November 21, 2012

Objective or Neutral

Objectivity is not the same as neutrality. One is candid, the other cautious; one necessarily finite, the other infinitely necessary for sound judgment; one too small to bear eternal consequence, the other too grand for most human aspirations.

Objectivity is “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.”1 It is unbiased and uninhibited. Its ideal of analysis validated by absolute detachment may lead to its conflation with neutrality. Genuine neutrality may lend substance to such an ideal, for neutrality is “tolerance attributable to a lack of involvement.” It is “the condition of being unengaged in contests between others; [the] state of taking no part on either side; indifference.” Caution does intrude when our lexicographers reach for moral terminology. Then neutrality is “a state neither very good nor bad.”2

2012 1533 page6That very caution—a neutral term—highlights a crucial difference between neutrality and objectivity. For neutrality, whether in morals or in war, is a bounded thing: Sweden’s loss of territory to Russia in the Napoleonic wars led to a declaration of neutrality from 1812 and onward. But Swedish export trade to Russia tops $3 billion annually, and Swedish imports from Russia more than $8 billion.3 Sweden is only militarily neutral (i.e., uninvolved) with Russia. Neutrality, celebrated or despised, is always a relative issue, never more than an interesting footnote to the grand themes of human existence and ultimate reality, such as God and the devil, sin and salvation.

On the other hand, clearheaded objectivity in these matters is of the essence, though much of today’s vaunted objectivity is an attempt to be neutral about more than is possible. Marty Hewlett and Ted Peters’ claim that “a scientist can pursue laboratory research without the threat of religious bias”4 rests on conviction that “the Christian faith is compatible with the Darwinian interpretation of evolution” and that “the Darwinian model . . . provides the best science.”5 To find no religious bias there, one must suppose that all Christians already accept a common ancestor for all life-forms on earth over deep stretches of time. Moreover, the objectivity that privileges the mute—and even the inanimate—over the word of supernatural revelation is hardly neutral or unbiased. Such is not the objectivity that leads to salvation.

Neutrality was never one of Jesus’ goals. If neither Pharisee nor Sadducee, Herodian, Zealot, nor Roman partisan could ever claim Him, it was because neutrality fell far short of His focus on the ultimate issue of delivering them and us from eternal damnation. Neutrality has no part in God’s ideals. Being neutral is nothing to die for. It is therefore nothing to live by. Martyrs are not slain for being neutral. And followers of Jesus will share His commitments against neutrality and for objectivity. They will not exaggerate the fickle realities of local partisanship, over which He was neutral. Nor will scorn or favor modify their candid judgment as participants in His program of moral restoration. Neutrality before the condition of earth and humanity is criminal. It is Jesus’ exhaustive objectivity that makes salvation possible. Not only does His love comprehend and critique all the angles—it pursues appropriate action. We share that commitment. We are not neutral; we are objective and more. Neutrality is not the same as objectivity. 

4 Ted Peters, Martinez Hewlett, Can You Believe in God and Evolution? (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), p. 14.
5 Ibid., pp. 9, x.

Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published November 22, 2012.