This is a commentary on an obscure TV show, but I found it fascinating in case anyone else ever catches it on TV. They have started a network called “Antenna” which plays old TV shows, many of which have disappeared from basic cable because of the onslaught of new material. The show I’m watching is called Here Comes the Brides, loosely inspired by the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and takes place in Seattle in the 1860s (where I live nearby). The cast features some recognizable character actors like David Soul of Starsky and Hutch and Joan Blondell from several classic movies including my favorite Topper Returns.
This particular episode I’m watching, as I am writing, has the small town of Seattle deciding to hire a sheriff and being foolish enough to sign an ironclad contract. The contract stipulates a 3 year stint and that he will enforce the laws of Seattle to the letter. Which the Sheriff proceeds to do as he examines every law on the book and starts by shutting down his own inaugration because of the outdated curfew law. Then he proceeds to throw a couple in jail for making-out past curfew. More minor violations ensue that are ridiculous simply because the people all know each other and don’t find it necessary to enforce the petty laws. When the sheriff asks the town mayor why the laws are there, he has trouble explaining and finally says: “Because every town needs laws!”
The problem is that commonsense isn’t considered as well as context. It struck me as similar to the absolutism present in conservative Christian theology which can’t understand civilized society without the laws of God or rather the absoluteness of God–the law book being The Bible. There is even a reference in the show when a drunkard is looking out the jail window alongside an upstanding citizen in the same fix. The drunkard keeps asking him if he got jailed for gambling? For Drinking? Etc? And the citizen keeps saying no, those vices were against his religion. The drunkard finally says something to the extent that the citizen is trapped in and out of jail.
“Without law enforcement you would have anarchy,” argues the sheriff when confronted by a lenient judge. The town of Seattle is in trouble. The local saloon is shut down because of an expired business license and everyone’s lives are pointlessly disrupted and fearful because they think they’re going to do something wrong without intending to. It’s a Libertarian nightmare.
Now while I see the problem with the proclaimed absolutes–the letter of the town law–Christians may see this episode and say it is similar to the Pharisees and legalism. The question is, how do we define “absolutes” and how do we define the legalism? There is no comprehensive (absolute) list in the Bible of all the laws we need for moral and civilized living. As I made the point in one of my comics, there is no “Thou Shalt Not Rape!” Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great went further and said there is no law against other crimes such as child molestation. Fact is, there are rules in the Bible we would find appalling such as wife stealing. Where are these absolutes that Christians keep talking about that we cannot function without?
As shown in this humble little TV show Here Comes the Brides, people come together and argue and debate the rules until they make sense. Sometimes, as with government, we leave stupid rules (absolutes) on the books which no one observes because in an unspoken manner we dismiss them as unnecessary. God is not necessary to have a civilized society. Similar to the town rules in this show, there are outdated rules in the Bible. Should we go by the letter of the law or use our secular reasoning powers to dismiss unnecessary Biblical rules? And isn’t this in conflict with the idea of Christian absolutes? Because ideally, absolutes are supposed to transcend time. Wiki gives the definition as: “The Absolute is the concept of an unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence.”
Unlike relativists, I don’t dismiss the idea of absolutes outright, but not in the sense that they exist by themselves devoid of context and transcend human history or conditions. Christians would have to agree that absolutes don’t exist by themselves either, they hinge on God decreeing them, even if God decrees genocide, rape or murder because God is good and therefore there is no way to actually establish that God is good apart from God. For all you know God is dead and you’re talking to Satan because unfortunately God does not talk for himself– he apparently has everyone else interpret for him. So similar to the “context or condition of a God that exists” for Christians, absolutes are only absolute with context/conditions and in a secular society that means they hinge on the needs of the society itself and a healthy dose of philosophical and political debate may be required before they are accepted as absolute. Also, an absolute can be discarded if it no longer makes sense. This is going to drive the Christian literalist nuts–“But it’s an absolute!” however, this again has to do with context and if you feel I’m abusing the word then tell me how an absolute can exist on its own without context?
