Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Humility and the Appearance of Humility

I was doing some musing the other day about two types of 'relativism' in relationship to truth claims, one which is humble and one which merely has the appearance of humility.

One is the suggestion that what I think is "true for me." This can be used both offensively ("This is true for me and how dare you question it") and defensively ("That may be true for you, but this is true for me"). It's defensive use has the appearance of humility.

But, while it doesn't question another's experience, it also doesn't allow another's experience to touch its viewpoint at all. Relevance, I've been told by a philosopher, is a reciprocal term. That means that if A is relevant to B, then B is relevant to A. In this case, the person who dissembles with the "true for you" statement cuts off their interlocutor from the conversation by saying basically, "Your experience led you to that conclusion, but mine led me to this one. Your experience is irrelevant to what I believe!" In the end, though it seems humble, the "true for me, not for you" line is as dogmatically close-minded as the worst types of fundamentalism, except instead of a fundamentalism based on centuries of accumulation in a sacred text, this fundamentalism is based myopically on an individual's experience.

A silly illustration: Jane points at a cup and says, "That's red." Joe responds, "No, that's closer to salmon." Jane retorts, "It may be salmon to you, but it's red to me!" This may seem of no consequence in talking about a cup, but it becomes even more important when we're talking about God, society, politics, morals, and all the things that effect people every day.

There is a second type of 'relativism,' however, that I think is truly humble. Instead of saying, "This is true for me," it says "This is my best guess." Any "best guess" is going to be based in personal experience, but instead of being dogmatically closed to the experience of others, it is open and assumes that it is attempting to describe a Reality that will either validate or invalidate its claim. By being open to other's experiences, it learns to describe the reality better and better. "My best guess," at its best, is a refining process.

Back to the cup, Jane says, "That's red." Joe responds, "No, that's closer to salmon." Jane replies, "Oh, really? How can you tell the difference?" Instead of maintaining her 'right' to call the cup red, Jane enters into a larger 'reality' of color differentiation.

In this second form of 'relativism,' one holds one's ideas about the world tentatively, and allows them to be questioned both by others and the thing being observed. So, Jane allows her ascription of 'red' to the cup to be challenged and enters into something deeper than she started with. But, the cup itself will also govern the conversation. If the cup were actually green, then the whole conversation above is a farce. While in the first conversation, Jane seeks to push her will onto the cup and uphold her will over against Joe's description, in the second, she submits herself to the reality she finds in the cup through Joe's description. That is the proper ordering, and we would all (especially us believers) do well to remember that when we seek to describe the One who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 comment:

W. Travis McMaken said...

I like. Give us more posts like this!

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