The individuals who boarded United Flight 93 on September 11 were folks like you and me. They said good-bye to family and friends that day and got on a plane. But what unfolded on that flight was extraordinary, and the passengers’ stories that have come to light are nothing less than incredible. As hijackers murdered the pilot and copilot before their eyes and took over the controls, these people had unthinkable choices to make. Via cell or airfone passengers were informed by their loved ones that the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon had been attacked. It appears that these passengers, in the end, stormed the cockpit and took the plane down themselves, into that field near Pittsburgh, rather than allow the hijackers to attack another target.
Listening to the stories of the heroes on that flight, I am struck by their normalcy. Like you and me, they got up that morning and caught a plane, like any other day. It makes me wonder what I would do in such impossible circumstances.
Those who did the right thing in the midst of incredible adversity have always inspired me. My heroes are people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom, who remained faithful to what is good and true at great personal cost. I have always wondered at their strength of conviction, which gave them the courage to stand against Nazism in the 1940s. My wonderings include awe that they knew what was right when it was directly in front of them, without the benefit of my fifty years of history’s hindsight. Surely they could have predicted that their stand would cost them so dearly, yet they knew they had to do what was right. In the end, both were imprisoned in the concentration camps, where Bonhoeffer lost his own life and ten Boom lost her father and her sister.
So I have been thinking about moral courage. It seems to me that moral courage takes moral vision. To understand the right thing to do when it is before our eyes, we must work to strengthen our vision of right and wrong. But such categories have become distant rumblings from ethics classes. We live in a culture that has lost its footing. We have dismissed the existence of truth, which is the only sound basis for claiming that some things are right while others are wrong.
I recently saw an interview with Pakistani schoolgirls from several months before September 11. They were young and beautiful and full of passion about Osama bin Laden and his fight for their religion. He was their hero. It got me thinking about Islam and what these people believe, whether or not they support bin Laden. From within their worldview, one thing is certain: their religion is the right one. That they believe “right” exists at all is striking. The cultural and moral relativism we live and breathe has not infected their worldview. We find it hard to imagine that anyone believes he is actually right about something anymore, or that objective truth exists at all.
Rather, in our culture, we talk about “your truth” and “my truth.” We allow every belief so long as it doesn’t push for being “right” in such a way that someone else has to be “wrong.” The idea that one belief is true while another is not is incredible to us. We consider such a position arrogant at best, dangerously evil at worst.
Even among moderate and conservative Christians, confusion about what truth is abounds. Consider the Bible study where everyone shares what a particular passage means to them and the different interpretations stand unchallenged. No one says, “But these are mutually exclusive interpretations; one of us must be wrong.” We adhere to our faith by chanting mantras like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” rather than tackling the hard questions put to us by a culture disillusioned and impatient with our shallow answers. But if we believe that God exists, then we Christians, of all people, are free to ask any question; and we are right to expect that in the end, life will make sense.
Mired in a sea of postmodernism and cowered by accusations of being “narrow-minded” and even “dangerous,” we are in danger of losing our ability to speak out with words of truth and wisdom in a time that desperately needs them. But I believe some things are right and others are wrong. Does the fact that some have used such categories to oppress others mean the categories do not exist? Believing in these categories doesn’t make me dangerous, because I’m not going to kill anyone. In fact, I believe killing is wrong. Rather than being narrow-minded, such a view of truth gives us the freedom to stand against the evils of oppression and murder. A solid understanding of truth is essential in this time of international crisis.
Os Guinness, in his brief but pithy Time for Truth, argues that the outcome of postmodern thinking is ultimately a loss of freedom:
The promise of postmodernism at first sight is a brave new world of freedom…. There is only one snag. If truth is dead, right and wrong are neither, and all that remains is the will to power, then the conclusion is simple: might makes right. Logic is only a power conspiracy. Victory goes to the strong and the weak go to the wall. [emphasis mine]
What scares us about absolute truth? History tells many stories of people who have oppressed others over whom they have had power, and now we have al Qaeda. Perhaps believing that objective truth exists has led to oppression. But doesn’t history rather demonstrate another fact: that humans can corrupt anything? Humans have within them both tremendous potential and tremendous destructiveness; we are broken people, capable of justifying anything. The existence of objective truth does not foster oppression; at fault, rather, is our inability to discern truth and pursue it with pure motives. After all, God, who authors Truth, condemns oppression.
