If you notice on the right, taking the no. 1 spot the “Top Posts” in this blog is “A Defense of Absolute Truth”, a message originally spoken by Ravi Zacharias and annotated by the members of a now-defunct blog called “Garage Scholars”. This is my attempt to make Ravi’s argument more clear per his message, which is available here in video form: Ravi Zacharias Speaking To LDS 1 of 7 2 of 7 3 of 7 4 of 7 5 of 7 6 of 7 7 of 7 (h/t to user Reuven Goldstein). For further background, this is the first of a three-part series entitled “In Pursuit of Truth”, given on November 13, 2005 at the University of Utah Mormon Tabernacle. A DVD can also be purchased here.
[Start of post revision/summary and expansion of Ravi’s original remarks]
Sexuality, marriage, stem-cell research, genetics—these things are getting very, very complex. It’s hard to know how to address this tangled subject with meaning and coherence. In today’s modern age, there are two worldviews in conflict: relativism and absolute truth.
This is the nature of truth: we must come to conclusion that truth does matter, especially when you’re on the receiving end of a lie. For example, in a trip to courtroom with family, Ravi witnessed the trial of man accused of raping two minors. After the prosecutor finished, Ravi was certain he was guilty. But then after the defense attorney spoke, Ravi was not so sure of what the truth was. This being a criminal trial, how much more important is it that we understand the truth and the source of truth about life’s essence, meaning and destiny?
Churchill, in the context of war, said “the truth is the most valuable thing in the world. Indeed it is so valuable that it is often protected by a bodyguard of lies.” Natan Sharansky, a prisoner in Moscow who was tortured, went back to the prison in Moscow where he was held, and to the room where he was tortured. He told his wife, “it was here that I actually discovered my soul.” He laid a wreath at grave of the man who gave Soviets the nuclear bomb and said, “I’ve always thought that the most powerful weapon in the world was the bomb. I’ve come to the conclusion that the most powerful weapon in the world is the truth.”
Western culture is standing now on the quicksand of relativism, “with our feet planted firmly in mid-air,” as GK Chesterton wrote.
How do we find the truth in times such as these? This is the key question to Ravi’s defense of absolute truth. There have been three main changes in mood and social phenomena in the last 20 to 25 years. Daniel Yankelovich, public opinion analyst and social scientist (whose books include Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, and Profit With Honor: The New Stage of Market Capitalism) said “culture is the effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential situations that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.” There has to be a coherence in our culture, he wrote in the 1980’s. “A cultural revolution is one that makes a decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those meanings that deal with the significant questions of the purpose and meaning of life.” You and I are assumed today to have shared meanings from the past that address the present.
There was a revolution in the last 20 to 25 years: first, of secularization. What is secularization? It’s the process by which religious ideas, institutions and interpretations lose their social significance. If you are religiously minded, you are assumed to be prejudiced. If you are irreligiously minded, you are assumed to be objective.
Take for example, Toronto. Toronto is labeled as the “good” city. The mayor at the time took a position on an issue, got 20,000 phone calls, and then said he was discounting the calls because the calls were mostly from religious people saying, “we all know they are predisposed and prejudiced on this subject.” Another example: there was a man on trial for pornography. The defense lawyer didn’t want jurors who were religious. Then he cross-examined witnesses by asking them about going into an art gallery with pictures of nudes. He asked them, “what is the difference?” How do you argue at that point, as a non-religious juror? In a similar vein, Michaelangelo said he wanted to paint nudes so he could see “man as God sees man.” The teacher responded, “Michael, you are not God.” There are proclivities within the human heart to take that which is normally decent and twist it.
C.S. Lewis, in A Pilgrim’s Regress, illustrated this change in the human heart when his protagonist, John, arrives at mountain called “the spirit of the age.” The person in charge is grim and unhappy, rather than smiling. John finds himself in chains. When he comments on the deliciousness of milk, a man says, “all it is is the secretion of a cow.” As he left the mountain, he says, “you lie because you don’t know the difference between what nature has meant for nourishment and what is has meant for garbage.” In the secularized world, we no longer know this difference because we have no more points of reference. A woman being exploited for pornography, under secularism, will not know that she is being exploited. Secularization has left society bereft of shame.
There is a very thin line between that which is sacred and that which is profane. And if you profane that which is sacred, you plunder yourself. Chesteron wrote of this profaning process as “emptiness [that] does not come from being weary of pain, but rather weary of pleasure.”
Another revolution of the last 20 to 25 years continues today: relativism. What is relativism? It’s the idea that pluralization is a good thing. A competing number of worldviews is available with none being dominant. In a globalized world like this, this is unavoidable. We must accept it and learn to respect the individual and engage the idea. We regard people as equals, but we also keep ideas in their respective hierarchies. This is how you come to find examples like a Korean selling kosher tacos in LA. Other cultures and countries have unique perspectives to offer us. America was not framed by a pantheistic worldview. (As a sidenote, Ravi mentions it could not have come into being in a Muslim worldview, either). Pantheism would never have generated the language of the founding documents. He continues: “in Islam, the whole world is seen through the lens of the revelation of the prophet Muhammad. Hinduism likes to call itself a way of life. We in the west have forgotten how a worldview shaped us.”
