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Friday, November 20, 2015

All Truth Is Relative

Americus: That's true for you, but it isn't true for me.

Socrates: I'm sorry—what did you say?

Americus: I said, "That's true for you, but it isn't true for me."

Socrates: How could something be true for you but not be true for me? I mean, you are sitting at a table at Joe's, and I am sitting at the same table at Joe's. That's true for us both. If I said, "I am not sitting at Table 7 at Joe's at thus-and-such address," I would be wrong.

Americus: Well, maybe you would be wrong and maybe you wouldn't. Maybe the word "table" means something different to you than it does to me. But in any event, I wouldn't judge you as wrong if you said that you weren't sitting at Table 7. From your perspective, that might be true, and who am I to judge?

Socrates: Just to be clear, I'm not talking about you judging me or me judging you. I'm talking about judging whether a statement that I make or that you make is true or false.

Americus: Whatever. If that's a distinction you want to make, fine. But again, that's true for you, not for me. That's your perspective, not mine.

Socrates: What does my perspective have to do with it?

Americus: Everything is a matter of perspective. You see what you see based on where you are; you know what you know based on your view of things. No one else sees exactly what you see with exactly the same eyes from exactly the same angle with exactly the same experience backlog and exactly the same way and terms of categorizing and defining and making sense of what you see. It is totally individual, totally unique to you. And mine is totally unique to me. So how I could I possibly pass judgment on what you see? I can never see it as you. The only reasonable thing is for me to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is, in fact, true for you, just as what I see is, in fact, true for me.

Socrates: Well, whether that's the only reasonable thing or not, I'm not sure. But you can't really mean that you can't see the same things as I see. Look at that car out there. Now, if I got up, and you moved over to my seat in the booth and sat down where I sat, and you looked at that car, wouldn't we both agree that there is a car there? Wouldn't we both see the same car?

Americus: We might, or we might not. What you mean by "car" I might not describe as a car. I might describe it as an automobile.

Socrates: But those are the same thing!

Americus: Are they? Maybe they are the same to you, but they might not be the same to me. Who can say?

Socrates: The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition?

Americus: That's collective opinion, but it does not describe what I see and the words I use. But I'm just messing with you. To tell you the truth, yes, I would agree that that is a car, and it is there out the window. But it is just coincidence that you and I think the same thing. I'm not saying that we can never agree about anything or that our perspectives never align. That would be ridiculous. What I'm saying is that just because multiple individuals' perspectives happen to align and agree, that does not mean that there is One True Perspective. All truth is relative.

Socrates: What's that now? All truth is relative?

Americus: Yes. I mean that whatever you perceive to be true is based on where you are standing, so to speak. And there are as many truths as places to stand. So for example, if I'm standing on one side of a river and looking at the river, I would say, "The river is flowing from left to right." And if you are on the opposite side of the river, you would say, "The river is flowing from right to left." These statements are contradictory, right? But we know that they are both true, because it depends on where you are standing. Everything is like this.

Socrates: Everything? I don't deny that some things are like that. But even in your example, we share a common definition of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." Those things are absolutes by which we sort out how our different truths, so to speak, are relative.

Americus: Are they really absolute? Aren't they just conventional? You and I happen to agree on the meanings of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." But that is coincidence. What if we did not? What if we didn't agree on the meaning of the words or spoke completely different languages? We would still both be true, or at least we should still each presume that the other is true and not pass judgment. Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view.

Socrates: Okay, but by your own assertion, that statement you just made—"Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view"—is only true for you. You can't assert it on me or reject my assertion that some things are valid for everyone.

Americus: Now you're getting it.


Americus: Seriously, you're getting it. My belief that every belief is true provided it corresponds to one's own perspective is true for me. Your belief that some beliefs are true if they correspond to a universal absolute is true for you.

Socrates: But if I believed that my belief in a universal absolute is only true for me, then that contradicts my belief in a universal absolute.

