Relativism and Socially Constructed Morals

Okay, Okay… put the pitch forks down. I know that “relativism” is one of the most evil words to use in Church circles. Satanism is one thing, moral depravity another… but relativists? Burn them at the stakes! I’m not going to come out as a “relativist” or “universalist.” But I do think there are things that the Church is generally missing when it comes to the concepts of relativism and social constructivism. What most of us think about when we think of relativism is some “hardened sinner” replying to our witnessing spiel with the old hippie cliche of “all truths are relative, man.” While this is the core of what relativism is to most people, it is not really all there is to the subject. Relativism is really a broad category with many shades and tangents, many of which make concessions for the possibility of absolute truth.

Add to that that there is also relative and absolute morality. People can be all over the map with those also – and they might not even match up with their beliefs on truth. For example, someone might believe that truth is relative but that absolute morals do exist. Then throw in the mix that there is some relativism in the Bible – read Romans 14 for example. But that is all really a bunch of subjects for scholars to dissect. What Christians need to realize is that the existence of Absolute Truth or Morality does not mean that we interact with the world as if relativism is evil and that all views that are different than yours are horribly satanic.

What I mean is this: many Christians seem to think that most non-Christians woke up one day and decided that God is real, but they want to be in rebellion to him. So they are living this miserable life actively trying to deny the Truth of the Gospel at every turn. But the reality is that every person out there makes an effort to live by what they think is true and moral. They are happy with their beliefs and morals (in general) and think they have a pretty good line on the “truth.”

Some are not happy of course – and they end up on quests to find something “deeper” (or whatever the case may be). We like to latch on to their testimonies of how they knew they had a hole in their heart, how they discovered they had been miserable without God, etc. Then we turn around and try to save the rest of the world based on thinking this must be the case for everyone.

But the problem is… that isn’t the case for everyone. Many people lead quite happy lives without every thinking twice about God. We like to treat them like they are in denial and that we need to convince them of how miserable they really are. But the truth is, they are living with a completely different paradigm. This is where relativism comes in.

Whether we like it or not, truth and morality are relative in our society. We are not forced to believe only one view of either, so people are free to choose what they want to believe. We may feel that our Truth is the only real one, but so does everyone else out there. Therefore, we are not trying to convince people to “fess up” to being in denial – we are trying to convince them to trade out one “truth” for another. Yes, we know that often times they have bought into a lie…. but they don’t see it that way. People don’t intentionally follow lies. So, you don’t have to change your views on relativism or truth or morality… you just have to be careful how you approach people, how you engage them, how you debate or discuss with them. You are not trying to capture them in a gotcha or in denial; you are opening their mind to a different truth. One that, to them, could be just as valid as any other.

In the bigger picture, this all comes to a head when determining laws for society to follow. Christians usually make the mistake in believing that laws are based on absolute morality…. when in reality, this is not the case. Laws are socially constructed agreements. Because we live in a relativistic society, morals and religion are seen as “relative” and are therefore all relegated to equal status. Society is not trying to figure out which religious moral code is the “best” or “most true.” Society is tying to strike a common middle ground that respects all and allows for freedom of all. There is a big difference there.

Making laws on what is considered the “correct” religious beliefs is theocracy. That is really cool when your beliefs match up with the ruling class, but not so cool if you disagree with all or even (in some cases) a small part. Historical and even current event stories are full of tales of what happens to groups that disagree with the ruling class in a theocracy. So, in realizing the dangers that theocracy presents, we have to recognize that we are not trying to make laws based on who has the greatest or most true “morality.” We are working towards a socially constructed system of laws that respects the rights of everyone they affect.

When I talk about social constructivism, I know that there are as many shades and sides of that as there is of relativism. But I am really referring to the basic idea here. To borrow an illustration from one of my professors, think of a chair that is sitting in a room. When asked what color it is, we all would name the color – for example, blue. But we don’t call it blue because that is it’s absolute color. We call it blue because what ever color it is, our ancestors created a social agreement hundreds of years ago that this color will be called “blue” in the English language. Before “blue” was labeled “blue,” it was not right or wrong to call it whatever color you wanted. It is only wrong now to call it “red” because of the social agreement to call it “blue.”

