Relativism is active in today’s world-both in social discourse and in academia. Often in sermons and apologetics, we hear about the evils of Relativism, such as how it seeks to dissolve reality all around us. While that seems a bit extreme, there are some legitimate problems with Relativism in philosophical terms and in its logical out-workings. Over the course of this blog post, I will talk about the beginnings of Relativism, what it is, and what it does.
I’d like to start off by letting all of you know that I am not a perfect person. I sin often, both on purpose and accidentally. However, I have been saved by God’s grace, leaving me no room to put others down or prop myself up since, as I said, God had to save me because I’m so bad. But Jesus Christ died and rose again to glorify God and save sinners. Like me. And you. So we can look to Christ, follow him, drop our chains, and sing (see Tenth Avenue North).
Specifically, and this is relevant to this post, I often struggle with thinking I’m right about everything. When I watch the news or listen to talk radio, I often scoff and wonder why the “talent” on-air doesn’t have the same level of nuanced views on all subjects that I do. Then I’m reminded by people I love and respect that I’m 23. And I’m also occasionally really stupid. But it’s usually just a case of me worshiping at the Altar of Me.
Now that we’ve established my biases and character flaws, let’s talk about that Relativism thing. The term relativism can be applied to a wide variety of subjects. For example, there is cultural relativism. Cultural Relativism was invented as an approach to better study different cultures. As anyone familiar with sociologists in the Medieval Catholic Church and the writings of American settlers throughout the colonial period knows, people often see cultures different from their own as weird, strange, and, sometimes, evil. These observers would not attempt to understand the native peoples’ customs, but simply say that they were savage or demonic. People back home would then read these reports and begin the “othering” process, which is where one group demonizes another to justify abusing or oppressing that group. Cultural relativism was a response to this flawed system. Instead of comparing other cultures to the “right” one, a researcher would study the complex meanings behind ceremonies, social structures, and rituals in a vacuum. This allowed people to learn to respect and appreciate other cultures, as opposed to just saying “Those guys are freaks!”
As someone who is pro-people, I am all for such an approach. But, as for everything outside of Jesus himself, a good thing can be stretched and changed into being, well, not so good.
At some point, the idea of not judging a culture came to mean that certain practices could not be called “wrong.” The idea was that we are wrong to put our culture above another in terms of value, which I would agree with. But then, it evolved to mean that we can’t say other cultures’ practices, such as female circumcision or child labor, are wrong without some accusing us of being some kind of bigot. Obviously there is not a huge group of people advocating for female circumcision in the U.S. and Western Europe, but some of our more relativistic friends hold to this kind of view.
The genesis (Bible pun!) for such a growing sentiment in cultural relativism came from the main subject of this post: Moral Relativism. Before I get into the fine points of why I think this is wrong, I’ll explain what it is.
Moral Relativism is a philosophy that goes by one maxim: there are no objective moral truths. This kind of thinking allows people to do anything they want, inside of legal restrictions, and say that “you can’t tell me I’m wrong.”
For many people it is a freeing way to push away the rules and regulations from their parents and other authority figures, letting them experience anything and everything to the fullest with no regrets.
So, for intellectual honesty’s sake, let’s assume this philosophy is true. Oh, wait. We can’t. The statement “there are no objective moral truths” is an objective statement about moral truths. So, according to Moral Relativism’s own creed, its creed is false. I can tell you one thing: the day we covered Moral Relativism was the shortest philosophy class period I had in six semesters. It doesn’t take C.S. Lewis or Kant or Nietzsche to tell you that such a philosophy is doomed to collapse in on itself under the weight of its own inconsistency.
What has this philosophy caused in society today? Well, many things. For one, like few times in recent history, basically everything is up for debate. This goes for both morality and life choices. With regards to morality, relativity has completely annihilated debate of the past. Morality becomes, to those truly committed to moral relativity, a set of preferences instead of ethical facts about the world. It then becomes impossible to have a moral conversation with a moral relativist. No matter what atrocity you argue against, it is a matter of you projecting your own feelings onto a morally neutral action. This runaway train of thought continues. When moral relativists say that something is bad or wrong, they can only mean that they don’t support it. They then have to backtrack and say that it isn’t wrong or bad, no matter the action. Including murder or any of the other atrocities you can think of.
Discussions of morality are important. They get people thinking. Thinking is good. In this case, moral relativism discourages thinking. But it makes sense that relativistic thinking has devolved to such a place. The reason this has happened is simple: this is/was a response to the objective truth claims made by Christianity in Western culture. People don’t like being told what to believe or do, so they made their own “truth,” however false it may be.
The point of relativism is to cast of the old moral reality for a new, fancier, shinier version. The problem is that this “new” morality has no basis to say anything about the goodness or badness of anything. If your moral system can be accurately used to justify Hitler or Stalin’s actions as morally neutral, then there is a serious problem with it.
Christ and the Bible say that there are objective moral principles, but moral relativism denies that there is any foundation whatsoever for morality. There is no way to bridge the two sides together. You can pick one, the other, or deny both. But no one can truly believe or follow both (and this is coming from a person who despises binary thinking. It’s simple logic. They are mutually exclusive). As Christians, we need to fight against this kind of thinking. Not by calling people stupid (although feel free to explain why Moral Relativism’s only premise fails), but by bringing the message of Jesus. That he actually, really, objectively was the Son of God. That he actually, really, objectively died for the sins of mankind. That he actually, really, objectively rose again to bring us into fellowship with God himself. To cause real gospel change, one has to change hearts, not minds. Once someone truly understands and believes the gospel they will see Moral Relativism for what it really is: a system of thought that is doomed to fail.