Absolute Truth is the Enemy of Freedom (RJS)

Christianity is a Straightjacket — belief in absolute truth is an enemy of freedom—it endangers our civic freedom because it divides rather than unites—it stifles creativity and growth— “Christianity looks like an enemy of social cohesion, cultural adaptability, and even authentic personhood.”(p. 37) So run the complaints of many in our educated skeptical age. Tim Keller, in Ch. 3 of The Reason for God suggests that “this objection is based on mistakes about the nature of truth, community, Christianity, and of liberty itself.”

Keller makes many good points in this chapter – truth (some idea of truth) is unavoidable; community cannot be completely inclusive —and no community is; Christianity is not culturally rigid—already most Christians live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America; and freedom isn’t simple.

Christianity is Exclusive. Every community holds its members to standards of belief and behavior —for example, our freedom, our liberal democracy, depends on a shared and required set of beliefs and practices. The most important of these is the sanctity of personal choice and autonomy. This is a belief that is not shared in much of the world.

In a sense the Christian community is and must be exclusive. A community should not be judged because it has standards for its members, rather a community should be judged on tests such as:

Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect – to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness? We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same. (p. 40)

Wow — this is a telling indictment of much of our church isn’t it?

Christianity is inclusive in that everyone is welcome. But of course there are expectations and standards. The real question as Christians is not whether we should have standards, but rather how loose or rigid those standards need to be and how closely they align with the model we find in scripture.

Christianity is A Culturally Rigid. A common complaint – not only is Christianity culturally rigid, but it is also cultural imperialism imposing western culture on the rest of the world. But this isn’t really true. Rather, founded on a set of core beliefs, Christianity is and always has been adaptive of diverse cultures. Cultural diversity is built into the Christian faith from the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul and on to today. We worship one God, one risen Lord, but retain our cultural differences – every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. Greeks need not become Jews, Africans need not become Americans, Republicans need not become Democrats or vice versa. The explosive growth of Christianity around the world reflects core Christian beliefs in very different cultural expressions.

Christianity is a Moral Straitjacket. Christianity tramples human freedom underfoot. For many today true freedom means the freedom to determine one’s own moral standards. Christian views of sexual purity, for example, are simply oppressive.  Keller points out that no one really believes that everyone must determine right and wrong independently. Some things we are sure are simply wrong. Child sexual abuse and predation top the list in our culture today and for good reason. Even the most liberal and tolerant of institutions are coming to the consensus belief that this is absolutely wrong.  Almost everyone will agree that slavery is and was wrong.

True Freedom. Keller takes this idea of freedom to ask what really sets us free – despite the fact that it constrains.

What is the environment that liberates us if we confine ourselves to it, like water liberates the fish? Love. Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.

One of the principles of love – either love for a friend or romantic love – is that you have to lose independence to attain greater intimacy. If you want the “freedoms” of love – the fulfillment, security, sense of worth it brings – you must limit your freedom in many ways. (p. 47-48)

And a little later.

Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.

For a love relationship to be healthy there must be a mutual loss of independence. It can’t be just one way. Both sides must say to the other “I will adjust to you, I will change for you. I’ll serve you even though it means a sacrifice for me.” If only one party does all the sacrificing and giving, and the other does all the ordering and taking, the relationship will be exploitative and will oppress and distort the lives of both people. (p. 49)

Here is where I think Keller hits it out of the park on one of the most important truths of Christian faith and life. God is not a capricious demanding autocrat.

In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us – in his incarnation and atonement. In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death. … In the most profound way, God has said to us in Christ, “I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means sacrifice for me.” (p. 49)

The incarnation is the most profound example of God coming first to us, but it is not the first example. The entire scope of the Old Testament, more or less, is the story of God coming in relationship to his creation and his creatures. To live by God’s commands will constrain – but it will also free a person far more than it constrains. But it only provides freedom under the life focused on  love for God, for others, and for the world.

Is Christianity a moral straitjacket?

To what extent (if any) is it exclusive?

What limits are reasonable and expected?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Joe Canner

    Some good thoughts here from you and Keller. A couple of minor quibbles:

    1. Your headline and opening paragraph talk about “absolute truth” but I don’t see that discussed elsewhere. To me, absolute truth is a different proposition than absolute standards of morality. The latter is a subset of the former, but absolute truth is a much more difficult concept to unpack.

