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Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

By Tom Thomas

In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, ‘gotcha’ question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: “The World’s Greatest Dective.” by Kit. CC license. 

What Sort of _______ Is This?

 

by Tom Thomas

A mystery seized the disciples.  The mystery’s answer unlocks the door to the Book of Matthew; it unscrambles the Gospel itself; and it opens the gate to your life – to its present satisfaction – its eternal future.  The disciples wondered, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ On that occasion their boat is caught in a Galilean sea windstorm.  Waves are lapping over their fishing vessel’s sides.  They are being swamped.  They panic.  They fear they are sinking. Then Jesus speaks to the winds telling them to be silent.  The sea hushes.  There is dead calm.  The disciples gasp, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ The original language of the text does not have any noun after the ‘what sort of’.  Literally, it’s ‘what sort of____’ is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’.  One has to supply the noun.  That is, the question: what sort of ‘one’, what sort of ‘person’, being, is this to whom the wind and sea are subject?  It’s the same question I want to put to you.  ‘What sort of “one” is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’  I trust you have already responded to it.  Answering this question is a confession one continually reaffirms.  Answer it for yourself again.

Ancient people answered it similarly.  The weather – rain, wind, thunder, and lightning – said the Canaanites is controlled by Baal, the Canaanite god.  The Egyptians said the weather was controlled by Horus, the falcon-headed god.  The ancient Greeks said it was Poseidon, the god of the sea.  Poseidon controls the oceans and the seas.  The Romans answered it was Jupiter.  The Jews said in Psalm 107 the Lord God ‘made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.’

The ancients all agree controlling the weather is the domain of a god – not of a human.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins or theologians like Rudolf Bultmann say ruling the weather is not the work of a god. They do agree it is not the province of a human, either.  Upon this we’re all are agreed:  commanding the weather is not in the province of a human.  The disciples’ rhetorical question, ‘What sort of’, one, person, _?__ , is this that even the winds and the sea obey’ – anticipates the answer.

What sort of person this is again is highlighted just two chapters later in Matthew 10: 34-39.  Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’  This is jarring! The Lord’s anointed has not come to bring peace but a clash.

He declares he will turn son against father; divide daughter and mother; and daughter in law against mother in law.   He will deliberately split life’s most enduring, affectionate and necessary bonds.   Elie Wiesel and his family were Jews who just got off the Nazi train at Birkenau.  A Nazi SS officer wielding a club barked, ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’  Suddenly, Elie was separated from his mother and sister.  He watched his mother and sister disappear into the horizon.  That was the last time he ever saw his mother.

Jesus separates family members. He claims there is a deeper, more necessary bond than the familial bond.   There is a relationship more primary than family.  The relationship with Him is greater than the familial bond.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.  He inserts love for himself between that of son and father; daughter and mother.  Love for Him surpasses the primary human love.  Love for Him is more fundamental and transcendent than human love.  Who ranks above the love for your father?  Who ranks above the love for your daughter? Or your mother?  Jesus says whoever loves mother more than me is not worthy of me.

My late mother Betsy had a college friend in Lynchburg who she kept up with over the years.  They would talk.  My mother inevitably got the conversation around to church.  ‘Claire, come to worship.  You belong there.  We miss you.’  But, Claire would remind her worship was at the time her family went to brunch.  My mother said, ‘Then change the time of brunch.’  Is that what you say? What sort of one even claims preeminence over life’s primary priority?

Jesus was leaving a large crowd.  One from his larger group of disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  (Then I will follow you.)  To bury your father is one of those things you do to fulfill the commandment, ‘Honor your father’.  Some think the disciple was not speaking literally but meant he needed to care for his aged father.  After his father died and was buried, the disciple would be free then to follow Jesus.  Either way, Jesus’ response remains: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.’  The spiritual dead will take care of the physical dead.  First things first…following Me takes immediate priority.  Nothing – not even burying one’s father – comes before this One.