Americus: Yes, that is true for you too.

Socrates: (sigh) Okay, you win.

Americus: It's not about me winning. You didn't lose.

Socrates: Well, however you want to say it, what I mean is that I acknowledge that what you see to be true for you is true for you, and what I see to be true is true for me. Whether you meant to or not, you convinced me. Far be it from me to assert a universal truth and impose my own perspective on you.

Americus: That's remarkably gracious of you. I don't think I've ever seen someone think this sort of thing through and be so willing to change their mind.

Socrates: That's kind of you to say. But it's really a tribute to you making your point so well. But I want to ask you something else. Are you a gambling man?

Americus: Am I a gambling man? Not much. Every once in a while I go to the casino with friends and play a little blackjack, but it's not a big thing to me.

Socrates: Well I am a gambling man.

Americus: Really? You? That surprises me; I would not have guessed.

Socrates: It's true. Now, to be honest, I never gamble with money in a straightforward, gaming way. I've never put down money in a casino; I've never bet on sporting events or anything like that. But I take big risks based on my guesses about the future. My whole life is a big gamble.

Americus: I see what you mean. I never thought of it that way.

Socrates: Well today I want to do something that's out of the ordinary for me. I want to make a wager with you. The wager is about whether at some point tomorrow you will sit in this very booth at this very Denny's.

Americus: Which side are you going to take?

Socrates: That's up to you. If you bet that you will sit here sometime tomorrow, I'll bet you won't, and vice versa.

Americus: You know, I could be clever and two days from now claim that it was true for me that I came in here and sat down whether I believe that I actually did it or not.

Socrates: I hoped you would mention that. I'll actually spot you that. I will allow you to be the judge, from your perspective, of whether you sit here tomorrow or not. In fact, I'll rephrase the bet. My bet is that you will (or won't, depending on which side you choose) sit down at this table tomorrow from your perspective. And if you tell me the following day that it was true for you that you did or didn't sit down here, I'll take your word for it and pay my bet. Deal?

Americus: That's a really risky bet on your part! You're going to bet against what I say I'm going to do, which is risky enough, and then you're leaving it entirely to me to judge whether I did it?

Socrates: You got it. So which side are you taking?


Socrates: I'm serious! You can trust me.

Americus: Okay. I'll bet you that I will not come and sit at this booth tomorrow.

Socrates: All right. I'll bet you that you will sit at this booth tomorrow, and that that will be true for you whether or not it is true for me. Twenty dollars?

Americus: Fine. Twenty dollars.

Socrates: Excellent. Let's shake on it. Now, why did you bet that you will not sit here tomorrow?

Americus: Well, I could give you all sorts of reasons. I could say that it is easier for me not to come here than to come here; I would have to be intentional about coming here, but if I go about my usual routine for tomorrow then I will not. I could tell you that I hate going to the same restaurant two days in a row and never do it. I could tell you that I don't even particularly care for this restaurant and would never choose it myself and am only here because you asked me to come. And all of those things would be true. But I actually have an even bigger reason in this case, because tonight I am driving to Baltimore to stay in a hotel there to take a flight to Europe early the next morning, so I won't be anywhere near here all day tomorrow.

Socrates: Wow. When you lay out all the evidence for what is going to be true for you tomorrow, it makes my side of the bet look pretty bad! So I guess it's safe to say that even if you are scrupulously honest in two days, and what you tell me is true for you is honestly what you know from your perspective, there is almost no possible way that you are going to tell me that you sat in this booth anytime tomorrow.

Americus: It looks that way to me.

Socrates: Me too. So then, I want to redeem myself by making another bet.

Americus: Oh my God, are you kidding me? What is this?

Socrates: Hear me out. I bet you that at some point in the future, it will be true for you, from your perspective, that you will be standing before Jesus, the Son of God, to be judged by him for the deeds you've done and whether you accepted his forgiveness in this life.