    2. “…but it is also cultural imperialism imposing western culture on the rest of the world. But this isn’t really true.” This may not be true today, but it was certainly true in our not too distant past and the consequences are still with us to some extent. It may be that missionaries had pure motives at the start, but the colonialists and imperialists who accompanied them did not, and in the end the two became hopelessly entwined.

  • RJS

    Joe,

    Keller starts with the view he has heard from some that Christianity is a breaker of man’s will to dare, to do, to grow because it defines truth. True freedom is the freedom to create your own meaning and purpose. Thus the idea that Christianity is true, that there is absolute truth, is an enemy of human freedom and flourishing.

    On the second, there were certainly abuses in the church from the second century to the twenty first century (and probably even in the first). This is the subject of the next post. But I think Keller’s point still stands.

  • Tim

    These “objections” to Christianity come not I think from society at large so much as from the more extreme postmodern / culturally relativistic / pluralistic fringes. Outside of the sort of postmodern thinkers still littering many of our universities, I don’t know too many personally who would object to the idea that absolute truth, if you really did happen to nail it, would be in any way a violation of one’s freedom.

    I also don’t think that it is the exclusivistic nature of some forms of Christianity itself per se that is responsible for the backlash you see in many quarters, but rather it is the difficulty many have in reconciling or justifying some of the details and implications of such exclusivism. The idea, for instance, that luck in terms of the geography and society of one’s birth has such overwhelming influence on one’s eternal fate has to be reconciled with the typical individualistic gospel message, as well as one’s conscience of course. This type of exclusivism can be problematic not simply because it’s exclusivistic, but rather in the nature of how that exclusivism is played out.

    Certainly moral objections persist as well – intolerance certainly among the chief offenders. But I don’t think the objection is felt as Keller conceptualizes it, as some postmodern rejection of a firm moral code that somehow offends personal freedom or societal advancement. But rather a view of religious intolerance that is informed by history, one that paints a distinctly unflattering picture. Over the past two thousand years, we have seen Christianity readily avail itself as a tool for oppression an persecution against views or groups it would not tolerate. In more ancient times, dating back to the very earliest stages of the Church, history bears witness how those deemed heretical or on the wrong side of God are treated. But, perhaps somewhat more relatable to our present experience, we see how existing societal prejudices worked their way into religious doctrine and established in perpetuity. Prohibitions against women teaching or leading in the Church, as well of course as their subjugation under men are such examples. Many Christians today acknowledge some cultural relativity in those teachings. Much of society today sees issues of homosexuality in much the same light. Another old, unjust social prejudice perpetuated and granted religious sanction by the Church and its teachings. It’s not the idea of a firm, absolute moral code that I think is objected to. But rather the idea that what many see of the Church’s moral code cuts against what is in our hearts as informed over many lessons, some quite painful, over the course of our history.

  • Joe Canner

    RJS #2: I think I understand what Keller is getting at; perhaps my comment was kind of cryptic. What I’m getting at is that, yes, there are certain things are considered immoral by nearly every society on earth and these things can be considered “absolutes”. However, there seem to be a lot of gray areas, which is where the conflicts come into play. We Christians talk a lot about absolute truth–and indeed I believe there is such a thing–but we don’t seem to do a very good job of figuring out what it is when it comes to the gray areas (due to interpretive pluralism, language and cultural issues, hermeneutics, etc.). The world sees this and assumes that those who talk about absolute truth and adhere to a conservative morality are just trying to stifle freedom. I don’t agree with that conclusion, but I do think we need to do a better job of being honest about what we know (and don’t know) about “absolute truth”.

  • Adam

    This quote has some interesting implications.

    “Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect – to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness? We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same. (p. 40)”

    Especially when it comes to “those who violate their boundaries”. What comes to mind is a comment by C.S. Lewis in the Great Divorce which is “love is not a slave to pity”. I have experienced people who would use this idea to justify their own violation of other’s boundaries. These people communicate “It doesn’t matter if I hurt you, you are required to forgive me and bend to my will”.

  • Pat Pope

    “The real question as Christians is not whether we should have standards, but rather how loose or rigid those standards need to be and how closely they align with the model we find in scripture.”

    This is what I have struggled with–the rigidity of some churches to make a strict adherence to certain beliefs and/or practices the watermark for membership.

  • Marshall

    Consensus is very far from being Truth.

