Some people take the word “relativism” to refer to something bad. Others are obviously more comfortable with it. So I had better clarify what I mean by it. There are good ways of thinking relatively and there are bad.
When Truth Is Relative
If I say Abraham Lincoln was tall, that statement will be true or false in relation to (that is, relative to) the standard of measurement. “Abraham Lincoln was tall” is true in relation to me—and men in general. But the statement “Abraham Lincoln was tall” would be false in relation to the Sears Tower or, say, the average adult giraffe. So we say that the statement is true or false relative to the standard of measurement.
This is an indispensable way of thinking. Many examples from our daily lives could be given. My father was old when he passed away. True, relative to men. False, relative to civilizations or Redwoods. That car was speeding. True, relative to the 35 mph speed limit. False, relative to NASCAR. That baby’s cry is loud. True, relative to ordinary human conversation. False, relative to thunder. And so on.
The reason we do not call this way of thinking relativism is that we assume he who says Abraham Lincoln was tall and he who says Lincoln was short both believe there is an objective, external standard for validating the statement. For one, the standard is human beings, and for the other, it’s giraffes. So as soon as the two people know what standard the other is using, they can agree with each other, or they can argue on the basis of the same standard. This is not relativism.
Relativism is when a person would prefer to say something like: “There is no objective, external standard for measuring the truth or falsehood of the statement ‘Abraham Lincoln was tall.’ And even if there were, it would be unknowable and I wouldn’t want to base my convictions on it.”
This sounds silly as long as we are talking about Abraham Lincoln’s height. So let’s shift over to something relevant. Consider the statement “Sexual relations between two males is wrong.” Two people may disagree on this, but that doesn’t necessarily mean either of them is a relativist. They may both say, for instance, “There is an objective standard for assessing this statement—namely, God’s will revealed in the Bible.” Then one may say the Bible teaches that this is wrong, and the other may respond, “No, it doesn’t.” That’s not relativism
It would be relativism if someone said, “There is no standard for right and wrong that is valid for everyone. You may believe that sexual relations between two males is wrong, but you can’t claim that others should submit to that standard.”
What does this imply about truth? Relativists may infer from this that there is no such thing as truth. It is simply an unhelpful and confusing category since no standard is universal. Or they may continue to use the word “truth” but simply mean what conforms to one’s own subjective preferences. You may prefer the Bible or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or Mao’s Little Red Book or the sayings of Confucius or the philosophy of Ayn Rand or any of a hundred other standards. These relativists will use the language of “true for you, but not true for me.” In either case, we are dealing with relativism.
The essence of relativism is the conviction that statements—like “Sexual relations between two males is wrong”—are not based on truth that is valid for everyone. There’s no such thing. Concepts like true and false, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly are useful for expressing personal preferences or agreed-upon community values, but they aren’t universally valid standards.
The claim that there is no one standard for truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone is deeply rooted in the desire of the fallen human mind to be free from all authority and to enjoy the exaltation of self. This is where relativism comes from. Relativism is not a coherent philosophical system. It is riddled with contradictions—both logical and experiential.
Sophomores in college know something is fishy when someone claims all truths are relative. And every businessman knows that philosophical relativists park their relativism at the door when they go into the bank and read the language of the contract they are about to sign. People don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover they need to do what they want.
So this is something we should avoid and grieve over and labor to overcome. And it seems to me that one of the ways we might make some headway in preventing ourselves from embracing relativism and rescuing others from it is by simply pointing out how evil and destructive some of its effects are.
The Evil and Destructive Effects of Relativism
I. Relativism is treasonous.
Relativism is a revolt against God. God’s very existence creates the possibility of truth. He is the ultimate and final standard for all truth claims. When relativism says that there is no standard of truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone, it speaks like an atheist. In rebelling against the very concept of divine law, relativism commits a treason that is worse than outright revolt because it is devious. Instead of saying to God’s face, “Your Word is false,” it says to man, “There is no such thing as a universally binding divine word.”
II. Relativism is dishonest.
Everyone knows in his heart that believing relativism to be true is self-contradictory. Everyone also knows intuitively that no one even tries to put it into practice consistently. Therefore, both philosophically and practically, it cultivates duplicity. People say they believe in it, but they don’t think or act consistently with what they say. They are hypocrites. You can’t be an authentic relativist.
