The Clackamas print. (Oregon City, Oregon) 1989-2019, November 04, 1998, Page 3, Image 3

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T he ClAckAMAs P rìnt
Wednesday, November 4,1998
Paul a relativist?
In response to Joel Shempert’s
opinion Piece, “Truth or Conse­
quences: In Search of an Abso­
lute”, (Wednesday, October 28th,
1998, Issue 4) I would suggest that
even Paul of Tarsus was a moral
relativist masquerading as a moral
absolutist in his day. Since I have
discussed religion with Joel in
Comparative Religion class and in
many other discussions, he knows
of my aversion to simply quoting
Bible passages to prove universal
truth. But, since his writing opens
this door, let me ask if he thinks
the following ideas of Paul of Tar­
sus are absolute or relative:
L etter
to t I he
• “May condemnation fall on
those that unsettle you.” (Gal.
5:10) (Boy, if I wished that on any­
one that unsettled me...) “Those
that trouble you about circumci­
sion should go the whole way and
castrate themselves.” (Gal. 5:12)
(A reference to whether circumci-
sion was necessary)
• “It is shameful for a woman to
speak in church.” (1 Cor. 14:34-35)
Does Joel suggest that this is still
true today... or was it ethically rel­
evant at the time Paul started it?
Religion Instructor
Those who have responded to
my column, “Truth and Conse­
quences,” seem between them to
mistake me on two points. First,
I am attributed by my critics a
childishly crude understanding
of Paul’s thought and writings.
By claiming briefly (too briefly,
I admit) that Paul spoke of an
Absolute, I am expected to ac­
cept every word that fell from his
lips as a concrete expression of
that Absolute—a position that
severely limits my philosophical
Rather, I would say that Paul
in many cases applied absolute
principles to culturally relative
situation. Thus, “It is shameful
for women to speak in church”
is relative to the culture, but the
principles behind it—humility
and modesty—are not.
I believe that Bryant-Trerise
has mistaken brevity for sim­
plicity. Themes touched on
briefly in a 500-word article
(and made as clear as possible
for an intellectually diverse
readership) are not quite on par
with topics explored meticu­
lously in Master’s theses or
scholarly journals. The reader
must be asked to employ pa­
tience. Last week’s column
was by no means a final an­
swer; it was a foundation for
further thought. It was a foot
in the door—a door some seem
to wish stay closed.
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In his column, “Truth & Conse­
quences: In search of an Absolute”
(October 28), Joel Shempert says,
“Relativism is a sure killer of a cul­
ture. It is when the hedonism and
moral decay of Rome finally caught
• “Slaveowners, deal justly and
fairly with your slaves” (Col. 4:1)
Today, since we are not relativists
in this regard as were the roman
civilizations of Paul’s time we
might say, “Slaveowners, free your
There are many other instances
that suggest Paul was speaking a
truth that was relative to his time
and circumstance. I am not sug-
gesting that there is a
moral absolute from
which humans might
contemplate or judge
actions, I am only sug­
gesting that Joel take
care in declaring Abso­
lute Truth’s Parameters. They
might be much bigger and more
flexible* to the evolving human
consequences that a simple perusal
of the boundaries of truth might in­
Response to letters
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Absolutism: realistic or simplistic?
Jeremy Stallwood
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R TO t M e
up with her that she found herself
with a crumbling societal founda­
tion, and the barbarians stormed her
gates.” He goes onto say that “there
is a light of truth, perceived by
Socrates, proclaimed by Christ, and
disseminated by Paul of Tarsus, by
which we can live our lives.” Some
clarifications are in order.
Part of the “light of truth” that Paul
“disseminated” was that women
should shut up and ask their husbands
what’s what and that slaves should
obey their masters. Hie latter is a par­
ticularly interesting admonition, and
shows Paul’s political pragmatism: if
he had advised slaves to rebel, the
morality that the Romans lived by
would have told them to nail him to
two pieces of wood, as they are alleged
to have done to his master, and then so
much for his mission of dissemination.
