By Fr Anthony Le Duc SVD
There is a syndrome which many of us may not have heard of. It is called the shifting baseline syndrome. This syndrome is mostly used to refer to reference points used to measure aspects of ecosystems, for example quality and quantify of fish in a lake. It was found that as successive generations of scientists studied a particular ecosystem, they often took the baseline as what they were able to measure at the beginning of their contact with that ecosystem. Changes over time were measured against that reference point. However, what these scientists did not realize is that what they determined to be the baseline had shifted from what the previous generation of scientist had determined was the baseline. Furthermore, this baseline continued to shift as later generations scientists determined their reference points. If these scientists had not used the measurement at the beginning of their career but the state of the ecosystem in its untouched state as the baseline, they would have had a much more accurate picture of the changes that actually took place in that particular ecosystem.
When we think about it, this shifting baseline syndrome is not only applicable to studying ecosystems, but could be applied to social and moral state of society as well. Oftentimes, we make our judgement about what is happening in the present society against what was taking place a decade or two ago. We measure progress or regress by comparing the present with what it was like with the generation before us. Our reference point (baseline) often reflects what we remember about the world when we were still young. Things either change for the better or for the worse depends on our memories of our own childhood.
We can easily see how taking our personal subjective experiences as reference points could put us in danger of the the shifting baseline syndrome. The standard keeps changing, but we are not really sure how little or drastic the changes actually are.
The reality of the shifting baseline syndrome reminds us of the need for some sort of absolute standard in our personal and communal life. This absolute standard is the same as the reference point of the fish stock in a lake before it was affected by human intrusions. It is also the indicator that is not dependent upon subjective human experiences but is beyond our whimsical judgments and designations. Our only hope for something that fits this criteria lies in God. It is God who sets the standard and provides the reference points for how we are to live in the world, in how we are to treat one another, and how to behave towards nature. It is God who provides the indicator for what constitutes true love, goodness, and mercy.
It is, therefore, God who gives us the baseline against which we are to measure our words, thoughts, and actions. Jesus calls us to be perfect as God is perfect. We are asked to be holy as our Creator is holy. These exhortations are not meant to require us to do the impossible. Anyone who takes this exhortation literally sets him or herself up for terrible disappointment. Rather, these words remind us to be conscious of the absolute standard that God provides for us so that using it as a reference point, we can reflect on the quality of the things we do. When we take God as the absolute and unchanging baseline instead of taking our personal experience or the experience of some other people as the baseline, we are less likely to stray too far from the standard no matter what generation, what century, or what era we are born into. As the author of the Book of Hebrews writes, “Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). The life and teaching of Christ about God in every age will be the reference point to how each of us can live out our own life in this world.