Testing worldviews: defining relativismMay 5, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing our series on schooloffish’s post, DOES YOUR WORLD VIEW PASS THE TEST, we come now to his definition of the relativistic world view.
The last category to be discussed is a relativistic world view. This has become a very popular world view as of late. In general this world view believes that all world views are true for the individual and therefore all are right as long as it right for YOU. In a relativistic world view, the word truth, right and wrong are subjective as opposed to objective truth as the world would be used by the other two categories.
I don’t expect to have too much difficulty agreeing with schooloffish here, since the relativistic view is indeed rather silly and self-defeating. As Geisler and Turek point out, you can’t claim to have an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. To make such claims is to exalt the human mind above the real world around us, to the point of merely deceiving yourself.
I will point out, though, that in my own personal experience, I’ve encountered far more Christians advocating a relativistic (or “postmodern”) worldview than I have secularists with similar views. Not that the secular relativists don’t exist, of course, but I personally have not met so many of them. Christians, though—lots, particularly once they realize that God actually doesn’t show up in real life, the way He ought to if the Gospel were true.
It’s not surprising that we would find relativism a popular option among Christians, especially among Protestants. Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura means that Scripture, and only Scripture, has the authority to dictate Christian faith and practice. In particular, this means that no person or human institution has the authority to dictate to other people what the “true” teachings of Christianity are. Only the Bible can do that, which means in practice that each person has to read the Bible for themselves and decide for themselves what its teachings are.
In the 1500’s, this approach to faith began immediately producing divisions, as each Bible student “discovered” new truths, neglected for generations, that absolutely demanded reforms. But then the sola scriptura gotcha kicked in: as soon as they tried to tell other people that they needed to reform, they were violating sola scriptura! People don’t have the authority to tell other people what the “true” meaning of the Bible is. Only the Bible has that authority.
That didn’t stop people from trying, of course, but the results were frustrating, unpleasant, and sometimes even violent. A few centuries later, battered but wiser, Christians in America drew up a constitution that declared, in its First Amendment, that there was to be no official religion in the American government. Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, longtime Protestant rallying cries, became the law of the land.
But what freedom of religion means is that religious truth becomes a special class of “truth” that is perfectly “true” for whoever believes it, regardless of what real-world facts or other religions might say. America became a great nation because we were willing to stop fighting over religious “truth,” and to allow each person’s “truth” to be as valued and respected as anyone else’s (within limits, of course).
One consequence of open, non-violent religious discourse is that each believer ends up exposed to alternatives that, shockingly, are just as self-consistent and coherent as their own, despite being doctrinally different and incompatible. Believers find themselves confronted with the fact that their own opinions have no more solid basis than the contrary opinions of others, and not-uncommonly these Christians become liberals. They still value their religious heritage, for the most part, but they tend to emphasize the subjective value of perceived, relativistic “truth” rather than focusing too much on whether their religious “truth” is consistent with real-world fact.
There are alternatives to becoming liberal, of course. Some believers even go so far as to retreat into universal agnosticism. Faced with the unavoidable fact that God does not show up in real life, and that fallible people are thus the only source of information about God, the die-hard believer will sometimes appeal to the idea that all human senses are fallible (optical illusions, etc.), and therefore everybody is living by faith alone. The naturalist cannot know that what he perceives is really there, and therefore he is merely choosing to believe that the natural world exists. Objective truth cannot be known, therefore all perceptible “truths” are relative and subjective.
Addressing that argument would be a post in itself (involving what we can learn based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself), but here let me just point out that this sort of post-modern relativism is very tempting for certain intellectual Christians, because it offers the only plausible way out of the dilemma posed by God’s failure to behave as though He believed the Gospel. And at that, it’s not terribly plausible, just a retreat into unassailable solipsism. But it is a genuine Christian response, and one that I personally have seen many times.
The bottom line, though, is that I agree with schooloffish: relativism, aka postmodernism, is a silly, self-defeating worldview, a classic case of intellectual laziness and narcissism. We can cross this off our list of potentially valid worldviews no matter what the religious views of the person proposing it.