STUDY SIX: RELATIVISM AND THE LOSS OF ABSOLUTES
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
A. INTRODUCING THE TERMS ‘RELATIVISM’ AND ‘ABSOLUTES’
In many of the studies in this subject there is reference to ‘relative’ or ‘relativism’, or to the absence of absolutes or absolute, invariable, unconditional truth. Relativism is extremely pervasive and its impact on our society and us as individuals is significant.
In secular humanism, for example, we noticed that, in the absence of God, ‘sin’ does not exist, and ‘truth’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lose their clear, absolute definition. Each individual decides for him/herself what is right and wrong in each situation. This is relativism.
In hedonism, where pleasure dictates what is considered ‘good’, we will see that whatever feels good, or makes you feel good, is ‘right’. This is relativism. We will also see that this hedonistic relativism enters our churches, watering down the absolute truths of the Bible into something more pleasing and palatable to the human ego.
In anti-authoritarianism we will see that relativism both feeds and feeds on human hatred of authority, especially the authority of God. Right, wrong and truth are masticated beyond recognition in the process.
In nihilism we saw relativism in its most depressing and destructive expression. Here is the ultimate end of the denial of absolutes and the insistence that all is relative. If everything is relative then nothing, not even the human, has any meaning or purpose.
In New Age pantheism we will see the relativisation of ‘god’. Here, everything is god. God loses his distinctness, his absoluteness, his otherness. He merges with his creation: he is his creation. He merges with me: he is me. This relativisation of god means that there are potentially as many definitions of god as there are people on the planet. The Biblical teachings about God are not considered absolute truth.
In subjectivism we will see truth and reality interpreted through ‘self-coloured’ glasses. Here I interpret everything through my own feelings and perceptions. I take truth to be what I feel and perceive to be truth, rather than basing my understanding of truth on the objective, absolute facts recorded in the Bible. Truth is relative to my feelings and perceptions.
Similarly in existentialism we will see a jettisoning of absolute truth. Here truth is what I perceive to be true – it is what is true for me. And what is true for me is not necessarily what is true for another, nor will it necessarily be true for me tomorrow. Truth only exists as truth when I receive it as truth, and even then it is only truth for me and at that moment. Thus the concept of an objective, absolute, complete revelation of truth which is the same truth for all people at all times in all places is a non-concept. Such an understanding of truth is nonsense for the existentialist. Again we have pure relativism.
From all of the above we can see that relativism is a very present, pervasive, and persistent ideology. We can also see that it is diametrically opposed to the clear teachings of the Bible. The Bible presents truth as unchanging and universal, that is, the truth is the same for all people, at all times and in all places. It is true whether it is believed or not. Francis Schaeffer defines ‘absolute’ as ‘a concept which is not modifiable by factors such as culture, individual psychology or circumstances, but which is perfect and unchangeable. Used as an antithesis of relativism.’ [Vol 1 p199].
In the presence of relativism’s contradiction of the whole concept of absolute Biblical truth it is essential that we identify and reaffirm the central issues on which the historic Christian faith either stands or falls. But before we do so we will look at what various people have said about relativism.
B. WHAT PEOPLE HAVE SAID ABOUT RELATIVISM
B.1 Ron Rhodes [The Culting of America]
‘A recent poll indicates that a whopping 66 percent of Americans believe there is no such thing as absolute truth. This is disturbing in itself. What’s especially appalling, however, is that a majority of “born-again” Christians (53%) and “adults associated with evangelical churches” (also 53%) agree that there is no such thing as absolute truth. According to this poll, “among the people groups most ardently supportive of this viewpoint are mainline Protestants (73%).’ [p78]
‘Clearly, if all truth is relative, then one person’s “truth” is just as good as another person’s “truth.” This ultimately means that any religion and cult’s “truth” is as good as Christianity’s truth. As a result of the widespread influence of moral relativism in America, Christian thinker Carl F. Henry commented that the West has lost its moral compass. There is no way to tell which way is north and which way is south when it comes to right and wrong. … As we accelerate down the road where moral relativity takes us, there is no absolute truth, “no centre stripe down the high way of life.” … [p79-81]
B.2 Vishal Mangalwadi [Letters to a Postmodern Hindu]
‘Postmodernism is the intellectual base of current relativism. … [quoting Veith] “… for the deconstructionist, all truth claims are suspect … deconstructionism represents a new kind of relativism … as it corrodes the very concept of absolute truth”.’ [p47]
[quoting Dick Keyes] ‘ “Relativism … denies that any one religion or philosophy can make truth claims that are absolute. There are no absolutes. We can speak about God but there is no way of knowing if what is said about Him actually corresponds to who He is in fact, if any God exists at all. The idea that there could be one knowable and constant truth about ultimate things is seen as naïve and ethnocentric. All claims to truth are just ‘relative to’ whatever set of local and historical factors produced them – social, psychological or economic. There is no transcultural standard by which religions and philosophies can be judged for truthfulness.
