christianity ethics philosophy

true love: stranger & friend

A very recent post had a moral bent, and the ensuing comment-discussion quickly observed that morals are based on values and eventually focussed on the question of what (if anything) underlies our values. In other words, are values grounded ‘on’ anything? Or, are they as free and changing as the various expressions of human cognition/thought? In this post, I want to try to explore this question further. Just one thing before I begin:

A request for discussion of this post:
I do not wish for this exploration and discussion to be hi-jacked by various statements (of any kind) about what ‘the Bible says’, and what that supposedly means. Do I think that the Bible has something to say in this exploration and discussion? Most certainly. But many assertions (both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ones – if I may put it like that) can derail the conversation before it leaves the station. My desire is not to have this conversation in the usual verse-quoting and scoffing fashion, but rather as thinking human beings – with whatever anthropology you bring to the table. And for Christian readers, it is my conviction (I believe C.S. Lewis once said something similar?) that if we can’t discuss our beliefs in non-religious –or non-‘bible’– language, then we either don’t actually believe those things or we are totally out of touch with the world. Now. Let’s think together about this question.

First, we should observe that a conversation about absolute or universal principles, values and/or morals is really a conversation about what is called ‘truth’. So we’ll use that word here. Secondly, the discussion is often characterised by what I see to be a false choice between two views (including views that are closer to one or the other of these two):

  • The 1st view we will call ‘absolutism‘. This is the idea not only that there is absolute truth, but that we can and/or do fully know it.
  • The 2nd view we will call ‘relativism‘. This is the idea not only that there is no absolute truth, but that we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t know it even if there were.

‘Accessing’ Truth?
I suggest we have this false choice because (even though our beliefs may vary) our thinking and discussing is still largely shaped by Greek philosophical categories. More specifically, modern Westerners still think in terms of a dualist split between matter and spirit. Matter being the stuff that is less than important, and spirit being that which is most important. This directly affects how we still think about ‘truth.’ Popular culture still thinks of truth as unchanging, static, pure, ‘up there’, and needing to be ‘accessed’ and/or ‘brought down’ to us. [See diagram: I made it, isn’t it neat? :) ]

What happens, then, is that the ‘absolutists’ not only claim total (or at least partial) ‘access’ to this body of ‘truth’, but also claim to know precisely how it is to be worked out in the context of daily life or a specific situation. Now, the ‘relativist’ would say that this ‘truth’ is not absolute, but that it changes depending on the context. Some relativists (many atheists?) would even say quite simply that there no ‘up there’ kind of ‘truth’, and that we’ve got nothing but ‘context’, which we respond to in various ways, resulting in various mental constructs which are held to be ‘truth’ for that person or culture.

Why do we have this false choice? Why this spectrum between absolutists and relativists with no seeming middle ground? Could there be a third way of seeing how ‘Truth’ works? If so, how might we understand (or even imagine?) such a thing?

A more ‘down to earth’ Truth?
Indeed, the English word ‘truth’ can represent various ideas for various people, and even one person might use it to mean slightly different things at times. Often, it’s used in a kind of verifying way, with things that can in principle be verified: “Is it true that Dad is coming home early tonight?” Other times it’s used for inquiry into less verifiable things: “Is it true that Macintosh computers are more sleek and stylish than PC’s?” Other times the usage is to gain information that might be ‘hidden’ for various reasons: from “Did you eat the last slice of pie? Go on, tell me the truth!” to “Where were you last night? Tell me the truth!

The interesting thing about all of these usages is this: They have nothing at ALL to do with an ‘up there’ kind of truth. Instead of having to do with floating principles in the sky, all these usages have to do with real situations – real life, the real world. So, in case you need me to say it clearer, truth ain’t ‘up there’! So, at least concerning the existence of an ‘up there’ kind of truth, I am in agreement with many relativists.

But, I am not a moral relativist, nor do I believe that truth (wherever it is ‘located’ or whatever shape it is, etc.) is relative. So what does my picture of truth look like? Well, I don’t plan on trying to ‘describe’ an idea as huge as ‘truth’ with a few sentences… that would be silly. But I do want to present one way of which I think truth can be ‘known’.

Now, my use of the word ‘known’ warrants an entirely separate discussion about epistemology, but suffice it to say that I’m not talking about ‘knowing the truth’ like one knows that 2+2=4. Rather, I’m talking about something much like ‘knowing’ you’ve just said either something entirely inappropriate which you wish you could take back or something entirely appropriate which simply had to be said at exactly that moment…

Truth Transcending Tensions?
When I picture truth, I think of Love. What a shame that the word ‘Love’ can mean mere feelings, as the phrases ‘falling in love‘ or ‘I don’t love you anymore‘ or ‘I love creamy Jif peanut butter‘ would suggest. But the attitude, mentality or disposition of selfless, patient, tolerant, kind Love remains.

