Mar 10 - The 'If it works for you' Nonsense letter

The ‘if it works for you’ nonsense

            Train journeys are unplanned opportunities to inadvertently eavesdrop on the conversation of strangers. Sitting in a busy carriage makes one an involuntary audience to the discussions going on nearby.

            The topic under debate was a horoscope being read from a magazine. The details of this horoscope were of the usual vague nature: ‘Today you will have an opportunity you must not miss. Yellow is important to you’. The usual sort of twaddle. There then followed a good-natured disagreement about the merits of horoscopes. This disagreement was concluded with the comment, ‘Well, whatever works for you’, as if horoscopes could be a true and accurate and worthy guide to life for some people, should they so choose.

            The ‘if it works for you’ outlook is one which implicitly denies the categories of truth and falsehood. Reality is reduced to nothing more than our interpretation, which (we are told) is as valid as any alternative explanation. Something can be ‘true for me’ but ‘not true for you’. Truth is reduced to a personal choice, rather than a feature of reality.

            This must be nonsense.

Professor Alister McGrath provides an excellent illustration of why this is nonsense, and so let me simply quote him:

            ‘The chemical composition of water is H2O. How do we know this? By a series of experiments which have repeatedly demonstrated that a molecule of water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It does not matter whether these experiments are carried out by women or by men, or by Anglo-Saxons or by Asians. The chemical composition of water is independent of the gender, race and social status of the investigator.

            This poses something of a problem to those who insist that all views are equally valid. The critic of the traditional view might argue that it rests upon an obsession with oppression and domination. It is, our imaginary critic might declare, outrageous that hydrogen should be dominated by oxygen in this way. In a more caring and equitable world, hydrogen and oxygen would exist together in harmony and equality. Therefore we need to reject the traditional formula for water as H2O as resting on outdated feudal assumptions and embrace the liberating idea of the absolute parity of hydrogen and oxygen in water. The chemical formula of water …. should instead be the more egalitarian H2O2.”

            It is conceivable (as McGrath wryly suggests) that someone may insist that my belief that water has the formula H2O is just my perception, and that another viewpoint is entirely legitimate. Perhaps someone else would believe that water is really the psychic teardrops of tantric beings and does not have a chemical formula. If that is true for them then nobody has any right to disturb such beliefs.

             Let me change the illustration. Will we be as keen on this idea that something can be ‘true for me’ and ‘not true for me’, if someone not only denies the Holocaust but perhaps actively suggests that it was a good thing to gas millions of people? Would we really prefer such a belief to pass unchallenged?

            Recently, at our Midweek, we considered Psalm 5, with its candid declaration of God’s implacable opposition to evil

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors. (Psalm 5:4-6)

            For the believer in the midst of foes, the target of abuse and the victim of prejudice, these words are a great reassurance. God is opposed to the wicked. Yet, nowadays, one can hear the cry of ‘foul’ from those who prefer not to believe in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. They tell us that these are categories of interpretation (at best) and of oppression (at worst). What is ‘good’ for one person may not be ‘good’ for another.

Yet, I think another way of saying what the Psalmist says is to affirm that God is our Father and, as our Father, He wants the best for us, and opposes (as any decent father would) anything that would seek to harm us. I am reasonably certain that the voices of those who insist ‘there is no such thing as evil’ would be somewhat muted if there was a threat to their child.

I have often made the point that what we believe is very important. Just because we believe something sincerely does not make that belief true. I once believed my yellow mini was safe to drive, until the fatal day I discovered the fault with its brakes. However sincerely I believed in the safety of that car, I was sincerely wrong; with potentially fatal consequences.

What we believe is important, of supreme importance, and it is vital that we should not allow ourselves to be befuddled by any attempt to muzzle the truth by dismissing it as merely that which ‘works for you.’

Let me finish with one last quote from McGrath. He explains that the great task of classical philosophy was to seek to conform the human mind to reality, by rigorously assessing any truth claims.

‘yet some today would dispute this, arguing that we are free to make any choice we like. ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’ (Friedrich Nietzsche). The idea that there is some ‘absolute’ that we are under obligation to discover and express is ridiculed. Yet, as Hitler’s extermination camps and Stalin’s liquidation programmes make dreadfully clear, to relatavize the absolute is merely to ‘absolutize’ the relative. Totalitarianism can only arise with the overthrow of its final and greatest opponent – a God who negates the absolute autonomy of humanity and who holds it accountable for its actions.”

The ‘if it works for you’ nonsense masquerades as tolerance, but leaves us powerless to oppose the unthinkable, and undermined in our moral convictions.

Yours thoughtfully,

Martin Thomson

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