Much of what ails the Church, and indeed, our culture today, is that we have elevated certain things to the neglect of others.
Rev. Jonathan Faulkner
In my master class on the book of 1st Timothy that I developed out of college and have taught at 2 churches, I usually have a section on the way in which thought is organized. The idea is not originally mine; it came from one of my college professors and mentors who was my guide as I, a young college grad, prepared the curriculum for what is an 8-week course. I have used the categories in other talks I have given over the years but this is the first time I have brought it up here.
Basically, the argument goes that we can place all thought into three foundational categories. Category 1 is the category of absolutes (remember those?). These are absolutely true, and which have severe consequences for not adhering too. These things are true always and forever, 100% of the time, they are not principles, but facts and truths that transcend and direct everything else. The second category is that of convictions. These are things that may not be absolutes but which we are inclined to feel strongly about due to our religion or philosophical worldview. Finally, you have opinions. Opinions are something that differs from person to person. Opinions are relative because they change, and everyone has them.
These three categories form a kind of epistemic hierarchy that must be done from the top down. For example: It is absolutely true that God created men and women in His image. That is a fact and absolute truth of the universe that comes out of the mouth of God himself. Because of that absolute truth I have the conviction that abortion needs to either be eliminated altogether or made as rare and safe as possible, if I cannot achieve the end of ending it altogether. That is a conviction I have, which is informed by the absolute truth that everyone is created in the image of God. However, I have a different perspective than most on how we achieve the end the conviction aims at. I do not think the federal government is the means to ending abortion, but that the Church has the means and resources to be an alternative community that does everything from support the mother who did not have an abortion, to adopting the kid ourselves. That is an opinion, of how to achieve a conviction that is based on the absolute truth that all men and women are created in the image of God. Remember that works on the other side of the argument as well. There are those out there who hold to the conviction that abortion should be a right. Clearly, I have a strong disagreement with them and am convicted to disagree with them, but that is a conviction that exists in the secular world and since the secular world is marred in sin, it does not surprise me that it exists.
One important note on opinions though. They do not always follow this hierarchy because not every opinion is subordinate directly to an absolute. There are opinions on things like paint color, football team preference, food tastes and many other areas that we can hold that are unrelated or only obliquely related to convictions and absolutes. For instance, I am a fan of the Green Bay Packers, most of my congregation are Minnesota Vikings fans. Church unity is an absolute, and how we get their a biblical conviction informed by scripture, but the only way that this opinion might be related to those two is if I get up every Sunday and berate the Vikings and demand my congregation be Packers fans. That is a comical example, but I tire of the “color of the carpet” example. It is also true that the same can be said about convictions. Separation of church and state was a conviction that many of the Founding Father’s had, but they may have had different motivations for holding that conviction (more on that in a moment).
That is how the hierarchy is supposed to work, but both in the church and in the culture at large we have either outright, or we have placed true absolutes on the backburner in favor of elevating convictions and opinions. It may also be said that in some churches, just as in the culture, we have rejected the notion that there exist any kind of absolute whatsoever, that truth is relative and everyone “has their own truth.” Many philosophers and epistemologists have done us the service of pointing out the logical incoherence, that the statement: “There are no absolutes” is a logical contradiction, since the statement itself is an absolute. It breaks the law of non-contradiction that governs logical arguments and creates a logical fallacy of conflicting conditions. But instead of rehashing that argument here, I want to make another observation. That is, what often happens with the hierarchy is that convictions or opinions often get elevated to the role and position of Absolutes. This is the problem with the idea of “living your own truth” it means that your opinion is now absolute, and no one can argue or say anything that contradicts your opinion and if they do…well…you better crush them.
If you want to see this in action, go check out the comments section on almost any viral post on Facebook or Twitter. If you do not have a pension for masochism, just consider this example: We will use abortion again for the sake of consistency. Remember that “Abortion is wrong” is a conviction based on the absolute that all men and women are created in the image of God. The same is true about slavery, patricide, infanticide, and mass murder. But when we raise abortion being wrong to the level of an absolute, we often do so at the expense of the absolute that men and women are created in the image of God. So that girl who enters the abortion clinic to the shouts of “You murderer,” or the abortionist who receives death threats from pro-life is, in that moment, dehumanized and it would be a contradiction, based on how we treated them, that they are absolutely made in the image of God. If they are absolutely made in the image of God, than we honor that image and recognize that abortion does not just do harm to the child whose life is lost, but to the girl who received it and to the person who did the abortion. There is a well-documented psychological price when you are knowingly and without a medical reason, simply for the convenience, taking the life of a child. But when our convictions are elevated to the level of absolutes, we only do more harm by labeling the girl a murderer who may have seen the situation as hopeless, been afraid, was forced by a boyfriend or parent, etc. There are some who are craven, who flaunt their abortions as badges of honor, I am thinking of one actress who has a t-shirt made every time she gets one with the updated number or something along those lines. But that is NOT most people who get abortions or terminations.
