Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"Secularism" and "Relativism" as Warped by the Right

Two words are increasingly ping-ponging their way around the blogosphere–indeed, around the cultural crossroads of America defined by the various media organizations, both Left and Right.

The Christian Right’s freewheeling application of these concepts to anyone who has not come to believe in their orthodox views is disturbing. What is outrageous, however, is the ease with which the purveyors of these terms characterize those embodying the traits symbolized by the concepts as either disabled, stupid, or, much worse, evil.

I take the rote dictionary definitions from Mirriam-Webster Online:

"Secular": "1 a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal b : not overtly or specifically religious c : not ecclesiastical or clerical 2 : not bound by monastic vows or rules; specifically : of, relating to, or forming clergy not belonging to a religious order or congregation 3 a : occurring once in an age or a century b : existing or continuing through ages or centuries c : of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration."

"Relativism": "1 a : a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing b : a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them."

The term "secular" is used by the Christian Right on the one hand to connote "without God," which is in context with definition 1a, of or relating to the world or temporal. On the other hand, "secular" has frequently been retooled to mean not only "without God," but "against God." As an extension, it seems that Christian orthodox apologetics now use it to mean "against us."

The term "relativism," as used by the Christian Right, has nothing to do with definition 1a, but rather 1b, which, translated into its current socio-political context seems to mean, "a view that there is no absolute truth and/or that truth claims are only valuable in relation to other truth claims and/or that everyone’s idea of the truth is viable because there is no one truth."

I want to talk about "secular" first. I, as far as I know, am neither disabled nor stupid. Moreover, I hope that I do not embody evil, despite my humanity. That said, I am very comfortable with a secular world, as I have always known it, which is based on definition b: "not overtly or specifically religious." I am private about my spiritual beliefs, as are most folks I know who were raised in Midwestern Protestant congregations. I hold my faith close, and soberly consider God and whatever His wishes might be. I trust, however, that he has a certain amount of trust in me, in us, made in his image.

I firmly believe that the world, in and of itself, is good. Orthodox Christians would, I think, agree: God created it and said it was good. OK. And the temporal nature of the world is what we, as humans, are afforded. OK. So the issue is not about "the world," or "worldliness" per se, but the "absence of God." This is where I take issue.

Here’s why. Recent surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. Europeans, I’m not sure. But I’m willing to bet that a majority across the pond would check that box, too. When the Religious Right criticizes those who are secular, they cite their opponents in the abortion debate, the gay-marriage issue, the Creationism-versus-evolution fiasco. But being on "the other side" in those debates does not necessarily mean that that person does not believe in God, or that that person is not a Christian or person of faith.

What it may very well mean is simply that the opponent has not reached the conclusion that Orthodoxy is the best description of ultimate truth.

Most often, the Christian Right scoffs at the "modern era’s" concentration on the satisfaction of individual desires as the end-all-be-all of life. It’s no wonder. By most moral and ethical standards, pure selfishness is held in disdain. Certainly, the Christian worldview puts the self far down the priority list. I agree that this age in the history of civilization has found many of us far too focused on individual taste, desire, and fulfillment.

That does not mean, however, that all of us out here struggling with day-to-day survival and the details of the life we know for sure–that in front of our eyes on the planet Earth–are either "without" or "against" God. And with the many palatable and convincing versions of what is ultimately true available to educated Westerners, it is hardly a surprise that many people–even many Christians–disagree on what is absolutely true. This is not easy stuff.

To the extent that the Christian Right scoffs at those atheists who believe only in the world "in front of us" as the only one that exists, and calls them "secularists," fine. But, don’t throw the rest of us in that hole.

To the extent the "secular world," however the Right characterizes it, seems wayward from God, I am not surprised. These–like most–are confusing times. These–unlike most–are times of intellectual and scientific advance, of globalization, of high education in the West and in many parts of Asia. And–sadly perhaps–searching for and finding the absolute truth, whatever that is, takes more energy and intellectual and spiritual commitment than many folks can muster in this world. That is not reason to debase honest folks for doing the best they can in this life.

Finally, to the extent that "secularists"–read, those who are not Orthodox believers–write in the Mainstream Media about the Church and criticize it for being "backwards" or "anti-progress," it is one thing to explain to them their misunderstandings of Orthodoxy.

It is quite another thing to react with knee-jerk defensiveness and put them down for treading on sacred ground that to many–even to many other Christians–is not sacred. Education is one thing. Outright warfare–to an extent from both "sides"–is another.

