One of the more disturbing features of American culture today has to do with the meaning and status of “values.” During election cycles we often hear about the voting preferences of “value voters,” a phrase that gives the impression that only some voters have values while others do not. In fact, all voters have values, as do all people. The real question is not whether everyone has values, it is how one handles one’s values. There is a real danger about values, and the danger has both theological and political dimensions.
When we say we value something, we are saying that the thing or idea we value matters to us, that it is of concern. We orient and order our lives – to some degree, maybe to a considerable degree – relative to this thing or idea we value.
The political danger of values has to do with a pretty pedestrian fact: every thing or idea we value exists in relationship to other things and ideas we value. Sometimes these values will be in conflict with one another. And often it will not be easy (and sometimes it will not be possible) to determine that one value has priority over the other. Thus irreducible tensions among some values are inevitable. And sometimes the choices we make between values leads to unavoidable losses.
Any society that wishes to negotiate its way through decision-making and policy-making must recognize these basic facts and develop political structures and processes that allow us to go about the business of living together as a society. The U.S. Constitution recognizes the fact that values compete with one another, that balances must be achieved among the competing values, and that the arrangements of one time and place may not fit another occasion or place. In other words, the Constitution enshrines the fact that values inevitably compete.
To take one example from the proverbial “front page” of our newspapers, there is a real tension between “the right to privacy” and “national security.” To take another example, there is a genuine tension between “public safety” and “the right to bear arms.” Each of these values is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And all of these values find themselves in tension with other values from time to time.
This has always been the case. Nothing new here; including the tendency of some people to try to make absolute a value that is relative. This is where, of course, politics (which always includes the negotiation of various values as well as interests in the public arena) gets very knotty indeed. When a person or a group refuses to recognize the relative nature of a particular thing or idea they value (that is, when they refuse to accept the fact that every value exists in relationship to other values, and claims that a particular value trumps all others all the time), then it may be very difficult – if not impossible – to negotiate life together in society.
Absolutism of values is not just a political problem, however, but a theological problem, at least for persons of faith. Here I shall speak primarily from a Christian perspective, though the argument applies to all three Abrahamic faiths.
When we make a value absolute we run the real danger of substituting a value we hold for the God we worship. In other words, there is a way of holding our values that can lead us into idolatry. In this sense, the higher the value, the greater the danger. Any “good” (even a very great “good”) can become evil if substituted for the place of God.
As Kathryn Tanner observes, “Replacing the divine with the human or confusing the human with the divine threatens … to make a Christian way of life an idol.” In her book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Fortress, 1997, 126), Tanner gives new depth and precision to a theological concern that has spanned the ages of classical theology from St. Augustine to Paul Tillich. “Faith,” as Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned.” And to substitute our conditional and finite concerns for our ultimate concern is to construct an idol (Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper, 1957, 1, 3, 14).
Tanner insists that while our ultimate allegiance as Christians is to God, and that the claim God makes on our lives is unconditional and absolute, we must be very careful making claims in the name of God. As she says, “Even in Christ, the human never approximates the divine but remains distinct and unmixed, no third thing approaching the divine by way of the alteration of its own properties. The Word can be identified with a particular human being, Jesus Christ. But his Christian disciples ever follow him at a distance. And the Incarnate Word is only at best indirectly identifiable with even those human words of the Bible that Christians believe effectively witness to him” (Theories of Culture, 126).
To claim, in other words, absolute status for my values does not mean that I am being more righteous or faithful. In fact, ironically, if I claim absolute status for my values, my action calls into question my basic faith in God, because I have placed my values (and this includes whatever I construe as “my Christian values”) in a place above God. Not only is it possible to be so “value oriented” that I just can’t live sociably with other people, I can become so “value oriented’ that I can deny God.
Of course, we don’t really need theologians to tell us this. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount remains the definitive text on religiosity that does not reflect God (see Matthew, chapters 5-7). Jesus calls us to reflect God’s perfection by the quality of our mercy, not the intractability of our values.