But could a God like that be good? Are truth and goodness permanent, or do they shift? (Part 3)
So first, a quick preview of the remaining posts I’m planning in this series. Hopefully a list of topics will help orient each essay into a larger context.
Part 1. Intro
Part 2. Limitations
Part 3. Are truth and goodness permanent, or do they shift?
Part 4. Exe-trajectical believers from the Bible.
Part 5. The benefits of an intentional instability
Part 6. The consequence of consequence
Part 7. The deep math of an indwelt life
And now, on to Part 3--are truth and goodness permanent, or do they shift?
One of the first debates in philosophy, a debate that hit even before the time of Socrates, focused on whether reality was permanent. A thinker named Heraclitus argued that the fundamental character of reality is change; in other words, that the universe is constantly in flux. Parmenides disagreed, arguing that permanence is the fundamental nature of reality and that any change we think we are seeing is just an illusion.
That may sound like a bunch of philosophical mumbo jumbo, but the tension is actually super relevant still today. During the #metoo surge, victims were infuriated by people who urged them to, “Tell your truth.”
Why were abused people angered by this language? Because they wanted more validation for their pain. They said, “It’s not ‘my truth’--this is THE TRUTH. There aren’t two ways of looking at what I endured. This wasn't just my STORY, this was wrong.”
While the complaint makes sense, nailing right and wrong to the wall isn't easy in a postmodern world. Our sense of morality is largely based on trends. If you've seen the hilarious SNL skit, “Woke jeans,” you have watched comedians poke fun at America's epidemic inability to be definite. WOKE JEANS
But what is truth? Is truth something universal or permanent? And what about goodness? Is what's good for one person good for another?
I don’t have a lot of theological heroes, but Dot Sayers is one of them. Gosh, she was fierce. Brilliant. She was among the first class at Oxford to female graduates, but she attended before a degree was guaranteed. She played the saxophone, rode a motorcycle, learned medieval Italian just so she could translate Dante. Her book The Mind of the Maker is one of the most influential books of my life. As I read it, I felt like I'd finally, finally, FINALLY found another woman who understood the way I think. She's my Fairy Thoughtmother.
I'm not going to go step-by-step through her first chapter here, but I am going to borrow snippets of her chapter. (For those of you who are up for a challenge, go read this. It's worth your time. http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/dlsayers/mindofmaker/mind.01.htm)
Sayers is painstakingly methodical, breaking complex ideas into simple, clearly-defined terms She uses a method I encourage as a rhetoric teacher--beginning crucial arguments by defining important terms. Why define? Because until you know the edges and function of a tool, you can’t pick it up and use it effectively.
Sayers begins by defining two meanings of the word “law,” and I think you will recognize the difference between these two meanings immediately.
Law Type 1: The laws humans create (arbitrary laws.) For example: the laws of football were written by human beings.
Law Type 2: The laws humans discover (natural laws.) For example, if you put your bare hand in the fire, you will get burned.
With only that brief explanation, I bet you can take the following quiz and label each “law” A (for arbitrary) or N for natural. (Answers are at the bottom of today’s post.) If you get confused, ask yourself, “Did a human create this law, or does this consequence occur naturally?”
A. _____ If you drive over 35 MPH in a certain neighborhood, you will receive a ticket.
B. _____ If you stare into the sun during an eclipse, you will damage your eyesight.
C. _____ If you boil a raw egg in the water for eight minutes, it will no longer be raw.
D. _____ That cow produced milk after having a calf.
E. _____ He was caught stealing a car; then he went to jail.
F. _____ She jumped off a tall bridge into asphalt and broke twenty bones.
G. _____ She ate 8000 calories every day for six months and gained weight.
H._____ Because women in her country are repressed, she was beaten for speaking her opinion.
Can you see how some of these laws are created and some are just an unavoidable part of living in our physical universe?
When it comes to natural laws, the opinions of human beings are irrelevant. The entire planet could take a vote, deciding to reverse the influence of gravity, and even if the consensus were unanimous, that vote would create no change. Consequences will still happen.
We all accept this dynamic naturally. Humans don’t waste time trying to campaign against the second law of thermodynamics. (Imagine that rally in D.C. Ha!) Instead, they adjust arbitrary laws—changing regulations about industrial pollution, and the three-point shot in basketball, and buying alcohol on Sundays.
There is a realm in which the difference between natural and arbitrary laws becomes volatile, however. That realm is ethics.
To introduce ethics, let me ask you this question: do you believe some sort of deep, inherent, morality should be consulted when creating arbitrary laws?
Is it inherently wrong to abuse dogs or children? Or is there no such thing as moral behavior in a mechanical world?
America is certainly based on the assumption that universal morality exists. The founders wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even if a secularist removes the “Creator” part of this statement, he’s likely going to agree that human beings have certain inalienable rights. In fact, the hottest secular arguments of our day depend upon this sort of assumption. Have you heard any of the following claims?
“I have the right to smoke pot if I want.”
“It’s my body. I have the right to choose an abortion.”
“I have the right to marry whomever I want.”
