Friday, January 16, 2009

Absolute & Relative truths: Do you have to think in terms of one or the other, or can you cohesively use both?

Now, I thought I would put this post in here to brake up the series on Christianity, as I find this issue coming up again and again in discussions I have, both online and face to face. I figure it would be helpfull if I can simply refer people to this article in the future. I would like to apologise in advance, that this post will be very repetitive, I need to make sure that I get this point across.
Ok, now the concept of Absolute Truth, implies there being a singular truth with no exceptions or loopholes. As a consequence, if something is not the Absolute truth, than it logicaly follows that it is false. This is known as Black & White thinking.

Alternatively, the concept of Relative Truth, implies that there are no Absolute truths applicable in all circumstances, and that different truths have important places in different contexts. This could be referred to as thinking in Shades of Grey.

Now, traditionally, Conservative Religion is known for being Black & White, many Christians will say either your saved, or you are not, and if you're not saved, then you will go to Hell. Alternatively, New Age is known for being Relativistic, in that many New Ager's will say that Truth is changing, that everyone should find their own individual truth, and that one person's truth isn't necessarily another person's truth.

Now, there is a third alternative, the acknowledgment of the existence of Absolute Truth, with the firm conviction of striving towards it, whilst acknowledging that there are countless tiers of Relative Truth along the way, are in a way equally important. This third approach is the traditional way of Eastern Philosophy (and from what I've seen many other Mystical/Metaphyiscal traditions, I can just speak more firmly about what I'm familiar with). I can say though, that many of the well known Authors and speakers within New Age also affirm to this belief, however they focus more on the Relative, as that is more immediately practical.

I also read a book by Brian McLaren, a leading writer amongst the Emergent Church movement, who also favoured the same approach. He mentioned that this was a post-modern approach, I personally do not have any real knowledge of Post-Modernism, so I cant say, but I can say with certainty that if you read some traditional Eastern texts, than this view becomes very clear. You could even say that it is absolutely essential to understand this point, if one is to perceive the true meaning with Eastern Philosophy, without this than you will surely miss the point. In fact, this is going to sound quite blunt, but: If you don't get it, don't critize it!

Which brings me to frequent mistranslations and misrepresentations of Eastern Philosophy and New Age by Conservative Christian ranks. Even the best of them often fall victim to the Strawman argument, by massively misperceiving their opponents beliefs, generally as a failure to understand the Absolute-Relative truth situation.

Countless times I have seen Christians say that as New Agers believe truth is Relative than what difference does it make if one is a tyrant or a saint.

Example, taken from the "All About God" website:

"Celestine Prophecy - Is Spirituality Really Relative?Books like The Celestine Prophecy are at the heart of New Age spirituality and relativism. They encourage us to seek meaning and purpose in our lives through personal experiences and subjective reality. Truth is what we make it… But is it really? Through the teaching of New Age spirituality and moral relativism, we've removed God from the potential answers to the ultimate questions of life. Without God, we lose any transcendent purpose for the universe in which we live. Without God, we lose any transcendent purpose to give meaning to our individual lives. Without God, we also lose any possibility for life after death. When you remove the hope of heaven, you remove the ultimate value and purpose of life. What difference would it really make whether we lived like a philanthropist or a terrorist? True spirituality must be grounded in some kind of truth."

The clear answer to the above is that 1), New Age does have a concept of God, 2)It also has a concept of Heaven (which I might add is completely consistent with reports from countless NDE's.) and 3) New Age teaches Karma & Reincarnation, direct consequences for our actions, meaning that it makes a huge difference how you live.

Frequently, I have heard it said "But do you see how saying truth is relative is a self-refuting statement?" The response to this is easy, yes if one where to say that "All truth is Relative", than you have a situation were the statement itself is an Absolute concept, and thus self-refuting. However, the approach I take (and is taken by virtually all the serious writers and speakers with New Age, not to mention the Eastern Sages) is to say that "There is Absolute Truth, and there is Relative Truth". We should aspire to Absolute truth, but apply it as in Relatively practical.

Ok, here's a couple of short examples. In everyday life we experience the material world as possesing solidity. Due to modern Physics however, we know however, that on a deeper, more fundamental level, matter is primarily made up of empty space, permeated by fields of energy/force. So therefore the solidity of the world is a Relative fact, and the truth that matter is made up primarily of empty space is closer to an Absolute statement. Scientists are still searching for final building blocks of the universe, ie they are looking for an Absolute truth. So clearly, both these truths have their place. You cannot ignore the Relative truth in acknowledgment of the more Absolutue truths, ie you cannot ignore the Solidity of the World just because you know that it only appears to be solid, but in fact is actually empty space. Unless you can realize a state of being where you can experience everything as empty space, rather than just hold the intellectual concept, than you must live by the Relative truth that the world is solid.