Jesus demands to be loved preeminently above your human loves.  In fact, if you love your father more than Jesus, you do not deserve Jesus; you are not suited to Him; and you cannot belong to Him.  ‘What sort of’ person is this that demands such exclusive love?

Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? 

Perhaps the greatest claim Jesus made was the one in Matthew Chapter Eleven.  He said, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Matthew 11: 27-28).  Here Jesus claims ‘all things’- literal word is ‘all’ – all has been handed over to him by ‘my Father’.   The ‘all’ is inclusive.  Nothing is excluded from the set of ‘all’.  ‘Handed over’ is to turn over, deliver to or entrust to.  At my mother’s death, everything of hers and my late father’s – everything – clothes, address book, furniture, photograph albums, files, bank account, bills, and their 1820 Eli Terry clock – were handed over to my sister and me.  Everything.  What is handed over to Jesus?  Some contemporary scholars say it was John claiming this for Jesus not Jesus Himself.  Really? Jesus defines the Father- who- has- turned-everything-over- to-Him:  He is ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’.  What all does the ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’ have to entrust to Jesus?  Heaven? The Milky Way?  The Sun?  The earth?  All its inhabitants?  You? What’s not included?  Jesus said plainly, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.’

Jesus tells his disciples the reason they know hidden things and the wise and intelligent do not:  ‘no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  The Father and Son share knowing exclusive to themselves.  We expect the Father to know the Son.  What is shocking is that Jesus says ‘no one knows the Father except the Son’.  In the original language, the word ‘know’ is intensified:  knows exactly, knows completely, and knows through and through.  Jesus is claiming He is the only One who knows God through and through; exactly as He is.  Who is it who knows God’s mind exactly?  Who is the only one who knows completely Tom Thomas’ mind? Who is buried in George Washington’s tomb?!

The second part of this is ‘no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’.  Jesus is the only one who mediates and reveals God.  Revealing God is at the Son’s discretion and according to His own prerogative.

Jesus’ claim was on trial in a recent Senate hearing.  Russell Vought was being interviewed for a deputy position in the White House Office of Management and Budget.  Bernie Sanders took him to task for an article Russell wrote for his college newsletter.  Russell said Muslims ‘do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ His Son, and they stand condemned.’  Sanders asked him if he was being respectful of other religions.  Vought in his words was echoing Jesus.

Jesus is not disrespectful.  He is making an exclusive but truthful claim.  ‘No one – not the Buddha, Mohammed, the guru, the Imam, or Moses – knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  No one can know the Father who does not first know the Son.  Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? Who knows completely the inner mind of God?  Who have you said Him to be?  Who do you now say Him to be?  He is the Person to whom I submit my body, my soul, my fame, my fortune, my friends, my reputation, my life, and my all!  You too?

 

Tuesdays with Tom: “They Didn’t See Him”

By Tom Thomas 

Suppose I returned to Spring Hill cemetery several days after burying my father?  I reach his plot. I noticed the grave was disturbed; the marker overturned, and the clay dirt scattered around the sides.  Inspecting closer, I saw the casket opened.  The body was missing.  What would I conclude?  What would you conclude?

Suppose you were among those who went to pay your respects to Jesus?  Upon reaching the tomb, you saw the gravestone rolled back; the tomb disturbed, and the buried body missing.  Do you, like the disciples, have grave difficulty with the empty tomb?  Have you thought about Jesus’ bodily appearances?  Is your heart slow to believe?  You can identify with the disciples.  You can surpass their difficulty.  Let me consider the resurrection narrative.

It was the first day of the week, Sunday, at early dawn.  A group of women walked in twilight to Jesus’ tomb.  Go back three days to Friday.  Some of these accompanied the priest, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body.  To leave a person without a burial shows gross disrespect.  I officiated in Long Beach, CA at the funeral of a man who had no one to bury him.  Joseph of Arimathea would see Jesus buried.  Joseph was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council.  He was also a secret disciple of Jesus.