    Absolute truth is all very well, but whatever we say about it with our finite minds and finite language is approximate and provisional: grounds for negotiation, not something that can be used to beat people over the head. Within communities, what is important is what is accepted as Truth, as Brueggemann says. If those (whatever) things are not accepted, then communitarians can’t understand each other properly. But between/among communities, the productive stance is negotiation, not war. The Kingdom stance, if I may say so. Awareness that I am an Ikon, but only an Ikon among other Ikons.

  • http://www.normmacdonald.wordpress.com Norm

    “In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us – in his incarnation and atonement. In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death. … In the most profound way, God has said to us in Christ, “I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means sacrifice for me.” (p. 49)

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding the statement, but that seems like a slippery slope if I’ve ever seen one. What happened to Christ being God’s plan from the beginning? What happened to the immutability of God? What happened to the call for us to change and serve him?

  • dopderbeck

    I’m wary of table-pounding about “absolute truth” because, quite often, what is absolutely “true” is hard to pin down, and those who shout loudest about “absolute truth” seem to be more about propaganda than an honest search for truth. Further, many Christians who pound the table today about “absolute truth” have a woeful Cartesian / foundationalist epistemology that just can’t be taken seriously by any thinking person.

    However, Keller is right that there are absolute, or better, “final” truths, which flow into creation from the very being of God, and which are to some degree knowable, if imperfectly, by human beings. And his discussion of “freedom” is excellent. Authentic “freedom” is not “freedom-from.” It’s “freedom-to.” That is, freedom to flourish according to God’s design and to reach our created end as persons, which is joyous union with God.

  • dopderbeck

    Re: the quote on page 49 about the kenosis — interesting! I admire what Keller is trying to do here, but I think this brief statement is theologically problematic. We cannot say that God, in esse, changes. By definition, “God” cannot “change,” else he would be merely a kind of being-in-creation and not the utterly transcendent “God.” How, then, could God become “man” in Christ? This is the classic Christological problem addressed by the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. The “answer” is that Christ is both fully God and fully man. The kenosis is not a change in the nature or being of God, but rather is a condescension to take on this dual nature in the incarnation. This is of course finally an unfathomable mystery, but it is absolutely foundational to the Christological basis of our faith. So: “A” for intent on this one, but “D” for execution.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,

    I think A for effort and A for execution. The “definition” that God cannot change misses the point. God doesn’t change, mature, or grow. But God does respond in relationship to his creation. The most profound example of this is the incarnation – but it also runs through the OT in total. Christ is both fully God and man because God became man, God with us.

    Was Christ fully human during the time of Abraham? (And I could pick any time before ca. 4 AD here.)

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com Howard Pepper

    Thanks for this summarization. I haven’t read Keller’s works, but what I hear sounds like it has substance and freshness, in terms of an Evangelical viewpoint.

    As to “absolute truth”, it seems to necessarily be an abstraction. If people are content to accept that as such, it is open to difficulties of expression — definition, application, etc. that would be workable. But so many, not understanding (perhaps not having the cognitive and/or emotional abilities) that, make abstractions concrete and specific. I think that is how most people treat the concept of incarnation. The very helpful “process” thinker, Whitehead, thought this a prime example of “misplaced concreteness” (if I recall rightly). With it comes the idea of a necessary “virgin birth”, and subsequently the further concrete ridiculousness that the Roman Church went into shoring up the logical problems created by making such an abstraction concrete (bodily, etc.).

    If church leaders would at least point out the abstract/concrete distinction and perhaps the related theoretical/actual (or “ontological”) one, and encourage people to wrestle with the difference (as Keller perhaps does), maybe people could move “up” from over-concreteness to understanding more on a symbolic and/or abstract level, while still making concrete applications (e.g., self-emptying acts of sacrifice and love). They’d avoid lots of unnecessary exclusiveness and other problems if so.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — well, a “response” is a kind of “change.” I think what you’re missing in this comment is that God in His being is timeless. He is utterly transcendent, not bound by time. Time is a feature of creation, not a feature of the being of God. If you bind God to time, you make him merely a creature, and not God.

    God is of course pictured in scripture as responding to prayer, and even changing His mind. And from our perspective, bound to time, He does so. Prayer does change things. But we can’t confuse this anthropomorphic, analogous language for a description of God’s essential being. Things change; God in essential nature does not, for God is not a “thing.”

    The incarnation, as you note, is instantiated in a particular historical moment, but this is not a change in the essential being of God. This is precisely why Chalcedon speaks of a “hypostatic union” of the two natures of Christ: “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood….”

