Tuesday, 3 February 2015

RE.: Brian Mclaren On Moral Absolutes

Postmodernism, to some, seems to be a thing of the past -- an idea that inflated, then vanished once it outgrew its benefits. [1][2] These considered benefits were, and are, tolerance, the acceptance of ideas and, in turn, the equality of people who carry ideas. It also introduced to the world a new variety of art that made its way into literature and paintings. Postmodernism, from the two above linked articles, seems to have been a thing but no longer is because it will no longer suffice as a sweeping-away of the real problems that reality itself confronts society with. The appealing and paradoxical assertions of post-modernity won't cut it anymore, it seems.
     But the ideas evidently still exist and people are still drawn to the postmodern worldview, from what I can tell. Collin Hansen, editorial director at the Gospel Coalition, wrote in 2011, "Postmodernism is finished, and no one knows what's next. While postmodernism might be dead, it's not completely gone." [3] In the Christian sphere of theological conversation, there is one Brian McLaren whose controversy has apparently become enormous simply because of his adoption of postmodern ideas and assertions as part of his Christian worldview. He's sold many books, garnered a large audience from his blog, spoken frequently and continues with these endeavors. People seem to be interested in his perspective, and I think personally that this is because people want the best of both worlds, them being postmodern philosophy and Christian theology: the tolerance of ideas and the hope of Christ. Not everyone, however, thinks this mixture is viable.
     One of the criticisms of postmodern thought is its seeming moral implications. Modern voices have repeatedly barraged post-modernity with accusations of moral relativism (and relativism in just about every other sense). While postmodernists assert that absolute moral knowledge and certainty is impossible, modernists have questioned whether this means that a universal moral law is non-existent and that any moral laws, codes and duties can only be subjectively predicated.
     The purpose of this article is to take a look at an interesting response from McLaren himself with regards to these accusations. A fan of McLaren asked the question of moral absolutes which he himself responded to on his blog. [4] The question the user asks is stated in the linked article.