I discussed this a while back in another post, but I’ll summarise here. Love resides in what might be called the ‘tension’ between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Tom Wright (who is drawing on the thought of Bernard Lonergan) puts it this way: “the point about love – the epistemology which love generates – is that love both affirms the other-ness of the object [objectivity] while remaining in deep, rich and close subjective [subjectivity] relationship to it. Love transcends the objective-subjective divide.”

I lov… um… well, I fully agree with that. :) Love transcends more than the objective-subjective divide, however. Life is just cram packed full of tensions which Love transcends. Male-female; Order-Chaos; Logic-Emotion and more.

True Love?
Just before closing this post, I want to say one more intentionally paradoxical thing about Love. I want to suggest that Love is (as the title of this post suggests) both the most foreign and the most familiar thing to us.

On one hand, it is familiar; we know what it looks like. We’ve seen it – if but for a passing moment. In living rooms, at coffee tables, through tears – both of joy and pain. Strangely, we know what Love looks like as much from its absence as from its fleeting presence. Like a beautiful garden that has been ‘let go’ and is now over-run with weeds and tall, unkempt grass, we ‘know’ what it’s like to see Love fade away – just out of reach, just around the corner.

On the other hand, it is foreign – totally other. Hundreds of beds in a clothing factory providing a few hours of rest for hundreds of human bodies which will awaken the next day to produce thousands of garments underneath florescent light to be shipped across a body of water for other human bodies to purchase at ‘everyday low prices’ in various large retail buildings in other countries, underneath all-too-similar florescent light. Love is a pipe dream. A silly notion. All that matters here are dollars, cents, profit margins and stock dividends.

Yes, I am suggesting a contradiction. We know exactly what Love is, and yet we have no idea what Love is.

(I look forward to rationalising about such a wishy-washy thing!)

62 replies on “true love: stranger & friend”

Hi Dale and Happy New Year!
I hope you’ve had a nice, relaxing break.

I’ve just been going back over the last few conversations we had and noticed that you didn’t manage to respond to my most recent comment regarding free will.

Have you had a chance to give my questions much thought?

Hi Damian,

Happy New Year to you as well! It was relaxing. I spent more time on getting this blog going, and less on reading than I wanted, but did get some in… :)

Your ‘gradient’ comments about free-will are very interesting. Very. I think in some sense, the entire cosmos is ‘free’. Amoebas, rocks, dogs, quasars, red-necks and everything. Functionally, I would warm to your notion of a free-will gradient. Surely, in terms of function of free-will, sentience would affect free-will, would it not? Meaning, the more sentient an organism is, the more free-will it has? For example, ants could be seen to be simply mechanistic in their reaction to things, but they also could possibly be ‘slightly sentient’ or something. Now, chimps are very sentient, and are able to do lots of things as far as we know.

I think humans have the most functional (by far!) ‘free will’ of any organisms (unless there really are super-intelligent aliens out there!!!) in the cosmos. With this free will, comes responsibility; making humans the organisms which are most charged with responsibility for the consequences of their actions (or non-action when action was needed).

More thoughts?


Very interesting.

I’ve heard it argued that there may, in fact, be no such thing as free will at all and that we are really just incredibly complex reactionary creatures. I haven’t heard all the arguments for and against but I find this concept fascinating.

Instinctively, I have to say that I ‘feel’ that I have a free will but I have to allow for the possibility that an ultra-complex creature would probably feel the same way if it were able to be self-aware.

As for the responsibility that comes with free will I don’t see it in the context of answering to someone or something but rather – as with my current views on morals – a measure of how effectively important goals (such as living and reproducing) are achieved.

One could say that a moth that flies into a flame could be being irresponsible if that moth had mechanisms for both moonlight navigation and flame avoidance. But take that same moth and make it so that it can’t tell the difference between the moon and a flame and there seems to be no charge of irresponsibility we can lay on it. (Hehe, I’m just picturing a moth in handcuffs).

Take the responsibility issue a step further to humans and a child that has been ‘broken’ and raised a monster can probably not be held accountable for his actions if he knew of no other way. This kind of brings responsibility and morality into a gradient that doesn’t fit with the traditional absolutes we’re so fond of.

Free will may actually be a gradient of the measure of our ability to choose between possible actions and morality may be a gradient of the measure of how beneficial those choices are to important common goals (or perhaps just the end-goal of reproduction??).

I would be interested to hear arguments both for and against the concept of free will. Actually, a proper definition of free will would probably be a good start.

(I like the new format and the move to WordPress by the way – much better!)