“… each religion … is an attempt by an individual or group to name the unnameable from its own limited perspective. The content of each belief system is not important, because it is accidental to the particular culture in which it arose.
“Each religion or philosophy does more or less the same job, but in different ways. Each expresses human longing for the ultimate or absolute, and supplies social and psychological stability. It is … absurd to talk of one (religion) as true and another as false. … relativism says it is foolish to speak as if true and false were measures of religion. The only ‘wrong’ we are likely to commit, according to relativism, is to condemn or judge the beliefs of another.
“Relativism … is one view, but demands to be the paradigm through which all views are known. … Relativism claims for itself immunity from the force of its own critique. We are asked to believe that it alone … is in some mysterious sense, objectively, timelessly true.
“Relativism is the real opiate of the people. It discourages serious discussions of the most important issues … enabling people to sleepwalk through the most important choices of their lives. The questions having to do with God’s existence and character are no longer urgent, since they are matters not of truth, but only of private opinion and preference, and have no final consequence.” [p52-59]
B.3 Francis Schaeffer [Complete Works]
‘Today most non-Christians exclude any real notion of law. They do this because they have no absolute anywhere in the universe, and without an absolute one cannot really have any morals as morals. For them, everything is relative; they have no real circle of law. For them there is no circle inside which there is right, in contrast to that which is outside the circle and therefore wrong.’ [Vol 1 p171 – The God who is There]
‘Beginning with the impersonal … there is no final absolute and there are no final categories concerning right and wrong. Hence, what is left may be worded in many different ways in different cultures, but it is only the relative – that which is sociological, statistical, situational – nothing else. You have situational, statistical ethics – the standard of averages – but you cannot have morality.
‘ … in this setting, to be right is just as meaningless as to be wrong. Morals as morals disappear … the concept of morals only being the average of what people are thinking and doing at a given time is a present reality. … we have come to this place in our Western culture because man sees himself beginning from the impersonal, the energy particle and nothing else. We are left with only statistical ethics, and in that setting there is simply no such thing as morals as morals.’ [Vol 1 p296,297 – He is There and he is not Silent]
‘Modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic. The world has dressed these up in its own vocabulary and called it situational ethics. Every situation is judged subjectively with no absolute to which to appeal.’ [Vol 3 p55 – No Little People]
‘Christians must not let the world defile them. If the world sees us conforming to its standards and its relativism, it will not listen to what we say. It will have no reason to. … Some people are honestly looking for real, fundamental answers, seeking truth in the confusion of our generation. But if they look at Christians who emphasize that the Bible is truth and they see a lack of absolutes in our thinking and acting (both individually and corporately), or if all they see is another form of escapism couched in either secular or religious words, who can blame them if they turn away?’ [Vol 3 p63, ibid]
‘… man needs absolutes, universals, something by which to judge. If one has no basis on which to judge, then reality falls apart, fantasy is indistinguishable from reality; there is no value for the human individual, and right and wrong have no meaning.
