Allen Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind in the 1980’s as a criticism of the growing relativism in the modern academy and in society at large. That relativism has two axioms: first that everyone should be free to hold their own opinion without having others criticize them; and, second, that every viewpoint is equally legitimate.
In effect Bloom was criticizing a new absolute that no claims of truth can be absolute. Setting aside the confused circularity of the claim that relativism is an absolute value, Bloom’s main complaint was that relativism precludes learning. If every member in a classroom has the right to claim special privilege for their personal point of view then no one is ever ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in what they believe. The teacher, then, is left to offer a forum for students to express their thoughts to each other: they explore possibilities and teachers facilitate the process.
Bloom’s complaint, viewed after some passing of time, was at the same time overstated and astute. That is, despite his concerns some departments of the academy are still anchored in non-relative certainties: the tangible fields of botany, engineering, meteorology, and aeronautics, to name a few. The students are either correct or incorrect in presenting their research—outcomes are measured by stable empirical evidence.
Other fields of learning, however, are indeed susceptible to encroaching relativism. Social studies, for instance—including religious studies and ethics—are often held to be free from any absolute standards. Professors in this milieu are expected to stir new and broader thinking so that individuals have enough colors in their personal palette of life to paint their own unique pictures. The metaphor of the visual arts is particularly apt in such cases because the freedom once reserved to artists is now a freedom granted to historians, theologians, psychologists, and to any others who reflect on the human condition.
As Bloom—a professor at the University of Chicago—shows us, not all academics embrace this relativism but it is a growing presence. I recall, for instance, attending a history conference for University of London doctoral students in the early 90’s. The liveliest event was an animated debate between an historian who viewed his work as a creative art in which he was free to promote his own values. His opponent, by contrast, held that while interpretive variations will always exist in historical studies it is incumbent on the ‘good’ historian to offer an accurate—’true’—portrayal of events. In an earlier era the former view would never have been welcomed in serious company.
So, too, the extension of relativism into many Christian communities is now a fact of life. It plays a role, for instance, in the emerging church movement where personal authenticity and sincerity are often valued more than a concern for biblical or creedal truth. A personal point of view, strongly held, is admired as long as the person who holds it knows not to promote it as an exclusive view that others must embrace. Each participant is seen to have a role in producing a unique community of worship that displays God best through unconstricted multiplicity. Freedom is an ultimate value.
Now let me shift gears a bit. Bloom’s complaint and the flavor of my review to this point can be aligned with the so-called neo-conservatism of today—aligned with those axiomatically committed to the past as superior to the claimed progress offered by modernity and post-modernity. My concern, however, is in a different place: that the great tensions of life need to be framed not as issues of old versus new—of absolutes versus relativism—but as a competition between a relational view of life and a devotion to individualism.
Let me press the point indirectly with a bit of personal narrative. For a time I was an elder at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon—notable to some as the spiritual home of Don Miller who wrote Blue Like Jazz; and the pastor, Rick McKinley, also an author and a conversation partner with leaders of the emergent church movement. While his contact with the latter group may cause some to dismiss Rick I find him to be a breath of fresh air. He is happily devoted to the Bible even as the church he leads promotes the importance of authentic community and artistic, spiritual creativity.
In practice I found that the Imago Dei Community represents a healthy reformation—even if I’ve had qualms at points. Imago differs from more traditional churches: from the behavioral spirituality found in some settings, for instance; or the existentially active but content-modest worship found in other places. Instead Imago Dei expresses a robust relational commitment to Christ. Sundays at Imago offer a spiritual lens that magnifies the biblical Christ without hesitation or apology. The view is often striking, sometimes convicting, and, at the least, regularly encouraging.
Let me say more. At its heart each Imago service invites members to meet with God in every moment of the morning. Not to renew church traditions one more time, but to hear something fresh as offered out of God’s heart through the Word. This takes place as the speaker honors what the Bible offers, not to create experiences for the sake of experience, but to experience God’s love by the Spirit’s presence in the Word, worship, and in sharing at the Lord’s table. It is a time when the events of the week at the office and at home can be reviewed within the divine context of faith and community. Ultimate self-concern—the motor of individualism—loses meaning in the presence of real faith.
With such a relational worship as context, let me return to Bloom on the one hand, and the relativists on the other. The question at stake in their debate must be relocated to a relational context. Per Bloom’s concerns, are there some set of absolute truths that undergird every aspect of education which, by extension, can enlarge the personal capacities of the learner? Or is authentic personal creativity—the stuff of post-modernity—a better measure of education?
Our answer is that if there is no divine-relational context in either case then both are ultimately empty—unable to transcend the coming Day of the Lord by finding a place in eternal communion with a triune God and his saints in the new heavens and the new earth.
The biblical answer, in fact, is that any claims of scientific or social truth are only as absolute as the Creator makes them to be. In Jesus we find the one by whom and for whom all things are created. All patterns, rules, principles, realities, and principles of the creation are located in the one who tells us “I am . . . the Truth”. This is the ever-creative, ever-loving Son who delights the Father with his ongoing good works and offers them to the Father in a relational offering. We, in turn, exist in the fabric of God’s triune relationship and not the other way round! And here it is, I’m sure, that Christ delights to tease us with the mysteries of his unending creativity that stand behind the relativity of quantum physics and the older stability of Newtonian descriptions of the empirical universe.
In this context—of God’s triune eternal, mutual glory of shared love—we find true Creativity as a living companion. The creation is not our final ‘absolute’. Instead we find absolute love, accompanied by an appropriate jealous wrath, in meeting God through the Son and by the Spirit. We were made by him and for him; apart from him we are in hell.
Adam and Eve chose the latter course by turning away from their relationship with God—seeking to be “like God” as independent beings. They loved their own pretensions to morality and meaning. Yet to seek any form of life away from God is like a shadow seeking to exist as its own being. The autonomous shadow-person is only and always a nothing—a moving Lie—of darkness forever linked to, while despising, what is real.
In all of sin, then, there is a desire to create a unique and transcendent reality but this ambition turns out to be nothing more than a Nietzschean act of volition—and ultimately an empty existence. True exercises of human creation are all rooted in faith as worship. Anything else only exists as passing shadows. Even the insistence by Bloom and his kin that truth can be discovered through academic disagreements and debates leads us to a dead end if that learning is separate from worship. Any version of education that is not done as an act of worship only expresses the closing of the human heart—the pathway to nothingness.
Listen, then, to Jesus as he speaks from within his communion of the Godhead on our behalf: “Father, sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth.” It is only in God that we find our way to truth and meaning in a broken world. Let us go there, then, and worship him in every moment of life. There we are truly open-minded and freely creative.