The Roman governor Pilate gave Joseph Jesus’ body.  So Joseph removed Jesus’ body from the cross.  He would inter Jesus in his own never-before-used tomb carved out of rock. Would you let Jesus use your tomb?  It would be a good deal.  Jesus only used it three days but its value rose thereafter.

Joseph and another priest, Nicodemus, wrapped the body.  They use an expensive, linen shroud with spices of myrrh and precious aloes.  They hurried to complete the work before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. A handful of men rolled the huge, flat stone over the tomb’s entrance.  This kept thieves and animals out.  Later, Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and cordoned off.  He placed a guard of soldiers at the grave.  The tomb was now a site under state control.

At early dawn, Mary Magdalen; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s manager; Mary the mother of James the apostle, and other women walked to the tomb.  They wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ corpse.  The women had not been thinking too clearly. How would they get into the tomb?  They couldn’t move the massive stone.  Going a little further, they looked up and saw the stone already rolled back.  Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had already arrived.  They ventured in the tomb’s darkness but saw no body – not even Jesus’ corpse.  They stood there perplexed, at a loss for answers.

Had the gardener moved him?  Had the authorities removed him?  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two strangers appeared beside them.  The strangers’ clothing gleamed brilliantly – like the whiteness of lightening.  The dazzling intensity spoke for itself.  The frightened women could only bow their faces to the ground.

The angels searchingly asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  That is, ‘Why are you seeking the living one among the dead ones?”  The question was a gentle rebuff to the women’s accepted philosophy of reality.  Is it a rebuff to yours?

Imbedded in the angel’s question is the mark of history – not fiction.  The women went to the tomb thinking as I would to my dad’s grave.  One out of every one dies…and never returns.  Absolute fact.  The women went to the tomb knowing Jesus died.  They thought as you think – He’s gone forever – never to return.

Ever wondered where we get this philosophy?  From common, human experience.    Could there ever be a specific case, sometime, somewhere, that is different from what is generally thought to be the case?  An anomaly, an exception to the rule?  Suppose a scientist did an exhaustive investigation.  The scientist observed 30 kinds of flies, ten kinds of beetles, four kinds of wasps, and six kinds of grasshoppers.  The scientist generalized, ‘All insects have three pairs of legs’.  The next day a caterpillar sauntered by.  It has all the properties of an insect. Except it doesn’t have three pair of legs – it’s all legs! An exception to the rule.  Now the scientist goes back and revises his conception.

Many modern intellectuals – among them many theologians – say there is no example of a literal resurrection happening in common human experience. So a bodily resurrection can’t be.  Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection such an exception to common human experience?  But it can’t be, they say, that He rose from the dead.  There are no examples of such things in common experience!  This is circular reasoning.  It assumes as valid what one is trying to prove.  It won’t allow what doesn’t fit with what you have already determined to be the case.

It’s like our insect scientist saying he/she has already determined what insects are.  A caterpillar can’t be one.  It doesn’t fit his/her preconceived notion of what an insect is.

The angels gently reproach the women.  The women are surprised to hear Jesus is alive.  How about you?  Does God reproach you for looking for the Living among the dead?  Many still consign Jesus to the dead.  He’s a great religious figure; an inspired prophet; a great example; and one in whom divine consciousness lived.  Nonetheless, He’s gone the way of all other great religious teachers and philosophers.

A missionary was speaking in Northern India.  A Muslim came up to him afterwards and said, “You must admit, we have one thing that you do not – and it is better than anything you have.”  The missionary was interested to hear more. Muslim said, “When we go to our Mecca, we find at least a coffin.  But when you Christians go to Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.”  The missionary replied, “That’s just the difference.  Mohammed is in his coffin.  Jesus Christ is risen!”

Pam and I were on vacation in the California Gold Rush country.  We visited Sutter Creek’s cemetery.  We read the epitaphs on the tombstones.  One grave had a pillar – like the Washington Monument rising out of a block of granite.  At the top of the pillar was a clinched fist with the index finger pointing upward to the sky.  The deceased was saying to me, “Don’t look here, look up.”  Don’t look for Christ in the grave.  ‘He is not here.’