Americus: What?

Socrates: You heard me. I'm betting that at some point in the future you will be judged by Jesus. And everybody else who has ever lived will too, but that's not the focus of my bet. My bet is about you.

Americus: Come on, man. I already told you that what you believe about God and Jesus and sin and judgment and stuff is true for you but it's not true for me.

Socrates: Oh, I know; I totally agree. I don't presume at all to make what is true for me true for you. I know it isn't true for you today. That's not my bet. I'm betting that it will be true for you at some point in the future. I'm saying that at some point in the future, you yourself, as an individual, from your own perspective, will believe it to be true of yourself that you are being judged by Jesus the Messiah for your present life. That's my bet.

Americus: Look, even if I agreed to that bet, it's a bet that I can never collect on. "At some point in the future"? If I ever claim to win, you'll just say, "It hasn't happened yet."

Socrates: That's true, but look at the other side—if I win, I won't be able to collect, because you'll have nothing to pay me, and I won't be able to do anything with anything you gave me anyway. But I'll make it easier on you. We'll make this bet inheritable by our descendants so that they are obligated. And I'll put a limit of, I don't know, a hundred thousand years. And I'll tie your judgment to universal judgment. So if in a hundred thousand years universal judgment by Jesus Christ has not occurred, my descendant will pay your descendant whatever we agree on today, if that makes any sense then.

Americus: I still think it's a stupid bet.

Socrates: Well, I think you're right, though maybe not for the same reason. So let's just make it an imaginary bet then, not one we're actually going to make. Let's pretend that we could actually collect from each other at some point. Would you take that bet? Would you bet that it will never be true from your perspective that you will be judged by Jesus?

Americus: I don't know. I don't know how what is going to be true for me in the future.

Socrates: Hold on now. Don't be so quick to doubt yourself. You were very certain a few minutes ago that it will not be true for you tomorrow that you will sit in this booth. How could you be so sure about what will be true for you tomorrow but you have no idea what will be true for you at some other point in the future?

Americus: Because I have good reason to believe what my life is going to look like tomorrow. I have good reason to know what I'm going to be doing then.

Socrates: Exactly. You have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you tomorrow. And I have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you at some other point in the future. This isn't about what is true for me. It's about what is true for you. I think that what will be true for you in the future, from your perspective, is not the same as what is true for you today, and I think I know what your perspective will be at that future point. Want to hear the reasons?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Striking Thoughts…

…from one Bible sentence I forgot: "With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

(1) This is very blunt about final judgment with eternal consequences commonly (though somewhat imprecisely) known as "hell." Multiple speakers in the Bible, especially Jesus, are blunt about this. In my preaching I do not talk about this often enough not-in-code.

Some say that presenting the gospel as "turn or burn" is insensitive to and therefore ineffective in our culture. They make a good point. But on the other hand, our culture's abhorrence of the idea is exactly the reason people need to hear it. If it is true, then it is highly important, and people are unlikely to stumble onto this truth by accident.

(2) Yesterday I walked through part of my town praying for the people who live in the houses and apartments I was passing and for their status as the last judgment. I'm sure most of them believe in God. They don't know that the devil does too but it's not helping him much.

Paul says that people "who do not know God" are in danger. That might be a useful element in a  conversation about spiritual things. "I believe in the President of the United States in the sense that I believe that there is such a person. But I don't know him. Even if I studied and learned a ton about him, I still wouldn't know him. Do you think it's possible to actually know God?"

(3) In those homes I passed, I also suspect that most of them believe "the gospel of our Lord Jesus." In my town there's better than 50% odds that if I asked a random person, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and rose again, that your badness can be forgiven and that you can have eternal life because of him?", that person would agree.

But not nearly as many people in those homes obey the gospel. They do not live differently because they believe those principles than if they did not. This is another valuable element in a spiritual conversation: "If we don't obey the message about Jesus, we are still in danger."