This is the crux of law in our democracy. We are not setting out to make laws that are based on absolute morality. We are setting out to socially construct a set of laws that respect everyone.

This is hard for Christians because we have confused personal morality or congregational morality with civic morality. And possibly have also confused America for Israel. The Bible is full of stories of men and women that lived for God despite living in cultures that completely ignored Him. In fact, if you really dig into the dark corners of the Bible, you will see that no country or government ever achieved the lofty goal of being completely perfect before God. Every single King, kingdom, council, judge, or culture mentioned anywhere in the Bible had at least a few – if not many – glaring problems. But no matter what the society  around followers of God was doing, God was always clear that they could still choose to follow Him.

The other issue that makes this hard for Christians is that we have typically had it our way for centuries in America. Christians have been the majority and have forced their morals on everyone else. Maybe this is why the Church has shrunk so much. Currently, we have lost the “big brother” status we enjoyed for so long.

I’m not saying you have to like any of this. I am just saying this is the way it is.

Laws in America are no longer based on Absolute Morality. They were never meant to be. They were always meant to be socially constructed agreements that come to respect all people’s freedoms. They are not there yet – but they are working that direction. And at this point, it seems that the Christians ultra-right wingers are acting like the pouting big brother that is no longer getting his way, but refuses to back down and play nicely with others.

So, take any issue – contraception, gun control, gay marriage, abortion, you name it. We are not in a position to tell people what is the one “right” view to have on those issues. Our society is relativistic. Sorry if you don’t like that, but it is what we have. Your views on those topics are no more correct to everyone else out there than anyone else’s are in most people’s eyes. If you bring a view to the table that stops other people from enjoying the freedoms that you do, you will lose your voice. Period. You will have to realize that laws are not the same as truths. We can not turn our view of Truth into law for a land that sees truth as relative. It just won’t work. In fact, it will just be legalism.

In fact, let’s ponder that last thought for a second. Think of all the issues where people are fighting to change laws that are based on traditional Christian morality rather than socially constructed agreements that honors all beliefs. Why are people following those laws now? Because they really believe? No – because they are forced to. They are forced into legalism by our insistence that they follow our view of Absolute Morality. No matter how True you know this Truth to be – you also know that the Truth sets people free from legalism. So by forcing people to follow your beliefs, you are clasping down chains of legalism on them and forcing them to follow God against their will.

This is not what God intended. He wants people to follow His commands out of a heart overflowing with joy and a desire to obey. Not because they are forced by the laws of the land.

So remember that laws are not truths or morals. They are socially constructed agreements designed to create a society of mutual respect and freedoms. Individuals are still free to follow their own morals codes and beliefs and even teach others about them, as long as they don’t violate the agreed upon laws.

I know that it is not always as simple as that, but that is what our society is working towards. It is not there yet. But Christians will no longer find themselves invited to the conversation if they keep on confusing laws with morals.

metamodern-faith-avatarThe biggest question I know that will arise is with businesses and some of these issues. Should a Christian business owner be forced to provide certain accommodations for employees that goes against their personal beliefs  That is a whole other subject, but once again I feel that businesses that want to hire people of differing beliefs should operate more like a democratic society than a theocracy. But for a more in-depth exploration of that subject, I would suggest reading “Why Christian Companies’ Corporate Conscience Should be Clear.”

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Building Up and Tearing Down

One of the best metaphors I have heard for society is that of a tapestry. Many different voices, strands, colors and ideologies are skillfully woven together to make this complex and sometimes crazy picture of who we are as a people. Some tapestries are quite extravagant while others can tend to be bland. Some are peaceful and others are terrifying. But examining the tapestry that is woven by a society can give you great insight into the bigger picture of that culture.

