Blaise Pascal observed in his book Pensees “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on by acting as a fixed point.” As long as everyone is fitting in with the crowd, no one stands out. We all appear normal. Anyone who stands out appears to be abnormal. The modern equivalent of the first part of Pascal’s thought might be the phrase “everyone is doing it”, as though mass involvement legitimizes whatever “it” is. The modern equivalent of the second part of Pascal’s sentence might be “dare to be different”.
In a day before our modern navigational tools, lighthouses served as a fixed point for ships seeking the entry point of a safe harbor. Without the lighthouse beacon, sailing ships were in great danger of capsizing on the shoals near the coast. They needed that fixed point to steer by. Many shipwrecks occurred when they couldn’t see the light that would guide them safely into the harbor.
Like a ship’s captain, we also need fixed points in our lives to guide us. They provide us with a moral compass. In former times the Ten Commandments along with the commands of Jesus and of the Apostle Paul provided that function. The Bible was thought of as containing absolutes that governed how we were to live our lives. Even if we didn’t always follow them, we still believed in them.
But today we live in a world that no longer believes in absolutes. “Truth” for one person may well be “falsehood” for another. We no longer have absolute standards to focus upon to guide our lives. Anything that purports to come from a higher standard, such as the Ten Commandments or the Bible, is often rejected. We have seen this in the treatment given to Miss California 2009, Carrie Prejean whose views on marriage were in sharp contrast to those of one of the judges. But without such standards, we merely drift along. Without absolutes we are like a ship without a rudder. We have lost a fixed reference point in the relativistic culture in which we live. We have nothing with which to steer the course of our lives. As Pascal says, when society is all moving together in a downward trend, we don’t even realize we have moved. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan described this process as “driving deviancy down”. He used this phrase to describe the process whereby over time the things that used to be unacceptable in society become acceptable, and even the norm.
The loss of absolute truth leads to a loss of moral and ethical standards. Their loss leads further to a breakdown of society. Over this past year we have seen fraud and greed in the financial market. Many of the individuals being tapped for high level positions in the Obama administration have had tax problems. Nancy Pelosi is having difficulties with the truthfulness of her knowledge of the use of torture. These all indicate a lack of moral character. It is becoming more and more difficult to have trust.
But before becoming too judgmental, we need to examine our own lives. What compass is guiding us in our day to day lives? What standards and absolutes do we hold to? What are the fixed points we steer our lives by? As we intersect with the relativistic culture in which we live we must each ask ourselves “Do I stand out or do I fit in with the crowd?”