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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

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I think that there are two things that we can count on in this world:

  1. There are absolutely no absolutes.

  2. The only constant is change.

This pronouncement is very unsettling to many folks that insist that their religion contains the one, the only, the inerrant, the unchanging, absolute TRUTH. All other beliefs, religions, philosophies, doctrines, dogmas are lies. It also unsettles those that are sure life will be a bacchanalian debauchery if there isn’t some absolute standard to hold people accountable for their actions. That standard for them, is God.

One minister in a local church wrote a column for the “Clergy Views” section of my local paper where she said:

“But a growing portion of it’s proponents are proselytizing their religion of tolerance on those who don’t believe in it! Isn’t it self-apparent that moral relativism -- that there are absolutely no absolutes -- is a religious belief of its own?”

There are “absolutely no absolutes” isn’t moral relativism. It is simply a statement of what I see as a fact, a TRUTH.

NOTE: I try with my writing to point out that this is my opinion. AND I try to show why I hold this opinion. I don’t claim divine inspiration. Wise words need no such claims, they stand or fall on their own merits.

The very wording of those two statements leaves many scratching their heads and thinking that something is wrong here. However, they aren’t quite sure what is wrong. I assure you the wording is intentional, designed to get you to shift your perspective, to look or see something from a different viewpoint. Something that I grant is nearly impossible for those that are sure they and only they know the TRUTH.

For those that have gotten into the teachings of Eastern gurus, the confusing statements aren’t so odd. That is a teaching technique that has been practiced by the oracles at Delphi all the way to Jesus. If we can accept that some of the teachings that are ascribed to Jesus really did come from him, it is obvious that he also used the technique. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” This is a statement designed to get you to stop, to think, what on earth is he saying? He was speaking to a subjugated group of people where the might of the Roman empire was right and ruled the lives of the people, at a time when he was sure the end of the world was at hand.

Even so, there is still wisdom in those words.

In the Tao teh Ching 1 we read:

  • #43 “The softest of all things, Overrides the hardest of all things.” ...”Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of Silence, or as beneficial as the fruits of Non-Ado.”

  • #78 “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water; But, for attacking the hard and strong, there is nothing like it! For nothing can take is place. That the weak overcomes the strong, and the soft overcomes the hard, This is something known by all, but practiced by none.”

This is the wisdom behind the non-violence of the Civil Rights movement, the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi. But I digress. I get carried away at the similarities in the teachings between such very different philosophies, that of Jesus and the Chinese.

Philosophers have the concept of an “imperative” something that absolutely must exist If other things are to exist or happen. When conjoined with moral for a “moral imperative” it is an absolute moral principle that must be obeyed by everyone, even those of different religious beliefs and ethnic traditions.

The problem is many people refuse to obey other people's moral imperatives. They prefer to follow or obey the moral imperatives they were taught. This makes the “moral imperative” not an “imperative”. It becomes nothing more than a prejudice, or possibly a good idea.

To be honest I am not willing to follow principles that I consider are less moral than my own! We should be challenged to strive to reach higher standards not lower ones. Too bad we can’t agree on what those “higher” standards are!

In another Clergy View column another pastor talked about how we have standards by which we measure things, yard sticks was his example, but all weights and measures are standardized. He suggests that Jesus is the standard by which we should measure ourselves because he is unchanging and perfect in every way. This pastor seems to be suffering from what I call the Disney syndrome, where the heroes are all homogenized and pasteurized, ethnic characteristics are erased, they never have bad days, or short tempers. YET if you read your Bible thoughtfully and critically Jesus is portrayed as having a short temper. He tells his followers to abandon their families and family duties and responsibilities. Are these really standards we want to encourage people to live by? OR are there plenty of other characters in world history that offer us better, real life examples, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples. Both men weren’t saints, they had their own personal problems and short comings. BUT they rose to the occasion and did what they needed to do to help make this place better for everyone.

When someone selects a human being (even one who is or becomes God, depending on your theology) as the measure of all behavior he/she is setting himself up for serious problems. What IF your hero doesn’t live up to your expectations? Do you white wash over the bad parts, which many have done with Jesus. Or do you try to rationalize -- provide spin as good politicians try to do when caught doing something they shouldn’t; what was bad is promoted as good.

Some people are downright incensed when their moral imperatives (their standards) are rejected as being lower than my own. They also are incensed when they tell me I should accept Jesus as my Savior and I respond by pointing out that I have moved beyond the constrictions of the doctrine and dogma of their religion and found what I consider to be a higher level of spirituality and moral guidance. Further, I and have no intention of backsliding! Nothing upsets the self-righteous more than a person who thinks they have a reason to be more righteous than they are!

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An imperative is something that has no Ifs, Ands, or Buts! There are no exceptions to the rule.

Thou shalt not kill. Is a moral imperative or is it? We allow police officers and military personnel to kill in the line of duty. We allow an individual to kill in self-defense. Some still support the death penalty in this country. Other countries have outlawed it all together. There are passages in the Bible where God tells the people to put every man, woman, child, and even the livestock to death in territory they just conquered.

"Thou shalt not kill" has lots of Ifs, Ands, or Buts.

The Catholic Church has tried to claim that “natural law” is a moral imperative. If something violates natural law it is wrong. The prime example of this is seen in their opposition to the use of birth control. They teach that sex is for procreation, and that every sexual act must be open to conception. That is the natural law. Yet, the church allows the use of anti-biotics to treat life threatening infections. Aren’t infections part of the natural law. If a person dies he dies, if he survives without the use of such treatments then he/she is meant to survive.

Doesn’t the Catholic Church allow the use of vaccinations, insulin treatments, dialysis, and other life saving treatments to keep us from succumbing to the “natural law”?

