The Spirit Of The Age, How Relativism Challenges Universal Truth
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Today, Christ’s claim to be the truth sounds increasingly arrogant to our postmodern culture. More and more people in North America and Europe are asking, “How can Christians believe that Christ is the only way and truth? How can they claim to know universal truth?” Underneath these questions lies the theological and moral relativism that is
engulfing our society.
I. The Truth About Relativism
A. Relativism is the opposite of belief in absolute moral truth. Relativism: “A theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing; a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition). (Refer to Harry Blamires’ quote
from the Fact Sheet.)
B. Relativism has been with us through the ages. Biblical times were filled with relativists and those who disregarded the truth (Judges 17:6; 1 Kings 18:21; Isaiah 59:15; Jeremiah 7:28; John 18:38).
C. Relativism has become the dominant view of “truth” in our age, even among evangelical Christians. (Refer to statistics and quotes from “Relativism Today” on the Fact Sheet )
II. What the Bible Says About Truth
A. The triune God is not only the source of truth, but is the truth (John 14:6; Psalm 31:5; Malachi 2:6; John 1:17; John 16:13). Acknowledging and worshipping the triune God is the primary way for us to comprehend the truth that fallen humans suppress (Romans 1: 18).
B. Truth is that which is real, complete and unchanging. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them–the Lord, Who remains faithful forever” (Psalm 146:5-6). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9: 10).
C. Failing to take account of reality has short- and long-term consequences.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness . . .” (Romans 1: 1832).
“But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:8-9).
(For examples, see “The Consequences of Relativism” on the Fact Sheet.)
III. How Can Christians Address the Relativism of Our Age?
A. Imitate God by walking in truth and love (John 3:21; 2 John 4-6; 3 John 3-4).
B. Learn from God by studying the truth (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17).
C. Honor God by contending for the truth. Lovingly confront in a way that requires others to choose among the logical alternatives (Joshua 24:14-15). One cannot affirm that there is one God, many gods, and no god. Two of these views must be false (1 Kings 18:21). (Refer to “The Case Against Relativism” on the Fact Sheet. Also, consider discussing “Refuting a Common Case for Religious Relativism” on the Fact Sheet.)
The fundamental question Jesus asked His followers was “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15). As C. S. Lewis said, our answer must be that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. (Refer to Lewis’ quote under “The Ultimate Claim of Christ” in the Fact Sheet). If He is Lord, then He is indeed “the way and the truth and the life.”
H.B. London Jr., vice president, Ministry Outreach Division Jim Dahlman, editor at large, Periodicals Division Perry Glanzer, social research analyst, Public Policy Division
“Ours is an age in which ‘conclusions’ are arrived at by distributing questionnaires to a cross-section of the population or by holding a microphone before the lips of casually selected passersby in the street… In the sphere of religious and moral thinking, we are rapidly heading for a state of intellectual anarchy in which the difference between truth and falsehood will no longer be recognized. Indeed, it would seem possible that the words true and false will eventually (and logically) be replaced by the words likable and dislikeable.”
–Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1963), p. 107.
Religious Relativism in the United States
Sixty-four percent of Americans believe, “Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and all others pray to the same god, even though they use different names for that God.”
–George Barna, What Americans Believe (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991), pp. 210-212.
Sixty-four percent of Americans agree with the statement, “All religions are equally good.”
–Religion in America, 1996 (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton Religion Research Center, 1996), p. 74.
Sixty-two percent of those surveyed agreed that “It does not matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons about life.”
–George Barna, Absolute Confusion (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), p. 207
Seventy-two percent of Americans agree, “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct.”
–George Barna, Virtual America (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), pp. 83, 283.
Seventy-one percent of Americans agree, “There are no absolute standards that apply to everybody in all situations.”
Ibid., pp. 85, 230.
Fifty-three percent of those who claim there is no such thing as absolute truth identify themselves as born-again Christians. –Ibid., p. 83.
Forty-two percent of those who identify themselves as evangelical Christian agree, “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways but both could still be correct.” –Ibid., pp. 83.
