Concepts as Absolute Truth



I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.


My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.


Values: On What Basis is a Value Wrong

“Words like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are empty if we don’t consider what the Good Life is, along with personal well-being. If we want to strengthen our morality and deepen our spirituality, we must strive to improve our personal well-being, and promote the well-being of others.” – Wes Fornes with 2 shots of espresso

In Starbucks last night, I overhead a lady ask rhetorically, “can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality?” After I almost choked on my venti hot chocolate, it got me thinking….

What would the world look like if we ceased to talk in terms of right and wrong, and good and evil and spoke in terms of well-being?

Values come in all shapes and forms. In Albania, there is a tradition of vendetta called Kanun. If a man commits murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. This means that a son of a murderer will live his life in fear while missing out in the pleasures of a normal life. In parts of the Middle East, women are required to wear a burqa. In parts of Africa, it is traditional practice for girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) for the goal of purity.

Can we say that these cultures are morally wrong for structuring their societies this way? Is their tradition a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own? If so, on what basis?

Perhaps it is best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like.

Let’s further unpack well-being. Most people would describe a Good Life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the Bad Life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to The Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being … Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

I believe that these three examples (Kunan, the burqa and FGM) above are morally reprehensible, on the basis of well-being. Simply put, the well-being of these individuals is compromised, as well as their ability to flourish, thus, it is wrong. We do not need a sacred text, Confucian principle passed down or prophet to tell us what is right or wrong. Often when people think in terms of morality, their basis rests on religion or on a simple superficial maxim: that just seems wrong. Many others would look at these cultures and say that their actions are part in parcel to their culture and should be tolerated and respected. But just as the burqa is embedded in Muslim culture along with the Christian teaching of Hell embedded in hundreds of thousands of Sunday School classrooms across America, both are objectively wrong on the basis that is inhibits well-being.

So here is the question: can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality? I can objectively say that human sacrifice for a “noble” cause is immoral on the basis that it does not promote the flourishing of well-being within the tribe. I do the same with Kunan, mandatory burqas, FGM and for adults who teach 7 year olds that Hell awaits them if they don’t choose the right God.

So think about what a flourishing well-being looks like to you and strive for it.

Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos on 1/24/2015 around 9am