Thanks Damian,

Moths in handcuffs. Hilarious! :)

A great topic, indeed. As I read your comment, a Bible verse popped in to my head – ‘Unto whom much is given, much is required.’ Might fit pretty well with the ‘gradient’ understanding? :)

On the parenting example (not that I have any parenting experience!), I think it’s interesting to think about how much a child (toddler, etc.) knows what they’re doing at various stages of growth. Sometimes, they do things that we don’t like completely innocently – like knocking over a glass of milk or something. In these cases, it’s more the parents’ fault for not watching the child, placing the glass there in the first place – or both! The child is not necessarily to blame for the milk spillage…
Other times, they know what they are doing. Some friends of ours have a boy, and he was throwing some toys around and when asked to pick them up, he refused, saying it was ‘too hard’. :) Repeated exhortations from Dad quickly turned ‘It’s too hard’ into ‘Whaaaa! Noooo! Ahhhaaaa…’, etc. The boy had ‘turned on the tears’ to avoid picking up the toys. Thankfully, Dad took him outside, calmed him down, and brought him back inside and then the child calmly picked up his toys.
It’s amazing (and just cute) to me how toddlers can use tears to manipulate mommy and daddy. Also, it’s interesting to see how parents handle it. Some seem (to me) to be over-disciplinary, while others seem to obey the child’s every whim.

I’m rambling now. Cheers, :)


So if right and wrong are on a gradient and are determined by a living organism’s ability to choose between possible actions do you think there is a heaven and a hell for monkeys?

Or is heaven and hell reserved only for humans?

Now that’s a twist in the conversation! :)

Your question (as you will know) leaps over several other questions, which are rather large and intensely debated.

First, that ‘heaven’ is ‘reserved’ for ‘right’ humans (and maybe monkeys), and that ‘hell’ is ‘reserved’ for ‘wrong’ humans (monkeys) is implied in the question…
Meanwhile, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are not defined, and the link mechanism (i.e. – a judgment and its basis) is not identified between ‘heaven’ & ‘right’ or ‘hell’ & ‘wrong’… :)

(I’m just pointing out the presuppositions inherent in such a large question. I’m not saying I expected you to address or present your definitions of all these terms concepts, though…) :)

Just so you know, in my view ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are not simply two alternative, postmortem destinations for the disembodied, immortal souls of humans (or monkeys for that matter!).
‘Heaven’ is (as Tom Wright says) ‘God’s space’, and is paired, not with ‘hell’, but with ‘Earth’, which is ‘our space.’ And, as Revelation 21-22 suggests, the picture is not that of humans going off to heaven (or whatever), but rather heaven coming to earth. New Heavens and New Earth (echoing the end of Isaiah). Earth renewed and re-made by Heaven… with room for monkeys. :)

Yeah, sorry about that. Jumped the gun there a little. Most Christians have a more black and white, egocentric view of the afterlife.

I’ll bring it back a step or two.

Do you believe that humans have souls? (By soul I mean a kind of ‘self’ that carries on after death). If so, do you believe that it’s just humans who have souls or do you think it possible that some other animals may have souls too?

Thanks Damian,

The idea of an immortal soul (along with the idea of a sharp body-soul distinction) is of course quite common in many religions in history and now. The Jewish (and I believe also the New Testament – and therefore Christian) view is, I think, more integrated. This is seen in the classic Jewish prayer the Hebrew ‘Shema’ (Deut. 6:4, I think) – ‘…and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind (strength).’ This is kind of a Hebrew super-parallelism in which the point being made is: “Love God with your entire ‘you’.” I used to think which ‘bit’ of me is my ‘heart’, or my ‘soul’ or my ‘strength’, etc., but now I realise the simplicity of it – it just means all of ‘me’. Anyway, the Hebrew word for soul ‘nephesh’ just means ‘being’… (‘and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living nephesh (being/soul). God, as well, has a ‘being/soul’, according to some verses that speak of His ‘soul’ hating certain things, etc.

So, I see no biblical support for a dis-embodied, immortal, Platonic soul – or whatever. The biblical picture is one, not of immortal, disembodied souls flying ‘like a bird from these prison walls’ (to note the popular, but un-biblical hymn, ‘I’ll Fly Away’), but rather is Resurrection of the Dead – with Jesus, of course, being the ‘firstborn from the Dead’, or the ‘first-fruits’…

So, to anticipate the next question (‘So what do you think is the difference between humans and animals?’), biblically speaking, humans are the bearers of God’s image and likeness. I have found (guess who?) Tom Wright’s analogy of ‘angled mirrors’ most helpful: humans ‘represent/reflect’ God’s nature (wisdom, grace, love, justice, etc.) to the world, and ‘represent/reflect’ Creation’s worshipful response back to the Creator God.

As a matter of fact, you might find of interest. There’s quite a lot of material there… :)

Anyways, it’s off to bed for me…
…and back to work tomorrow!