This becomes even more damaging when opinions are elevated to absolutes. Like it or not, politics is mostly an area of opinion. How we act in political spaces may be dictated by absolutes and convictions, but most politics lives in the realm of opinion with only a few areas rising to the level of conviction. When we raise political opinions to the level of absolutes, we end up making every election: “The most important election of our lifetime.” This is a phrase I have heard applied to every election I have been alive for. Like it or not, fiscal conservativism is an opinion, I can think that it is not good for the government to operate in a perpetual deficit, but there are a lot of people who disagree with that opinion. Political candidates and their party’s platforms are also largely matter of preferences. I would prefer that we have a small, limited government that supports state and local governments, and which does not over regulate or restrict my ability to worship. There are those on the right and left who strongly disagree with me and share a different opinion. That is okay. What is not okay is when we start fighting and killing each other over matters that should be relegated to opinions. Outside of the religious bubble of Christianity, pluralism was a cornerstone to the founding father’s understanding of how to make democracy work. “Out of many, one” means that we are many people, differing skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, religions and yes, opinions. This is not like the Pax Romana where the government allowed you to follow your religious practices if you also obeyed Roman Law. This is, here are the laws of the land, and within that law, we have pluralism because it is part of natural law. That is also the thinking behind the Anti-Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. It does not matter what the faith backgrounds of our founding fathers was, they believed that it was good for the Church and State to be separate and so they enshrined it in the constitution. This was a conviction they shared. We are allowed to have opinions and convictions, but we should not elevate them to the realm of Absolutes because the result of doing so is all around us every day. I would say that this is at the core of what is driving our political partisanship today. When we are willing to acknowledge that others think differently than us we are able to converse and even work together to achieve the goal of governing or supporting human flourishing. When our convictions and opinions become absolutes, it is impossible to even have a conversation. Again, if you do not believe the truth of this thesis, go read the comments on any viral post.
It is also possible to hold wrong and erring convictions and opinions. In the years leading up to the Civil War, both abolition and pro-slavery voices elevated their causes of conviction to the position of absolutes and we went to war over it. The pro-slavery position is and was wrong, it is not justifiable for the people of God. The fact that the Church in the South not only defended slavery but then upheld Jim Crow and that even today white southern Baptist pastors are sending patronizing and condescending letters to their Black colleagues is heresy. It violates the absolute truth that men and women are created in the image of God. Yet it was, and in some circles still is considered an acceptable conviction to hold. Slavery is also an example of a negative absolute. slavery was and is absolutely, morally wrong, and evil and should be stopped anywhere it is happening.
One might wonder where Christians should get their absolutes and convictions and what should be the thing that forms our opinions. The answer to that is not hidden in mystery. it is found in Matthew’s Gospel, Mark’s Gospel, the Prophet Isaiah, Moses in Exodus, it is found in the pages of the written word of God. This word of God is a means by which we receive Absolute truths and form our convictions from and inform our opinions. But that word comes from and carries the authority of the one enthroned in heaven, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the universe. He is, in himself, the absolute and from Him all absolute truth comes. He also tells us what our convictions should be, that is our convictions should be in line with Jesus’. He is also the one on whom our opinions should be formed and informed. The life of the Christian is to be totally and completely shaped by this person Jesus and His teachings and commandments. When we stray from that, use human philosophy and man-made doctrines to shape us we end up looking like the world and not by Christ.
Politics, is again, a great realm in which this is on display, conservatism is a man-made philosophy that originated with Edmund Burke in the days of the Enlightment. There are many conservative policies and positions that align with certain principles in Scripture, but they are not scripture. The same is true about modern liberalism. There are many ways that liberal policy aligns with scripture and its principles, but liberalism is not scripture, and neither should be treated as such. In fact, if Jesus never disagrees with your political platform on the right or the left, than you are not following Jesus, but an idol. Jesus, when we really follow him, is going to disagree with both political liberalism and conservatism, and neither are ever going to be totally compatible with Jesus, no matter how much we might twist the truth and wish it was so. Jesus is the radical third way of the Kingdom of Heaven, not the co-opted brand name of modern political parties. So when Jesus says: “Do not lie to one another” and we hear politicians lying, be it big lies or white lies, we should not be surprised. If we are a Christian in politics, then “Do not lie to one another” should inform how we interact with our colleagues, our constituents, the media and so on.
The Christian should, in all things, submit themselves wholly to the authority and absolute truth of God’s word spoken and lived out through the life of the Trinity. Consequently, Jesus is the only one in the universe, human and otherwise, who has the authority to make this demand of total loyalty. Not merely because of who He is, but because of what He has done for the sake of saving our lives. The question I find myself asking, when weighing all the blessings and benefits of subbing everything to the Lordship of Christ, is: why not? He is a good and kind Savior who is also totally holy and magnificent. All authority was His to claim, and instead of just claiming it, he became the suffering servant. This is a God we can listen to, a God we can know personally, a God who we do not have to be afraid of. He has touched us to make us whole, so why not rely on Him for everything, especially absolute truth, our convictions, and the forming and shaping of our opinions.
It just seems obvious.