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Absolutism, Relativism and the Third Way

The Rev. David H. Benke committed heresy by participating in an interfaith prayer service inspired by the events of Sept. 11, according to a ruling of his denomination. In a New York Times article, a fellow minister complains about Benke, “Instead of keeping God’s name sacred and separate from every other name, it was made common as it was dragged down to the level of Allah.” Benke maintains he is fighting religious intolerance and a dangerously insular view of faith.

This real-life conflict illustrates an ongoing clash between two principles: absolutism and relativism. Absolutism involves the belief in permanent, unchanging truth. Relativism involves the recognition that our beliefs are conditioned by many factors. Instead of thinking of these as polar opposites, it may be more helpful to look at them as poles on a spectrum. The question is how to balance properly these two principles, not make an artificial, forced choice between them.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Some maintain that faith means holding single-mindedly to absolutes. But this tends to lead to bigotry, heresy-hunting and even violence. Others maintain that faith includes acceptance of the relativity of all beliefs. But this leaves one without a critical ability to discern the helpful and the harmful, to distinguish the terrorist from the saint.
 
The world religions offer a practical way to sort out and balance the absolute and the relative. Like the Greek myth about sailors dodging the cliffs on one side and the whirlpool on the other, the world’s religions at their best avoid the destructive Scylla of dogmatic absolutism and the whirling Charybdis of fuzzy relativism.                                  
 

The Buddha encouraged his followers to quit asking abstract questions and seek penetrating insight into the truth. In a parable about a person being shot by a poisoned arrow, the Buddha compared many common religious questions to useless speculation. Instead of the dying person asking who crafted the arrow, from what bird the feathers on the arrow came, and from what quarry the stone arrowhead was shaped, the dying person ought to drink the antidote!
 
The Buddha urged seeking Enlightenment over “questions not profitable for Enlightenment.” He said, “The middle way … gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery …” Buddhism bridges absolutism and relativism by focusing on the cultivation of Enlightenment and by maintaining a functional agnosticism about secondary matters.
 
Hinduism warns that much of what we regard as knowledge is maya (usually translated “illusion,” but better rendered “delusion” or “play”). The Hindu philosopher Sankara (A.D. 788-820) compared the human predicament to a person walking down the road at twilight: The person sees a rope lying in the path and mistakes it for a snake.
 
Life is a quest for liberation from our illusions and our playful fantasies. Hinduism bridges absolutism and relativism by positing two levels of truth: the everyday “illusory” world and the underlying realm of Being, pure consciousness and bliss.
 
Jesus urged his followers to build their lives on what was solid. He told a parable about a foolish and a wise builder (Mt 7:24-27). One built a house on sand, the other on rock. When the storms came, the house built on sand collapsed and the house built on rock stood.
 
The kingdom of God—God’s gracious realm of renewed people and loving relationships—is the basis for a solid life: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Jesus bridges absolutism and relativism by offering lively salvation and authentic community, not by providing deadly dogma or mushy generalities.
 
In my own experience, I have encountered both a hard-nosed absolutism and a naïve relativism. While teaching interfaith seminars, I have been told with certainty that “all Muslims are terrorists” and that followers of other faiths are “demonic.” Christians who never met a person of another faith have said to me that there is absolutely no truth whatsoever in any other religion and that the study of comparative religion is theologically worthless.
 
On the other hand, I once suggested at an interfaith dialogue that we would do well to explore our significant theological differences and agendas. I was roundly criticized for being divisive and told such investigation of difference could lead only to conflict. Neither narrow-minded certainty nor fashionable open-mindedness seem very satisfying to the spiritual quest for transforming truth.
 
The ideologies of both freeze-dried absolutism and “it’s all the same” relativism pale by comparison with the honest truth-seeking modeled by the world’s great religions. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).
 
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.