I think it is worth noting, first of all, something of a confusion in the actual question posed to McLaren. The user writes:
The following criticism is what I hear as an attack towards postmodernism, "they believe that there are [no] moral absolutes." Is this true? I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances. Also, I do not get this when I read your books.
The key phrase of interest to me is where the user says that "I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances." This is interesting because it seems to put belief in absolutes and taking moral stances under the same umbrella, as if relativists don't take moral stances. So let's first make the distinction that whether or not McLaren takes moral positions on certain issues is not a directly related issue to whether he believes in an absolute moral law.
McLaren begins his response:
Thanks for your question. The discussion in your class sounds like a classic case of how a postmodern viewpoint looks to sincere modern-minded people. To modern-minded folk, postmodern people seem to be moral nihilists, relativists, compromisers, with no moral compass. No wonder they get so upset!
And you can't blame your fellow students for seeing things this way. This is how they've been taught by most of their pastors, youth leaders, and other authority figures - who were in turn taught this way of thinking by their authority figures. 
As I've written elsewhere on this blog (just search on "postmodern"), the term "postmodern" is often defined in the worst possible light by modern-minded folk, so defending it will make you look like a kook (or worse) to them. So, I won't try to speak for "postmodernism," but let me speak for myself. 
As a modern-minded person, I can only agree in part with McLaren's generalization in his opening remarks. While I believe that many, if not most, postmodernists are nihilists, to some extent, and that most, to a similar degree, are relativists, I don't make that general evaluation only because the assertions of one professing postmodernist to another can change. There is a spectrum of hard-line and soft-line postmodernism and what postmodernism actually is, I think, can be different from one independent thinker to another. For example, one might assert that there is no absolute truth yet another might assert that there is, just that we cannot know it. Or one may be a postmodernist in the artistic domain. In this regard, I think it makes sense for the author to approach the question the way that he did, by speaking only for himself.
Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course! 
But I do not believe that Christian fundamentalism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or secular fundamentalism, etc., etc.) has a superior record of identifying what is moral and what isn't moral in contested situations. For example, in my lifetime Christian fundamentalists have been among the last to release racism, sexism, a careless attitude toward the environment, a careless attitude toward the rights of Palestinians, a fear of science, and a fusion between the gospel and American nationalism. 
Go back farther in history, and there were a majority of Bible-believing Christians in the South who were pro-slavery - and held that as an "absolute truth" or "absolute moral principle" that they could quote chapter and verse to defend. (I'll explore this in some detail in my upcoming book.) 
Go back still farther, and our Christian ancestors refused to believe Copernicus and Galileo - again, based on their conception of moral absolutes based on their readings of the Bible. The same was true regarding the age of the earth, Darwin, etc.
McLaren next reaffirms his skeptical audience that he does, in fact, believe that "some things are morally good and others are morally evil". This is somewhat of a relief, though a given, but it doesn't give an actual answer to the question at hand because of the distinction that I made between taking moral stances and believing in an absolute morality. This doesn't tell me whether his theology posits an absolute set of moral values or a relative one. It is a little disheartening though that he would continue his response by turning the attention towards "Christian fundamentalism". While his argument is against fundamentalism of any kind, he uses the history of the Church as an example. Unfortunately, this heads into ad hominem territory and meanwhile strays from the actual question of debate.
     For the record, a handful of the abolitionists, social activists and scientists out there were and are conservative, Bible-believing Christians contesting for absolute moral values. Need I mention folks like Pascal, MLK, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer? No, I am not ignoring or justifying the previous and future violence of the Church, but neither should anyone dismiss then the good that conservative Christians have enacted. Let's also be careful not to judge a philosophy by its abuse.
So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment.
With respect to the first sentence, I think that's fair enough. However, it would be erroneous (especially from someone I think I'm safe in assuming is in the theologically liberal camp) to say that by and large conservatives are in denial over previous mishaps and have not taken any correctional action, for reasons previously elaborated upon.
     If a person is confident in his moral understanding, that does not make their moral understanding necessarily more likely to be wrong. And if that person behaves immorally, is it because he was too confident or was it that he was simply errant epistemologically or debased ontologically? The basic issue of (im)morality is not one of confidence. With respect to the latter statements in the paragraph, the contradiction I'm sensing is that McLaren straightforwardly criticizes conservatives for an oft reoccurring excessive confidence in its moral assertions, supposedly leading to recurring immorality. Yet, to argue that the church has behaved immorally, you necessarily have to be confident in your moral understanding. This will come up again.
I'd also add that I do think moral standards change - but not in the direction of going down - just the opposite. That's why Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..." in the Sermon on the Mount. Over time, I believe God calls us to higher and higher standards of morality. Let me state this very clearly: the goal isn't to lower moral standards, but to raise them as we grow more morally mature. So - before it was don't murder. Now it's don't hate. Before it was only one eye for an eye. Now it's seek reconciliation, not revenge. Before it was love your neighbor, hate your enemy. Now it's love everyone - including enemies.
I'm pretty sure God's standard of morality has always been perfection, in deed and motive. I don't recall a time or an instance in scripture where God permitted the hatred of people or vengeance as a moral law. And from what I understand of Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount, when he says "you have heard it said...", I believe he is clarifying the spirit of the Old Testament law, which many of the Jewish people lost sight of, apparently. For example, in Matthew 5 where Jesus discusses murder and the hatred of one's brother, Jesus isn't saying 'well before all you had to do was not murder; now you can't hate your brother.' What I believe Jesus was saying was that the whole point of the law not murdering another person is that we should not act out of hatred. So I honestly don't see this as a change of standard, just a clarifying of the preexisting law, which Christ affirmed we continue to follow. This goes to support my earlier claim that God's moral standard has always been perfection.
So - perhaps we can put this question to rest for good: the issue isn't morality - with some "fer it" and others "agin it." We're all for morality, as we understand it. The issue is two-fold. Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally. Modern-leaning folks are concerned whether leaving the door open to the possibility that "we" have been or are wrong will lead to moral collapse. If you let an absolutist system go, there will be nothing left, they fear. 
I'd say there are dangers on both sides - the danger of excessive moral confidence on the one side and the danger of insufficient moral confidence on the other. I'm seeking a proper confidence ... one that is aware of both dangers on both sides.
In my view, only God has absolute moral knowledge. Human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to misinterpret God, all the while claiming to speak for God on morality, which (sadly) often degenerates into speaking as if they were God. I hope that helps! (Feel free to share this with your class.)
Why does McLaren feel that while moderns can't adequately define postmodernism, he feels he can define modernism?
     If the issue is absolute certainty and knowledge, well, yeah, then I would agree that only God has absolute knowledge. Because He's God. But it's a different question if we're asking if people can have knowledge of absolutes, and have certainty in them. This I don't think we can deny, especially if we're going to accuse conservative, excessively-confident, absolutist Christians of immorality. This can only be done if we're certain in our own understanding of moral absolutes. If we're not certain of or, worse, denying any possible knowledge of moral absolutes, then why are we accusing anybody of anything? So, for me, I think McLaren would have do be a believer in moral absolutes in order for his previous assessments (especially when he discusses the likelihood of immorality from excessive confidence) to hold.
     If we want to tackle immorality in society, why are we trying to assess the confidence of a person?
If morality is absolute, then we should be assessing who/what people are referring to for moral guidance. If morality is absolute, then a person's confidence means nothing if their definition of morality is debased. Confidence is only at the surface of the issue. If, however, morality is relative, then what are we talking about?
     Therefore, McLaren has not answered the question of postmodern relativism and has instead deviated, in his response, towards a discussion over the supposed dangers of excessive confidence in ones moral understanding. He assumes that a modern thinker's primary fear is that of a society without an absolute moral system (which, let's be honest, who isn't afraid of moral subjectivity) while denying that moderns can adequately define postmodernism. He presents God as one who's moral standards changes over time and personal/societal evolution. If this, McLaren's, were the response that were given to a class of modern-thinking Christians, they would be left with more questions and less answers, I'm afraid, including the original question of debate.
     As I conclude, I'd like to state that I don't know McLaren, I have not read all of his literature and I do not know his current stance on the issue is. I can't speak for him. I don't think he's necessarily wrong in motive but this response which he gives does leave doubt over what philosophical route he has chosen over the topic of morality. For all he's written, here, at least, he could very well be a relativist, denying the possibility of the existence of moral absolutes, or the possible knowledge thereof. I'd be interested in hearing more from McLaren on this topic.
[1] Kirby, Alan. "The death of postmodernism and beyond". Philosophy Now magazine. 2006. Web.
[2] Docx, Edward. "Postmodernism is dead". Prospect magazine. June 20, 2011. Web.
[3] Hansen, Collin. "Postmodernism: dead but not gone." Gospel Coalition. August 23, 2011. Web. 
[4] McLaren, Brian. "Q and r: Postmodernism and moral absolutes". Brian McLaren. Web.