‘There are two ways to get away from God’s judgment of men. One is to say that there is no absolute … The other is to … take away the significance of man, to say that he is a machine, or that he is chemically or psychologically determined, that his actions in the world are not his own.’ [Vol 4 p42 – The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century]
‘… modern men no longer believe in truth. They no longer believe in antithesis. Modern man believes only in dialectical synthesis. There is a thesis; it has an antithesis. Neither is true or false. “Truth” for today lies only in synthesis. And even that synthesis is not true forever, for tomorrow there will arise another thesis different from today’s and out of the combination of these will come “truth” for tomorrow. But in no case will any of these “truths” be absolute. Truth in the classical sense, that which accurately represents what is real for all time and all places, does not exist – not even as an ideal.
‘Modern man thinks truth is unfindable. The generations that have preceded us may not have found truth, but they thought finding it was possible. They held it at least as an aspiration. Modern man no longer holds it as an aspiration.
‘Modern man no longer expects that truth exists even in the scientific world. All we are left with is statistical averages. [Vol 4 p72-73 ibid]
‘… until recent decades something did exist which can rightly be called a Christian consensus or ethos which gave a distinctive shape to Western society … in a definitive way. Now that consensus has all but gone, and the freedoms that it brought are being destroyed before our eyes. We are at a time when humanism is coming to its natural conclusion in morals, in values, and in law. All that society has today are relativistic values based upon statistical averages, or the arbitrary decisions of those who hold legal and political power. … the Bible’s absolutes provide a consensus within which freedom can operate. But once the Christian consensus has been removed, as it has been today, then the very freedoms which have come out of the Reformation become a destructive force leading to chaos in society. This is why we see the breakdown of morality everywhere in our society today – the complete devaluation of human life, a total moral relativism, and a thoroughgoing hedonism.’ [Vol 4 p330,331 – The Great Evangelical Disaster]
‘Frederick Moore Vinson, former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, spelled out this problem by saying, “Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes.” All is relative; all is experience. In passing, we should note this curious mark of our age: the only absolute allowed is the absolute insistence that there is no absolute.’ [Vol 5 p219 – How Then Shall we Live?]
‘On a humanistic base, people drift along from generation to generation, and the morally unthinkable becomes the thinkable as the years move on. By “humanistic base” we mean the fundamental idea that men and women can begin from themselves and derive the standards by which to judge all matters. There are for such people no fixed standards of behaviour, no standards that cannot be eroded or replaced by what seems necessary, expedient, or even fashionable. … The thinkables of the eighties and nineties will certainly include things which most people today [Schaeffer was writing in the seventies] find unthinkable and immoral, even unimaginable and too extreme to suggest. Yet - since they do not have some overriding principle that takes them beyond relativistic thinking – when these become thinkable and acceptable in the eighties and nineties, most people will not even remember that they were unthinkable in the seventies. They will slide into each new thinkable without a jolt.’ [Vol 5 p282-3 – Whatever Happened to the Human Race?]
‘This is what we call the 51 percent view of morality – the majority has thought such and such is a good way to operate and so it becomes “morality.” What confusion! What disaster! With this view any action can be justified, … Here then is the humanist dilemma. They have to generate the answers to the big questions, but out of their own limited experience they can know nothing with certainty. If we were to add up all the thinking of all of mankind, we would still have only limited knowledge. Truth with a capital T – explanations which would be true for all time and all people – would be impossible.
‘What is left, therefore, is “relative” truth, and with relative truth, relative morality. Given time, even the “certainties” of our ethical systems can be undone – the bills of rights, the charters of freedom, the principles of justice, everything. [Schaeffer then quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
“Communism has never concealed the fact that it rejects all absolute concepts of morality. It scoffs at good and evil as indisputable categories. Communism considers morality to be relative. Depending upon circumstances, any act, including the killing of thousands, could be good or bad. It all depends upon class ideology, defined by a handful of people. … It is considered awkward to use seriously such words as good and evil. But if we are to be deprived of these concepts, what will be left? We will decline to the status of animals.”
‘The materialist world-view has dominated the thinking of the West just as much. Therefore we can expect to see the same inhumanity here, just as Solzhenitsyn has warned. We must not sit back and think, It could never happen here. [Vol 5 p367,368 ibid]
C. THE IMPACT OF RELATIVISM
Discuss the above quotes using the following questions:
 How does relativism impact our concept of truth?
