I once overheard the following:
“There is no such thing as black and white, everything is grey.”
Do you see the irony in this comment?
It’s a black and white statement. There is no elbow room, no negotiating, no degrees of grey, just one single shade of it: the unbending opinion that there are no moral absolutes. Clearly it is a self-contradicting statement, for if everything is grey, what of the statement itself? How could it be the unquestionable truth that all things are grey, if one thing is not? That is – the black and white belief that all things are grey.
The above statement can be said in a myriad of ways, another being: “there is no such thing as absolute Truth.” This philosophy is called Moral Relativism. Yet by saying there is no Truth, one is actually claiming to know at least one Truth: that there is no Truth. Again, it’s self-contradicting.
The British comedian, Stephen Fry, once said on camera that the church calls this “moral relativism as if it’s some appalling sin, when what it actually means, is thought.” He goes on to describe some of the moral errors of the Catholic church over the millenia and says that the reason they made grave errors in determining truth is “because the truth is complicated, it’s hard. . . ” He then goes on to conclude that because the truth is complicated, it must therefore be relative, and as such, what use is the church?
Now, I fully agree that truth is complicated and hard in many cases. I also agree there are some Catholics/Christians today and in times past who have made grave errors in doctrinal beliefs regarding morality. But it does not follow that because the church is sometimes wrong, it is always wrong. Nevertheless, Stephen Fry’s statements are a pithy example of why so many believe in moral relativism and why so many reject the idea that the church has any inside information.
If you look closely though, you’ll notice even Fry has made the same self-contradicting error:
He claims that the Catholic church has been wrong about some things. But if morality is only a matter of preference or the evolution of thought (i.e. what you personally or collectively believe to be right or wrong), is Fry really right in saying someone has been wrong? And if he is right, does this mean there is a Real Standard or Real Morality by which his measurement was drawn? If there isn’t, his comments are useless, but if there is, what then of moral relativism?
In the “Afterword to the Third Edition” of The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis says this:
“Out of this double quarrel came the dominant image of my allegory – the barren, aching rocks of its ‘North,’ the foetid swamps of its ‘South,’ and between them the Road on which alone mankind can safely walk. . . . Everyone can pick out among his own acquaintance the Northern and Southern types – the high noses, compressed lips, pale complexions, dryness and taciturnity of the one, the open mouths, the facile laughter and tears, the garrulity and (so to speak) general greasiness of the others.”
The reality of icy Northeners and swampy Southeners (e.g. right wingers, left wingers) creates a vast and nebulous spectrum of varying shades of grey. Black and white are not found on either end, like a gradient, but rather are interspersed all the way throughout. Each end knows some truth the other end is blind to, and vice versa. It matters not if one is religious or heathen, educated or illiterate – atheists and academics are found on either end of the poles as well.
What matters is that we don’t know all truths, we only know some truths; and as it turns out, what some of us believe to be true is actually false.
For example, we believe murder and slavery is morally wrong and furthermore, hold murderers and slave traders accountable even if they don’t personally believe they have done wrong. If another country is barbaric, it doesn’t matter to us if they think murder is fine, we say: “No, it is morally reprehensible and you must change your ways.” We then strive to convert them to our higher morals, even using the military at times to enforce it. This is because we know that murder=wrong is a “black and white” truth, and therefore objective and universal, rather than subjective and relative.
If this is indeed the case, that some of us are universally Right on an issue, and some of us are universally Wrong, there must be real truths and real wrongs.
Consider the following. When we say something is dark, we are coming to that conclusion by comparing it to light. The day is light and the night is dark, for example. Light is a real thing. But the standard by which we make this measurement is not actually “lightness,” but Vision. We have eyes. Likewise, when we say something is bitter, the standard by which we measure is not actually “sweetness,” but rather a third thing, Tastebuds.
What would happen if the words light and dark were interchangeable?
The words would be emptied of all meaning. When I say it is light out, you would never know if it was really light out or actually dark out, regardless of having eyes. If sweet and bitter were interchangeable words, you would never know if what I ate was one or the other. These words would become useless to us and we would lose the ability to communicate.
The same goes for the word “truth.” If morality is relative, that is to say, if what I believe is true for me is actually false for you, and what you believe is true for you, is false for me, then morality is emptied of all meaning; as are the words right and wrong, good and evil. A person may not like sweet food, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is sweet. So, if morality (i.e. truth) is actually a real thing, just as vision is real and tastebuds are real, there must be a third thing – beyond right and wrong – some Real Standard by which we measure morality by.
But what about all the hit and miss going on worldwide? If Morality is a real thing, why do so many people get it wrong?
C.S. Lewis goes on to explain the following:
“Opposite evils, far from balancing, aggravate each other. . . . widespread drunkenness is the father of Prohibition and Prohibition of widespread drunkenness. Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other.”
And Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 has this to say:
“Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise – why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool – why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.“
So what am I getting at here?
Christians and Catholics have made moral errors for the same reason atheists and pagans have. Because of icy and swampy perspectives. We are all flawed human beings. We get some things right and some things wrong. Some of us get more things right than others; some countries or religions are considered more moral than others. Some people get their math sums right, others miss the mark.
What this means is that some of us are closer to Absolute Truth and others are farther away.
Stephen Fry asked, if the church has made moral mistakes just like the rest of us, what precisely does it have to offer? Well, it offers Christ (who was God in the flesh), and an opportunity to enter into a life-giving relationship with him. Now, of course, the existence of Absolute Truth by which we’re able to measure right or wrong does not in and of itself prove that Jesus Christ was God. I am not asking you to take such a leap. What I am asking is this: How do we determine that something is wrong if we don’t believe that some things are truly right?
“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. . . . Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about.” (C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”)
What . . . or Who . . . is this Real Morality?
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