The women flee out of the tomb. They tremble in fear and astonishment.  They run to tell the giants of the faith, the eleven apostles, the news.  If anybody would believe, these guys would.  They watched Jesus do miracles for three years.

The woman relayed to the disciples their experience at the tomb – every last detail.  A woman’s testimony in a Jewish court was questionable.  Here is a group of women, having come from a resurrection, hysterical, trembling, pale from fear, unable to contain themselves as to all they had seen and heard.  They reported the news.  The disciples took it like the Editor of the New York Times:  ‘Uhh, huh – Sure!’  The men summed up the women’s words: “an idle tale.”  “Idle tale” is a medical term used for wild delirium.  They’re on drugs!  Rubbish!  Fantasy!

So some have thought ever since.  Paul preached Jesus’ resurrection.   “Some of them sneered”. (Acts 17:32)  Martin Luther spoke of the resurrection.  Luther noted the reaction, “To this day there are many who laugh all the more at this article, consider it a fable ….” An ‘idle tale’ thought Jesus’ disciples: a resurrected Jesus did not fit their framework of reality.  Jesus could break out of a rock tomb.  He couldn’t break out of the disciples’ rock hearts and rock minds!

Later that same day, two were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village about seven miles west of Jerusalem.  The two were absorbed in conversation about the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels.  While they were discussing this, a man overtook them.  He fell into their stride.  He said to them, “What is that you are talking about?”  They stopped still in the road.  They were full of the tragedy of Friday.  Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days.  The stranger asked, “What things?”

Cleopas said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in words and actions.  How he was condemned and crucified.  We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  They went on.  “Yes, this is the third day, and some women of our company amazed us.  Earlier they went to the tomb and didn’t find his body.  They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive.  Peter and John went to see for themselves.  They found the tomb just as the women said.  But they didn’t see him.”  I can almost hear Cleopas voice trailing off when he said, “They didn’t see him.”  There’s the catch – whether 30 AD or 2017 – ‘they didn’t see him.’ Neither empty tomb nor women’s report convinced them.

“O foolish men!” the stranger upbraided them with strong emotion.  You are ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked.  Didn’t they have the words of the prophets from the Old Testament?  And didn’t they have the words of Jesus prophesying he would rise again?  Now they heard first hand testimony of the women …and angels…yet they didn’t believe.  You’ve got all that.  Do you believe?  The stranger called them “unintelligent and dull of belief” – that is, slow in believing.  The stranger then explained how the Old Testament applied to the Messiah.  They liked what they heard. They begged the stranger to stay and eat.  He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks.  They suddenly recognized him!  He was Jesus whom they knew.  Then “he became invisible from them.”
They recalled to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he explained the scriptures?’ Believers through history have testified to burning hearts.  I have felt a burning chest the night I gave myself to God.

Preacher John Wesley put it in classic words.  He was in a fellowship/study group.  There he felt Jesus Christ.  Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust Christ.”  You don’t have to see Him to feel Him.  Your eyes may be closed, but you feel the warmth of the sun.

What it took to get the disciples to believe! I can hear people say, ‘If it was hard for them, how much harder for us?  At least they got to see him’.  This is Cleopas’ attitude which Jesus reprimanded: ‘But they didn’t see him’ Cleopas said.  ‘O people slow to believe!’  You now have the testimony of the Old Testament; the testimony of Jesus; the testimony of the women and the disciples, the evidence and testimony of Paul; and the experience of hundreds of years of burning hearts!

In some ways, we have more than the disciples had that first Easter morn.  The risen Jesus has been established by sight, by voice, by touch, by reasoning argument, by historical evidence from genuine and moral men and women, and by centuries of ‘warm hearts’.

Why are some of you still troubled by Him?  Why do some question?  Why do you dispute Him in your hearts?’  Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’. (John 20:27)