 What evidence is there of this in contemporary secular society?
 What evidence is there of this in contemporary Christianity?
 How does relativism impact our morals?
 What evidence is there of this in contemporary secular society?
 What evidence is there of this in contemporary Christianity?
D. FUNDAMENTAL ABSOLUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
In contrast to relativism historic Christianity believes in strong and certain absolutes – in truth that is true for all people at all times and in all places. It believes in truth that stands in antithesis to non-truth. That if A is true, then B, which is the opposite of A, is not and cannot be true. The Christian does not believe that Biblical propositions are true only in a relative sense, allowing for other propositions to also be true. The Christian has this strong confidence because the Christian starts from outside of himself – with the God who is there and who has spoken.
What are some of the more significant truths that the Christian possesses and must communicate to a lost and hopeless world?
D.1 The Bible is the Word of God.
It claims to be true (Psalm 119:142,151,160). It claims that what it says God says (2Peter 1:21) and that its origin is God himself (2Peter 1:21; 2Timothy 3:16). As such it has the final, authoritative say in matters of faith and action. To those who might argue that the Bible is outdated, that its teachings were applicable only to past generations, it responds: ‘the word of our God stands forever’ (Isaiah 40:8) and ‘your word, O Lord, is eternal’ (Psalm 119:89a). Because truth is absolute it is of necessity eternally relevant. [Note: Don’t confuse ‘relevant’, which means applicable, and ‘relative’ which means proportional to or conditional on something else.] Because God’s word is absolute truth any addition to it or subtraction from it immediately renders the resultant information or understanding less than truth. Absolute truth is complete in itself. It cannot be changed. It is final.
Check out the Scriptures in the paragraph above. How does their perception of truth contrast with the relativistic concept of truth?
D2 There is only one God.
This is an absolute statement. There are those who would relativise it, teaching that all gods are manifestations of the one god, or local expressions of the universal god concept, or such like. The Bible allows no such idea. Yes. It speaks of other ‘gods’; it acknowledges that people worship these other ‘gods’, but it denies the essential reality of these ‘gods’. They are powerless, counterfeit and empty, the creations of men (Deuteronomy 4:35,39; 6:4; 7:9; Isaiah 43:10-13; 44:6-20; Jeremiah 2:9-13).
Check out the Scriptures in the paragraph above. How does their perception of God contrast with the relativistic concept of ‘god’?
D.3 Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the only ‘way’ to God.
Right around the world the one question which is common to all religions is: how does a human being gain contact and/or acceptance with ‘god’?
This question presupposes that the questioner knows who or what ‘god’ is. Before confronting and answering this question Biblical Christianity first confronts the presupposition. No one, it teaches, knows God, unless they know Jesus Christ. To see Jesus Christ is to see God. To know Jesus Christ is to know God. In fact, Jesus Christ is God. If we do not honour him as God then we are not honouring God. (John 1:1; 5:23; 8:19; 10:30; 14:6-9; Romans 9:5; 1John 5:20). It is in Jesus Christ that God is fully and finally revealed (Colossians 1:15,19; 2:2b,3,9; Hebrews 1:1-3).
Check out the Scriptures in the paragraph above. How does their perception of Jesus as the one God contrast with relativism?
These are exclusive and absolute claims, offensive to the modern ear. Yet these are claims clearly made in the Bible. When the church departs from these Biblical absolutes and embraces other god concepts as also truth, or when it teaches or assumes that there is more truth about God beyond Jesus Christ, it has departed from the Biblical faith and fallen prey to relativism.
Having anchored our knowledge and concept of God firmly in Jesus Christ the Bible affirms yet another absolute, non-negotiable truth: the only way a human being can approach God, or gain access into the presence of God, or union with God, is through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself put it succinctly: ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This statement of Christ’s excludes all other proposed ways of approaching God. The relativistic ‘all roads lead to God’ mentality is diametrically opposed to this Biblical absolute.
