In the trial of Jesus, ancient texts have recorded this exchange:
Pilate replied, “You are a king then?” “You say that I am a king, and you are right,” Jesus said. “I was born for that purpose. And I came to bring truth to the world. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.
Some questions are truly timeless.
We live in an age where the notion of truth, of absolutes which transcend the individual and society, is increasingly under assault. Ours is an age of radical individualism, wherein man alone becomes the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong, where moral relativism reigns, where postmodernism trades absolute truth for “narratives”, which vary from individual to individual, culture to culture, and age to age.
It is no small irony that ours is an age of science and technology — disciplines which depend by their very nature on the absolute, unchanging, and permanent laws of nature. Yet this same age rejects or disdains the concept of absolutes and transcendent truth. No one questions the speed of light, or the Pythagorean theorem, or the laws of gravity, or the quirky and counter-intuitive physics of subatomic particles. The postmodernist whose narrative does not accept the law of gravity will still need a sidewalk cleanup crew when he flings himself from a tall building, believing he can fly.
The difference, of course, is that the absolutes of physics and science apply to the physical world, quantifiable and tangible in greater or lesser measure, while the absolutes of ethics, morality, and religion touch on the metaphysical, the invisible, the philosophical, the theological. The materialist rejects such notions outright, as superstition, “values” (i.e., individual beliefs or preferences based on nothing more than feelings or bias), as mindless evolutionary survival skills, or the dying remnants of an age of ignorance. Absolutes are rejected because of the presuppositions of constricted materialism, the arrogance and conceits of intellectualism, the notion that if it cannot be weighed or measured it does not exist. But the deeper and more fundamental reason for the rejection of transcendent absolutes is simply this: such absolutes make moral claims upon us.
In truth, man cannot exist without transcendent absolutes, even though he denies their existence. Our language and thought are steeped in such concepts, in notions of good and evil, love and hate, free will and coercion, purpose and intentionality. We cannot think, or communicate, or be in any way relational without using the intangible, the metaphysical, the conventions, the traditions. We are by our very nature creatures who compare: we judge, and accept or reject; we prefer or disapprove; we love or hate, criticize or applaud. All such choices involve the will as a free agent — and free will is meaningless if it is not used in the context of an ethereal yet unchanging standard against which a choice is measured. We say a rose smells beautiful and a rotten egg rotten, because we judge those smells against an invisible standard which determines one to be pleasant and the other offensive. We cannot measure the love of a child, or or weigh the sorrow of a death, or calculate the anger at an injustice or the beauty of a Bach concerto; yet such reactions, and the standards by which we recognize and judge such intangibles, are every bit as real as the photons and protons, the law of gravity or the principles of physics. Even the most hardened Darwinist, atheistic to the core, by necessity must speak the language of purpose and transcendence and choice, as Mother Nature “selects”, and “chooses”, and “intends”, and “prefers” this genetic trait or that survival skill. We are incapable of describing even the purported randomness, mindlessness, and purposelessness of evolutionary biology without concepts and language of intentionality, preference, good and evil.
No, the rejection of absolutes is the rejection of their claim upon our wills. To reject that absolute truth exists, to deny that standards and principles stand apart from mere constructs of human imagination, is to affirm the absolute that we are absolutely autonomous, answerable to nothing and no one, masters and gods accountable only to ourselves. To deny absolutes is to deny free will — and to deny the consequences of choices which violate the very principles we dismiss as foolish, ignorant, prejudiced, and superstitious. To deny dogma is to be dogmatic; to reject absolutes absolutely is to affirm absolutes, even if unknowingly. Transcendent absolutes define our very humanity; dogs do not have dogmas, nor are cats categorical.
G.K. Chesterton, prescient and insightful as ever in his vision of the foolishness of man in his intellectual hubris, said:
Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
Ideas have consequences, philosophies have predicates, and the rejection of absolutes absolutely dehumanizes us, for we devolve from a species of high principles and moral light to denizens of a depravity far lower than the animals. For animals have rational restraints on behavior, brutish though it may be, while there is no end of evil for the human mind unleashed from absolutes.
Speaking of the fall of Carthage, with its materialism, wealth, and power, steeped in a religion whose worship sacrificed infants in the fires of Moloch, Chesterton says thus:
This sort of commercial mind has its own cosmic vision, and it is the vision of Carthage. It has in it the brutal blunder that was the ruin of Carthage. The Punic power fell, because there is in this materialism a mad indifference to real thought. By disbelieving in the soul, it comes to disbelieving in the mind … Carthage fell because she was faithful to her own philosophy and had followed out to its logical conclusion her own vision of the universe. Moloch had eaten her own children.
The rejection of absolutes, with the resulting moral relativism and narcissistic nihilism, is no mere intellectual folly nor faddish foolishness. It is instead a corrosive toxin, appealing in its seeming rationality and reasonableness, but pervasive and deadly for both person and polity.
If the Truth will set you free — and it most surely will — its rejection will surely enslave you. Slavery or freedom: your choice.