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Challenges to the Church - Relativism

This is the second article in a series that examines various doctrinal and societal challenges the evangelical church must face early in the 21st Century. Previously we examined the dangerous doctrine of Open Theism. Today we will examine relativism. Future articles will examine the Emerging Church, ecumenism, postmodernism, and a variety of other topics.

Relativism is a challenge every Christian must face, for it forms the very foundation for the morality (or lack thereof) of our culture. We live in a pluralist society in which many religions and worldviews co-exist. Society dictates that the way for these divergent views to happily co-exist is to encourage tolerance and relativism, where we do not seek after the blacks and whites or wrongs and rights, but instead allow truth to be whatever the individual chooses for it to be. As people of the Book, we are beholden to a system of absolutes; a system of objective, God-given truth. This truth underlies everything we believe in. Thus we must stand strong against the relativism that is in our schools, our worldplaces and perhaps even our churches.

A Definition

Relativism is the view that truth is relative to a particular context and is not absolute. Truth varies from people to people, time to time, culture to culture and there are no absolutes. Truth is determined or created rather than discovered or determined.

The Challenge

“Baseball is a fun sport.” If I say those words am I making a statement about baseball or about myself? While it may seem that I am stating an objective truth about baseball, the fact is that I am really making a statement about myself. The meaning behind my words is “I believe baseball is a fun sport.” This is how we determine whether a statement is objective or subjective: does it state a fact about the subject or the speaker? Does it state a fact about baseball or about me? A subjective statement is an opinion, attitude or belief. “Baseball is a fun sport” is a true statement, but it a subjectively true statement - it is true to me, but may not be true to another person.

My wife does not like baseball. When she says, “Baseball is a boring sport” that statement is also true, even though it is in direct contradiction to what I said. It is true because it is also a subjective statement. The meaning apparent behind her words is “I do not enjoy baseball.” This is an opinion. Thus she and I can state contradictory truths, but they can both be right because of their subjective nature.

“The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.” When we look at this statement we will see that it is not a statement of opinion, attitude or belief, but a statement of fact. It is an objective truth. The statement says nothing about me, but tells something about baseball. The truth of this statement does not depend on my beliefs. The truth of this statement is there to be recognized or discovered rather than determined or created by myself. If my wife were to say, “the Blue Jays did not win the World Series in 1993” we would have a contradiction in apparently objective facts. Only one of these statements can be true. It is impossible for two opposing objective facts to be true. In this case, only a small amount of research would be necessary to prove which of these two statements is correct. We would also learn why Mitch Williams can never again show his face in Philadelphia and why Joe Carter never has to buy a beer in Toronto, but that is a whole different story.

Problems often arise when a person treats a subjective statement as if it were objective (or an objective statement as if it were subjective). We know this as the “subjectivist fallacy” or the “relativist fallacy.” The European Society for General Semantics defines this as follows: “The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for him/her.” It takes the following form:

  • Claim c is presented.
  • Person p asserts that c may be true for others but is not true for him/her.
  • Therefore p is justified in rejecting c.

We might see this fallacy in action if I were to say to Aileen, “baseball is a fun sport and you are stupid if you don’t enjoy it.” I have taken a subjective belief or opinion and attempted to make it objective or normative. Most people will immediately recognize this problem and see if for what it is, even if they don’t know of a fancy term to describe it.

It should be noted that the distinction between subjective and objective is not always perfectly clear. For example, consider beauty. Are there objective standards of beauty or is it truly “in the eye of the beholder?” This does not prove that objective and subjective standards do not exist, but only that there are sometimes difficulties in distinguishing which is which.

So where does morality fit in? Is morality objective or is it subjective? Is it a fact or an opinion? This is where Christianity differs from culture. Our society teaches that morality is subjective - what is good or bad for you may differ from what is good or bad for me. The Bible, on the other hand, indicates that there are standards of morality that are given for all people at all times. Moral relativism asserts that there are no objective standards of morality that apply to all people at all times. Instead, all morality is consigned to the sphere of the subjective. Morality is not a collection of truths to be recognized or discovered, but to be determined or created by the individual.

