8 Min Read

A Discourse on Relativity & Shifting Goalposts

Published on

October 16, 2023

Have you ever had that friend who’s tough to debate? Not because they are always correct or present coherent streams of logic, but because they tend to change the argument’s goalpost when you reach the “penalty box”? These arguments often come with a dash of “even though” here, “but what if” there, and in some cases, an inability to remember what they argued for or against a few minutes ago, witnessed by “that’s not what I said.” Have you questioned whether or not you heard things? (I tend to prefer texts to calls for this very reason.)

As you read through, I’d guess one or two of these wonderful humans crossed your mind—and chances are, you crossed more than two people’s minds. Breathe and resist the urge to go into denial; it’s no fault of yours. Humans adapt; we’re malleable, change perspectives, learn, and adjust—even on a biological level. Without this ability to adapt to changes, we wouldn’t be here. The frog is another living thing that embodies this trait. Ever heard of the frog in the boiling pot? No? Really? Allow me to right this wrong.

Put a frog in a pot of boiling water, and it will immediately jump out. But put that same frog in a pot of cold water and raise the temperature gradually enough, and it will be boiled alive.

While this evocative story, with origins in German experiments carried out in the 1870s, is not without some holes (such as the fact that the frog would die before the water actually starts boiling or the unique states of the frogs used in the experiment), it has long served as a valuable metaphor for complacency in the face of gradual change. It has been used in discussions across diverse topics such as climate change, abusive relationships, and encroaching government surveillance. One of such discussions it reminds me of is that of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. Of course, David being a semblance of the frog, moving from one temperature of sin to the other without noticing, from merely looking at what he ought not, to murder and conspiracies, and Nathan, being the thermometer that eventually helped him realise how far he had gone.

Like David, humans tend to view things from malleable perspectives, which is one of the reasons why we have culture shifts—skinny jeans in vogue today, baggy jeans becoming the rave tomorrow, and ripped jeans the following day. This phenomenon goes beyond what we deem trivial to weightier issues on virtue, morality, the definition of right and wrong, good and evil, equity, and justice.

As contexts, perspectives, and culture morph, the definitions of these things can get so muddied up that we find different people in a somewhat homogenous population, living distinct and mutually exclusive “truths”—varying degrees of boiling water, without knowing how hot or how cold the water is, and how near death such perspectives may be. This manifests itself in relative/comparative measures—e.g., person A is more moral than person B, or person D appears worse than you. However, what is sometimes amiss in such comparisons is that you remain uncertain if “Olopa ma ko everybody” (i.e., the seemingly “good,” “gooder,” and “goodest” are all above-boiling temperature).

Last week, we read about Feedback Mechanisms and Control Systems — feedback given to you by God, man, the environment, outcomes, etc. This week, we’re looking at Measurement Systems—absolute measurement systems, like thermometers, rulers, compasses, and, in this case, the Bible.

The Bible (like other written texts that I like) provides a frame of reference, God’s measurement system by which we as Christians ought to shape our perspectives and adjust our behaviours. The Word of God has been here from the beginning (John 1:1) and does not change with seasons; it stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). It does not bow to the pressures of culture, morphing moral systems, or Twitter mobs but remains resolute. It’s like a thermometer; it doesn’t measure how hot or cold one is relative to another body or the environment (which would affect whether you feel hot or cold), but what your absolute temperature is, regardless of how you feel about it. Leaning on the truths of the Bible and measuring by it is how we trust in the Lord with all our hearts, leaning not on our understanding of our perspective of morality, right or wrong, good or bad, but accepting His stand on a matter as the valid and absolute reference point and not how we feel.

The difference between last week’s reading on feedback and this week’s on Absolute Measurements is that feedback comes to you post-action, i.e., when the deed is done. On the other hand, measurements guide the doing of the deed and provide a frame of reference for building or charting a path. With Bathsheba, David required feedback. However, before this, before engaging in battles, David would often enquire of the Lord before embarking on said battle. You find this as well with other Kings like Jehoshaphat. This difference is critical as sometimes feedback may not be as palatable as we can see from the story of the movement of the Ark of Covenant in 2Samuel 6. With the first attempt, the Israelites would have thought they were honestly doing the right thing, bringing the lost Ark back to Israel. However, they were honestly wrong and quickly found out when feedback came in the death of Uzzah. Uzzah’s story would have been different if there had been a reference, an absolute measurement before the deed, not a relative measurement of the fact that they were doing good by bringing back the Ark.

As I begin to close, in taking reference from the Bible, the debate should not be how close one can get to the boiling point/limits and survive, but rather how far away one can stay from such limits and remain within the optimal temperature—and perhaps also know how soon (if not immediately) to jump out of the pot. I read a story recently that illustrates this. It’s about a person who had bought an expensive car and was looking to hire a driver. The car owner asked, “How close do you think you can park this car to that brick wall without scratching my car?” The first applicant said, “I can drive within a foot of that wall and not damage the car. The second said, “I can drive within six inches of the wall and not damage your car.” The third said, “I do not know how close I could come without damaging your car, but if I was driving, I would stay as far away as possible from the wall so as not to damage the car.” Who would you give the job?

As we navigate the week, remember that relative measures are unreliable, no matter how good they sound or feel. Get your bearing from scripture, that which was, which is, and will remain the same.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. — 2 Timothy 3:16–17

Do have a blessed week.

Itoro Nehemiah


Listen to push buttons

Don’t want to read you can also listen to our push buttons on