Greg Carey: Resist Nihilism

“It’s all a matter of opinion, right?”

Try this line in a biblical studies classroom if you’ve never witnessed spontaneous combustion. It will set the professor’s hair on fire. This is a repeatable experiment. I hope my students aren’t reading.

I hope Dr. Eric Barreto’s are.

When someone says, “It’s all a matter of opinion,” conversation stops. If it’s all a matter of opinion, evidence doesn’t matter. Reason doesn’t matter. There’s no point in listening to one another. We might as well give up.

We resort to “It’s all a matter of opinion” when facts make us uncomfortable.

Students use it when course content stretches their faith. In the Covid-19 age, people use it when the demands of safety threaten our businesses and when we want social interaction. We trot out “It’s all a matter of opinion” to wiggle out of tight spaces.

Danger alert: “It’s all a matter of opinion” is nihilism in action. And nihilism is deadly.

Discernment is healthy. We have strong theological reasons to be skeptical of our values, our assumptions, and our capacity to know the truth. Jesus warned the Sadducees, “You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 12:24). We’re in the same boat. Our perceptions are limited. Moreover, our perceptions are clouded by sin. It’s like we’re looking into a distorted mirror, dimly lit (I Corinthians 13:9).

We must also confess, most important things do involve opinion. This is true for theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and even history. Experts disagree. One reason we can’t find common ground on the Covid-19 pandemic is that science involves opinion: the experts’ opinions have changed as research expands. That’s confusing for all of us.

But cynical people, many of them extremely well paid, are at work to promote nihilism in our society. They want us to give up on the distinctions between true and false, between right and wrong.

“Some people say.”
“Many people do that.”
”The experts have been wrong before.”
“The science is unclear.”

These are wolves in wolves’ clothing. Wolves wear fine dresses and suits.

The wolves want us to give up on truth: What can we really know, anyway? They would have us set aside ethics: It’s all relative, isn’t it? They deny the possibility of dignity: Look at those sorry dogs over there. Even beauty means nothing to them: smells like money.

The wolves sure don’t want us looking out for one another, fostering the common good: It’s survival of the fittest, baby. Dog eats dog.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, guards us from the wolves. And he demands that we too protect the vulnerable: “Guard my sheep” (John 21:16). Wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we do not abandon integrity.

Now, biblical authors love tricksters. Jacob wears animal fur to trick his father into mistaking him for Esau. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, then holds to Judah’s ring and staff as security. Jael allows Sisera into her tent, gives him milk and a blankie.

But another thread runs through scripture. Integrity. Proverbs instructs, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.” (12:19). Jesus expects his disciples to speak a direct yes or no, no frills (Matthew 5:37). Paul insists on the integrity of his communication (I Corinthians 4:2). Revelation acknowledges disciples who bear the testimony of Jesus, no matter what the cost (12:11).

Educational psychologists have identified a common pattern among college students. College introduces them to diverse and conflicting points of view and to problems that haven’t been resolved. A natural reaction is to embrace relativism: “It’s all a matter of opinion.” Hopefully, students remember the lessons of relativism. There really are diverse perspectives, and they do have value. But then they learn to embrace commitment in the face of complexity. Some answers are better than others. Some are just wrong. Evidence counts. And the truth does matter.

For those of us in the United States, the next few weeks will bring a blizzard of bull. Followers of Jesus will not be deterred. Our calling is to foster truth, grace, dignity, and beauty in the midst of confusion. In so doing, we can contribute to the healing of a broken culture.


Dr. Greg Carey

Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.

Facebook | @gregc666
Twitter | @Greg_Carey
Facebook | @LancasterTheologicalSeminary
Twitter | @LancSem


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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