out our scale altogether. My life isn't guided by a set of rules, but it flows out of a relationship. I do what God wants me to, because I love him, not because it will make me a better person.

  2. Thanks, James. Beautiful comment.