Now, "relativism." Just briefly. Those Orthodox Christians who believe in absolute truth believe in their version of absolute truth. That version may be what is "absolutely true." But no one but God knows that for sure. To call everyone else who does not believe in that version of absolute truth a "relativist" is both arrogant and demeaning.

I, for one, believe that there is an absolute truth. There is only truth and falsity. That’s it. God is the One who knows absolutely what is true. He is the only one who knows fully His mind and His way, the nature of the universe. We humans are left to struggle with the evidence and lack thereof that we can comprehend with our five senses. Beyond that, we must rely on faith.

For the Christian Right to say that all those who look at the evidence or lack thereof and come to different conclusions than their own are "relativists" is to invalidate their own journeys of faith. In fact, ironically, many the Christian Right call "relativist" are probably just "absolutists" of different persuasions.

It is one thing to disparage those out there who believe that there is a unique universal truth subject to each person’s whimsy, each person’s idea of what may be true. Certainly this is impossible because, at the least, there is mutual exclusivity.

Beyond that, God, Truth, is whatever It is. Nothing more or less.

It is another thing to disparage those of us who are struggling with the truth, or like me, are willing to say, there is one Truth, but I have more questions about It than I do answers. I suppose in that way I am a relativist by the first definition: "1 a : a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing." I can only know what my mind allows me to know. What my soul allows me to know.

I–in what I can only hope is viewed as humility–am the first to recognize God–and only God–as the reservoir of knowledge of the absolute truth.


Blogger ajmac said...

I hope that this post was not inspired by

If so, then perhaps I carried a jest too far. However, my frustration with MSM types, which I expressed through admittedly pointed satire, is not directed at The Accipiter. To the contrary, I have found The Accipiter's intellect quite unclouded.

A response to the substance of this post in a moment...

2:11 PM  
Blogger ajmac said...

First, the Secular.

We Christians are certainly not accusing others of being stupid, disabled, or evil. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, "The line between good and evil does not run between nations, but through every human heart." Christianity teaches that we all are tempted to reject God's self-evident, natural, created order for our lives and to turn to our own ways, which lead inexorably to destruction and pain.

The rejection of God's way for our own way is always and everywhere accompanied by rationalizations for our ill-advised conduct. In the post-modern West, those rationalizations tend to come in a bundle of militant dogmas that include removal of theistic references from the public square, eroded respect for human life, and sexual licentiousness. That bundle is Secularism. I know for a fact that The Accipiter does rejects much of that bundle. For that reason, I would not consider him a militant Secularist.

For the record, Secularism, as a label, was adopted by Secularists, not imposed upon them by Christians. Secularists chose the label because they truly believe, as the Accipiter seems to, that they are not specifically religious. But ALL worldviews are specifically religious, including those that reject the doctrines of the various organized "religions."

Labels are sloppy things. Within orthodox Christianity you can find Catholics, Calvinists, Liberationists, and Arminians. Within Secularism you can find E.J. Dionne and Christopher Hitchens.

Again, I am not at all disparaging The Accipiter. I reserve my disparagement and lack of grace for those who so are adently Secularist that they are unable to see realities such as the dignity of human life, the inherent disorder of homosexual conduct, and the benefits of orthodox teachings.

For The Accipiter, who earnestly and honestly struggles with the truth, I have the utmost respect.

2:35 PM  
Blogger ajmac said...

Briefly, on Relativism.

There are truths and then there are truths. I doubt that we humans will ever have a complete and accurate understanding of the Trinity during our days on earth. That's why there are so many denominations within Christianity -- we proliferate theories to approximate what we have not yet comprehended.

With that said, other truths are so obvious that they should bite us on the nose. The sun rises in the east. Male and female fit together sexually and in other ways that male-male and female-female do not. Human life has inherent value. We are not left to wonder about these truths and God does not keep them to Himself.

On the former category of truth claims, relativism is desirable and consistent with intellectual humility. On the latter category, relativism is neither wise nor a mark of humility. Instead, relativism on questions of the created order signifies immense hubris. It requires us to believe that we have it within our power to redefine reality.

2:47 PM  
Blogger The Accipiter said...

Thanks to AJMac for his intellectually honest commentary. I appreciate it.

I was not reacting to anything AJMac as an individual posted, but rather to what seems like the ubiquitous use of these terms by the Right.

3:22 PM  

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