Thursday, June 5, 2008

Determinism, Individualism, and Relativism

Deb, my wife, wrote this for one of her classes this past semester. Because it’s so clear and concise—two qualities that my writing often lacks—and because I liked so much what she wrote, I asked her if I could post it on my blog. I fully share the ideas expressed herein.

Psychological Theories and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Modern theories of psychology can represent a problem to Christian psychologists who wish to help people achieve a greater quality of life through therapeutic counseling. Often, these theories, if examined closely, do not provide any hope for change in clients and, from a Christian perspective, contradict many important principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Three of these problematic characteristics include determinism, individualism, and relativism. If a theory contains or leads to any of these interrelated characteristics, it is irreconcilable with the gospel.

The first problematic characteristic of many theories of psychology is determinism. Determinism expresses the idea that all of the attributes of human beings can ultimately be traced back to a biological cause. According to determinism, there is something in our chemical makeup, be it hormones, nerve firings, or interactions of basic elements, which causes our actions. The first problem with determinism is that it eliminates agency, for if our actions are controlled by our biology, there is nothing we can do to change our behavior. Agency, or the ability to act according to our desires, is an essential principle in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, determinism removes any meaning associated with our actions. If we can’t not do something, then it does not mean anything if we do it, because we had to. There was no alternative. For example, saying “I love you” would be meaningless if we did not choose to do so. We could program a computer to say “I love you,” but it would not be meaningful because it would not be able to do anything other than say “I love you.”

Along with a loss of meaning comes a loss of morality. For, if we are biologically determined to act a certain way, there can be no consequences or punishments for our actions. We cannot be held responsible for actions we had no control over. Thus, if there can be no consequences, there can be no foundation for right or wrong. This leads us into the second problematic characteristic found in many theories, that of relativism. Relativism is the notion that all actions are of equal value. There is no right or wrong, but everyone should do what they feel is best for them. Relativism shares many of the same outcomes as determinism. These include a loss of morality because if all actions are equal then murder is as justified as saving someone’s life. If every decision is considered good, there can be no morality or immorality.

With relativism, meaning is also lost. If all things are equally good, then we have no standard by which to compare. Beauty cannot be appreciated if all things are beautiful. There must be contrast to have meaning. If everything is beautiful, then it makes no difference if I think something is beautiful, because there is nothing ugly or plain. Beauty is the only option, and thus it is meaningless.

Relativism in a theory is a fatal flaw in an attempt to reconcile that theory with the gospel, because the gospel relies on a law that distinguishes good from evil. Morality is key to the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is by a standard of righteousness that our works will be judged after we die. If there is no good and no evil, that is all things are considered equal, then there can be no need for a Savior, no heaven, and no God.

The third problematic characteristic of many theories is individualism. Individualism often stands as a precursor to relativism. Individualism identifies the self as the most important being. It states that each person should do what he feels is best for him without consideration for the impact it will have on other people, his environment, etc. A person who is focused on himself sees other people as either a tool to increase their own pleasure and success or as a threat to it. Thus, hedonism is intimately connected to individualism. It is through this hedonism that relativism stems from individualism. As each person seeks for his own pleasure above all else, acceptable means to accomplish this shift until anything is tolerable as long as it brings pleasure or success to the doer of it.

Relationships are essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The family is central to our salvation and is the fundamental unit of societies. We are born into families and are thus already in relation with one another. These families are under obligation to teach and love one another. Parents often make sacrifices for the benefit of their spouse and children. There is nothing individualistic about these beliefs. There are many things that Christian theology requires of us that are opposed to the idea of individualism, such as serving without payment or compensation. We serve with no thought toward personal reward for such actions.

Each of these problematic characteristics, determinism, relativism, and individualism, are interconnected. They all play a part in the loss of meaning, morality, and agency. Determinism declares that ultimately, we cannot control our actions. If our actions cannot be controlled then we cannot be held responsible for them. Relativism states that all actions are neither good nor bad. Therefore, all actions must be considered of equal value because they are done to benefit the individual doing them. Individualism claims that the individual is more important than any relationship that he might be in, and so all actions should increase his own pleasure and success.

Each of these three characteristics represents a flaw that if present in a theory should indicate that that theory is not compatible with a belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. A final trait that each of these characteristics have in common is that they lead to despair. If a person cannot control his actions, he cannot make changes for the better and is thus stuck in his misery. If all actions are relative, there can be neither beauty nor joy—for all things are equal, no thing is better than any other thing. If only the individual matters, then putting effort into a relationship and expecting love in return is futile. The gospel provides an avenue of hope, a solution for despair.

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