So what do you think is the difference between humans and animals? Oh, no, wait… ;)

There’s a saying that “if triangles had a God their God would be a triangle”. The biblical view that we are made in God’s image kind of smacks of plain old egocentricism don’t you think?

In order to make it fit we have to ignore all the ugly aspects of humanity and write them off to the fall and sin and then only select the best aspects and attribute them to God. Many Christians (and I don’t know if you’re in this category) will then have to apply another layer of filters that exclude any other animals from the equation. Add to that the concept that fallen nature accounts for lions not laying down with lambs and for death amongst animals and humans and questions about whether a human foetus is more in-god’s-image than an adult chimp the distinctions become even more fuzzy.

It appears that what you’re doing is reworking the traditional Platonic concepts by trying to blend the supernatural with the natural but, like Ian mentioned in a comment in the ID thread, this has all the appearance of forcing a God hypothesis into an explanation that’s doing perfectly well without it.

If to be made in God’s likeness is to reflect God’s nature how do you account for the seemingly smooth gradient of wisdom, grace, love and justice and ‘good’ throughout the animal kingdom? The wisdom of an adult chimp is arguably greater than a human infant.

How about the gradient of ‘evil’ we find throughout the animal kingdom? Surely this gradient points to a certain degree of ‘likeness’ amongst all of nature? Perhaps I’ll have to actually go ahead and re-ask the question you pre-empted: So what do you think is the difference between humans and animals (in the face of my overused ‘gradient’)?

Thanks Damian,

You’re asking great questions. Big ones.

They are big enough questions that they deserve much lengthier treatment than a comment on a blog. But I’ll give you some thoughts…

The biblical idea is that indeed ALL of creation is responsive to the Creator. Trees clapping their hands, hills shouting for joy, mountains singing, the skies declaring, etc. This, obviously, is figurative, but nonetheless, ALL of creation, chimps included, are seen in terms of (at least in some way) reflecting or otherwise ‘pointing to’ the Creator. This makes Creation incredibly valuable.
Yes, Christians have often made humans the only part of creation that mattered (and often it’s mainly their immortal souls which really matter! …as opposed to their ‘mortal’ bodies, which certainly didn’t matter!). But, nonetheless (and call it egocentric if you will), humans are seen as being the ‘crown’ of the creation; the ones who are uniquely commissioned to bring and sustain God’s good and wise order to the world. This is basic monotheistic anthropology. The Genesis narrative puts it as God commanding the human pair to have ‘dominion’ over all animals and to take plants, etc. as food. This is a standard, monotheistic appreciation and observation of the human role in relation to the rest of creation. I think the same appreciation and observation can be made today. And this view, I think, is large enough to appreciate and observe amazing features of other organisms – like chimps.

Well if the human immunodeficiency virus points to God I’m going to be a little hesitant when approaching him. No more sharing needles with Jesus eh? ;)

What about mosquitoes and malaria? Surely this would be a cruel joke?

Disease and Disasters are indeed tragic. I thank God for wise doctors and scientists who can help us in these areas.

These questions are, of course, the classic philosophical/theological questions. They’re great to think about.

Reality is real. Reality is not something ‘other than real’. (how’s that for two ‘captain obvious’ sentences? :) ) Meaning, our environment (the universe – including meteorites that both amaze us, and occasionally crash into our earth; and the earth – including waves that both provide enjoyment and destroy) is ‘free’; meaning (as I’ve heard Tom Wright put it), for example, ‘a techtonic plate’s got to do what a techtonic plate’s got to do…’

The biblical writers were less interested in laying out a systematic analysis of why there is evil and suffering in the world, and much more interested in what the Creator is doing about it. HIV is what it is; but we can act against this (especially urgently needed in places in Africa, where rumours that you can be ‘cleansed’ of AIDS via sex with a virgin are widespread in places.). Tsunamis do what they do; but we can (and thankfully do!) act to restore what they’ve torn down. And, of course, human selfishness (and what we monotheists call ‘evil’) is what it is; but we can act against this, too.

In the Old Testament, the Gentile (persian) king Cyrus was called a ‘messiah’ (Heb. moshiach – ‘annointed one’) for allowing the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and re-build their temple. Therefore, all people (not just believers!) can be (biblically speaking) the means of restoring what has been broken by either human action or things that have just been broken by seemingly random events… This, again, is one of the basic vocations of humanity in basic monotheism.

I cheerfully work alongside anyone for a common good cause. Of course, there will always be disagreements about whether or not a certain thing is ‘good’, (i.e. – at a youth-workers meeting, there was great discussion from all kinds of perspectives –religious or otherwise– about whether or not it is good for condoms to be handed out ‘like candy’…) but I won’t let a label someone wears (or a label they’ve been handed) prevent me from working alongside them in something I see as good.

There I go rambling again… :)



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