Relativism Among College Students
Kay Haugaard teaches creative writing at Pasadena City College and says she has for more than twenty years been teaching ‘`The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s short story in which the citizens of a small town ritually stone one of their numbers to death. Jackson’s story used to shock people into a moral judgment. No longer, according to Ms. Haugaard.
After a lengthy discussion, it became apparent that her students thought they were in no position to judge people who followed different traditions.
“At this point, I gave up. No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.” –Retold by Richard J. Neuhaus, “The Public Square,” First Things, December 1997, p. 77. Drawn from Kay Haugaard, “Moral Judgment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 1997, p. B4.
Robert L. Simon, a professor of philosophy at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., writes that whatever else students may dare to do, they will not risk being thought of as moral absolutists:
“Although groups denying the reality of the Holocaust have raised controversies on some college campuses, in more than twenty years of teaching college students, I have yet to meet even one student who has expressed doubts about whether the Holocaust actually happened. However, I have recently seen an increasing number of students who,
although well-meaning, hold almost as troubling a view. They accept the reality of the Holocaust, but they believe themselves unable morally to condemn it, or indeed to make any moral judgments whatsoever. Such students typically comment that they themselves deplore the Holocaust and other great evils, but then they wind up by suspending moral judgment… By denying themselves the moral authority to condemn such great evils of human history as the Holocaust, slavery and racial oppression, these students lose the basis for morally condemning wrongdoing anywhere, . . . then the truly arrogant and the truly fanatical need not fear moral censure no matter what evil they choose to inflict on us all.”
“The Paralysis of ‘Absolutophobia,”‘ The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 1997, p. B5.
Allan Bloom wrote, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction:
They will be recomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2=4.”
The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 25.
“The danger university students have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness–and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and the various ways of life and kinds of human beings–is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are ever right at all.”
Relativism Among Teenagers
Fifty percent of all teenagers and 30 percent of born-again teens agree, “It does not matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons.”
George Barna, Generation Next: What You Should Know About Today’s Youth (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1995), pp. 79, 103.
Fifty-five percent of all teenagers and 36 percent of born-again teenagers believe, “Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and all other people pray to the same God, even though they use different names for their God.
Ibid., pp. 76, 103.
The Consequences of Relativism
The Impact on Our Children
If a teenager fails to embrace truth as an objective standard that governs their lives, a study by George Barna shows it will make them:
36 percent more likely to lie to a parent;
48 percent more likely to cheat on an exam;
74 percent more likely to watch MTV;
2 times more likely to try to physically hurt someone;
2 times more likely to watch a pornographic film;
2 times more likely to get drunk;
2 and a quarter times more likely to steal;
3 times more likely to use illegal drugs;
6 times more likely to attempt suicide.
If your child fails to embrace truth as an objective standard that governs their lives, the study shows it will make them:
65 percent more likely to mistrust people;
2 times more likely to be disappointed;
2 times more likely to be angry with life;
2 times more likely to be lacking purpose;
2 times more likely to be resentful.
–Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, Right from Wrong (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), p. 18.
The Damage of Relativism
Alister McGrath relates the following story about the failure to take truth seriously:
“In the sixteenth century, the radical writer and preacher Thomas Muntzer led a revolt of German peasants against their political masters. On the morning of the decisive encounter between the peasants and the armies of the German princes, Muntzer promised that those who followed him would be unscathed by the weapons of their enemies.
Encouraged by this attractive and meaningful belief, the peasants went into battle, filled with hope. The outcome was catastrophe. Six thousand of their number were slaughtered in the ensuing battle, and six hundred captured. Barely a handful escaped. Their belief in invulnerability was relevant. It was attractive. It was meaningful. It was also a crude and cruel lie, without any foundation in truth.”
–Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of
Evangelism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 190-191.
“Even the most tolerant pluralist has difficulties with the aspect of Hinduism which justifies the inequalities of Indian society by its insistence upon a fixed social order, or forcibly burning alive a widow in her late husband’s funeral pyre.”
Ibid., p. 190.