It is possible for a Christian and a relativist to have the same belief, but they will be built on different foundations. When I say “abortion is wrong” I am in fact saying “abortion is always wrong because it violates an objective standard of morality.” A moral relativist who believes abortion if wrong is actually saying, “I do not like abortion because I feel it is wrong.”

The crux of the matter is that for a moral relativist, conflicting moral judgments, such as “abortion is wrong” and “a woman has the right to choose” can both be true in the same way that opinions about baseball can both be true.

Consider the following statements made by the umpires at a baseball game:

Umpire 1: I call ‘em as I see ‘em.
Umpire 2: I call ‘em as they are.
Umpire 3: They ain’t nothing ‘till I call ‘em.

We will conveniently set aside the first umpire and look at the second and third. Umpire number two has an objective view. He understands his job as determining whether a pitch fits the criteria of ball or strike. He makes his judgment accordingly and calls them as they already are. The third umpire is a relativist who believes that in an objective sense a pitch is neither a strike or a ball. His opinion is the determining factor. He calls them as he creates them. Now let me ask: if you were a baseball player would you prefer the second or the third umpire? Clearly, if all umpires were like this one, the game would be impossible to play. Neither the batter nor the pitcher would have any sense of what made a ball or a strike. We can now see that this metaphor can be extended to moral relativists. Like this umpire, a relativist does not believe any action as being objectively good or bad.

The Downfall of Relativism

The great irony and the great failure of relativism is that almost no relativist is completely or even predominantly consistent in his worldview. Need proof? Break into his house and steal his television. When you do that he will be more than willing to call the police and inform them that you have committed an action which is intolerable. You may plead that in your view of morality theft is not wrong, but he will still demand that you are arrested and that his television is returned. The justice system will agree with him.

Our society is adamant that particular actions are wrong. At the top of the list is intolerance. Intolerance is regarded as the greatest of evils. Interestingly and ironically, the basis for tolerance, which is disagreement (after all, tolerance presupposes a respect for other beliefs despite objective disagreement) is undercut in our society. Further evils are slavery, rape, molestation and any other actions that infringe on the rights of the individual. But logically, relativists cannot condemn these actions simply because they cannot do so without expressing some level of objective morality.

Another confusion arises when relativists not only condemn actions of which they disapprove, but when they commend actions of which they approve. To be consistent with their beliefs they have no right to impose their beliefs on others. Relativists are only too happy to accept humanitarian awards, but with no objective standard of right or wrong, moral commendation has no place. It is illogical and even wrong.

Dealing With Relativism

In their book Relativism, Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith provide several helpful pointers for dealing with relavists. First, they suggest showing the contradictions inherent in relativism, for in practice, this position is self-refuting. One effective tactic, then, is to show people that many of their positions depend on some type of absolute stance. They suggest the best way of dealing with the charge of “don’t force your morality on me,” is to simply ask “why not?” What gives him the right to impose his morality on you when you are not able to do the same to him? Second, they suggest pressing the person’s hot button. Find that person’s pet issue and relativize it to undermine his position. Third, force the tolerance issue. Force the person to examine why he cannot tolerate what he perceives as your intolerance. And fourth, have a ready defense. Know the issues and know the best ways to defend your position while casting doubts on the relativist’s position.

Conclusion

Relativism is an irrational, inconsistent view which many tacitly accept, but which few adhere to with any consistency. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for a person to be a consistent relativist. Interestingly, those who hold strongest to this view are condemned by society as sociopaths - people who care only for themselves. Yet when we look at people who believe in absolutes, we see that the one who held strongest to objective truth was Jesus Christ. One system leads to the worst of human depravity, the other to the pinnacle of godliness.

Resources

Relativism by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith.

Relativism by Paul Chamberlain.

Much of this article was drawn from “Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly” by Paul Chamberlain and “Relativism” by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith. You can generally assume that whatever is good and worthwhile in this article is drawn from the books, whereas I take full responsibility for whatever is illogical and obnoxious.