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Ligonier Conference (IV)
March 16, 2007
Friday’s second session featured John Piper and he spoken on “The Challenge of Relativism.” This is a topic that interests me a lot and is a topic that I have read into quite a bit. Piper’s take on it was definitely unique and I enjoyed it a great deal. Desiring God, in a clear bid to steal my thunder, has already posted the audio but if your speakers are broken or you have sore ears, perhaps these notes will still prove useful.
Piper began by asking “How is the bad thing called relativism different from good ways of thinking relatively?” We’ll learn about the bad by contrasting it with the good. We can think about certain things in a relative way without necessary being false. A person may be tall or short in relation to others so a person’s height is relative to a standard of measurement. This is a good and indispensable way of thinking. We have to be able to think this way. We need to asking meaningful statements in these situations to ensure that we properly understand context. The reason we don’t call this way of thinking relativism is that people on both sides have a concrete, objective standard in their mind and if they made that clear we could agree or disagree on the basis of a shared standard. This is not relativism but is a good way to think.
For it to be relativism we have to say one or more of four things
1. There is no external or objective standard of truth
2. The standard may be out there but you can’t know it
3. It is out there but you can’t know what it means
4. It is out there and we can know what it means, but I just don’t care
So here is a clear statement: “Sexual relations between two males is wrong.” Two people may disagree and not be relativists because they may share the same external, objective standard: God’s will expressed in an inerrant Bible. Relativism comes into play when there is no objective, external standard affirmed for right and wrong that is valid for everyone. So this statement is then only dependent on your standard of measurement. We cannot expect others to yield and submit to your preferred standard of measurement of what is true and false and good and bad and right and wrong.
Relativism is the view that no one standard of true and false, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly exists that is valid for everybody. But what does this imply about truth? Relativists may infer from a lack of standard valid for everybody that there is no such thing as truth—that this is an unhelpful category. More often, though, they speak of your truth and my truth. If your ideas conform to your standard of measurement, you’re speaking truth and the same is true of me. We can both be true even if these truths contradicts. Statements and convictions that flow from them are not based on any standard of measurement shared by everybody but rather ones that are based on preferences or shared community values.
Piper turned to Matthew 21:21-27 where we see Jesus dealing with classical pragmatic relativists. They are de facto relativists. Most people are like this, not thinking through the philosophy of relativism but just acting in a way consistent with it. The Pharisees constructed a new truth here, insisting that they did not know the truth to answer Jesus. This is not full-blown relativism, but the seed of relativism. This is how the depraved mind works. The adulterous mind or heart becomes the servant to defend an ungodly choice. We don’t want to be shamed and don’t want to be harmed. Wants are governing what we say to be true. This is universal among humans until they have a renewed mind. The elders used their minds not to speak truth but to fabricate it and save their skins. So what is at stake for these guys? Truth? No! They are not even posing the answer “what would be a true answer” but “what works?” This is very relevant to our day.
What has become of the mind and its handmaid language? The mind has become nimble in its slavery to our passions. The adulterous heart is nimble in finding things to prostitute after. Language has been prostituted to use itself as the covering of duplicity. What a tragedy. The gift of language is used to create a truth to get out of a problematic situation. Jesus abominates the prostituting of gifts of human mind and human language. The claim that there is no standard for measuring good and bad, true and false is rooted in the cravings of the human heart not to want to be constrained by any external authority or standard. Rather, it wants to enjoy the exaltation of the self. We want to exalt self and therefore we’ll create a philosophy to create what we want.
Therefore, relativism is bad and we should avoid it. We should bring our children up so they do not believe these and help college students to move away from it. We need to articulate as well as we can the evil and destructive effects of this way of thinking. And here are seven evil effects of embracing relativism. You usually can’t argue people out of relativism but you can show them where it leads.
1. Relativism commits treason against God for it is a revolt against the objective reality of God. The sheer existence of God creates the possibility of truth. God is the ultimate and final standard of all claims of truth. What God wills, says and does is the objective standard for everybody. It is a pervasive revolt against God because it denies the very concept of divine law. It is a worse revolt than looking in God’s face and refusing to submit to His law because this is more devious. It says to men “There is no such thing as law.” This is a subtle way of denying that God exists.
2. Relativism cultivates duplicity. Everyone knows that believing relativism to be true is contradictory and that nobody tries to live relativism consistently. Both philosophically and practically it cultivates duplicity. It is morally corrupting. The processes of thinking commits a relativist to principles that are not relative. It is shot through with self-contradictions and when this is done knowingly it is immoral.
3. Relativism conceals doctrinal defection. One of the most tragic effects is its effect on language. In a culture where truth is prized, language has a great and noble task. But where relativism rules, language becomes power broking. The role of language is no longer a humble servant carrying precious truth but takes on a power of its own, creating its own reality, no longer serving to display truth, it now simply defends preferences. This gives rise to every manner of spin. Language is now used to manipulate or create reality. The utilitarian use of language is a direct effect of relativism. It leads to vague speech that deliberately misleads people.
4. Relativism cloaks greed with flattery. Paul knew that he could use language to give people what they want and become rich or famous by doing this. Flattery is the use of language to help people feel good about themselves to get something from themselves. It is buttering people up and this is what language is for in the relativist milieu. Language becomes a means of greed by becoming flattery.
5. Relativism cloaks pride in the guise of humility. If you believe there are objective standards to which everyone must submit is that you will be called arrogant while relativism is portrayed as the humble position. Relativism is presented as being clothed in humility. But this is not humility. When Truth goes, so does humility. If there is universal truth out there, universally valid for all men, then we must submit to it. All over the country relativism is being sold as humility but the truth is that relativism is created to protect arrogance.
6. Relativism enslaves people. If we cultivate an atmosphere in which there is no truth we will create the kind of Christianity that will simply colonize slaves. People are not free from sin in the fog of relativism but rather remain in their chains. Anything that helps people not love objective truth is murderous and enslaving.
7. Relativism leads to brutal totalitarianism. The formula is simple. When relativism holds sway in society, over time more and more people do what is right in their own eyes. When enough people do what is right in their own eyes, we call it anarchy. There are only two solutions to anarchy: revival of absolute values or a dictator.
This list could go on. At this point Piper returned to Jesus and the Pharisees and their grappling for truth and their eventual fabrication of a truth of their own making. That is colossal bondage to the love of self, to the love of personal comforts, so that you are enslaved to use your mind to destroy what is true. The solution is this: if you will believe in Jesus Christ who takes away shame and guilt and to protect from any harm that matters in this life, you will be the freest of all people.
I think what made this speech unique was simply Piper’s wrestling with the problems inherent in relativism and the dangers in it. I’ve read a lot on the subject but haven’t read much that would go this far and present it in this way. This is a great starting point for an examination of relativism and I commend it to you.