One of the most perplexing dilemmas of the 21st century is the concept that truth as well as most everything, really is not absolute but rather relative – this is what we call relativism. It is the most widely held moral view in Western society today.
So what is relativism? Ultimately, it is the opposite of objectivism. According to relativism, there is no single, timeless truth existing independent of particular perspectives or methods. Societies and/or individuals decide what is right or wrong and values can and do vary for culture to culture and individual to individual. In other words, absolute (genuine) truth really does not exist because truth is only what you want to make it. What’s true for you may or may not be true for me.
So how did this kind of thinking become so prevalent? It’s been around for a long time – as long as there have been societies, there have been some sort of relativism. However, as a modern philosophy it grew out of post-modern deconstruction philosophy from the late 1800s gaining popularity through the entire 20th century, especially following the turbulent ‘60s. Relativism has permeated our thinking to the extent that it has become one of, if not the, principle drivers of cultural thinking.
However, relativism in all its forms has failed. It has failed humanity in three ways. It has failed because:
1. It provides no basis for genuine objective truth.
2. It leads to degradation of ethics and morality.
3. It produces a void in our hearts that leaves us with no purpose for life.
In short – it leaves us as individuals and as a society without hope. It is without a doubt a bankrupt ideology.
The foundational premise of relativism is that there is no absolute truth. But that alone is a self-defeating statement. It is a self-defeating statement to claim “reality can not be known” because in order to make such a statement requires us to know something about reality. To say that something can be true for one person but false for another fails to meet its own criteria for truth.
So then, what is truth? Here’s what truth is not:
- It is not what works for me.
- It is not what I want it to be or intended it to be.
- It is not what feels good.
- It is not what seems to make sense.
Simply, truth is what corresponds to reality.
Not only has relativism failed to provide a basis for truth, it has also failed to provide a basis for ethics and morality.
What if the majority of Americans decided to pass a law that said that blond hair is illegal and the penalty for having blond hair is death? What’s wrong with that? It can’t be immoral since that is what the majority believe and want? What if I decide that as an individual green eyes are bad and I’m going to punch everyone I see with green eyes in the nose? What’s wrong with that? It’s what I believe to be moral. Of course you can see the folly in such relativist logic (especially when it comes to little old me punching some big biker dude with green eyes in the nose).
Relativism produced the likes of Hitler, Mass Murderers such as Ted Bundy and other moral monsters. In the extreme it also produces people who see no need to care about others and people who are unchecked and unaccountable to anything but personal feelings/opinions.
Here’s the truth: Morals are not “descriptions” of the way things are or the way people may want them to be – morals are “prescriptions” of the way things truly ought to be. To determine those requires there be absolutes that must come from some source outside of humanity or else they will be only opinions and can not be argued as right or wrong outside of each individual’s feelings about them.
Relativism has and continues to produce a degradation of ethics and morals because it provides for no absolute basis for establishing them.
Lastly, relativism is bankrupt because it has failed to fill the void in our lives and leaves us with little purpose or hope. It robs us of a life based upon the foundation of truth and that keeps us from fully living the life that God intends for us to live. How – because it robs us of the truth of who God is and therefore a viable relationship with Him.
Truth comes from God, Morality comes from God, and Purpose for life comes from God. And all of these can only be found in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Relativism can not provide these. In fact, it will only eventually lead us away from them. Unfortunately this is what is happening in America today. Relativism is bankrupt so don’t allow it to bankrupt your life and the lives of those around you.
It is God’s desire for each of us to have an eternal relationship with Him and to also show others the way to do the same. This requires us to have a faith that is not only based on emotions/experience but on reason as well. Ultimately, faith will always be an issue of the heart; but remember, the road to and from the heart passes through the head.
To learn more about relativism read the book by Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2006).
Dr. Richard Tompkins