How does Jesus claim to be the one way to God contrast with relativistic concepts?
D.4 There is no one righteous, not even one …. all have sinned (Romans 3:10,23)
We love to relativise sin. We give ourselves all sorts of excuses and escape routes. We say things like ‘I’m not as bad as….’, or ‘I did my best under the circumstances ….’, or ‘it was only a little sin…’, or ‘it’s not as if I murdered someone ….’. We disguise sin by calling it something else: making a mistake, slipping up, goofing it. We kid ourselves that somehow there is something in our performance that God will find acceptable.
But the Bible states clearly: absolutely not! No one is righteous, that is, no one is legally right in God’s sight. All are legally disqualified. No one, on the basis of his/her own performance, has a legal right to enter the presence of God and be accepted by God. It is into this situation of our absolute inability to be accepted by God that the Son of God came with his gift of absolute salvation.
Relativism has no concept of right and wrong, good and evil. What difficulties might a Christian face in trying to communicate the gospel of salvation from sin’s penalty to someone with a relativistic mindset?
D.5 The gift of God is eternal life.
The gift of salvation given to those who believe in Jesus Christ is absolute. Jesus described it as eternal life (John 3:16; 11:25), as never being hungry or thirsty ever again (John 6:35), as living in light rather than darkness (John 8:12), as having been removed from condemnation (John 3:16-18). Paul describes it as ‘fullness’ (NIV) or being ‘complete’ (KJV, Colossians 2:10), as the forgiveness of all sins (Colossians 2:13) and as receiving no condemnation (Romans 8:1). None of these salvation words is relative. None is conditional. They are all absolute.
Check out the Scriptures in the paragraph above. How does their certainty contrast with relativism’s uncertainty and emptiness?
With these five foundational Biblical absolutes firmly fixed in our minds let us throw off the crippling, stifling effects of the relativism that has permeated our lives.
E. SCHAEFFER’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Francis Schaeffer saw clearly before it happened what the end result of humanism and relativism would be. He also saw clearly both the responsibility and the opportunity of the church to proclaim the sure and certain word of God in such a relativistic climate.
‘The full doctrinal position of historic Christianity must be clearly maintained, … the central problem of evangelical orthodoxy in the second half of the twentieth century is the problem of the practice of this principle. … If a clear and unmistakable emphasis on truth, in the sense of antithesis, is removed, two things occur: firstly, Christianity in the next generation as true Christianity is weakened; and secondly, we shall be communicating only with that diminishing portion of the community which still thinks in terms of the older concept of truth. … Our responsibility is so to communicate that those who hear the gospel will understand it. If we do not communicate clearly on the basis of antithesis, many will respond to their own interpretation of the gospel, in their own relativistic thought-forms, including a concept of psychological guilt-feelings rather than of true moral guilt before the holy, living God. If they do respond in this way, they have not understood the gospel; they are still lost, and we have defaulted in our task of preaching and communicating the gospel to our generation.
‘In such a setting the problem of communication is serious; it can only be overcome by negative statements that clearly say what we do not mean, so that … man understands the positive statements we do mean. Moreover, in the age of synthesis, men will not take our protestations of truth seriously unless they see by our actions that we practice truth and antithesis in the unity we try to establish and in our activities.’ [Vol 1 p195,196 – The God Who is There]
‘And as we have a strong doctrinal content, we must practice the content, practice the truth we say we believe. We must exhibit to our own children and to the watching world that we take truth seriously. It will not do in a relativistic age to say that we believe in truth and fail to practice that truth in places where it may be observed and where it is costly. We, as Christians, say we believe that truth exists. We say we have truth from the Bible. And we say we can give that truth to other men in propositional, verbalized form and they may have that truth. This is exactly what the gospel claims and this is what we claim. But then we are surrounded by a relativistic age. Do you think for a moment we will have credibility if we say we believe the truth and yet do not practice the truth in religious matters? If we do not do this, we cannot expect for a moment that the tough-minded, twentieth-century young person (including our own young people) will take us seriously when we say, “here is truth” when they are surrounded by a totally monolithic consensus that truth does not exist.’
