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Response to Relativism

Responding to Relativism: Confronting the Predominant Worldview of Our Times


Planet earth is fast becoming a "no-truth zone." Relativism is the death of "true truth," the "extinction of the idea that any particular thing can be known for sure." The denial of absolute truth also has serious implications for Christianity. Today's denial of absolute truth leads to statements such as these: 

    -All religions lead to God.
    -All religions teach basically the same thing. 
    -Jesus is one of many great spiritual leaders. 
    -No such thing as ultimate truth exists. 
    -All beliefs are equally valid.

Have you ever heard people make statements like these?

"We all have our own truths..."

"There is no moral right or wrong. Beliefs about truth and morality are based on personal situations, cultural bias, or on one's religious upbringing..."

Sadly, even some Christians believe these statements, like the young lady at the bank who told me, "We all have our own truths." This relativistic spirit presents challenges for both missions-minded Christians and values-minded parents: How can people be convinced to turn from sin if they cannot be convinced of the true statement that they have sinned? And how can children live according to biblical morals when a relativistic posture seems to be a prerequisite in social, academic, and professional arenas? 

Think of the implications of this for preaching the gospel. If there is no actual, absolute truth, or if ultimate truth exists but is unknowable, then the Christian's claims about Jesus being the exclusive way to God are fallacious. Equally false (in the mind of many moderns) are the Christian's claims that people are fallen, sinful, in need of salvation, and without Jesus Christ are bound for eternal lostness. Surveys validate the point that when it comes to religious claims, most Americans today are driven by relativism. 

Relativism has become the most prominent worldview of our times. The assumptions of relativism (at least in terms of theology) are that all beliefs are equally valid. Christianity's claim that people need Jesus Christ seems ludicrous to people who are committed to what might be described as absolute subjectivism.

When the truth dies, then so do ethics, because if nothing can be known for sure, then there are no real rights or wrongs. Combine this with selfism, and anything goes. Relativism is—in practice—no different from having no morality at all. This explains why people can allow society to do things like kill babies and take the lives of people deemed unfit to live. According to Relativism, truth has become what the majority thinks; truth is no longer based on a firm foundation; truth is whatever is right at the moment. 

Frederick Moore Vinson, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court said, "Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes."

So whatever happened to Truth?


What happened to the idea that there is one truth? How do people come to the idea that some things are true for some people but not true for others? 

The roots of this thinking go back seven hundred years to the Renaissance. This historical period, which began in Florence, Italy, and spanned roughly four centuries from the 1300s to the late 1500s, was considered a time of rebirth iIn fact that is what renaissance means in French). It was not a rebirth of man, though, but of "the idea of man". It switched positions for God and man; instead of God being the measure of all things, as had been the case since the founding of Christianity, man became the measure. This was the beginning of humanism as a philosophical idea. 

Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), an Italian scholar, is considered the father of humanism. He promoted the idea of the strong, idealistic man and centered his works on man and man's ability. Renaissance humanism is "the broad concern with the study and imitation of classical antiquity which was characteristic of the period and found its expression in scholarship and education and in many other areas, including the arts and sciences." This thought process developed into modern day humanism, with its emphasis on human values and humanity in general. 

The late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian scholar, wrote, "These paid men of letters translated Latin, wrote speeches, and acted as secretaries...Their humanism meant, first of all, a veneration for everything ancient and especially the writings of the Greek and Roman age. Although this past age did include the early Christian church, it became increasingly clear that the sort of human autonomy that many of the Renaissance humanists had in mind referred exclusively to the non-Christian Greco-Roman world. Thus Renaissance humanism steadily evolved toward modern humanism—a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own measure, that man is autonomous, totally independent."

Humanism showed the"victory of man". This is seen, for example, in the statue of David, completed in 1504 by Michelangelo. This David is supposed to be the David of the Bible, yet he is shown as a strong, handsome man who is obviously not Jewish because he is uncircumcised. This statue of David portrays him as the complete opposite of the young, humble David of the Bible. Most of the art of this time portrayed the same message: "Man will make himself great. Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious." 