This becomes more obvious as relativists live their lives. They simply do not live as though relativism is true. Professors play the academic game of relativism in their classes and then go home and get upset with their wives for misunderstanding them. Why do they get upset? Because they know that there is an objective meaning that can be transmitted between two human beings, and we have moral obligations to grasp what is meant. No husband will ever say, “Since all truth is relative, it doesn’t matter how you interpret my request for sex.” Whether we write love letters or rental agreements or instructions to our children or directions for a friend or contracts, we believe objective meaning exists in what we write, and we expect people to try to understand it. Then we hold them accountable if they don’t.
The very process of thinking about relativism commits you to truths that you do not treat as relative. Relativists employ the law of non-contradiction and the law of cause and effect whenever they talk about their belief in relativism, and these laws are not relative. If they were, relativists could not even formulate the premises and conclusions that lead them to relativism. This is a deep duplicity. And when one does it knowingly, it is immoral.
III. Relativism hides that we are straying from the truth.
One of the most tragic effects of relativism is the effect it has on language. In a culture where objective truth is esteemed and employed for the good of the people, language holds the honorable place of carrying that precious cargo of truth. In fact, a person’s use of language is assessed on the basis of whether it corresponds to the truth and beauty of the reality he expresses. But when objective truth vanishes in the fog of relativism, the role of language changes. When language no longer exists to relay truth, all that’s left is for it to be a tool to fulfill the wishes of the one using it.
This gives rise to every manner of spin. The goal of language is no longer the communication of reality, but the manipulation of reality. When language becomes relativistic, it no longer functions to affirm the truth, but to conceal when we stray from it. Relativism corrupts the high calling of language and makes it a disguise for those who don’t have the courage to publicly renounce the faith they say they have.
This is the exact opposite of the commitment Paul had in the way he used language. He writes, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2, NRSV).
IV. Relativism cloaks greed with flattery.
Apparently, the apostle Paul was accused in Thessalonica of simply wanting money from his converts. When he responds to this, he shows the link between flattery and greed. “Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness” (1 Thessalonians 2:3–5).
Flattery is the use of language to make someone feel good about himself with a view to getting what you want. Paul calls it a pretext for greed. When relativism removes truth from language, language goes on sale. If we can get more money by telling people what they want to hear, we will.
Relativism is the perfect atmosphere for turning language into a pretext for greed by flattering people with what they want to hear. This is no surprise to Paul. “The time is coming,” he says, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
V. Relativism cloaks pride with the guise of humility.
On Sept. 9, 1999, Minneapolis’ Star Tribune carried a lead editorial that said, “Christians must abandon the idea that the Jews must be converted. That idea … is one of the greatest scandals in history.” So I wrote a letter to the editor and argued that since only “he who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12), it is not scandalous, but rather loving, to urge Jewish people to receive Jesus as their Messiah. This brought a blistering letter from the pastors of the four largest churches downtown. They wrote, “Unfortunately ‘arrogant’ is the right word to describe any attempts at proselytizing—in this case the effort of Christians to ‘win over’ their Jewish brothers and sisters. Thoughtful Christians will disassociate themselves from any such effort.”
The point of that story is if you believe in one truth that all people must embrace in order to be saved, you will be called arrogant. On the other hand, relativism is seen as humility. I certainly won’t say all lovers of truth are humble, but I do want to suggest that relativism is not humble; it’s a cloak for pride.
It works like this. Truth with a capital T—Truth rooted in God’s Word—is a massive, unchanging reality—outside of us—that we little humans must submit to. True humility is to acknowledge this and put ourselves submissively under this reality’s authority.
But what about relativism, which denies this reality exists? It poses as humble by saying, “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like an employee saying, “I am not smart enough to know who my boss is—or if I even have a boss—so I must not have a boss. I guess I’ll be my own.” In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, relativists exalt themselves and make themselves the supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility; it’s the essence of pride. And the only way pride can be conquered in us is for us to believe in Truth and be conquered by it, so that it rules us and we don’t rule it.
Embrace the Truth Whose Name Is Jesus Christ
Relativism is treasonous against God and dishonest to our fellow believers. It tempts us to put ourselves first and make our own desires more important than anything else. What a bondage! But it is not a bondage from which there is no freedom. Remember Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free.” If you trust Christ to protect you from harm, and bring you safely to His eternal Kingdom, and be for you the supreme Treasure of the universe, then you will be free to see the truth and embrace the truth and love the truth and be passionate about the truth whose name is Jesus Christ.