‘But nowhere is practicing the truth more important than in the area of religious cooperation. If I say that Christianity is really eternal truth, and the liberal theologian is wrong – so wrong that he is teaching that which is contrary to the Word of God – and then on any basis (including for the sake of evangelism) I am willing publicly to act as though that man’s religious position is the same as my own, I have destroyed the practice of truth which my generation can expect from me and which it will demand of me if I am to have credibility. How will we have a credibility in a relativistic age if we practice religious cooperation with men who in their books and lectures make very plain that they believe nothing (or practically nothing) of the content set forth in Scripture?’ [Vol 3 p410,411 –Two Contents, Two Realities]
‘Every single preaching of the Gospel must be related to strong content. We must not fall into the cheap solution of beginning to use these cool means of communication and cause people to seem to make professions of faith. … Christianity must fight for its life to insist that it deals with content – content which stands in contrast to that which is not true. … The Bible insists on the church of Jesus Christ dealing … in the area of hot communication. This is no time for Christianity to allow itself to be infiltrated by relativistic thinking from either the secular or the theological side. It is a time for the church to insist, as a true revolutionary force, that there is a truth. It is possible to know that truth, not exhaustively but truly. [Vol 4 p89 – The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century].
‘Truth carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation; loving confrontation, but confrontation nevertheless. …We must, with prayer, say no to the theological attack upon Scripture. We must say no to this, clearly and lovingly, with strength. And we must say no to the attack upon Scripture which comes from our being infiltrated in our lives by the current worldview of no fault in moral issues. We must say no to these things equally.
‘The world of our day has no fixed values and standards, and therefore what people conceive as their personal or society’s happiness covers everything. We are not in that position. We have the inerrant Scripture. Looking to Christ for strength against tremendous pressure because our whole culture is against us at this point, we must reject the infiltration in theology and in life equally. We both must affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and then live under it in our personal lives and in society.
‘God’s Word will never pass away, but looking back to the Old Testament and since the time of Christ, with tears we must say that because of lack of fortitude and faithfulness on the part of God’s people, God’s Word has many times been allowed to be bent, to conform to the surrounding, passing, changing culture of that moment, rather than to stand as the inerrant Word of God judging the form of the world spirit and the surrounding culture of that moment. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, may our children and grandchildren not say that that can be said about us.’ [Vol 4 p110 -ibid]
‘We are all too easily infiltrated with relativism and synthesis in our own day. We tend to lack antithesis. There is that which is true God, and there is that which is no god. God is there as against His not being there. That’s the big antithesis. And there are antitheses in relation to His revelation from Genesis 1 on. There is that which is given which is antithetical to its opposite. When we see men ignore or pervert the truth of God, we must say clearly – not in hate or anger – “You are wrong.”’ [Vol 4 p228 –Death in the City]
‘… if Christianity is true, it touches all of life, and … it is a radical voice in the modern world. … We need a revolutionary message in the midst of today’s relativistic thinking. By revolutionary, or radical, I mean standing against the all-pervasive form which the world spirit has taken in our day. This is the real meaning of radical. God has given his answers in the Bible – that Bible that is true when it speaks of history and of the cosmos, as well as when it speaks of religious things. And it therefore gives truth concerning all reality. It thus sustains radical rebellion against the relativism and the syncretism which are the hallmark of our own days…’ [Vol 4 p409 – The Great Evangelical Disaster]
‘We must try to roll back the results of the total world view which considers material-energy, shaped by chance, as the final reality. We must realize that this view will with inevitable certainty always bring forth results which are not only relativistic, and not only wrong, but which will be inhuman, not only for other people, but for our children and grandchildren, and our spiritual children. It will always bring forth what is inhuman, for with its false view of total reality it not only does not have a basis for the uniqueness and dignity of the individual person, but it is totally ignorant as to what, and who, Man is.’ [Vol 5 p494 – A Christian Manifesto]
From Schaeffer’s statements about the responsibility of the church in our relativistic world, identify, discuss and/or comment on those that are most impactive for you.