Some months ago I made reference to a book by F. W. Bridgeman, physicist-laureate of Harvard University, titled The Way Things Are. The book made a great impression on me at the time, but I had no notion that Bridgeman’s thesis would continue to chew away at me even until today. What Bridgeman was saying among many other things was that even in physics, the most objective of all the sciences, we really know only when we remember that objective truth is always related to the subject, that is, to the person who is observing the facts. One gathers from this that relativity, which we try to throw out the window in ethics, comes in the front door to surprise us in a subject like physics.

The reason this sort of thing “gets me” is that I am beginning to suspect that the whole realm of knowledge in 1960 exists in the climate and atmosphere of a way of thinking, an epistemology, if you like, which continually weakens any attempt to say anything for sure about anything. A college sophomore’s “that’s what you think” seems to serve as sufficient answer to any discussion in which several views of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are being set forth.

We recognize this climate of opinion in the whole realm of theology. Barthianism has made wonderful contributions to our day, but it worries us with its denials of general revelation, an objective word, words which are true whether they are true for me or not, a rational approach to the Christian faith which can be tightened up beyond my subjective say-so into some kind of a reasonable system, and so forth. On the other side, there is the constant affirmation that truth is known existentially, particularly the truth in revelation. I am not concerned to tangle with Dr. Barth on these matters; I wish only to note that we have here in the most dominant theology of our day an acceptance of objective truth as primarily subservient to the subject. The Bible, for example, is true only when it is true for me in my present situation.

Let your mind now roam across other fields of knowledge and other disciplines. In philosophy we have logical positivism and left-bank existentialism. In ethics we are under the impact of a Niebuhr whose Moral Man In Immoral Society set the direction for much of his thinking and much of our own thinking by showing that our ethical choices are never made between right and wrong but rather in the area relatively where, not being able to choose the best, we can choose only the better, the better known primarily by the existential situation in which one finds oneself when one is trying to make an ethical decision. Between the high road and the low, we choose in the misty flats between.

Chief Justice Holmes popularized this kind of thinking in law, and (if I understand the workings of the Supreme Court) one of the fundamental difficulties which the judges have had in making up their collective minds lies in the relativity directly related to the day in history when the decision has had to be made. Split decisions and the opinions expressed by the judges illustrate how it is well nigh impossible to tie the case before the court with anything of which it can be said “this is the law.” There are always so many other factors “relevant” to the situation.

Try Einstein’s relativity in astronomy or Dewey’s skirting of absolutes in education, and the general looseness regarding light and darkness in psychiatry and sociology and international affairs and national politics—and we have some pretty good reasons for believing that we live in the climate and atmosphere of almost endless relativisms. “This is the way, walk ye in it” sounds like a good idea if someone could only assure us that it is true.

There stood One long ago who claimed for himself “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Desperate tides in church and state flooded over him in a day when the question “what is truth” was more germaine to the way most people were looking at things. If we had only been there we should have done differently, but how do we know we would have? But what shall we say of our own day? The tides of relativism and existentialism, subjectivity and irrationalism, are sweeping everything before them. Is there some one thing of which it can be clearly said “this is the truth” whether you ever hear it, whether it appeals to you, whether you plan to do anything about it—there is truth regardless of my attitude toward it which I may or may not accept, but that’s all the worse for me, not for the truth. I like the rise of the expression “the scandal of particularity” as I hear it in theological conversations. Particularity is a stumbling block but it may be the kind of rock which can change the current’s direction. And where the rocks are, there will the water be rough.

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