Brian McLaren on moral absolutes and certainty  

Posted by Adam

The following question and response is taken from a post on

What are your thoughts on his response?

Here's the q:

Please help! I am currently taking a graduate class on church growth and we are using your book More Ready Than You Realize as an example of "friendship evangelism." You book has caused much discussion...which is what I guess you were wanting.... [details of class discussion removed] Here is my problem. I consider myself a postmodernist, but I can't really give a good answer why. What I do know is that the modern way (while once extremely effective) of evangelism is no longer effective. The following criticism is what I hear as an attack towards postmodernism, "they believe that there are moral absolutes." Is this true? I find it hard to believe that you would not take any moral stances. Also, I do not get this when I read your books.... I'm rambling, but if you could help me with the question on moral absolutes it might help me in the quest of better understanding postmodernism.

R: Thanks for your question. The discussion in your class sounds like a classic case of how a postmodern viewpoint looks to sincere modern-minded people. To modern-minded folk, postmodern people seem to be moral nihilists, relativists, compromisers, with no moral compass. No wonder they get so upset!

And you can't blame your fellow students for seeing things this way. This is how they've been taught by most of their pastors, youth leaders, and other authority figures - who were in turn taught this way of thinking by their authority figures.

As I've written elsewhere on this blog (just search on "postmodern"), the term "postmodern" is often defined in the worst possible light by modern-minded folk, so defending it will make you look like a kook (or worse) to them. So, I won't try to speak for "postmodernism," but let me speak for myself.

Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course!

But I do not believe that Christian fundamentalism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or secular fundamentalism, etc., etc.) has a superior record of identifying what is moral and what isn't moral in contested situations. For example, in my lifetime Christian fundamentalists have been among the last to release racism, sexism, a careless attitude toward the environment, a careless attitude toward the rights of Palestinians, a fear of science, and a fusion between the gospel and American nationalism.

Go back farther in history, and there were a majority of Bible-believing Christians in the South who were pro-slavery - and held that as an "absolute truth" or "absolute moral principle" that they could quote chapter and verse to defend. (I'll explore this in some detail in my upcoming book.)

Go back still farther, and our Christian ancestors refused to believe Copernicus and Galileo - again, based on their conception of moral absolutes based on their readings of the Bible. The same was true regarding the age of the earth, Darwin, etc.

So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment.

I'd also add that I do think moral standards change - but not in the direction of going down - just the opposite. That's why Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I say to you..." in the Sermon on the Mount. Over time, I believe God calls us to higher and higher standards of morality. Let me state this very clearly: the goal isn't to lower moral standards, but to raise them as we grow more morally mature. So - before it was don't murder. Now it's don't hate. Before it was only one eye for an eye. Now it's seek reconciliation, not revenge. Before it was love your neighbor, hate your enemy. Now it's love everyone - including enemies.

So - perhaps we can put this question to rest for good: the issue isn't morality - with some "fer it" and others "agin it." We're all for morality, as we understand it. The issue is two-fold. Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally. Modern-leaning folks are concerned whether leaving the door open to the possibility that "we" have been or are wrong will lead to moral collapse. If you let an absolutist system go, there will be nothing left, they fear.

I'd say there are dangers on both sides - the danger of excessive moral confidence on the one side and the danger of insufficient moral confidence on the other. I'm seeking a proper confidence ... one that is aware of both dangers on both sides.

In my view, only God has absolute moral knowledge. Human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to misinterpret God, all the while claiming to speak for God on morality, which (sadly) often degenerates into speaking as if they were God. I hope that helps! (Feel free to share this with your class.)

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 19, 2009 at Thursday, November 19, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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