Dealing with Relativism (1 of 2)

I was asked to speak on a subject that I am still in the midst of understanding: relativism. More to the point, I was asked to speak on "dealing with relativism." Oh, boy. Hopefully, it is helpful!

When I was a young man learning about my new faith, I was still learning about life in general. I was greatly disturbed by one phrase used by the adults around me: “The world is not black and white.” What did this mean? Are there no transcendent moral judgments, no absolute truths, or no way of determining whether something is right or wrong? It seemed like a satanic statement, not wise advice.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an appreciation for what my elders were trying to convey. They were not (at least, not those of close relation to me) saying anything like what I thought. The simple truth of life is that things are rarely what they appear, and it is foolish to hasten toward decisions on situational questions. A proverb that reminds us that life is messy:

The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
— Prov 18:17

In other words, you might think the case is closed when you hear the facts. You might be tempted to go and string a man up based on a rumor. You better wait until cross-examination. You better wait until you hear both sides of the issue.

Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. —Prov 11:12–13

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. —Prov 17:28

Thus, we are limited by our perspectives. Even considering all of this, however, it might be dangerous in this day to continue using the phrase “not black and white” (or some derivative thereof) because we may confuse our listeners just like it confused me. What do I mean? I had already been introduced as a young believer to the concept of moral relativism, so I had a knee-jerk reaction to the sagacious advice against “black-and-white” thinking. This culture typically understands that things are not black-and-white (though young Christians need to be sometimes reminded), and go a step further to question the exclusivity of the Christian claim:

How can Christianity be true and everything else be false if nothing is black and white—if nothing is absolute?

This question even comes into the church and those who claim to be Christians. Rapidly replacing John 3:16 as the most quotable verse of the NT is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Those who usually quote this verse provide us with another thought-provoking question:

Is making absolute moral claims about situations Christ-like?

We should not brush these questions off as foolish. This is the culture in which we live. So, my purpose today is to answer the how-to question of speaking with the relativists in your lives. Being a how-to kind of message today, each point will be an applicatory point that I have tried to list in logical order. You might not see my logic, but it’s all relative anyway. :)

A passage to give rise to our remaining time—1 Pet 3:13–16
V. 13—Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?
V. 14—But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,
V. 15—but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you;
V. 16—yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

First, we need to be firm in our own faith.

There is no reason to fear man. This does not apply only to physical persecution, of course. We should not fear those who are more intellectual than we may be; those with a broader educational background or those with quick wits.

Nor should give way to pressure to have a starting point other than this: "in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy."

There is such a thing as being too generous. Within an academic institution, it seems intellectually honest to put our Bibles on the table and argue our ways back to them. Somehow, we have to prove our faith worthy of an ear within the university walls. We can be certain, though, that we give something that few unbelievers are willing to give—an honest evaluation of our foundations. How rare is it for the naturalist to set aside his atheism in order to establish it?

If you are going to engage philosophers (relativists or otherwise), Alvin Plantigna has advice for you (see Ch. 11, “Advice to Christian Philosophers”). You need to be display more autonomy, more integrity, and more courage or strength. What does he mean? Christians should show “less readiness to trim their sails to the prevailing philosophical winds of doctrine” (302). He writes,

Perhaps here we could proceed without appealing to what we believe as theists; but why should we, if these beliefs are useful and explanatory? I could probably get home this evening by hopping on one leg; and conceivable I could climb Devil’s Tower with my feet tied together. But why should I want to? (314)

Scripture says that we are to trust in who God is and not fear man. Non-Christians who know this fact watch us to see if we really believe what we say. Don’t set it aside for the sake of intellectualism—people who know you are a Christian and are not surprised when you quote a verse to answer a question. This is the biblical means of doing these things.

Second, we need to understand them.
Yet, we can sometimes become overly confident and forget to be patient with nonbelievers and even other Christians. We should always avoid being so inconsiderate of the others. Pride mingled with apathy leads to such behavior—we assume we already “know” what will fix the person and we don’t have the time to listen to their viewpoint.

Paul writes to the Philippians,

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. (Phil 1:15–17)

Is Christ proclaimed? Yes. But should we still not evaluate ourselves to make certain that we are exalting the name of Christ among our peers for the right reason?

