(For my previous posts on China, see here and here)
While at the Shaolin Temple a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a Buddhist monk about his own faith, and about what constituted a perfect life—whether it could be only found in a monastic life, or whether lay people could attain some level of perfection. To my surprise, he said that there was no “perfect life” at all—that the important thing is to have a ideals that you can accept and a way of life that makes you comfortable. As we continued our discussion, the topic turned to how Buddhist beliefs had changed over the ages, and he made another surprising observation–namely, that it is only recently that stress has been put on helping other people, while before a monk’s actions were concerned mainly with his own improvement. I do not know nearly enough about Buddhism to judge how widespread this phenomenon is, or indeed to talk any more about Buddhism in this post at all, but his words made me start to wonder if there is any connection between thinking that there is a single truth and feeling called to help other people. The picture of the Buddhist monasteries that he painted seems to contrast strongly with the waves of Christian missionaries who have been convinced that they must go out into the world to tell everyone about the only Way to salvation, and who in the process, almost coincidentally, have cared for the most powerless of society.
Of course, it should not surprise anyone when I say that Christian history has been full of selfish people only interested in their own salvation or only willing to use the Gospel as a prop to spread their own culture. Christians are not free of the cruelty that taints the human race. However, true encounters with the living Lord have always sparked concern for the physical wellbeing of the world, along with the spiritual. Saint Francis of Assisi, convinced that his life of worldly, materialistic success was empty, gave up his wealth and spent the rest of his life praising God and helping the poor. After his evangelical conversion, William Wilberforce worked ceaselessly to abolish the slave trade. Saint Paul himself, who spread Christianity throughout the Middle East and into Europe, stressed that richer congregations must help poorer ones (Galatians 2:10). This is not coincidental. At its base, it is because people are not divisible into spiritual and physical parts, but rather are one coherent whole; and because our God loves this whole being. It is impossible to help the spiritual man without being pulled to help the physical (only a hypocritical love would not rush to meet true needs) or to help the physical man without caring about the spiritual (to do so would be no love at all, but merely caring for an animal).
In fact, I would argue that built into moral relativism itself is a sort of scorn. I have often heard it argued that moral relativism is the philosophy that most respects humankind, because it allows that every person’s views are equally valid. However, practically, there must be some reason for choosing one set of beliefs over another, even if truth isn’t the ultimate parameter. Perhaps moral relativists believe that all views are equally true; but they do not believe that all views are equally progressive, or helpful, or just. Moral relativists must then believe, if only on a subconscious level, both that they have the best set of views and that other people do not need to be told about them. Why? It would be a rare person indeed who believed that their beliefs weren’t good enough for other people; but it would not be strange at all if one believed that other people were not good enough for one’s beliefs.