If in Anything You Think Otherwise…
The teenager listens while his teacher [re]affirms Nietzsche’s position regarding religious convictions: “every conviction is a prison…” The young man then asks if statements of convictions such as this one, or the one about God being dead would also be considered prisons. “See, according to the philosopher, you must doubt every opinion, even this one,” the teacher replies at once.
The student, however, without forgetting how angry his instructor gets with people who categorize Nietzsche as a nihilist (the philosophical position that denies substantial reality, the possibility of truth or any moral transcendence), still asks coyly: “but would this not be a form of nihilism?”
This exchange actually took place recently in a high school class, but the story is old: “There ABSOLUTELY is no absolute truth” is sort of the mother of all absolutist philosophical statements! “Every normative discourse is an attempt at domination...” or “every metanarrative is ideological aggression…” and the like are statements that sound emancipatory but are surprisingly absolutist.
I think Alvin Plantinga hit the spot when he said he found it hard to see postmodern pluralism as an expression of “tolerance or intellectual humility,” rather, he found it to be more of a “paternalistic condescendence” (Alvin Plantinga, Warrented Christian Belief).
My mind keeps going back to the question: why much of today’s talk about intellectual freedom seems to be breeding ground for coercive radicalizations that mix philosophical pluralism and radical political absolutism? That is without even dwelling on the drowning out of the fertile debate of well-founded ideas, carefully articulated and respectfully expressed.
When I began writing this article, I thought about calling it: “Voltaire, please help us!” (Voltaire, or François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778). I knew immediately, however, that it would be an awkward title for an article written by a pastor and, since I let it out, I feel I must explain. The old tradition of tolerance, even the Enlightenment tradition, would tend to affirm something along these lines: I may disagree with your ideas, but I am willing to fight for your right to hold them. The supposed tolerance of today seems to yell: you may believe whatever you want, just as long as you do not hold it as truth!
There were times and places where ideas were defended on the tips of spears of with clubs. Some Amazonian natives were smart and decided these “battles” in a more clever way: for them, controversies could be resolved without bloodshed by seeing who could win a screaming or foot-stomping match. Other traditions had long histories of pinning their hopes for defending ideas and convictions on dialogue, debate or even disputations. The biblical approach and the Christian practice seem to go in this direction and this was especially true in the Reformed tradition: ideas are important, convictions are necessary, there is truth and error and everyone will have to commit to certain views and beliefs about things. Of course, for those who believe in this approach, it will be inevitable to presuppose a frame of reference, as well as the confidence that this point of reference is knowable.
For a Christian, the final reference for meaning is the very Creator God, Who is knowable in His personal self-revelation and especially in Christ, the God-man. It is, however, exactly because the Christian recognizes this reference point for reality outside of himself and because he accepts that this God reveals himself, that this Christian also values the discussion of ideas. Not only that, but also this person recognizes that knowledge of the truth involves aspects that are rational, affective and, ultimately, related to the motives of the heart—how one reacts to the knowledge of God that confronts him in the various ways in which God reveals himself. This should result in a double attitude: firmness as to the established convictions and, at the same time, serenity as to the fact that these convictions may and should be the object of persuasive speech, but should never be imposed upon others by external human force—not even by yelling loudly or by foot-stomping!
In fact, this is how the apostle Paul seems to go. In his letter to the Philippians, he argues persuasively for the truth he has grasped. He also asserts his understanding that he has not yet reached the plenitude of his understanding. He affirms his goal of seeing with Christ’s eyes. Then he continues: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3: 15–16).
Dr. Davi Charles Gomes is the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary; he is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil and the former Chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in São Paulo, Brazil. Click here for a brief bio.