Look again to 1 Peter. Verse 15 clearly says “be ready.” Yet, just as Jesus had different approaches to different kinds of people (compare Jesus’ treatment of the self-righteous Pharisees to the woman at the well), we too need to be ready to give a defense of the faith according to the individual with whom we speak.

Christians sometimes stop at the “be ready” part, believing it to refer simply to preaching, and miss the starting words of the next verse. Look again at verse 16—it is all about the manner in which you give a defense; it is about behavior. We are to give our answers “with gentleness and respect.” The Holy Spirit may still save the person if we are ungentle and disrespectful, but it would be in spite of our work, and we will find ourselves in sin while proclaiming Christ.

What is there to understand about relativists? We need to realize that not all relativists are the same. Yes, in one sense, we could define relativism to be a view of truth that limits truth to individual perspectives. Yet, that is not to say that all relativists deny that external truth exists, and their approaches to the question vary. Further, they bring good questions to the table that make us consider whether we actually know everything we claim to know to be true—giving us a more humble outlook upon views that differ with our own.

Understand first that relativism is an old approach to truth that revives periodically throughout the centuries in different quarters of the world. Though it is the spirit of the age, it is not limited to the secular realm or to the religious. It manifests in different ways, depending upon the individual’s context.

For instance, within the secular, relativism plays a vital role in anthropological studies— “cultural relativism” asks a student to study a society without reading his biases into it. There is nothing implicitly wrong with that, though the Christian remembers that morals are universal and the secularist sometimes asserts relativism against Christian truth claims. While adopting cultural relativism as part of the matrix for study, modern professors do so assuming that there is no truth one culture should assert upon another—i.e., Christianity upon the natives of the Americas. The secular relativist might ask, “Christians have done bad things in the past, so why should they be believed? Hasn’t the Bible been changed throughout the years anyway? Besides, we evolved and so did our sense of morality—why should we go back 2,000-5,000 years in our moral judgments?”

Relativism also manifests in postmodern philosophies, where adherents question whether human faculties would ever be able to know anything for sure. Against modernism’s arrogant view of human reason, postmodernity questions whether the human mind is even capable of knowing truth. We speak a language when we think about reality, and that language has been developed along with the culture around us. It is impossible to completely separate one’s self from culture and to become truly objective, thus absolute truth, if there is such a thing, is forever clouded and unattainable. Those who claim they have this unattainable truth, such as those fuddy-duddy evangelical Christians, are either arrogant or uneducated, or both. The Bible is a story about some tribal god named Yahweh who redeems His own people… why isn’t it just another religion? Doesn’t Christianity fail mankind in the same way that every other religion does in that no one can know anything for certain?

Also present are many of the relativistic tie-overs of various native and Eastern religions. Those wrapped in the New Age movement may wonder if there is truly a difference between cruelty and non cruelty (as Francis Schaeffer pointed out years ago), as there is no external referent. Rather than rejecting truth claims, New Age embraces them, believing all truth paradigms to be equally true and valid. This is because God is supposed to be everything (pantheism) or that everything is supposed to be in God (panentheism)—each personal reality to accurately describe part of God. How can Christians claim to have the corner market on God? Are we not all children of God or in some way part of God? Doesn’t the spirituality of man demonstrate that everyone is divine in their own rights?

Finally, as it is true that culture is next-to-impossible to escape, and Christians have been touched by relativism from modernity, postmodernity, and New Age influences. Those involved with the Emergent movement—Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Paggit, etc.—deny the core exclusivity claims of Christianity and see the evangelical call of the Gospel to be one of greater social change (helping Buddhists to become better Buddhists, Muslims to become better Muslims, etc.). They’re easy to pick on, but what about those sitting in conservative churches right now who wonder about these same issues? Is the cross the only means a person has to having a relationship with God? Does God really send otherwise good people to Hell for not being a part of the “right religion?”

Thus, take the time to learn why a person questions God. Some doubt He exists, others know He does but have a skewed view of Him. Others are simply agnostic.

At the very least, you should take time to understand the person with whom you converse so that you can determine whether his question comes from honest skepticism or from a desire to ruffle your feathers. Even in the latter case, treat the individual “with gentleness and respect” so that you might have “a good conscience” concerning your behavior and so that the slanderer might “be put to shame.”

I hope this helps to introduce you to some of the various manifestations of relativism, so that you might have more ammunition for the battle.

To be continued...

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