From Jeanne DuPrau’s The People of Sparks
“I hate it here,” said Lina.
“Yes,” said Maddy. “Terrible things happened in this place. You can still feel it.”
“Were the people in those old days extremely evil?” Lina asked.
“No more than anyone,” Maddy said.
“But then why did the wars happen? To wreck your whole city—almost your whole world—it seems like something only evil people would do.”
“No, not evil, at least not at first. Just angry and scared.” Maddy was silent for a moment. Caspar’s footsteps came closer, crunching on the gravelly ground, and then receded again. Lina inched a little closer to Maddy. “It’s like this,” Maddy said at last. “Say the A people and the B people get in an argument. The A people do something that hurts the B people. The B people strike back to get even. But that just makes the A people angry all over again. They say, ‘You hurt us, so we’re going to hurt you.’ It keeps on like that. One bad thing leads to a worse bad thing, on and on.”
It was like what Torren had said when he was telling her about the Disaster. Revenge, he’d called it.
“Can’t it be stopped?” said Lina. She shifted around under her blanket, trying to find a place to sit where rocks weren’t digging into her.
“Maybe it can be stopped at the beginning,” Maddy said. “If someone sees what’s happening and is brave enough to reverse the direction.”
“Reverse the direction?”
“Yes, turn it around.”
“How would you do that?”
“You’d do something good,” said Maddy. “Or at least you’d keep yourself from doing something bad.”
“But how could you?” said Lina. “When people have been mean to you, why would you want to be good to them?”
“You wouldn’t want to,” Maddy said. “That’s what makes it hard. You do it anyway. Being good is hard. Much harder than being bad.”
So much of life is predetermined by our definitions for things. We dislike something, and we call it unpleasant. Something seems horrible, so we call it evil. If these definitions are merely subjective opinions, evil is a fiction. There cannot be any universal ethic on a horizontal plane, because the moment you say that something is wrong, someone else can respond that your opinion is not valid in their opinion.
This has staggered humanist philosophers for centuries. In defining something to be evil, we must necessarily be indicating transcendence, or else we are simply saying that we individually dislike that thing very much, although someone else my have an opposite opinion about it.
Relativism is logically self-defeating. It says that all things are relative, while that statement itself is an absolute. If that statement too is relative, then it is sometimes not true and all things are not relative. Something is always absolute.
In physics, relativity is understood very well. Time passes at different rates based upon motion, mass, etc. But this relativity is not absolute, because the standard of measure is always the speed of light, which does not change. Everything else changes in relation to that standard, which is unchanging.
Light is an attribute often ascribed to God in the Bible. I doubt the authors had this comparison in mind (especially since relativity was not discovered until a hundred years ago), but it’s an excellent analogy. God is light because He is the only source by which we can interpret rightness and wrongness, the only changeless measure against which behavior can be compared. The character of God is where truth comes from.
For last week’s article, my two examples of psychological pressure were different from what we have now because they were circumstances. No one intended to bring about those situations. Today though, the darkness we see creeping through the American character is as often embraced as not. It is expected, welcomed, reveled…
Allow me to seize some lyrics penned by John Petrucci of Dream Theater; We fabricate our demons / Invite them into our homes / Have supper with the aliens / and fight the war alone / We conjure up our skeletons / Enlist the den of thieves / Frightened from our closets / Then sewn upon our sleeves (I suspect that Lines in the Sand is actually an anti-catholic song, by the way. Yet, the lyrics do provoke certain problems with post-modern society.)
Many reasons have colluded to create our circumstance today. Volumes could be filled with the cultural shifts that have brought about this rabid, neo-secular relativism. Modern man has become so confident in his ability to analyze, he has decided that all things are a matter of perspective, that there is no lightness or darkness, but only gray areas. No matter how confident you are with the placement of furniture in your house, if you walk around with the lights off, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe. And try walking around someone else’s house with the lights off! If there are gray areas, it is only because we have blurred our vision to the truth.
Despiritualized, humans become mere flesh to be touched for momentary pleasure or discarded for convenience. Desensitized, we walk around an astonishing world, feeling only the weight of time and misery. Devitalized, wonder has become a target for the cynics. Desecrated of our purpose in life, we rake our fingers into the mud to grasp for any firm hold, hoping that when we feel good, that is enough to find fulfillment, and yet we slip deeper into a sea of nothingness, meaninglessness.
Who can stand up and say to a cannibal, ‘No, that is not right, what you are doing.’ without appealing to something external and superior to both the speaker and the eater, something which sets the rules for all, and beyond giving rules, has also given purpose that is the path denoted by those rules.
Post-modernism is not standing up and declaring that relativistic truths light each person’s way. If that were the case, laws would not be needed. Shouted from a soap-box, the message we’re told is that there is no light, that the only truth is that there is no truth! And we hear this reverberating off the walls in the darkness. We know there are barriers, yet we told to keep our eyes closed. Deep in the shadows we create and enjoy, we pretend that we can find our way along.
At the beginning of this post, the lines from DuPrau’s book, illustrate how crucial proper definitions are. Lina doesn’t ask what she should if life has no intrinsic purpose. What does it matter what they did to themselves? What does it matter what anyone does to anyone else? If you aren’t affected, it was no crime, right? No, everyone naturally realizes there are boundaries, and it takes concerted effort to pretend those boundaries don’t exist, what Muggeridge called ‘educating ourselves into imbecility.’
The only worldview out there that calls for people to turn the other cheek is the Christian one which declares value in all human life. It doesn’t make sense in the evolutionary worldview, which calls for the powerful to dominate or destroy the weak, and refers to all creatures as purposeless accidents. It doesn’t make sense in the pantheist worldview which says that suffering is retribution for wrongs done in past lives (and so to alleviate suffering is a crime). It doesn’t make sense in the Islamic worldview in which Allah does not love the unbeliever…
Where are we, in America? Hard to say. As I mentioned before, this nation is heavily balkanized and has been for about fifty years. That wasn’t a problem until technology has made communication and travel so easy. Nowadays the vast differences between people can become clashing points. As long as we take differences as an opportunity to challenge each other, to learn and grow, America will be strong and healthy, because the truth will win out.
Unfortunately, my titles for these two pieces note where I suspect we are. Many people are embracing the darkness, calling it something else, and refuse to meet and talk peacefully to consider the truth. Too many people are denying the very existence of something called truth.
Pessimism at this time in our history will surely seem odd. We have never been more productive, even with the economic downturn. We have never lived with more luxury. But it took a solid foundation to get us where we are today, to pass those value systems that allowed this astounding increase in the quality of life. If that foundation has eroded, we ought to attend to it. Especially since the moral foundation for Western society is so defensible.