Is Tolerance a Christian Virtue? Part Three: Finding a Viable Alternative to Absolutism and Relativism
“Religious ethics has often tended to brand as immoral and prompted of the devil all codes different from one absolute code regarded as given for all time.” — Sterling P. Lamprecht
Among the anxieties aggravated by our attempts to determine the boundaries of toleration is the fear of relativism. And it is a reasonable fear.
Often we assume that relativism is the only alternative to absolutism and the exclusivism that tends to follow hard on its heels. Once we set a trembling foot on the slippery slope of relative truth, many reason, we are doomed to slide down into the quagmire of moral uncertainty and quicksand swamps without objective truth and durable values. Such fears, again, are not without basis.
Several years ago, The Economist news magazine ran an obituary for Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll. The obit described a writing assignment in a university sociology course. The students were asked to write a paper in response to the following question: “What criticisms have been made of Barbie as a role model? Do you agree with such criticism? In your opinion should the manufacturers be sensitive to this criticism? There are no ‘right’ answers to these questions, but you should develop a line of reasoning that reflects your values.”
“There are no right answers to these questions.”
Nor (we are left to assume) any wrong answers.
Everyone is equally entitled to his or her opinion, we are often told, when it comes to values and ethical questions. No answer is more or less valid than any other. This is the theme song of relativism. And the hills are indeed alive with the sound of this music.
However helpful it might be to loosen up students to learn to argue, this assumption makes a very poor basis for social behavior.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, professor of political science and the history of ideas at Oxford University, and no friend of unfettered relativism, once observed that relativism could be summarized as follows: “I prefer coffee. You prefer champagne. We have different tastes. There is no more to be said.”
Such a moral code, as Sir Isaiah observed, only tends to privatize all ethical decisions. When all morality breaks down along purely individualistic lines of personal preferences, society becomes untenable.
Often, those who claim to hold to moral and religious absolutes, and who exclude anyone who doesn’t agree with those absolutes, will give the impression that relativism is the ONLY alternative to absolutism. This is simply untrue.
The absolutist is likely to say: “There is one and only one right answer to any real question for all time and in all places. Contradiction demonstrates error, because all right answers must agree with each other.” A religious absolutist is likely to add that these absolutes all find their source in God, and it is only a coincidence that the speaker and God are in complete agreement.
As we have already seen, the relativist, by contrast, says “If it feels right to me right now, it is right for me.”
However, as Sir Isiah Berlin demonstrates there is a sensible, even common-sensible, alternative to relativism and absolutism. It is called pluralism.
Pluralism, in contrast to relativism, does not argue that there are no wrong answers. Nor does it assume that there is a single right answer. Nor, indeed, does it assume that there is an infinite possibility of right answers.
Pluralism argues, instead, that depending on many variables, there are many right answers to the same question. These answers are not grounded in individual preferences, or personal tastes, or subjective feelings, but objectively in the ways whole communities live historically and define meaning, values, and beliefs among their constituents over time. These right answers are sometimes in conflict with other right answers, and they cannot always be made to harmonize with other values.
According to pluralism, there is neither a single way of being human, nor of being faithful. Humanity flourishes in a variety of ways.
The Bible itself reflects precisely this kind of pluralism. The stories of the Patriarchs in Genesis bear witness to an informality of relationship with God far different from the ordered laws and priestly prescriptions of the mature nation of Israel. The ways of the kings of Israel, even the greatest kings of Israel, is not the way of the prophets. Kings and prophets lock horns because of the conflicting ends for which they are working as well as because of the fundamental difference between their vocations.
When we turn to the New Testament we are immediately struck by the fact that there are four gospels, not just one. And the title of each gospel is (in Greek) “kata,” “According to….” To try to harmonize them is to lose the majesty and inner testimony to truth and experience of faith of the various authors, communities and editors who brought the Gospels into existence under the inspiration of God’s Spirit.
We find St. Paul conflicting with St. James over the relative value of faith and works, a conflict that cannot be explained away or ignored without losing something essential to the message of the gospel. And the perspectives of these two writers are not just reflections of their own personal preferences, but reflect the experiences of the communities from which they come and to whom they speak. And the biblical texts attributed to John represent a community of faith struggling to square its experience of faith with its “competitors” in the Hellenistic world and among the synagogues from which most of this young Christian community came. The community bearing the name of “the beloved disciple” tries to uphold the transcending value of love while fighting like a Bowery boy on a bad day.
Pluralism in religion as well as in culture is a mess, but it is also a glory of creation and human civilization. And to ignore the reality of pluralism in the world within and beyond faith, is to miss an indispensable aspect of the beauty of God’s creation.
Diversity and variety in creation and in human societies is not a mistake that needs to be corrected, but an expression of God’s gracious purposes that should be celebrated. God has woven plurality right into the fabric of creation, and God works through all of this diversity to achieve God’s redemptive intentions known ultimately to God alone.
The cultures of the world — from those of humble Hebrew shepherds to powerful Roman senators, from the savage beauty of Homer’s world to the sophisticated artistry and duplicitous politics of Renaissance Italy — afford a wide variety of ways of living humanly together. And God is at work through all cultures to achieve God’s own ends. God uses even the rudest tools to craft his masterpieces. And we do not have a unique and exclusive claim upon God, nor do we hold the patent on faithfulness.
This is not to say, however, that every society seeks to honor God’s creative and redemptive ends in ways that we would endorse or approve.* But it does affirm the possibility that God is honored and glorified in ways we might find strange.
- Our recognition of pluralism does not imply that we must inevitably condone every society’s concept of human flourishing. It is possible that we will, from time to time, in the name of the God we worship and/or the values we hold precious in our society, do all we can to oppose another society, to prevent its cultural expansion and influence. To recognize, with Isaiah Berlin, that “in the house of human history there are many mansions,” does not mean that toleration has no boundaries. But it should remind us that respect for others corresponds to the simple Christian virtue of humility. We should never forget, however, that humility, like other Christian virtues, entails considerable risks.