Dostoevsky famously wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted. In our nihilistic society many believe that we have outgrown the need for the rules imposed by religious tradition and authority. Dostoevsky didn’t think so, but most people in the 21st century have come to believe that there are no absolutes when it comes to truth or morality. We have matured as a species.
However, it is not so simple to get rid of absolutes. First, the idea that we must allow each individual to live by their own truth demands tolerance of opposing views. That is, tolerance becomes an absolute value. Going further, no religion, ideology, culture, or political has the “right” to impose itself on another. In other words, all ideologies and religions, cultures are of equal value. The assumption of equality is another absolute.
How do we decide between different sets of absolutes?
We are drowning in a nihilistic sea, deluded that we are more free than ever since we can choose, arbitrarily, cafeteria style, our beliefs, our way of life. Since there is no ultimate truth, whatever religion, culture, or ideology that appeals to our state of mind at the moment is a good enough reason. We can discard them also, if the need arises.
And yet, and yet, and yet, doesn’t our capacity to know, to reason, mean that there is some link, some similarity with that which we know? The other day I came across these words from Paul Tillich:
According to the classical philosophical tradition, reason is the structure of the mind which enables the mind to grasp and to transform reality. It is effective in the cognitive, aesthetic, practical, and technical functions of the human mind….Philosophy is “service of God”; it is a thinking which is at the same time life and joy in the “absolute truth” (Hegel)…Classical reason is Logos, whether it is understood in a more intuitive or in a more critical way…The denial of reason in the classical sense is anti human because it is anti-divine.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume 1, page 72.
Truth, real truth, not merely propositional correspondence, is not arbitrary, nor is it relative. Nihilism is anti-human and anti-divine because it denies the Logos embedded in the Universe and in the human mind. Eternal philosophy beginning way before Plato states that it is divine Eros which drives the mind toward the Logos. Plotinus says that longing for our origin elevates the soul and the mind toward the ineffable source of all meaning, the Logos. This is more than scientific truth, more than factual knowledge.
In the beginning was the Logos…All things came into Being through Him…And the Logos became flesh and lived among us…(John 1:1-14)
This philosophy, which is embedded in human nature, and has been expressed in various ways throughout history and culture, knows the Logos as the substance of our cognitive and emotional life, the objective and the subjective, the seeking behind our deepest longings. It is our nature, it is not random or arbitrary, it is reality, congruent with Nature, of the same substance.
This is the Truth worth living for, and dying for.