Another example: Take the statements, Do not kill, or Cause Harm to None. If you take them as being Absolute statements, then you will soon find them impossible to apply. For example, what if your country is being invaded by tyrants, surely you defend yourself, in doing so you will be forced to kill. Also, we all must kill some forms of life for food. Some people eat the meat of animals, I am vegetarian and as such have to except that some the food I eat is also a form of life. So, what I do is try to cause as little harm to others as possible, try to apply the law of Cause harm to none as much as is practical. Merely getting out of bed in the morning probably kills countless microscopic organisms. There is clearly a hierachy to life, we value human life more than animal life, animal life more than plant life, etc. So the the statement of Thou shall not commit Murder must be applied in a Relative way, otherwise life would be impossible. So, we acknowledge the existence of an Absolute truth (That we should cause harm to none, and show love to all), we must apply it in Relative ways, depending on our circumstances.

In the above example, if I was stranded in a forest with no supplies, I would likely be forced to kill an animal for food, however as I currently live in a wealthy country, I can attain all the nutrition I require without having to kill an animal to do so. (And the vegetarian diet suits me, I realize it doesn't work this easily for every body.)

If I lived in a war-torn country, and some armed people started attacking innocent civillians I would be required by moral duty to attempt to defend the innocent, even though this would require doing harm to those attacking. But, as I live in a peacefull country, physical violence is virtually never required, if I have a disagreement with someone, it will play out with words rather than violence. So, the application of a truth, depends on the context.

(The above example is illustrated nicely in the Bhagavad-Gita, where in the beginning Arjuna breaks down, saying he cannot fight his own friends and family, as this would surely be a sin. He is then corrected by Krishna, who assures him that it is his duty to defend the innocent (within the story of The Mahabharata there are clearly defined Good and Evil sides), and that it would be a sin for him to infact ignore his duties (the relative truths). Krishna goes on to teach him the Absolute truth, that God alone is eternal, and the struggle before him is only a small play in the grand scheme of things, and that the Eterenal Truth is wonderfull beyond all description. So, he is told to fight, bravely perform his duty in the Relative world, with knowledge of the Abosulte within him at all times.)

Finally, Scientist's use mathematic equations and rules that they know are not absolute, as long as they are in the right context. (ie: They may use Isacc Newtons equations when measuring Gravity, even though they don't really know what Gravity is, however they cannot use the same equations to measuring the forces within an electron (for example))

Back into the context of Religion/Spirituality now, and many people accuse New Age of being soft and wishy washy. Whilst, alternatively no one makes that claim of Eastern Philosophy, however people do claim that Eastern thought is impracticle and pessimistic. My response is simple, properly defined, New Age bridges the gap between the level of Consciousness of most people, with the situations of everyday life, and the advanced state spoken of by Mystics

I will leave you now with a couple of quotes:

"Although Creation is discerned as not real for the one who has achieved the goal, it is yet real in that Creation remains the common experience to others." (From Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, 2.22)

"The half-wise, recognizing the comparative unreality of the Universe, imagine that they may defy it's Laws, such are vain and presumptuos fools, and they are broken against the rocks and torn asunder by the elements by reason of their folly. The truly wise, knowing the nature of the Universe, use Law against laws; the higher against the lower; and by the Art of Alchemy, transmute that which is undesirable into that which is worthy, and thus triumph. Mastery consists not in abnormal dreams, visions and fantastic imaginings or living, but in using the higher forces against the lower, escaping the pains of the lower planes by vibrating on the higher. Transmutation, not presumptuous denial, is the weapon of the Master." (The Kybalion, Chapter 5, Page 43)

And finally, "The Yoga Vasistha" is easily the most advanced book I've ever read (in fact so much so that I read 1/3rd of it, and stopped knowing that I wasn't ready for it yet, despite the fact that simply reading a few verses would catapult me into an altered state of consciousness, with Bliss exploding through me being.), and is very much concerned solely with the Absolute. However, it also states something along the lines of the following (I haven't found the exact verse):

"Truth is found halfway between the Real, and the Unreal"

(ie I read this as saying Truth is understood when you comprehend both Absolute and Relative truths)

I will leave it here now, as always I welcome response. Thank you.
Take care all,
God Bless,
Hari Om

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