What we have done is simply tweaked the word, made it temporal, or dare I say relative to the situation. Oooh, relativism! But relativism is so misunderstood and Christians hear it as “anything goes!” By reclaiming the word “absolute” as temporal or fitting into context it is easier to understand. Such as the day of Sabbath was once Saturday and now it is Sunday–does that invalidate the rule for resting on the Sabbath? No, the concept is the same , only the day had to change to fit society’s needs. Which leads us to the question: Why are Christian bookstores making their employees work on Sunday?
This may be what relativists are trying to say when they proclaim, “There are no absolutes,” which is a contradiction. I feel it is better to reclaim the word and make sense of it because Christians make a fair point when they ask, “Then how can murder be wrong if the law against murder is not absolute?” The difference is how we interpret the word absolute and who owns it–God or secular society? An absolute can exist, but is not eternal. Or some absolutes may stand the test of time and be perceived as eternal (but how can anything be judged to be eternal as we can never get to the end of “eternal”?). Murder is one absolute that is standing the test of time and increasing in value. It is the closest moral and rule of law that we have that is an eternal absolute. There is little to none debate with an intention to discard it.
Murder is the most obvious and easiest to understand example for the sake of this commentary (and all from an old western). You can say, “Murder is evil,” but why? Well, God says so.” But what if God commits murder? Well, no, if God kills someone, it’s not murder? Then the law against murder is not absolute, it’s only absolute to the will of God (again, a condition) which gives us no way to determine if God is good. God could be a monster we need to battle against and avoid being enslaved so he can do with us what he wants.
But the secular humanist says no, murder is evil because it is detrimental to humanity as a whole and our societies. Civilization cannot function and it breaks down and implodes when people or groups of people are going about willy-nilly murdering people. It just doesn’t work and is an offense against our evolved ability to empathize. Humanity thrives and society flourishes when we outlaw murder and do everything possible to prevent it. It is survival of the fittest–group survival for mutual benefit. Hitler may have made murder moral in his own eyes and in German eyes, but it cost him and the German people everything.
Oddly enough, the societies struggling in the Middle East are the ones besieged by religious absolutes that can’t understand modern context. And in the secular United States, we thrive with unprecedented religious beliefs because of our secular ideal of religous freedom and tolerance. Don’t tell me that God calls for religious freedom? He is a jealous God. It is not a perfect society that is thriving, but one of the best so far. We continue to debate and argue, the most heated of which is abortion, and we are better for it instead of a decree from God where we mindlessly obey because as we grow as a society we become increasingly complex. The answers are not always easy. The outdated absolutes of The Bible–the outdated laws–no longer fit our context. Absolutes without context are no longer absolute. They’re useless. The way Christians have claimed the word “absolute” leads one to believe that we can never get rid of them, but that’s what Christians say. If they don’t work, toss them and come up with new absolutes (not easy to do). Whoever said that absolutes were eternal? Not just Christians, but philosophers as well–but they were and are wrong.
In this episode of Here Comes the Brides, how did the town get rid of the Sheriff? They found another useless law that only put the sheriff in charge of poaching and not in charge of the people. The sheriff can’t very well object when it is the letter of the law. If it doesn’t apply to him then it isn’t absolute.
SIDENOTE: What an imperfect rambling on absolutes, feel free to deconstruct it as I was thinking out loud. Still, I don’t see why we have to discard the term “absolute” but simply tweak it. We’re not completely eliminating the meaning which is what Christians and believers in God fear most and I can see their viewpoint. By demanding context it makes sense, not in classical philisophical or theological terms, but by fitting our modern way of thinking as in the past both philosophers and theologians used to think the mind existed apart from the brain and therefore that may have led the thinking that moral ideas existed by themselves too. Science tells us that mind is a result of the brain. We need to revise our understanding of the word absolute. Christians use reason to extract from the Bible what fits our modern times, they should be able to get this concept and not feel bad about giving into a mild form of relativism. It does not mean you are saying that your Christian values are equal to the values of another culture, they can still be superior. All you’re acknowledging is that absolutes have conditions and context in order to be absolute.