Obviously “natural law” isn’t an imperative. There are lots of Ifs, Ands, or Buts. Lots of exceptions to the rule.

Some fundamentalists try to present the argument in terms of subjective and objective truth, claiming that God is the one and only arbiter of objective truth.

Some Thing that is “subjective” is what is perceived through a human’s perception (understood in their mind) and thus has no independent reality or “truth” of its own. Something that is “objective” has its own personal truth that is totally independent of how any individual views that object.

An obvious example is a physical object, let’s select a table in your house. You may look at it and see a priceless family heirloom. A visitor to your home may look at it and see a beat up piece of junk. The table still has its own objective physical reality even if the humans are unable to look at it objectively.

Is God a subjective or objective reality? Since there is very little agreement among humans across time and across cultures about what God is or isn’t, his/her characteristics and abilities, even what he/she is to be called….. It is obvious that humans at least have only a subjective opinion about God. There may be an objective physical reality but humans are unable to look at or envision God objectively. If humans view God subjectively how can their view of God’s teaching be anything but subjective?

Are the teachings in the Bible objective, moral imperatives? Are they absolutes, that have no Ifs, Ands, or Buts, no exceptions to the rule? No. Christians and reformed Jews claim they are no longer bound by the laws of the Old Testament. They have decided those laws were written for a specific group of people at a specific point in their history and are no longer applicable or binding upon humans of the 21st Century.

Many Christians insist that the laws/teachings of the New Testament are objective, moral imperatives. They are absolutes that have no Ifs, Ands, or Buts, no exceptions to the rule. YET!

The New Testament is full of contradictions. In one place you are told to “honor your father and your mother”, in another Jesus tells a follower to abandon his family obligations and follow him. Which is the “moral imperative”, the “Absolute”?

Jesus tells his followers to “love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul, to have no other Gods before him” then later Paul tells his followers to “love Jesus”. Then there is a passage in the Bible that tells us a man can’t serve two masters because sooner or later he will have to sacrifice one for the other. Is Jesus his own entity or an incarnation of God? This question has bothered Theologians for centuries. AND it is one reason why some (Jews and Muslims) have rejected the divinity of Jesus. They view that as polytheism not monotheism.

Are you to accept Jesus as your savior to be saved or are you to do good works, or a combination of both? There are passages in the Bible that support each of these. What is the moral imperative, the Absolute? What’s a person to do?

I have come to think that some folks claim the position of moral imperative or absolute because they are too lazy or too frightened to think for themselves. They use the claim that “God demands it” as a “get out of jail free card”, justification and sanctification for their own bad behavior. If God demands it of me then it is the right thing to do.

Then there is the issue of change. Some people are very uncomfortable with the concept that nothing ever stays the same. They seek security, reassurance, stability. They don’t like unanswered questions, shoot they don’t like any questions. They want things to be just the way they are forever and will go to great lengths to pretend that nothing has or is changing.

When some folks are forced to face the reality that nothing is constant, that things have and are changing they retreat into a mythical perfect utopian past. The U.S. used to be the greatest nation on earth they claim and now it isn’t. Their reason? Prayer was taken out of the schools. This modern generation has no respect for their elders. They forget that they are the ones that raised this modern disrespectful generation. If your children don’t hold your “values or morals” you either failed as a parent in instilling those values in your children or your values were flawed and your children were smart enough (thoughtful enough) to realize it. One might say you raised your kids better than you thought! They rejected your immoral positions on issues.

There was a wonderful book written in 1970, “Future Shock 2 by Alvin Toffler that talks about the problems some people have, with a world that is changing faster than they are capable of handling.

One gentleman complained about how his son was “brainwashed” when he went away to college by his college professors. I told him his son grew up. It was too bad that he wasn’t able to keep up with his son. I reminded him that education is a lifelong process. It was obvious from what he had said to me that he had stopped learning a long time ago.

I find change exhilarating. That is how all things grow. AND in my mind growing -- becoming better -- is what life is all about. Life without change would be dull, stagnant, and stifling.

Another good thing about “change” is it means that we can choose to do it. We aren’t doomed by our past incarnations, our past bad choices, circumstances of our birth, by the things that are beyond our control that have happened to us, nor by the pronouncements of others as to what is in our own best interest -- when it is obvious they are looking out for their own. We can choose to act, to think, to speak, to behave differently, to improve ourselves and our circumstances, IF that is we want to do.

It is obvious to me that there are absolutely no absolutes because our world is constantly changing, there are lots of Ifs, Ands, and Buts in this 21st Century and we have to figure out how we are going to deal with them in our personal lives and as a society.

This doesn’t mean as some try to claim that everything will be a “free for all”, a “bacchanalian debauchery”. It just means that we have to make our subjective decisions wise ones. It means we will have to use something other than (or along with) the teachings of The Bible and our religion as our guide.

Those of us who have left religious dogmas behind use:

  • The concept that: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

  • *Concepts of justice, fair play, and equal rights for all people, (whatever their religion or lack thereof, their race or ethnicity, their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, their age, their education, their social status, etc.)

  • The recognition of our common humanity, our common needs, and desires.

  • The recognition that this planet is the only one we have got and we had better learn how to care for it and the other living things that inhabit it.

These are Universal principles many have been using and will continue to use, as our guiding principles. They aren’t absolutes, but they are general enough to carry us through these rapidly changing times. They are the basis for living a “good” and “moral” life and, I might add, the Bible even tells us so.

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References used:

  1. book cover image Lao Tzu, "Tao Te Ching" Translated by John C. H. Wu, Shambhala Dragon Editions, 1989), Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. book cover image Alvin Toffler, "Future Shock," Bantam, (1984). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

Originally posted: 2013-JUN-14
Latest update: 2013-JUN-19
Author: Susan Humphreys
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