Slave rebellion was one of the Roman
establishment’s greatest fears, such that
the most famous and effective of
them—Spartacus’%was followed by
the crucifixion of 10,000, it’s said.
Imagine Highway 213 lined on both
sides from CCC to 205 with people
nailed to crosses and dying slowly.
What a wonderful thing it is, to have
moral absolutes.
Or maybe I’m being unfair.
Maybe slavery and brutality are in
fact the “moral decay” that Mr.
Shempert cites as the cause of the
empire’s fragmentation and vulner­
ability. If so, his statement that the
decay “FINALLY caught up” [em­
phasis mine] is certainly correct:
Spartacus’ rebellion was half a
millenium before the barbarians
“stormed the gates.” And in be­
tween, of course, crucifixions have
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stopped; slavery has declined;
of things, is a necessity. It’s true that
Christianity has become the religion
Mr. Shempert’s primary concern is
of most of those in the empire, in­
not the political “sphere of things”
cluding the emperor. In other words,
but the philosophical; nonetheless he
Rome was at its most “immoral”
tries to make equations to the politi­
when it was strongest as an empire.
cal. He is implying that if we as a
Shempert’s culture continue with relativism,
cause-effect connection
we’re doomed. History teaches just
between moral decay and the opposite; those who would en­
the end of a civilization
force the absolute would doom the
is simplistic at best.
culture, just as those who would en­
This oversimplification
force love would doom love.
of the morality-history
Let me repeat: an Absolute Prin­
connection has signifi­
ciple may in fact be ultimately nec­
cant consequences. Once someone essary. But so what? What use is that
started believing his civilization
statement when “we know only in
knew how to interpret the Absolute part” and no one would say “the
Principle, it has been, historically, a
complete” has yet come?
very small step to decid­
The “more excellent
ing to enforce that inter­
way” is, in fact, not to in­
pretation, and then we
sist on my own way, es­
inevitably get oppres­
pecially my own interpre­
sion, usually violent, of
tation of absolute prin­
those who disagree.
ciples, about which I “see
It makes no difference oftne^i
in a mirror, dimly." As
to say that that violence
Kierkegaard realized, we
is an incorrect interpre­
must have uncertainty for
tation of the Principle; history
faith to exist.
the lesson that history
Finally, here’s an in­
teaches is that those who
stance of a kind of rela­
enforce a moral absolute has
tivism strengthening a
usually do so using vio­ significant
civilization. In Islamic
lence, whether physical
Spain, Jews and Chris­
or psychological. Mr. consequences
tians had to pay higher
Shempert is welcome to
taxes and were forbidden
believe in the need for
from holding government
James Bryant-
an Absolute Principle,
posts and from prosely­
but when someone starts
tizing, but beyond that
English Instructor
building a society based
they were left alone to
on a certain interpretation
worship and study as they
of that, it’s not long before
pleased. The Muslims
they also start building the crosses,
did not insist on their own way, and
thumbscrews, iron maidens, whips,
consequently all groups were able
nooses and showers. Yes, I’m saying to contribute to the civilization. The
that the “moral” cultures are the rela­
result was a staggeringly beautiful
tivist ones.
architecture and calligraphy, the res­
Paul himself, in the “more excel­
cue for much of Europe of classical
lent way” that he writes of, advo­
philosophy, the addition to that of
cates a kind of moral relativism.
much original medieval thought and
Love, he says, “does not insist on other words, a rich
its own way....It bears all things,
civilization that lasted 600 years
believes all things, hopes all things,
until the Islamic leaders started snip­
endures all things” (I Cor. 13:5, 7
ing among themselves and the Chris­
[NRSV]). This is a radical humility.
tian nobles were able to take advan­
It says, “I don’t know what’s right— tage of the times and kick them out.
except to love.” This is not a moral­
And then the Christians kicked out
ity that can be enforced, of course,
the Jews as well and started the In­
because doing so would violate the quisition. They were quite certain of
very standard that was being en­
their absolute principles.
forced. And if you cannot enforce a
morality, then a kind of moral rela­
English Instructor
tivism, at least in the political sphere