We Have No Common Frame of Reference

We Have No Common Frame of Reference October 25, 2019

Our problem in this increasingly disunified country is not just that we have disagreements.  We have always had those.  What we have lost is a common frame of reference that could allow the different sides to deal with their disagreements.  In our current climate of relativism and in the absence of common ground, agreement is impossible.  The only way to resolve differences is to silence, shame, punish, and in other ways exercise power against those who disagree with you.

This is the takeaway from a quite brilliant article by The Federalist‘s Nathanael Blake.  He discusses an incident in Columbia, Missouri, in which the pastor of a large evangelical congregation preached a sermon laying out the classic Christian teaching on sex and gender, saying that a person’s sex is part of the created order rather than a subjective identity.  Word of the sermon got out, spurring outrage among the transgendered and their many allies.  The church, in its efforts to contribute to the community,  had been helping to sponsor the local arts scene, including an art gallery and a film festival, but in response to that “transphobic” sermon, all of the arts groups cut their ties to their former patron.

But Blake is not just highlighting yet another example of the conflict between LGBT issues and religious liberty; rather, he is noting a deeper issue:

What is more fascinating is how this unhappy local story illustrates a general cultural problem that is particularly obvious with regard to transgender ideology — to wit, how to adjudicate competing claims of morality and identity without any shared authority or method of reasoning.

Transgender ideology exemplifies this problem by insisting that an interior, subjective sense of “gender identity” is what truly makes one a man or a woman. According to this view, a man may not only want to be a woman, but may in some metaphysical sense be a woman. This claim is subjective, unverifiable, and requires as much faith as any religious teaching, but activists are determined to impose its observance upon everyone.

Thus, moral disagreements over claims of transgender identity appear intractable, which is why, upon learning of a sermon with which they disagreed, local LGBT activists and their allies responded by trying to coerce and shame the pastor and his church, rather than by attempting to demonstrate why he was wrong. These activists sought not to persuade but to purge.

This is in large part because our culture lacks a common philosophy or theology that these activists can appeal to in making their case, and many would explicitly disavow the possibility of any such standard of truth or goodness. But this acceptance of moral relativism does not make our sense of moral imperatives disappear or seen less urgent. Rather, it has made moral arguments more emotive and irreconcilable.

“Although this issue is particularly illustrative,” Blake observes, “the phenomenon extends throughout our culture. Without a common ground of reason or revelation, moral discourse becomes a matter of emotive performance and intimidation.”  Relativism does not eliminate our moral sensibilities–we are still human, after all, and moral issues are still real, whatever people think of them–but without a frame of reference all we can do is be angry about them.  We cannot persuade people to change their minds or appeal to some overarching principles of justice or morality.  All we can do is strike back.

I would add that this lack of a frame of reference goes beyond moral issues.  Truth is also relative, so we cannot agree about what is true, or how we know whether something is true or false.  The evidence doesn’t matter.  Reason and logic get us nowhere.  Neither side will accept science as an arbitrator–whether on global warming or evolution or the humanity of the fetus or the sex of a man identifying as a woman–since scientists themselves are subject to political and metaphysical bias. Nor can we educate ourselves to work with some kind of objective criteria, since our educational institutions have largely become the main carriers and transmitters of the relativistic worldview.  All of this affects our ability to govern ourselves, our cultural life, and our personal relationships.

People can construct various plausibility structures to advance their power agenda–and these can use the rhetoric of evidence or science or justice–but these are just tactics to impose our power upon those who would impose their power upon us.

This worldview is incompatible with a free, self-governing society that recognizing individual rights.  It is, however, compatible with totalitarianism.  Notice that in this climate, appeals to freedom of speech or religious liberty carry little weight.  Remember, in this mindset, there are no absolutes.  Only power.  So the only recourse for your side is to seize power, which you may then exercise with no moral limits.

To be sure, postmodernists claim that it has always been this way.  All purportedly objective frames of reference–religion, morality, laws, traditions, philosophies, reason, science–are masks for power, rationalizations for one group to oppress other groups and to make those groups acquiesce in their own oppression.  The only way out is to transgress the status quo, to resist, as the first step in seizing power yourself, whereupon you can oppress your oppressors.

Is there a better way out of this nihilistic impasse?  Read all of Nathanael Blake’s article, which concludes with reflections on how Christianity shows us how we can go forward, being grounded neither in power nor abstract systems, but in the love of God and the person of Jesus Christ.


Illustration via Maxpixel, CC0 [public domain]


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