Tolstoy and Moral Relativism

As anyone who knows me or has read this blog can attest, I really like a couple of the Renovare resources for devotions. I am now working through Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines…again. Today’s was an excerpt from an essay by Leo Tolstoy. In it he decried the use, or abuse, of various substances that tend to dull one’s consciousness and render their ability to think and grow. In his reflection on the reading, Richard Foster, who co-edited the book, stated his concern for using conscience as a guide to moral living. He wrote, “it is especially problematic in our day in which modern relativism has turned conscience into virtually anything we want it to mean.” He then turned the idea of relativism into a similar “stupefying substance” not unlike the alcohol, tobacco and opium that Tolstoy denounced. He cited as a corroborating source Dallas Willard. He quoted Willard, “there is now no recognized moral knowledge upon which projects of fostering moral development could be based.”
Now, I’ve been hearing this same kind of concern for many, many years. It seems that it is used anytime the established ‘norm’ is challenged. In my time it has been applied to the liberal 60’s and all those hippies who turned the world upside down. It became the cry from the watchmen and moral gatekeepers when post modernism began to show its hoary head in our culture. Now, these same folks are stating that all of the support and underpinnings of a moral and virtuous society have been destroyed. Watch out! The end of the world as we know it is upon us!
Many folks, particularly conservatives, feel that without some commonly accepted absolute truth(s) society necessarily must founder; rudderless in and ocean of individualistic ambiguity. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this prognosis. Yes, absolutes that were accepted as truth by our parents, grandparents and, maybe, great-grandparents have been challenged. And, I think, rightfully so. Without fresh insights and understanding gained through challenge we cannot really ‘own’ any kind of moral or virtuous action or thought. There is NO real threat in challenge! Even when these actually reveal inconsistencies and inaccuracies in long held positions, they are still not a threat. Sometimes it’s necessary to dig through and shovel away the crap in order to see the kernel of truth that has been buried. That kernel can them be rethought and recast to better serve society as it is now; today.
I actually believe that there is a very healthy moral under girding for today’s society. I see it revealed in actions taken by entire communities to support folks in the aftermath of Newtown. It is embodied when people stand up to powerful forces of injustice. The moral fiber of those who care for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow humans is a strong witness. It shines in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis whose hearts and lives are linked in support for one another. Virtue shines when people chose what is right over that which fosters hate and division.
But, perhaps the most problematic point that comes from the moral gatekeepers is the fear and distrust that it engenders. The obvious objects are those who question and challenge. These are enemies to be fought and destroyed. They are no longer fellow travelers through life, but something ‘other’ and evil. I’m sorry, but I haven’t yet found where Jesus took that position. More disconcerting for me, though, is the palpable lack of trust in Yahweh. It seems that God is rendered impotent by the challenges raised by those who have been created in the Divine image.
I have hope. I trust that God’s will surely will be done on earth as in heaven. I am equally sure that when assumptions and interpretations, that MUST be flawed because they are of human origination, are challenged that we really have nothing to fear. In fact, we may, as one wise person was reported to have said under similar circumstances, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these [people] alone!…For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop [it]; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).

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