In the following quote, Edmund Clowney (the first president of Westminster Theological Seminary) encourages us to press into the riches of the biblical witness in the face of our cultural challenges:
“The Christian answer to relativism is theological: the reality of the Creator God. He is both Creator and Interpreter. Made in his image, we have a relationship to the created universe that is not illusory. He is free to reveal himself in time and space, and in the languages of the cultures that develop in human history. Christian theology takes seriously the cultural contexts in which his revelation is given, and the Christian mission takes seriously the cultural contexts it addresses. Hermeneutical studies have reminded us that our own culture has an impact on both tasks. But so does God’s word have an impact on all languages and cultures. Confronted with God’s revelation, our own understanding changes, and we alter our assumptions. Not a circle, but a spiral of clearer conception and communication of the message results. God has made his truth communicable; he calls us to ‘think his thoughts after him.”
-Edmund Clowney, The Church, 177
According to one definition, relativism is, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” It starts with the observation that we do not have access to objective moral standards apart from our distinct cultural, historical, and geographical setting. After all, ethical guidelines are not learned, understood, or accepted in a vacuum; they are mediated by our consciousness, one that has been formed in a particular environment. Now, from these observations, here are two common interpretations of cultural relativism:
Because different cultures have differing ethical paradigms, all moral systems are social constructs; there aren’t any objective moral standards that apply to all people, at all times, and in all places.(moral atheism)
Regardless of whether moral absolutes exist, we cannot grasp them apart of what comes to us through our interpretive communities (cultures, sub-cultures, the circles in which we travel, etc.). (moral agnosticism)
The first statement is of a metaphysical nature, it’s a position on the nature of reality, what really exists. To know this, one would have to stand over and above all of reality to be able to authoritatively state that objective morality doesn’t exist. This assertion is what is referred to as a “universal negative,” one would have to be infinite to know that it is true.
The second proposition is much more modest; it is an epistemological statement in that it refers to our limits as finite thinkers. To say that we do not possess an unmediated view of universal behavioral guidelines, is not to say that they don’t exist. It just means that we must deal with what we have, and it implies that accessing a touchstone to govern what cultures are more “right” than others is inherently problematic (normally those that hold this position deny that God have revealed his character and will).
It is usually held that because we all are “trapped” by culturally received standards, we can’t and shouldn’t ever condemn the values and actions of other interpretive communities. This would prohibit us from judging the practices of the Nazis as “immoral”, since what we consider wrong due to our communal moral criteria was deemed justifiable according to theirs. If the thought of a whole country united in condoning the practice of pedophilia abhors us, we must realize that this is because our socially constructed ethical code labels such an activity an abomination. According to this model, who are we to impose our beliefs on people who don’t share them? After all, different cultures have different standards.
It essential to note that this conclusion (“Thou shalt not impose one’s standards on another”) does not logically follow from a position of cultural relativism. If no objective moral values exist, then how can one say that it is wrong for one group to judge others, or even to impose their beliefs on others? This moral imposition of an objective standard (“you ought not to judge others”) is in diametric opposition to their position; it is a complete contradiction. Contrary to this (culturally derived) notion of tolerance (on that is, it should be noted, smuggled in as an ethical absolute), cultural relativism provides the philosophical coherent basis for a group to say, “It is part of our belief system to impose our values on other groups, no one can say that we are objectively wrong to do so. Our cultural ethics are all that we have, so we will be obedient to them!”
Despite the common pairing of the popular notion of tolerance with relativism, cultural relativism can actually lead to obstinate close-mindedness.
Now that’s a problem.
Translating Cornelius Van Til’s teaching that all unbelieving thought teeter-totters back and forth from rationalism to irrationalism to the language of atheism and idolatry, John Frame gives the following instructions:
Against atheistic relativism. When you find a nonbeliever who stresses the atheistic relativist side of unbelief, be persistent in asking these questions: (1) how can you be sure that relativism is right, when it itself rules out all Cherence? (2) How can you live as a relativist? Having no assurance of anything must be a terrible strain, rationally, emotionally, and volitionally, what basis do you have for making decisions? What basis do you have for criticizing the treatment you receive from others? How can you say anything is wrong, unfair, or unjust? What basis do you have for trusting logic – or, for that matter, your own mind?