Moral relativism puts us on the knife-edge of destruction. Logic will tell you that. You cannot live a life that is systemically contradictory. What contradiction is to reason, sin is to life. If your logic breaks down, so does your argument. If your morality breaks down, so does your life. Ravi’s ancestors were orthodox priests in the southern part of India. One time, a Hindu professor of Eastern philosophy challenged him to speak on why he wasn’t Hindu, and claimed “afterwards, we’ll tear you to shreds [in an argument]”.
Ravi said he would speak on why he is a Christian: the pantheistic worldview is systemically contradictory. Anything can basically mean anything; terms are meaningless (regarding the Hindu view of life, Ghandi said there were some statements from the Hindu founding document (reference missed) that he wished he could expunge). Afterward, the professor said that Ravi did not understand the two kinds of logic—the law of non-contradiction, an either/or way of thinking, which is Western thought, and then there is the law of both/and way of thinking, the dialectical system, which is Eastern. The professor said that the dialectical system applied to Hinduism, not the either/or system. Ravi said, “you’re telling me that when I discuss the Hindu religion, I either use the both/and system of logic or nothing else, is that right?” Pause. “The either/or way of thinking does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?” Even in India you look both ways when you cross the street, it’s either you or the bus. In this manner, using the logic of the both/and system, the either/or system is proven.
The way to test the validity of any way of thinking is to see that which best corresponds to reality. Take, for example, “unalienable rights”. What do we mean? How can a quantity that is the product of random chance have moral rights? How can we talk about racism if we do not believe in essential dignity (imago dei)? GK Chesterton summarizes it in this way: the modern revolution doubts not only the idea he denounces, but the system of thinking by which he denounces it. The modern revolutions, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mind. By rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything. The tragedy of disbelieving in God is not that a man ends up believing in nothing. Alas, it is much worse, that person may end up believing in anything at random.
Kant, in his Man Unconfronted by God, hypothesized that we may use reason to arrive at a moral conclusion. Iris Murdoch responded to this by saying, “how recognizable, how familiar to us, is this man so beautifully portrayed by Kant, who even confronted by Christ, turns away to hear the voice of his own reason…free, independent, lovely, rational, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of philosophy…he is the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which is discoveries uncover…Kant’s creation was created by Milton, though. His name is Lucifer.” “Knowledge is a dangerous friend when no one makes the rules.” In other words, relativism removes your moral basis.
The third part of Ravi’s argument is privatization – a breakdown in the modern experience between the public and the private sphere where we are forced to find meaning in the private. We are muzzled.
In Dohar (Bangladesh) universities, there is a great amount of technology, but in every building there are prayer rooms. Ravi may not agree with that worldview, but it’s a good example of consistency in what they believe by keeping religion in the public sphere. In the US, we believe religion is an amputation of the brain: the more educated we get apart from moral absolutes, the more we will train intellectually sophisticated people. Huxley said that science may have given us “improved means to achieve inferior or deteriorated ends.” Our means may become great while our ends become damnable.
When he goes to universities, many students go to Ravi and ask how to not take their own lives. This is because we have fragmented ourselves. How can we bring unity and diversity (the purpose of a university) if we do not see the sacredness of life itself, the soulishness of human beings, the inner reality where we see the hurt and pain and needs?
Every culture ultimately speaks from the agony of its wounds. How can you privatize your most valuable belief? We’re doing this to our own damage. When privatization has run its course, you end up without meaning. The loneliest moment in life is that in which you experience that which you thought was the ultimate thing in life, and it lets you down. That is why we must look to an answer that looks beyond the scope of this world.
Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness, was tempted to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Jesus responded to Satan by affirming the truth of our reality, that we as individuals are not material, but spiritual. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every world that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus also affirms the relationship that the way we see God is not as a slot machine for your life.
If you’re looking for an absolute, you will only find it when all the diversity within in you is bound up in the coherence of the worship of the living God, who is the truth. The diversities of your life, if gathered piecemeal, will bring about inner fragmentation. There has to be a worldview that binds these diversities into a coherent whole.
In the Bible, life is sacred, your word is sacred, property, sexuality, relationships, are all sacred. Starting with the Renaissance man as an artistic being, then proceeding through the Renaissance to rationalism, skepticism, existentialism, volitionalism and desperation, and now, in post-modernism, man is the defining being, or non-being. Instead of God doing the defining, we are doing the defining, and the deluge of judgment is coming. Each of those movements and ideas has its place, but only God blends them all together and brings unity and says, “I have fashioned you in my image,” and when you worship him with honor, everything is joined, because there is a transcendent reason for your being.
“Whoever told you that life had to be coherent?” a woman shouted at Zacharias once. He asked her in response: “do you want my answer to be coherent or incoherent?”
[End of revision/expansion]