Why saying “truth is relative” makes no sense

I read the following on a blog recently:

“You don’t get to decide the truth. Other people have their own experiences, just as valid.”

This is the predominant mindset in our culture today. And I understand why. How can one person say their truth, their experience, is any more meaningful than any other person’s? Isn’t to say so simply immoral?

The first sentence of that quote pronounces the view that you don’t get to decide the truth. Translation: there is no truth (if no one can decide it, it must not exist).

The second statement reveals the breakdown: “Other people have their own experiences, just as valid.” What’s being said here is that everyone’s truth claims and their experiences are valid. They are all just options on the buffet of truth.

But the issue is that to say there is no truth or that all truths are valid is to make a truth claim. It is saying that I have the truth, and if you disagree with me then you’re wrong, because you’re outside the truth – which is exactly what this mindset wars against.

To say that all truth is relative and that no one gets to decide on it is to make the most selfish truth claim of all.

You really don’t get to decide the truth. But that isn’t because everyone has it. It’s because it comes from outside any of us.

The Four Kinds of Spaces

I’m reading through Mark Waltz’s Lasting Impressions (great read so far, thanks Mark!), and in chapter 4 he summarizes something intriguing he read in Joseph Myers’ The Search to Belong. Mark synthesizes Myers’ work to explain that there are 4 kinds of spaces: public, social, personal, and intimate.

When you stop and think it it seems obvious. But what might not be obvious is that the church should actively work on cultivating each of these environments. I’ll discuss each of them and let Mark’s much wiser words connect the dots:

Public

Public space is your weekend services, or anytime you draw a crowd. People are comfortable enough to chat with each other afterwards because they at least have in common that they attended the same service. Like Mark says, “They don’t have to be friends to share in this kind of exchange. It’s public space.”

Social

After public spaces, you move into social ones. I’ll let Mark take over:

“The second space of human interaction is social space. The space can exist in a variety of sizes and crowds or groups. A defining characteristic is small talk – light but connective conversation about common life experiences…Our ability to enter into transformative relationships is actually dependent on lighter conversation.”

Personal

Personal space is that which is shared between a smaller group of people, though not necessarily in a “small group” setting as we typically define it. To use Mark’s example, if you did a series on finances and encouraged people to meet together during the week to continue the conversation, personal space would exist around a group of men who decide to talk at Starbucks on Tuesday mornings. In this space, conversation goes deeper than the surface, but it does so to a limit. Failures, successes, struggles, and personalities may be discussed here.

Intimate

The final space is intimate. Perhaps two of the men in the group mentioned above realize they really hit it off and they start to meet regularly. They become more and more open as time goes on, and discuss their greatest fears, biggest failures, and largest hopes. “That level of relationship…is slow to develop and hard to find,” Mark writes. “[Myers] suggests that most of us will have only five to six intimate relationships in our lifetimes – and up to half of those will be with relatives.”

The big picture

What I realized reading through this is that a) it makes a lot of sense, and b) the church has to have each of these stages in mind and respect people in each of them. When I think about my own journey to Christ and his church, I can remember passing through each of these stages, from years of showing up on Sunday to holding a door, to joining a small group, to volunteering every weekend at a new multisite, to joining staff.  Each step was massive for me at the time, and I would do well to remember that feeling.

It’s important for the church to keep each space in mind for a variety of reasons, so I’ll just name a few here:

  • Knowing which space you’re trying to create dictates how you design the environment. You wouldn’t put couches in the auditorium, but you might put them outside a coffee shop or in a lobby. The auditorium isn’t conducive to conversation because it’s a public space, not a social one.
  • People are ready for each space at different times. If more than half of the people in the world are introverts, then we can’t expect them all to walk up to strangers and start connecting. It’s just not going to happen right away. But it will happen. As a member of a church staff, it’s our job to identify which space the person is in, and help them move towards the next space as they’re ready for it.
  • Each of the 4 spaces is necessary for life-change. It’s easy to say life-change happens in the personal and intimate settings, and that may be true. But without the public and social spaces people would never end up in personal or intimate ones. Each space deserves attention as we seek to move people closer to Christ.

Realizing the 4 spaces and paying attention to them is an important part of creating a loving community.

The New Default Community

We’re spending more and more time on our phones, tablets, and computers. More than that though, we’re trying to fulfill our need for community through all these digital channels. That’s why almost everyone in the world is on Facebook, some are on Twitter, and still others are on Instagram.

Let me start by saying digital community isn’t all bad. I really enjoy the small community I’ve built on this blog. I’m not really interested in listing out the good versus the bad when it comes to digital communities.

The new default community

What I’m more interested in is what happens now that the new default for community is digital (online) instead of analog (in person). What happens when we need to organize a group of people in our communities but all we know how to do is organize people with texts, tweets, and blog posts?

My wife told me about an interesting example from a book she’s reading. The author was telling a story about how they use to plow snow at Notre Dame. Originally, they would just post that help was needed and some students would come with shovels and handle it.

Once the population became higher brow and stopped wanting to do that kind of work, workers and eventually machines were brought in to take care of it.

At some point, a storm came along and buried them in snow. So much so that the snow plows and other machines couldn’t make it. Their new default wasn’t working, so they fell back on their old default. They wrangled up some students and had them meet in the middle of the campus.

And they did. About 100 students showed up to help remove the snow. The problem was they only had 5 shovels to go around.

No one had the tools necessary to do the work because the new default (the machines) meant they didn’t need them anymore, so they didn’t have that to fall back on.

What happens when we need to fall back on the old default?

I wonder if we’re not setting ourselves up for something similar with moving community almost solely online. I’m not suggesting an apocalyptic scenario will happen and we’ll have to revert. I’m saying what does it look like to be a human who’s not exactly sure how to do one of the most human things there is – connecting with other people in community?

I find it very easy to try and let digital community replace analog community in my life. I can do it from the couch and there’s no risk of discomfort (something my introvert brain loves).

But that’s the problem.

There’s no risk of discomfort where I can push myself to do something that stretches me and helps me grow as a person. There’s no risk of getting connected to someone in a way that matters.

Sure, there’s emotional risk involved with face-to-face connection, but I think we’re all smart enough to know the upside is far bigger.

The real conundrum

The biggest source of tension in creating a healthy church community based on a biblical foundation is that it’s in many ways at odds with the new defaults in our culture.

Just think about getting in touch with someone. We used to just pick up the phone and call them, and that was that. Now there’s email, texting, and Facebook. Those are all great tools, but the real connection that’s possible by hearing someone’s voice is lost over those mediums, especially if you don’t already know the person.

The kind of community the church is trying to create will go against the societal grains here. The tendency is to disconnection personally and to connect digitally. We as the church need to know how to create spaces for people to connect digitally so that it helps to move them to connect personally and drive relationships into the deeper realms that are ripe for spiritual growth.