Against idolatrous rationalism. When you meet someone who tends to stress the powers, rather than the limits, of what autonomous thought and action, you will likely be dealing with someone in the grip of an idol. Find out what his idol is and take aim by asking these questions: (1) What basis is there for thinking that this idol is absolute? (2) Does your god really do the job of a God? Did it create the world? Is it the ground of logic, mathematics, ethical value, and the universal judgments of science? Is it adequate as a final standard of meaning, truth, and right?
We know that an impersonal god can do none of these things. So the unbeliever will be tempted either to lapse into relativism or to grant that his god has some elements of personality. Once he does the latter, he’s granting part of our case, and we can pursue him further, especially by asking him, “How do you know this person?”
Against atheistic idolatry. Press the fundamental contradiction in this rationalistic – irrationalistic combination. A proof that there are no proofs, an absolute statement that there are no absolute statements. Then attack the original rationalistic and irrationalistic elements, as above. It will not be easy. The unbeliever will slide from one position to another, from rationalism to irrationalism and back again. Argument itself will not be enough; God must intervene. Thus, prayer is the ultimate apologetic weapon.
-John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 201-202.
A friend recently sent me this rather ironic email:
One of my coworkers is about 23 years old and a nondenominational Christian. We had lunch the other day and she was talking about how she was going to be teaching at her church’s young adults’ group on “truth.” She wanted to speak about what it means that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and what it means to worship in the spirit and the truth.
I said something to her about how that was a big topic to prepare for. She said, no, not really, that she was just going to open it up for discussion to see what everyone else thought. She said the pastor told her that he wants people to realize they don’t have all the answers, either, and doesn’t want anyone to be afraid to speak up for fear of having the wrong answer, etc…
I just got back home from Petland, picking up some treats for my dog. As I went to the checkout line, a lady with some cat food and other things was ahead of me. Here’s a paraphrase of the ensuing conversation between “Cat Lady” and the checkout clerk. My comments are in brackets.
Clerk: [scanning cans of food, and singing a silly song] Cat food, cat food, I’m allergic to cats!
Cat lady: That’s interesting. Why do you work at a petstore?
Clerk: Well, you see people don’t realize that whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless. [Determinism?]
Cat lady: What makes you say that?
Clerk: You see, I’m a Christian, and according to what I believe everything that’s going to happen is going to happen. You can’t change it. [I’d like to think the guy is a Calvinist, but this is sheer fatalism. No informed Calvinist would state things this way.]
Cat lady: Maybe, but I do believe that we have free will [True enough…depending on the definition you’re employing of the term “free will.” I think she was responding to his unhealthy fatalism.]
Clerk: Well yeah, we have free will about whether we’ll go “up” [heaven] or “down” [hell]. [Classic Arminianism. Interesting. So God determines everything that will ever take place….but leaves in our hands-Oh, Sovereign creature!-the greatest possible choice, i.e. the efficacy of Christ’s atonement!]
Cat lady: I’m going to have to disagree with you there. But, if it works for you…! [Typical postmodern pragmatism. Let’s not say the other person is wrong..no, no. To each his own. What matters is that a belief “works,” not whether it fairly represents reality]
Thus the conversation ended there. I stood there, biting my tongue. I actually wanted to correct the clerk more for his poor presentation of God’s sovereignty than Cat lady for her relativism. But I knew it wasn’t my place to butt it and wax theological.
The Question of Pluralism. Due to technological advances our world has grown increasingly smaller. Whereas world renown philosopher Immanuel Kant is know for never traveling very much outside of the borders of his hometown of Königsberg, today there are many people who have traveled to 6 out of 7 of the Earth’s continents (I not being one of them!). There was once a time when a person living in America or Europe could live, work and die without ever meeting a living, breathing Muslim or Hindu. In the West this period has come and gone. In my neighborhood alone, within a 10 block radius, we have centers of worship for multiple Christian denominations (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons.
In his book The Gagging of God, theologian D.A. Carson makes a distinction between two types of pluralism (In fact it’s three, but for my purposes we’ll look at two): factual or empirical pluralism and philosophical or religious pluralism. The religious diversity of my neighborhood is a good example of factual pluralism. No one would seriously question that New York City, my home town, is a melting pot where people from multiple faiths, nationalities, ethnicities, and lifestyles coexist. Factual pluralism isn’t a problem. In fact this type of pluralism can often serve to positively expose us to new and fresh perspectives on a host of issues. For instance, it’s going to be difficult for a White racist to maintain that Blacks and Hispanics are all uneducated and backwoods if at the workplace his boss is a Puerto Rican woman and his next door neighbor is and African-American attorney. A little dose of factual pluralism acts as a face full of cold water in this case.