I usually imagine that the tapestry that existed when Jesus came on the scene was pretty bland and restrictive. The Israelites had been given all of these incredibly beautiful strands to weave with. Some were easy to understand, others were hard. Some of these strands were just too much for leaders to handle. So they took the God-breathed ones they could handle, the ones they liked, the easy ones, and began to weave those together with many of their own man-made strands. Ultimately most of these strands were only of two or three similar colors, so they ended up with a bland wall of restrictions that they then pressured everyone to praise and follow.

For several years, I see Jesus walking around the edges of this tapestry, picking at the different pieces and strands at the edges and causing the tapestry to fray around the edges. Just enough to really irk a lot of the people that made the tapestry. But they saw no rhyme to his reason and let him go about it in some ways.

But then Jesus revealed his master plan – he took the Cross and slammed it down square in the middle of this tapestry. Because of the skillful way he had been picking at the edges, the whole thing fell apart in one huge mess of strands.

And what did he do with this mess? The disciples at times seemed to expect him to be the one to put it back together the way it should be. But Jesus just picked up the strands that He originally breathed into being out of the mess, gathered the ones that had been left out for centuries, handed them all to his Bride, and left it up to us to weave it back together.

Which is crazy if you think about it – we messed it up in the first place, and he gave it back to us to weave back together again.

But this is the pattern that God had been following for thousands of years.

Go back to the Garden of Eden. God gave out a few simple tools to weave the tapestry of the garden, and Adam and Eve messed it up. They wove in their own thoughts and ideas. God came in, torn it down, picked it all up and gave it back to them to work on it again. But made the whole thing a bit more complex.

And so we built the tower of Babel. God came in, tore it all down, picked it all up, and gave it back to us to work on again. And again made it more complex.

Then there was the flood, the Law, the nation of Israel, etc, etc. Every time, humans build their tapestry of society up incorrectly. They only take the pieces they feel safe with, and then add in so many of their own. And every time God comes in to unravel what we created. He then pulls out the strands that were from Him, picks up the ones we missed, adds in some more complexity, and gives it all back to us to try again.

The two things we should learn is that 1) God always wants us to be the ones to weave the tapestry, but that we always get it wrong, and that 2) what God gives us back is more complex than it was before…. the most recent added complexity being the teachings of Jesus on love.

Never easy, never simple, never what we expect – but always worth it. Love.

If you look back at the last few decades of the Church, I think we see that the edges have been slowly unraveling. So that means we have been getting it wrong. Whether we have been going to a long-established church in a very old building or a new church that started last week in someone’s empty office space… we are getting it wrong.

But are we stuck in a cycle that has to be repeated? Does God have to destroy it all and rebuild it again?

Possibly… but you have to wonder if God is waiting for us to figure out how to re-invent ourselves so that He doesn’t have to come in to tear down what we have built up.

Think back a few centuries ago. Business or governments that failed were doomed to die. Whether through revolution or going out of business, it seemed like survival of the fittest was the rule. But what do we see now? Companies can do a horrible job, restructure, go through massive changes, and come out again on top. Or they can dig their heels in and follow the same path that dying companies have for centuries. Governments are also showing that they can do the same.

So, the options are to go through an honest (and painful) re-organization to grow, change, and become better… or stick with “we have always done it this way” and die.

Our culture has evolved to the point that it is no longer survival of the fittest, but survival of the smartest. Our society has evolved to the point that even large, complicated organisms such as businesses can survive getting it wrong if they are just willing to look inside and change.

So that is the challenge of the Church – we have to realize that we are getting it wrong and will get it wrong no matter what. No gold stars for effort (let’s face it, the Tower of Babel was a good effort). We have to be willing to change. The other option is to face being torn down by God. We can cast ourselves upon the Rock, or have the Rock cast upon us.

metamodern-faith-avatarBut being honest about what we are doing wrong is hard. Every teacher knows that students won’t see the need to improve if you give them an ‘A’. No one interprets as ‘A’ as ‘we can still do better.’ They see it as ‘we got this down, so sit back and relax.’ If we want to improve, we have to get honest about how we really aren’t doing that well, and where we need to change.