    The authors of the Chalcedonian definition would readily have conceded that this language also is analogical and imperfect. The fundamental mystery of the hypostatic union simply can’t be fully captured by human language. Nevertheless, it is a basic truth of the faith and its essential to Trinitarian theology and to a robust Christology that God in His Divine being is utterly transcendent of creation, including created time. In short: without God’s utter transcendence, there is no kenosis. Christ’s self-emptying in taking on human nature is remarkable precisely because “being in very nature God” is to be utterly transcendent of created nature (Phil. 2:1-11).

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,

    Maybe. I know the “transcends time” idea is a possible solution to this conundrum. And it may be the right one, but I am not completely convinced. It fits with the idea in cosmology that time came into being with the big bang.

    The Chalcedon definition is, like all others, rooted in time and place and uses imperfect language as imperfect humans try to wrestle with the nature of God. And some of this seems to be rooted in Greek philosophy, not in the story revealed in scripture. I am far more certain of the nature of God as revealed in scripture than the philosophical rumnations about God. I get nervous when the entire nature of scripture is relegated to some fuzzy “of course it appears to us” box.

    Doesn’t it seem, reading the Bible from beginning to end, that the entire sweep of scripture is God in relationship with his creation? Relationship that entails both initiation and response?

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — I don’t think “transcends time” is offered as a solution to any conundrum. It’s a foundational truth about God’s nature. And while the Chalcedonian definition is contextual, it’s basic concept is essential: Jesus is fully God, and fully man. There simply is no Christianity without that.

    The “Greek philosophy” meme is a cop out. Yes, the Fathers who wrestled with the Chalcedonian definition were influenced by Plato. Yes, the Medieval Scholastics (Aquinas) were influenced by Aristotle. But have you read the Fathers and Aquinas themselves (not to mention Plato and Aristotle)? By no means is this an uncritical adoption of philosophy — there is, in fact, a long, long tradition of trying to establish the proper uses of philosophy — of how we move from philosophy to theology. And this always has to be done — nobody starts with a philosophically clean slate.

    Further, the Fathers do not deny relationality. Relationality is at the core of Patristic Trinitarian theology. But this for them could not come at the price of denying God’s transcendence. I think that ought to be so for us too.

    BTW I’m pretty sure that if you sat down with Keller and hashed this out with him, he’d agree with me that his language here was sloppy. I’m certain that Keller is not a process theologian or an open theist, and that he would want to uphold God’s timeless transcendence.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,

    Of course (big empahtic letters) Keller isn’t an open theist or, even worse in many eyes, a process theologian. I never said he was, nor did he. You are reading that into the comment. But this is why there is a conundrum that “transcends time” offers a solution to. I expect that Keller’s answer would include the idea of transcend time. On the other hand I’ve heard persuasive arguments as to why this might not be a reasonable solution as well. It basically gets down to whether time is created or not.

    The Greek philosophy meme isn’t a cop-out. I think we need to be careful to go back first to what is revealed in scripture and second to what people have made out of this revelation. I’ve read only a little of Aquinas, but all (or all easily available anyway) of the early church fathers from the first second and third and much of the fourth centuries as well as a great deal of Augustine.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — but to say “we need to be careful to go back first to what is revealed in scripture” is a statement of theological method that depends on philosophical presuppositions, particularly the modernist philosophy of common sense realism. There are a host of reasons, as we both know, why that philosophical method fails as a way of reading the Bible. As Augustine saw early on, that way of reading the Bible yields contradictory results simply on the face of the text; and modern Biblical criticism demolishes it. It also instantiates a host of theological presuppositions about history and ecclesiology, which can’t just be assumed, particularly in light of the failure of common sense realism to yield a coherent reading of the Bible.

    So, it is a cop-out simply to hand waive about “Greek philosophy.” Some philosophy will fill the vacuum, and those presuppositions have to be justified. In my view the only meaningful alternatives in modern theology are Barthian existentialism and/or Hegelian idealism and/or phenomenology and personalism and/or Barthian existentialism filtered through critical realism. But all of these can only be understood in relation to “Greek” philosophy. Common sense realism turns out to be neither common sensical nor realist.

  • Marcus C

    Joe Canner says: “We Christians talk a lot about absolute truth–and indeed I believe there is such a thing–but we don’t seem to do a very good job of figuring out what it is when it comes to the gray areas (due to interpretive pluralism, language and cultural issues, hermeneutics, etc.).”

    This.

    It seems the more I learn more about Christianity and the Bible the “grayer” the gray areas get.


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