The challenge to evangelism arises when new take factual pluralism to imply philosophical pluralism. This latter type maintains that in light of empirical diversity we ought not to make the claim that any one position is correct. If we are going to be good multiculturalists how can we condemn the beliefs or actions of a culture (or subculture) that is not our own? Isn’t this intolerant, unloving, and oppressive? Isn’t it down-right arrogant for Christians to say that their religion is the only was to God, while all others remain in darkness?
In the West, philosophical pluralism is fed by our expanding consumerism. We have well over 50 different choices of cereal, about 10 major cellular telephone providers, and TV channels well into the hundreds. The sheer variety of options we face everyday seem to glorify one thing: the power of choice and self-expression. The result is that religion is seen as simply another flavor in the endless ice cream cart of Western culture. Religion isn’t thought of as our relations hip with “the-way-reality-is” (however we define it), but as a search for a worldview that affirms everything we already believe.
It has been said that on most college campuses it is a basic unargued assumption that all ethical codes are subjectively determined. So as we try to bring our listeners attention to the fact that all morality doesn’t make sense apart from God, we may hear, “morality is not same for everyone, therefore is cannot be objectively binding.” Or, more commonly, we hear it phrased this way, “what’s right for you isn’t right for everybody!” This is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that in matters of morals or ethics the individual determines right and wrong. Often a person who believes this (i.e. a relativist) will mention different cultural beliefs across the world and conclude that morality is created by societies and/or they are determined by personal preference, so we shouldn’t judge others. But there are a bunch of problems here, 1) it confuses moral claims with preference claims, 2) The conclusion simply doesn’t follow the data, and 3) It simply isn’t true that the morality of differing countries is all that different.
First, when we say that murder is wrong, we are not simply saying, “I don’t like murder.” While we may be saying that, it goes further than that. In the case of pre-martial sex, many of the people who believe it’s wrong may actually prefer it! The point? Often times what we may prefer is not what we believe to be morally obligatory.
Secondly, even where it’s true (i.e. that different cultures disagree on morality), the conclusion simply doesn’t follow the premises. If anything, it’s an only an interesting cultural observation. This is like saying that since people once believed that the earth was flat and at another time they believed that it was round, therefore the earth has no shape! If two parties disagree, we have two options. Either the first party is right and the other wrong, or they are both wrong and a third party is right. If their conclusions are mutually exclusive, they cannot both be right.
Third, we should also point out that the charge that differing cultures have altogether different sets of morality simply isn’t true. While, yes, there are differences, they are of the low scale, not “bizarro world” differences. C.S. Lewis addressed this objection more than 50 years ago. States Lewis:
There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country where two and two made five.
With all the fine work published in the last several years refuting relativism, I believe that 3 chief points stand out. First, relativism usually is held by people for the sake of unity and to promote tolerance. Yet, if this is true it’s self-defeating, because it presupposes that tolerance and understanding are universal, objective moral norms. This is like saying, “There is no right or wrong, and if you disagree with us, you’re wrong!” Did you catch that!?
Next, relativism relativizes itself. As we noted, relativism offers itself as a moral absolute, but this undercuts it’s own position. So we are left to ask, “Is your belief in relativism something you believe all people ought to believe (notice that the term “ought” implies moral obligation), or is it a belief that’s only relative?” If the relativist says it’s only relative to them, then relativism is meaningless, because it doesn’t even have (or rather, it strips itself of) the ability to persuade others to believe it. After all, we do instinctively know right and wrong in most cases. We can proclaim relativism from the rooftops all day, that is, until someone steals our belongings, or hurts our family members. Suddenly we feel that it’s not something that we simply dislike, but rather that it is something that’s truly wrong! Then we become moral absolutists.
Lastly, if we reduce we moral claims to preference claims then we would have to radically change the way we commonly speak. Instead of saying “The Terrorists who flew 2 airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings were wrong, and it was an evil act”, we would have to replace it with, “I personally do not think that the Terrorists attack on Sept.11th was expedient, and it did not accord with my subjective tastes, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to ‘impose’ my morality on anyone!” I feel my point has been made.