I have been reflecting on a sermon I listened to (don't worry: it doesn't happen often) yesterday morning. The preacher, as is typical, wove his point around an anecdote concerning a late acquaintance of his, a big old salt-of-the-earth Wisconsin farmer. In describing him, the preacher included a comment along the lines of "He knew what was right and what was wrong, and there was no question in his mind about them," adding, "In this relativistic age, the world needs more people like X."
As a (moderate) relativist from way back, I object. The absolutist attitude--"I know what's right and I know what's wrong, and if you disagree then you're wrong"--is not, as this and so many other preacher would have us believe, a refreshing breath of moral certitude in a venal, sinful world. It is rather a recipe for moral and religious intolerance. And to any preacher who thinks that's a virtue, I refer him to the events of 9/11/01.
Of course, preachers as a group are opposed to what they like to call relativism because church institutions are by their very nature absolutist. Churches, most of them, do no hold that there might be a God who may have created the universe and who could have sent his son to redeem the world, and so on. To open the door to possibilities is to risk undermining the pulpit in which they stand. So, naturally, they turn to absolutism: perhapsthis is the way it is; what preach is what is right; weour church has the answers.
Now, when the "our church" in question really is "our" church, then that may strike us as all well and good. Indeed, my own Catholic church is extraordinarily good as positioning itself as "the one true faith" (as we were taught in Catholic school...and which, my observation has been over the years, more lay people than priests are willing to buy into. I find it interesting, all these years later, than even as a second-grader at St. Joan of Arc school in Omaha, that assertion did not have the ring of truth to it. As fond as I am of the Catholic faith, and as much as it suits me, I have never believed it to be God's denomination, nor have I ever subscribed to the idea that it's the only path to salvation. Indeed, as soon as anyone starts telling me that his is the only path, I start looking for another path).
However (to return to the point), when the church in question is not "our" church...well, then, absolutism becomes a problem. When the "church" in question--more accurately, faith in question--is, say, radical Islam, and the absolutist attitude is "I know what's right and I know what's wrong"--exactly what my preacher friend held up as a virtue in his sermon--then we have a problem. Because the absolutist cannot easily say, "I know what's right and what's wrong, and if you disagree, well, that's the way it goes." As indicated above, absolutist mentality says, "I know what's right and I know what's wrong, and if you disagree then wrong"--and this is not a recipe for tolerance and understanding. In fact, the "Christian" right continuously reminds us that "tolerance" is a bad word. If "tolerance" is bad, then you'reintolerance must be good, right?
And intolerance is what led to the events of 9/11/01.
As a (moderate) relativist, I tend more toward statements like "I know what is right and what is wrong for me" and "I know what is right and what is wrong in this context." The one-size-fits-all attitude of the absolutist is abhorrent, and rife with danger.
Too, there is a hypocrisy to be found in so many ministers' harangue against "relativism": much of what our churches teach is relativistic. As I learned the Sixth Commandment, it was "Thou shalt not kill." But it was and is not taken literally--certainly not absolutely--because most churches of my acquaintance have, with greater or lesser degrees of relish, allowed exceptions: Self-defense, war, the death penalty. Pat Robertson, that great Christian, not long ago suggested that the United States go and "take out" Hugo Chavez. I don't think he mean to take him out for an ice cream. Whither the Sixth Commandment?
So what we really say in teaching the Sixth Commandment is, "Don't do this. Unless..." Which I consider a relativistic point of view. An absolutist, black-and-white, right-or-wrong point of view, so highly prized in theory by so many preachers, would say, "The Commandment says 'Thou shalt not kill,' and the circumstances--the relative circumstances--don't enter into it. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and the Commandment tells us that killing is wrong. Period."
But that is certainly not the attitude in most quarters. Why? Because despite all the denouncing of it, our churches in the main have adopted a relativistic attitude toward killing. Indeed, I have noted as my kids have been educated in churchy things that the Sixth is today often rendered, "Thou shalt not murder"--an important and interesting bit of fudgery. Sixth Commandment a little too absolute, perhaps? That's all right--just rewrite it. It's obviously what God must have had in mind. Relatively speaking.
"I know what's right" is the seed from which religious intolerance sprouts. Religious intolerance is the stem from which "holy wars," "sectarian violence," and jihads grow. Absolutism, in matters moral and religious, probably makes life easier for folks who don't like to do a lot of thinking, or who don't like to have their beliefs questioned. But it makes it a helluva lot more dangerous for everyone else.