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Mutt & Jeff: ‘Oh, sure — that’s your opinion’

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It registered with me recently that this section of The Sopris Sun is reserved for “opinion”, and I realized that this is a pretty weak word.  What follows is an attempt to improve on that weakness. 

Opinion: 1. “Firm belief as distinguished from absolute knowledge.” 2. “Belief stronger than impression but less strong than absolute knowledge.” 3. “Implies a conclusion thought out but open to dispute.” For example, if the command “You shall not kill”  is not merely an opinion but is an absolute, it would be wrong to end someone’s life, even such as Adolf Hitler, no matter the circumstances.

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Sadly, we often misuse such terms. For example, I remember a few years back when Bill Richardson as governor of New Mexico fought against the death penalty by invoking this reasoning as an absolute. Of course, the error is that this text as used in the Bible is referring to murder, not killing in a universal sense. The governor’s opinion was wrong, at least based on the quotation he used. 

Another word that is misused (ironically in my opinion) is “conscience”.  Two Greek words are its origin:  con-  meaning  “jointly, together, or with,”  and science- meaning “knowledge”, which when combined  mean “shared knowledge”.  So, again we have a commonly used word which has strayed far from its original meaning.

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We tend to think of conscience as an innate compass by which an individual can determine the correct path when facing a moral dilemma to work out, and we consider it almost, if not infallible. To illustrate, it’s tempting to believe that if everyone just followed their conscience the world would be at peace. As a Christian, I believe that the context of conscience is one of shared knowledge with God. Sadly, I admit that throughout history Christianity  has a record of failing to acknowledge or submit to that shared knowledge. 

Nonetheless, there are plenty of categories that I have an opinion about, but as one gets older he or she realizes more and more that quite often your opinions have been wrong. In fact, it becomes quite a challenge to even identify particular areas about which you have a more certain understanding than just an opinion.

Is there a word that carries an even stronger sense of understanding an issue than does “opinion”? I suggest conviction — which “applies to a firmly and seriously held belief based on satisfactory evidence.” As an example, years ago when the homeschooling movement was just starting and was deemed illegal in many states and parents were going to court to defend the right to homeschool, my wife and I were advised to claim the right to homeschool our children as a conviction because the courts recognized this as a stronger term than opinion.

But perhaps we need an even stronger word than this to describe the way we feel about a given idea. How many times do we hear a conversation in which the first words out of a person’s mouth are  “oh-absolutely” as if to say —  “I totally and uncompromisingly believe such and such.”  This glib answer should lead to a discussion of the source of absolutes, if indeed they exist; and if they do you should be able to point to that source. Do I even need to ask if we can  turn to the Supreme Court to find the source? Or is it the accumulated wisdom of a culture over centuries?  Isn’t it true that one culture might revere and honor a custom that others find repugnant? Is it an instinct accumulated over millions of years of blind evolution that produces a flawless, unerring grasp of any human situation?

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But wait, if that were true, wouldn’t the correct instinct eliminate the erroneous ones in the survival of the fittest until only one absolute solution remained? And yet, in spite of these exceptions, it seems there are at least a few universal absolutes.

How about “You shall not steal”? Although stealing is common in the human race, it seems that every human knows that stealing wrong. Even a pick-pocket would feel wronged if someone stole his wallet. Even a child knows he or she has been wronged if someone steals his/her toy.

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How about considering adultery as a universally accepted transgression? I suspect that even in a polygamous society adultery would be judged as inherently wrong if wife number three had an affair. But aren’t cultures strange; isn’t it inconsistent that gays historically couldn’t serve in our military yet adulterers could? 

If a society relies on constantly shifting opinions based only on human desires and emotions there is no hope for the utopia of peace, love and inclusivity that so many of today’s movements promote. From a worldly viewpoint these goals seem noble and achievable. From a realistic viewpoint they are naive and unattainable in this world. Why do I have this conviction?  Unquestionably in reality the opinions that we cling to are unreliable because they come from flawed people. But some would say  “All we need to do is better educate people.” Right — educate them based on fallible opinions.

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At any rate, I would suggest that the words opinion and conviction be properly used, and hope that this is not just opinion but springs from conviction which is a certainty of God’s inerrant and absolute written word. And finally, even if every member of any given society discovered this perfect Being, the source of absolutes, does that guarantee that they could or would adhere to them flawlessly? Don’t for a minute think so, and that’s why a Christian or anyone else has no right to judge those who differ, but should certainly be willing to engage others in a respectful way.  Corinthians 5:12 quote: “For what have I to do with judging others? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”   

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