On the Strange Function of Absolutes

On the Strange Function of Absolutes

REV. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J. – 1/16/18

Most people today “absolutely” maintain that they do not hold or live by “absolutes.” They live by their desires and choices, which are readily changeable. No one is much bothered by the “logic” of his own views. The proposition that “No absolutes exist” is itself an absolute. If it is true, an absolute exists. If it is false to maintain that “no absolutes exist,” lo, an absolute crops up anyhow. The mind is not easily by-passed. No one is willing to claim that his view of reality, however outlandish, has no basic foundation on which it stands. But if what it stands on is constantly changing, we hesitate to give our trust to someone whose standards are never the same two days in a row.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal (January 8) was, with no little irony, entitled “A Jesuit School (Marquette) Gets Dogmatic.” The issues about which it was “dogmatic” or “jesuitical” were these: 1) whether a student could state in class what in effect the Church teaches on “same-sex marriage,” and 2) whether a professor could strive to protect the student’s freedom so to speak or write on the subject at hand. It turns out that the student was not free to state his views, while the supporting professor was fired. Out of this morass, naturally, comes a series of suits in court, the last of which we have not yet seen.

The lack of freedom of speech on college campuses in recent years is well-known and sometimes even lamented. Reason itself has come to be declared unreasonable. What is it, we sometimes wonder, that makes “absolutes” such a dicey topic? The country once affirmed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” That position was an affirmation of absolutes. It is probably not surprising that, if no absolutes exist, life and liberty will soon cease to be absolutes. We will be able to “experiment” with them, suppress them, if we desire to do so. They no longer have their prohibitive force.

The Marquette incident provides one way of seeing what is at stake. A professor in class states that an issue is not “open to debate.” Everyone recognizes that all issues cannot be reasonably debated at all times. That too is but another form of academic chaos. What is called “critical thinking” is often based on a philosophical premise that no truth can be found, only endless queries, never anything definitive. Not all speech is reasonable, though, with some effort, all speech is understandable. “Rules of order” in parliaments and debates were not invented for nothing. They exist in order that reason may prevail.

What is curious about absolutes is that they are most needed when they are most denied. Many a disordered soul has testified over the ages that they hoped that at least the Church would not change its teachings on basic issues of human nature. The reason for upholding the absolute, even if few observed it, is this: If the organization that professes to stand for what cannot he otherwise in human nature itself changes, the last hope of getting out of one’s present disordered life would disappear. We would find ourselves trapped in our own relativisms. Why is it that we never hear it said, that the way to get rid of thievery is to affirm the principle that it is always right to steal what we need? But then I forget Proudhon’s “property is theft”—another absolute.

Samuel Johnson once dined with a gentleman who insisted at table that all property ownership was, in principle, wrong. Johnson did not debate this absolute position. Rather he suggested to the hostess, that, when the meal was over, she should count her silverware. That is, if the man were logical in his beliefs, there was no reason why, along with the dining, he should not take off with the silverware as it did not in theory belong to the household but was common to everyone.

Absolutes have a “strange” function. The existence of absolutes never implied that everyone, or anyone, would, without question, observe them. “Thou shalt not steal” was not written by someone unaware of the fact that some form of theft has occurred in all societies of men. Absolutes are statements of reason that defy us to contradict or break them with no consequences to ourselves or others. They stand for a better way while we are trying sundry devious ways.

Absolutes will not leave us alone. While it is true, beginning with Plato, that perfect systems can be insufferable, it is likewise true that kingdoms without absolutes likewise tend to insufferability. The human condition in every land and era bears the mark of fallen-ness, of a disorder of soul that needs a guide, a reminder of what it is to be rightly ordered. When a professor in a class at Marquette or anywhere else maintains “that a student could not express his disagreement with same-sex marriage in her ethics class because it was ‘homophobic’ and on that issue there could be no debate,” we know that we have not met a relativist but a new form of absolutism.

The strange function of absolutes again turns out to be to decide which absolute is in fact reasonable, true. This endeavor was once conceived to be the function of a university. Both absolutes could not be true. The absolute that was true would not always or even usually win the debate or the heart. But it did prod the mind that came to see what chaos was introduced into human living when there was no absolute that was in fact true, that was in fact an absolute.

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4 comments on “On the Strange Function of Absolutes

  1. Would that the “Frankenpope” would recognize this fact. After all, the commandments say: “Thou shall or thou halt not…” which IMO are absolutes.

  2. The article does not adequately reflect and oversimplifies the problem. University moral relativists do not say that truth is not absolute. In fact, enemies of liberalism even make it clear that morality exists on immigration and environmental issues, for instance.
    The real issue lies in the fact thst when Traditionalists or conservatives press for moral or dogmatic absolutes, the progressivists call it a MEANS TO THE TRUTH, BUT NOT TRUTH. For example, a different religion or sexual lifestyle is depicted as a means to arrive at the Creator, a means to arrive at the Truth of Love. But not the Truth itself. They depict the Mass as one of many; the Church as one of many; a sexual preference as one if many, etc. This is the real problem. And this is why progressivists can never be pinned down. Because everytime we think they are pinned down, they slip out of it like Jello. But we cannot escape the liberal or progressivist truths they say are clearly black or white, , because the media control they have, solidifies popular opinions.

  3. The position of postmodern multiculturalists holding to the naïve political correctness of the progressive Left is contradictory. They do sometimes claim that truth in a metaphysical sense is impossible and subject to historical determinism and the relativism of situation ethics. On the other hand, in their utopian rhetoric, they seem to believe and presume that their assertions in Frankfurt School theory and in emotivist progressive posturing have the status of truth. For instance, in the Marquette University tenure controversy, progressive emotivists and academic liberals assume that the claim that Professor McAdams was “mean-spirited” or “unjust” to the teaching assistant who prohibited a student from defending the Catholic definition of marriage in a philosophy class has the status of truth in an absolute sense metaphysically and epistemologically while denying such ontological certitude for assertions of Catholic doctrine on the nature of marriage or on other points of Catholic teaching, such as the sanctity of unborn human life. This presents a comical situation. There is a preferential option for the truth claims of secular progressive dogma while denying that for Catholic natural law philosophy and moral theology (what Marquette was originally founded to teach and defend in the advancement of Catholic teachings and civilization). That the progressive administrators involved in upholding secular progressive dogma are out of their league in explaining this mess of contradictions only adds to the comedy. It’s the same old story, as at many other American campuses, keystone academics. It is an interesting spectacle – to see how long they can keep the Laurel and Hardy routine of the Land O’Lakes agenda going while conning students and their families to keep paying tuition (and keeping a straight face at the same time). Criminal scams and con games require certain personalities. Contradictory claims and gaslighting are part of that.

    What is also missing is a realistic analysis of this as a case of progressive homophobia panic.
    Is Marquette involved in a deceptive enterprise by advertising itself as a Catholic university while punishing defenders of the Catholic teaching on marriage as homophobic?

  4. On the modernist crisis at Marquette, there is no need to beat around the bush. It involves a bit more than just one tenure battle. As at Georgetown, Boston College, and too many other formerly “Catholic” colleges and universities what you have is a criminal conspiracy of secular progressives, apostate modernist dissenters, and postmodern relativists, engaging in both fraud and theft, who have transferred control of Catholic property to an anti-Catholic cabal without a legal bill of sale and in violation of canon law regarding the alienation of Catholic church real estate.

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