The humanists were sure that man could solve every problem. "Man starting from himself, tearing himself out of the rock, out of nature, could solve all", Schaeffer wrote. "The humanistic cry was 'I can do what I will; just give me until tomorrow.'" 

Eventually, this idea failed. The optimism of the Renaissance ended in pessimism. For many centuries learned thinkers promised they would deliver the truth, and yet the truth—the truth without God, at least—remained elusive. People finally came to the conclusion that there is no truth. As Schaeffer wrote, "We could say that we went to Renaissance Florence and found modern man." Modern man, whether he realizes it or not, is governed in large measure by this pessimism about truth, a philosophy called postmodernism, the belief that there are no absolutes, including no absolute truth. 

According to postmodern thinking, this is no ultimate truth; people can construct their own "stories" or narratives, and what is true for one person might not be true for another. Truth is relative to individual people, times, and places. So if truth is relative to each person, each person is then free to do his own thing—the perfect motto of the 1960s and 1970s. The hippies of the sixties preached peace and love, with a generous dose of drugs and illicit sex. Their main belief was, "Do your own thing. If it doesn't hurt anyone and it makes you happy, do it." 

Unfortunately many Christians bought into this worldview. As Schaeffer wrote, "As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence." The dominant ethic was to just be left alone; this was basically the attitude of apathy. Humanism, in the meantime, tried to make a comeback. The problem was that humanism had already destroyed everything it hoped to build on. According to Schaeffer, humanism—man beginning only from himself—had destroyed the old basis of truth and could find no way to generate with certainty any new truths. 

In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had come to stand supreme. And now for the majority of young people, after the passing of the false hopes of drugs as an ideology, the emptiness of the sexual revolution and the failure of politics, what remained? Only apathy. Hope was gone. This is exemplified in today's dismissive, "Whatever." People do not care anymore about anything so long as it does not hurt them or personally affect them. When asked, "Is something true?" they respond, "Whatever!" 

Conclusion


Instilling a love of truth in the hearts of people is more critical now than ever. The truth that truth exists must be asserted firmly but lovingly. Christian scholar Peter Kreeft wrote, "The modern American demands the truth in every area of life except religion. Do not cheat him. Do not lie to him. Pull no punches in giving bad news. Unless, of course, it is in regards to his final destination." Kreeft adds, "He [the modern American] would rather go through life deceived that he was a good man and discover he was wrong, than to go through life thinking he was a bad man and discover he was right."

First Thessalonians 2:4–6 and Galatians 1:10 demand that believers speak the truth! They are not here to tickle people's ears. As J. P. Moreland wrote, "Saint Paul tells us that the church—not the university, the media, or the public schools—is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15)." Pilate asked Jesus what is perhaps the ultimate question: "What is truth?" (John 18:38). 

Five facts about truth that are undeniable are these:
    -Undeniable fact one: Truth exists. 
    -Undeniable fact two: Truth can be known. 
    -Undeniable fact three: Truth corresponds to reality. 
    -Undeniable fact four: Truth can be expressed in words. 
    -Undeniable fact five: Truth is personally relevant. 

Content such as what is presented in The Truth Project and at conferences such as Truth For A New Generation is designed to equip hearts and heads to stand up for truth. More than just an intellectual exercise, apologetics approaches the pursuit of truth and love for truth as necessary life skills. An authentic commitment to truth involves both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). A relationship with the One who called Himself the truth (John 14:6) must manifest itself in what one believes and how one behaves. 

Though some in today's culture work hard to suppress the obvious, truth does exist. Recognition of this within our generation must take place if our culture—and the souls of many people—are to be saved. 

by Dr. Alex McFarland
Director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at the Christian Worldview Center of North Greenville University 
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