Os Guinness argues that the answer to postmodern relativism is not a return to the absolutes of modernism, but rather, an understanding of truth that takes into account the human problem as well as the human potential. Modernist advances in science and technology were based on an accurate understanding of human reason acting on reality that is outside of us and can be known. But modernists overlooked this important truth: while rationality and reason are God-given tools hard-wired into us as truth-seekers, we also have a will, which precedes our decisions about how and when we will use our reason and rationality. Our moral commitments precede our clear thinking. Os Guinness puts it well: “As human beings we are by nature truth-seekers; as fallen human beings we are also by nature truth-twisters.” He cites Aldous Huxley, who admits in his book Ends and Means, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. …It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence.”
The secular modernists cut themselves off from any accountability outside of themselves. Though they believed in truth, they failed to take into account this fatal human flaw: our penchant for twisting truth to our own ends. So, while the twentieth century saw incredible successes, including vaccines against polio and smallpox, it also saw incredible failures, such as Nazism, which rationalized unimaginable atrocities. Modernists overlooked the effect of the subjectivity of the observer and thought they could be unbiased. Reaction to this error resulted in postmodernism—and with it, the crumbling of the idea of truth itself.
The subjective does exist, and the postmodernists are right that our subjectivity plays a role in how we interpret and understand what is true. An observer’s ability to observe is always colored by the interpretive grid through which he looks, and thus we should continuously seek to evaluate our grids and be aware of the impure motives of which we are capable. But the postmodern reaction has gone too far, concluding that objective reality does not exist at all. The result is a radical relativism, which claims that all truth is constructed by social convention and human language. So the postmodernists have made the same mistake that the modernists made: they have bought the lies that (1) we are alone in the universe, cut off from God, and (2) human potential can be divorced from human weakness by human means.
Indeed, our central weakness is our commitment to ourselves. The Apostle Paul argued in the first chapters of Romans that we humans are doomed to not seeing straight because we are committed to recreating reality to suit our own ends. We demand the “right to myself” and the “right to my view of things,” and in our blindness we cannot see our folly. In this sense, the postmodern movement advances human rebellion yet another step. In the story of Adam and Eve, they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and it did make them “like God”: they became the arbiters of their own universe, creators of their own realities. Ever since the Fall, humans have sought to create their own reality, autonomous from God. And here we are, in our postmodern rebellion, believing that we create reality by social convention.
And yet, beneath all our distortions and denial, “there is always tension in unbelief because truth remains the truth,” says Guinness, even when we refuse to see it. Because God exists and has ordered reality in a particular way, we hit a wall when we resist true reality, and eventually our only options are to face that truth or to further rationalize the lie.
Jesus said those who abide in His word “shall know the truth, and the truth shall set [them] free” (John 8:32). How do we become free of our commitment to ourselves and to our own reality? We must become vigilant and ruthless in our own willingness to examine ourselves and to see through our motivations. We must become people who are willing to be wrong, willing to have our motivations bared under the scrutiny of the God who is True. A daily commitment to truth, especially in our own lives, is central to developing the moral courage to stand for what’s right when the big choices confront us. Holding ourselves open and accountable to those we trust, acknowledging our failings, takes real courage and gives us a needed perspective on the lies we are bound to tell ourselves. As we assert the existence of true Truth, we humbly assert our own difficulty in living it.
The events of our day call on each of us to ask hard questions about what is true—right and wrong, good and evil. May we pursue these questions honestly, in the knowledge that God, the author of Truth, is really there.