Education professor Thomas Lickona reports the consequences of relativistic approaches to morals such as values clarification. When one eighth-grade teacher clarified the values of her eighth-grade low-achieving class, she found that the top four values included sex, drugs, drinking and skipping school.
Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character
(New York: Bantam Books, 1991), p. 237.
The Limits of Relativism
“If I were to insist that the American Declaration of Independence took place in 1789, despite all the evidence which unequivocally points to the year 1776, I could expect no commendations maintaining my intellectual freedom or personal integrity; nor could I expect to receive tolerance from my fellow historians. The much-vaunted virtue of academic ‘openness’ would be rendered ridiculous were it to allow me to be taken seriously. I would simply be obstinately and stubbornly wrong, incapable of responding to evidence which demanded a truthful decision.” , Educating for Character, p. 191.
During WWII, C. S. Lewis had this to say about the effects of
“Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike, whether any of us obey it or not, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours…. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring.”
–C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 73.
The Nature of Truth
“The fundamental association of the Hebrew root normally translated as ‘truth’ or ‘true’ (as in ‘the true God’ [e.g., Jeremiah 10: 10]) is ‘something which can be relied upon,’ or ‘someone who can be trusted.”‘
–Mcgrath A passion for Truth, p. 177.
“The true Christian . . . is called upon not only to teach truth but to practice truth in the midst of such relativism… Do you think our contemporaries will take us seriously if we do not practice truth? Do you think for a moment that the really serious-minded twentieth-century young people–our own youth as they go off to universities, who are
taught in the fields of sociology, psychology, philosophy, etc., that all is relative–will they take us seriously if we do not practice truth in very practical ways?”
–Frances Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984), p. 81.
Responding to Relativism with Truth
“The apostles asserted that Christ alone is the truth in the midst of a world that is more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until recently.”
–David Wells, No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 104.
“‘Why should I go to church,’ someone once said to me, ‘when I have no religious needs?’ I had the audacity to reply, ‘Because Christianity’s true… The needs religion fills are relevant to an assessment of its truth . . . but were it merely a matter of finding religion to be helpful, then a religious commitment would not be essentially different from a personal preference. We would rightly say that just as some people prefer chocolate to other flavors of ice cream, some people prefer to be Christian than something else or nothing at all merely as a matter of taste. But when something is said to be true, we have a very different situation, especially when it is said of a religion. Christian, as well as other religious claims, are so serious and so demanding personally that adherence to them cannot be properly
described as merely a matter of personal taste.”‘
–Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,
1989), p. 1.
Refuting a Common Case for Religious Relativism
Many religious relativists like to recite a poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable,” by John Godfrey Saxe. The poem describes how six blind men all approached an elephant from different sides. Each one touched a part of the elephant–its side, its tusk, its trunk, its leg, its ear, and its tail. Then each one described the elephant by
what their limited senses told them: a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. The poem notes, “Though each was partly in the right . . . all were in the wrong.” Saxe concludes:
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindu Fable,” The Best Loved Poems of the American People, selected by Hazel Felleman (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936), p. 522.
What relativists fail to realize is that there is one person involved with the story who claims to know the truth: the storyteller! The storyteller claims to truly understand reality, what the elephant (or theological truth) is really like. The story merely reaffirms the need to get our understanding of theology and God right. It certainly does not mean that we should embrace religious relativism.
The Ultimate Claim of Christ
If you had gone to Buddha and asked him, “Are you the son of Bramah?” he would have said, “My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.” If you had gone to Socrates and asked, “Are you Zeus?” he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?” he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, “Are you Heaven?” I think he would have probably replied, “Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.” The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”
–C. S. Lewis, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 157-58.
Beckwith, Francis J., and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998).
Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1963).
Lutzer, Erwin W. Christ Among Other Gods: A Defense of Christ in an Age of Tolerance. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).
McDowell, Josh, and Bob Hostetler. Right from Wrong: What You Need to Know to Help Youth Make Right Choices. (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994).
McGrath, Mister. A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelism. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
Wells, David. No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1999. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY AND RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.