“The repressed poor of this nation have a right to stand against capitalist dominance.”
“I have a right to work without being sexually assaulted.”
When you hear people making these arguments, they almost always appeal to a deep, assumed morality—something that is far stronger than individual opinion. Theirs claims are rooted in an invisible ethic that THEY BELIEVE exists as firmly as any law of physics.
But what is the universal ethic? What does it say, and how do we find it?
Sayers tackles this problem by creating two categories that I think may be helpful to us as well:
1. moral codes
2. moral laws.
Moral codes are the regulations humans create to try to enforce ethics. (Example: If you are caught raping a woman, you will serve prison time.)
Moral laws are discoverable but invisible truths about ethics upon which moral codes can be based. (Rape is wrong.)
See if you can code the following MC (for moral code) or ML (for moral law) using the examples I provided as a guide.
A. _____A family receives child support after an unfaithful husband is divorced.
B. _____A man should help provide for his children.
C. _____An employer is not permitted to discriminate because of race.
D. _____Thinking less of another human’s value because of race is wrong.
E. _____ Minimum wage.
F. _____ Powerful people should not take advantage of the desperate.
As you look back over these examples, you see some statements that require human regulation. Others are expressions of principle—larger truths that simply exist.
Moral codes usually offer a definite legal consequence for misbehavior. For example, if you don’t _____ then ____ will happen. Governments use moral codes and their consequences to keep large groups of people from hurting one another, and this is a good thing. It's the best thing governments ever do.
But there's also a reality most moderns miss—a reality that is incredibly dangerous to miss. In fact, if I could give you one point to memorize from this post, this would be that point-- consequences also result when we break moral LAWS.. not just when we break moral CODES.
Sayers writes, “These statements [moral laws] do not rest on human consent; they are either true or false. If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril.”
At his own peril.
Let's go back to the woman who jumped off the bridge onto asphalt. Even if she was confident, optimistic, and happy during her entire fall, she still broke bones at the end of her journey. Likewise, people who defy natural moral laws will eventually have a hard landing.
The man who rapes will face consequences just as debilitating as a fall off a bridge, even if he is never prosecuted by human law.
This inherent danger should impact impact how a government create laws. To explain that, let's use a bizarre example. Imagine Congress suddenly passes a law stating that all American citizens have the right to breathe underwater. "Americans are done with being limited to air!" Congressman Whipnot exclaims in his public address. "From this day forth, you are all free to walk into the ocean and inhale at will!"
If American citizens embraced this new ruling, many law-abiding citizens would drown. The human-made law wouldn’t be strong enough to negate the natural law.
At times in American history, moral codes defied inherent moral laws. When Americans stole, enslaved, and brutalized Africans—they did so legally. And yet, the natural consequences of this “legal” behavior led to the inevitable. Revolt. Resistance. The bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. Centuries of consequential damage in our nation resulted—horrific dominoes tumbled (of course) because the moral code didn't harmonize with the moral law.
We can look back on all that now and say, “Of course abuse and murder didn’t turn out well.” But at the time, a prevailing moral code blinded many from understanding of what had to happen to a nation that openly defied an unchangeable moral law.
Likewise, any modern government that fails to comply with moral law--no matter what public opinion says--will result in suffering.
A government can create wildly popular regulations that please the vast majority of a population, codes that excuse its favorite behaviors and reward its favorite choices...and those codes may ultimately still harm its citizens. Even if a law SEEMS beautiful and good to any given era, if the moral law isn't understood while that law is being made, the telos of the law will eventually harm people
Blast. This post is already too long.
I had wanted to bring in what physicists are discovering about the natural laws of beauty. I was going to talk about research on symmetry, on music—the Fibonnaci sequence. I was going to write about how the Greeks believed in universal principles of artistry and relate that belief to Aristotle’s unities and Plato’s forms. I was going to show you how those assumptions shifted as philosophy changed...moving through rationalistic then empirical attempts to nail truth to the wall...landing in defeat.
I was going to explain how existentialism is the deformed son of thousands of futile years of trying to create independent truth-- a defeated conclusion that moral law doesn’t actually exist so we must make meaning for ourselves.
I was going to tie all this in to Eve’s first sin—her desire to make meaning for herself. I was going to claim that she became the first existentialist when she decided to be like God without God.
I was going to land this post in Christ’s wild claim that he IS truth embodied and challenge you to think beyond even the Christian apologists of our time who have a terrible habit of ripping the truth out of a living Christ.
I was going to land with Chesterton’s brilliant quote that I cite too much, the quote about the danger of letting beautiful virtues fragment away from a critical center.
But there’s simply no room to unpack all that, and modern readers won’t stand for it. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it.
I will include the Chesterton quote, though. Print it out. Memorize it. Get it tattooed on your arms. Stick it on your refrigerator. It’s truly one of the most important thoughts of the past thousand years. It may change your life, if you let it.
"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. "
- - - - - - - -
A - A
B - N
C - N
D - N
E - A
F - N
G - N
H - A
A - MC
B - ML
C - MC
D - ML
E - MC
F - ML