Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dealing in Absolutes

With the manuscript away and in the hands of my editor, I've found myself re-engaging with the Believer's Guide.  Some if it came as I wove in the excellent edits plugged in by my wife.  You think you've read a thing through enough to catch every typo...but no...

Some of it has come as I have seen that goldarned fifth chapter for what it was.  Ack.  It's a clumsy flesh golem of a Frankenchapter, knit together out of the bits and pieces of essays and bloggery as I struggled to reassemble a stolen manuscript.

But mostly, the concepts stirred about afresh as I explored the heady fusion of a Many Worlds cosmology and classical theology.

When you come back to something after a while, those renewed eyes mean you can enter into a conversation with yourself, challenge yourself, and reconsider your thinking.  In particular, I found myself wondering about one of the sustained themes of the book: the challenge to absolutism.   Drawing from the joyous, endless generativity and freedom implied by a multiverse creation, a core theme of the book involves challenging the idolatrous certainties of both literalist fundamentalism and militant atheism.   And, frankly, any system that assumes that it's got the one final answer.

Absolutism bad, as Multiverse Hulk might say.

But wait, I say.  I do make claims about truth.  Throughout the book, and particularly in it's exploration of ethics, I present a series of arguments for both Love and God.  Throughout, I make the case that the ethic of radical compassion is The Essential Law governing sentient beings, and that love is the essence of God and God's self-expression.

I also argue for the existence of a Creator, The Ground of Being that is and should be the focus of our existence.

So, isn't that an absolute?  Seriously.  Isn't that just the same thing I rail against?  I mulled that one over for a little bit.  Took a good long walk on it, in the brisk cold of an evening.

And on two significant levels, the answer was no.

First, faith---the orienting of one's existence towards God--is not the same thing as orienting oneself towards a finite object or a neatly, cleanly defined system or pattern of understanding.   If you think for a moment you've entirely grasped the full nature of what you have come into encounter with when you stand in the Presence, then you've missed the point.  The thing you grasp cannot be the completeness of it.  It cannot ever be, for God's completeness is without end or limit.

The rigid certainties of the absolutist bear no resemblance to faith.

And love?  Love...understood not as emotion, but as the state of seeking and engaging in a compassionate relation with another free also not an absolute.  It can't be, not if it's authentic, because the compassionate interplay between two free beings is not a finite thing.  Neither is bounded or delimited or set in stone.  Neither is an object.  Neither is an "it," and both are "Thou," as Martin Buber would have put it.

So the rigid certainty of the absolutist bears no resemblance to love, either.


  1. This seems like special pleading to me. You're claiming that we absolutely must make the focus of our existence our relationship to our Creator, and that this relationship is absolutely is all about the ethic of radical compassion. But these absolutist truth claims are exempt because the Creator and "love" are, shall we say, squishily defined.

    But you could play this trick with all kinds of things. I could say that we should absolutely make our whole lives about Poetry and that our relationship to Poetry is absolutely all about our radical aestheticism. Old-fashioned religious sensibilities about "creators" are secondary distractions to this one great truth, and empathy to our fellow beings takes a back seat to the aesthetics of art. (I'm not claiming this. Just an example.)
    And then I claim that these claims are not absolutist because Poetry can never be definitively defined, and aesthetics are about the squishy relationship between artist and audience.

    See what I did there?

    In other words, I think you correct that you have uncovered a contradiction in your philosophy, but that your first attempt to resolve it is too easy.

  2. Of course it does, Browning! Always trying to find your blessed fallacies.

    And no, we shall not say "squishily defined," although that's key to your special pleading assertion. If I, from a fair reading of the Many Worlds interpretation, asserted that existence is infinitely, irreducably, and immeasurably complex, that would not be "squishy." Beyond the realm of categorical reason, perhaps. But not so far beyond that reason cannot acknowledge the reality it is encountering. From theology in constructive dialogue with that cosmology, I'm making a similar and related assertion about the nature of God.

    Further, this is a post about absolutism. Is your imaginary "Poetist" an absolutist? Would they act and engage with existence in such a way that they would deny the legitimacy of a particular form of "poetry" that differed from their own? She seems, actually, like she'd be rather pleasant company.

    She's intended as a straw poet, perhaps, but she doesn't seem to illustrate your point at all. In fact, she appears to do the opposite. What you have her describe is a form of faith, as understood in terms of classical existentialist teleology...meaning the orientation of the self towards a non-contingent purpose.

    Meaning, when I ask, honestly, is my faith assertion internally inconsistent, you've answered "No."

    So, yes, I see what you've done there. And thank you!

  3. Oh, and how'd the book project go? You were doing NaNoWriMo, right? Did you finish it?

  4. One doesn't have to try very hard to find fallacies in theology, my friend. But yours interests me, so I just wanted to clarify.

    Is "squishily defined" just objectionable because you don't like the word "squishy"? Because when you say God cannot be "neatly, cleanly defined," I think that we are saying the same thing. It's like the Tao, right? In that if you think you can define it, then you have failed. The concept itself is evasive. You try to pin it down but it eludes your grasp. Squishy is just my personal shorthand word for that quality you are describing. It's not necessarily pejorative. Poetry is a case in point. Efforts to define it too neatly or cleanly are inadvisable.

    But it sounds as thought you would call the Poetrist a person of a certain kind of "faith," by virtue of the squishiness of her definitions, thereby excusing her from the charge of absolutism as well. So if I understand you absolute truth claims about things that defy non-squishy definition, one is immune from absolutism. I think you've answered my objection though by refusing to object to forms of faith in non-God squishy things.

    (Would the Poetrist denigrate kinds of "poetry" that are not her own? Sure. Just as you do with your Christianity. She knows that the verse in a greeting card fails to being truly poetry, just as you know that the Westboro Baptist Church fails at being truly Christian. She can explain why, just as you can. But this is an aside, neither here nor there.)

    NaNoWriMo was too much for me, though I still want to write this book. Thanks for asking. I'm eager to read yours too.

  5. This sentence from my last post got garbled somehow: "So if I understand you absolute truth claims about things that defy non-squishy definition, one is immune from absolutism." Hu-wha?

    I meant to say: "So if I understand you, absolute claims about things with squishy definitions are immune from changes of absolutism."

    So, to extend my metaphor, the Poetrists say, "Forget about God. Forget about love. It is absolutely true that all that really matters is one's relationship to Poetry and its aesthetics."

    One Poetrist says "And poetry, as we know, must rhyme." He is an absolutist Poetrist, being insufficiently squishy in his definitions. The other Poetrist, whom you find to be pleasant company, says "It is absolutely true that Poetry and its aesthetics can never be grasped completely." She is not an absolutist, even though she makes an absolute truth claim. Correct?

  6. That starts to get at it, yes. The first Poetist, who delinates poetry as having rigid bounds and structures, would be a Fundamentalist Poetist. Or "Poetrist," I suppose, although that sounds like "poetryst," which sounds like the sort of word to describe a particularly delightful/meaningful fling.

    Which our fundamentalist friend would not be.

    The second, while governed by Poetry, remains creative, adaptable, and open to encountering new forms and ways of expressing what remains the primary orientation of her existence. She would find poetry and inspiration in all things. "That reminds me of Poetry," she would say, often and with delight.

    Her Poetrysm would be squishier...meaning more adaptable...than that of the clearly deliniated Iambic-Pentameter-Only Poetrist. Both orient towards a value, but one, in focusing on a single categorical frame, has absolutized it. And in doing so, he's destroyed it.