Why I’m Absolutely a non- Absolutist

by Kenneth McIntosh

I just returned from the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. My wife and I agree it was the greatest show on earth. From Friday through Monday 10,000 people gathered from 70 nations to share lives and faith. There were plenary sessions packed with great speakers like Marianne Williamson, Karen Armstrong, Jane Goodall, Alan Boesak, Brian McLaren, Katherine Hayhoe, Jim Wallis and speakers that readers of this blog might not know by name, but who are leading figures overseas and in their respective faith communities. There were hundreds of workshops, of every imaginable sort. I got to experience Matthew Fox’s Earth Spirituality rave service, a Jain discussion of countering violence, a talk on how to convince religious skeptics on climate change, and an improvisational and interactive theater piece on how ISIS twists the Quran. I also saw our own Southwest Conference pastor Teresa Cowan Jones share how Sacred Space works to fulfill the goals of the Compassion Charter, and my friend Professor Elizabeth Ursic led a very moving service of worship to God in her feminine nature. Every day, Sikhs from around the world worked hard to feed 5,000 people –for free—in a very dignifying way, with delicious Indian vegetarian food. The grand finale’ service was in the Mormon Tabernacle, filled with saffron-robed monks and turbaned Sikhs mingling with LDS members in their ties and suits. The presentation was a 3 hour extravaganza with everything from a bagpipe band to Chan Buddhist drumming to Indian Sitar and Thai dancing and the Bahai and Mormon choirs. I posted on Facebook, “This is what Heaven is going to be like.”

So what was the takeaway from all this (besides being totally overwhelmed)? This extended weekend renewed my sense of hope, truly. For some time previous, the violence, prejudice and arrogant tone of our country’s troubles had been chafing at me. In truth, I was becoming desperate—and therefore rather shrill about things myself. What I saw was community —formed of the unlikeliest allies. I realized there are enormous numbers of good-willed people from all the world’s religions, all working for similar positive goals—to end discrimination against women, to reduce violence, to save the earth. I know we’ve been doing our part in the UCC, but we’re really rather small at under a million members. It’s wonderful to see that we’re just part of an amazing puzzle, that can interconnect and work shoulder-to-shoulder with a huge variety of sects around the planet (I’m all for good sects).

I also picked up a new word that’s going to stick in my vocabulary (and hopefully my heart). That is Anekantavad. It’s one of the three major tenents of the Jain religion. The Jains, founded by Mahavira at approximately the same time as his near neighbor Guatama Buddha became enlightended, have not killed animal or human for 2,500 years. This is possible because of adherence to the “three A’s:”

Ahimsa = Non-violence

Aparigraha = Non-attachment


Anekantavad = Non-Absolutism.

I noticed in their workshop that the Jains shorten their non-absolutism to Anekan. I’m a bit relieved, because there is something in the tongue that dislikes spewing out five-syllable words. Three I can handle, and I can remember the shortened version by thinking of Anikan Skywalker (perhaps a name chose by George Lucas because Anikan starts out understanding the Jedi way of Anekan, then abandons it for the absolutism of the Dark Side?

At the workshop Anekan was defined as “Realizing that you are never 100% totally right in anything that you believe, and those who oppose you are never 100% totally wrong.” Now believe me, this is not how I was disciple into my faith. Coming from a Calvinist Evangelical background I heard over and over that non-absolutism was the worst possible thing that anyone could embrace. “God said it and that settles it.” “Open your mind too far and your brains will fall out.” “If you don’t believe it all you’ll end up with nothing.” “Doubt one word in the Bible and you’ll slide all the way down the slippery slope until you reach hell at the bottom.” But now…it’s happened. I realized this past week how vital Anekan/ non-absolutism is, if we’re to make any progress in the world.

As long as two people are absolutely convinced they are entirely right on a topic, there is no room for peace between our positions. Embracing Anekan gives me a tool to flex and move toward the other, and might enable an opening for them to walk through and meet me. The first step is to critique my belief: does my position have to be utterly rigid? Then I can mirror the other’s thoughts—even if they present themselves as enemy. I can begin to see how I might look unreasonable, dangerous even, to them. And I can see why they hold to the things they adhere to so strongly. Yes, perhaps they are bound by greed, fear, lust, the need to control….but all these are simply mal-adaptations (or over- compensations) of basic human needs for safety and agency.

So I see a person wearing a confederate flag on their t-shirt. My normal reaction is to immediately think judgmental thoughts. “They’re a racist” and they’re probably also (fill in a series of negative and judgmental blanks at this point).  But by Applying Anekan, I can try to perceive where there may be elements of good in that person’s choice of apparel. They might not associate that symbol with slavery (though I know historically that was its genesis). They may take pride in their southern state community, may have seen their neighbors pull together against odds. That flag has always been associated with their civic life, and they feel comfort and attachment with that association. For that matter, maybe they’re just straight males of a certain age with pleasant memories of watching Daisy Duke ride along in the General Lee—with that flag on top. Who knows?

If I label that person “racist” out the gate, then I am unlikely to have any good effect conversing with them—if I come in knowing “they’re just bad, or crazy” I’m not likely to win them over on any point, and why should they respond well to me? But what if I try to seek a common humanity between us? I might say, “You look like a person with some strong connection to your community —where do you hail from?” I might just say “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” This would not be in any way an endorsement of the awful dark history connected to that symbol, nor would it overlook the fact that he may indeed be wearing that symbol to denote hatred. But even with the worst sorts, Anekan opens up the possibility (even if it is slim) of a transforming relationship. What if more people had chatted with Hitler and encouraged his pursuit of art when he sat on the streets of Berlin with paintings that no one would buy and slid over the fulcrum point into hatred and fanaticism? What if someone looked past the brown shirt and saw the eyes of an artistic soul that was turning to stone inside?

And here’s the funny part. My Jain brothers and sisters have given me something that—rather than destroying my faith as a Christian—enables me to live out my faith in a much better way. When asked the greatest commandment in the Torah Jesus didn’t go off talking about the slippery slope or the inerrancy of Moses or the danger of brains falling out of heads. He simply pointed to love—of God and of others. And the fact is, if I assume I’m totally correct and unmovable in all my beliefs, then I’ll never be able to move onto the ground where I can see my enemies as people of value. I cannot love them. Despite everything I’ve been told, non-absolutism is the way to love like Jesus.

I absolutely believe in non-absolutism.

Oh, wait. That’s a contradiction. “You can’t absolutely believe in non-absolutism” I got them from an apologist years ago. Well, I’m learning that “both-and” thinking is on a higher plane than “either-or.” Both-and allows things in the universe to move more freely. And many Christians believe a number of things that non-Christians find contradictory: like the Trinity, or death-that-leads-to-resurrection.

In the Star Wars Cycle, Anakin loses his faith in Anekan and goes over to the absolutism of the Dark Side—the Sith pursuit of ruthless greed and power. He loses his ability to see through his natural eyes, seeing the world only through a life-sustaining helmet. But at the very end of life, he chooses to remove that mask, deciding instead to embrace commonality with his estranged son. He ends his life redeemed. I hope I can remember to keep taking off the mask and seek the common humanity of everyone I face. Anekan / non-absolutism rocks.

4 thoughts on “Why I’m Absolutely a non- Absolutist”

  1. You had me at Anikan. This was a great piece. Thank you for sharing your experience and bringing such a powerful concept back.

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