Relativism. (’Cause we aren’t all that absolute.)

by K.W. Leslie, 30 October 2019
RELATIVISM 'rɛl.ə.də.vɪ.zəm noun. Belief that truth, knowledge, and morals are based on context, not absolutes.
[Relative 'rɛl.ə.dɪv adjective, relativist 'rɛl.ə.də.vɪst noun.]

Relativism is a big, big deal to Christian apologists. I’ll get to why in a minute; bear with me as I introduce the concept.

Some of us were raised by religious people, and were taught to believe in religious absolutes: God is real, Jesus is alive, sin causes death, love your neighbor. Others weren’t raised religious, but they grew up in a society which accepts and respects absolutes. Like scientific principles, logic, mathematics, or a rigid code of ethics.

The rest—probably the majority—claim they believe in absolutes, but they’re willing to get all loosey-goosey whenever the absolutes get in their way. They might agree theft is bad… but it’s okay if they shoplift every once in a while. Murder is bad… but dropping bombs on civilians during wartime is acceptable. Lying is bad… but it’s okay to take an iffy deduction on their taxes. And so on. These absolutes aren’t all that absolute when it conveniences them. So they’re not really absolute; they’re relative.

Yeah, it’s total hypocrisy to claim you believe in absolutes, but regularly make exceptions for yourself. But just about everybody does it. We Christians in particular: We judge others—sometimes harshly—for making mistakes, but we live under grace; we’re forgiven, not perfect. Still hypocrisy though.

And recognizing this, a number of people have decided to straight-up deny anything is absolute. Everything’s relative. Usually, all things being equal, certain things are true. (Like the bible’s proverbs.) But we can always make exceptions to these truths; therefore none of these truths are absolute. Sometimes they’re false. Postmoderns are known for doubting whether every “absolute truth” is really all that absolute. But these relativists insist nothing’s absolute. At all.

The downside of free will.

God didn’t program humans to obey him by default. He gave the first humans one command—and the power to follow it, or break it. They broke it.

So what in our lives determines whether things are good or bad, true or false, real or fake? Well, we do. No one else is of any help; we can only depend on ourselves. And maybe Oprah Winfrey. But we decide whether to follow Oprah.

What standard do we use to make our determinations? Well, we decide these standards. And they can be whatever we like. And we get to decide how strictly we follow them: When they’re inconvenient, impractical, or no fun anymore, we figure we don’t have to stay true to it. Let’s say I decide Buddhism is the way to go… but all the Buddhist self-denial stuff seriously interferes with my sex life. Well, guess I’m gonna be a lousy Buddhist. Which I can easily get away with, since I never go to temple.

We mix ’n match. Sometimes our standards will be the laws of our nation… until we wanna change them. Sometimes the advice of someone we strongly respect… until we decide they don’t know what they’re talking about. Sometimes the rules of our religion… until we decide they don’t apply in this circumstance. Sometimes logic or science… until they’re inconvenient (I don’t wanna believe in climate change!). Sometimes peer pressure—hey, everybody’s doing it!—until they’re not. Or again, until we decide they don’t know what they’re talking about.

We decide our standards, and how strictly we follow them. Sometimes we get absolutist and insist we gotta follow our standard, no matter what; we gotta practice integrity. And we might legitimately mean it, and stick to integrity for a time. Absolutism is hard, y’know. Relativism is a much easier route. Every absolutist, invariably, inevitably, sins against their absolutes. Sometimes by finding loopholes, bending the rules, or breaking them; but they always do. ’Cause all have sinned. Ro 3.23 We’re all relativists.

Yep, even Christians. Christian apologists may insist we’re not relativists; we’re absolutists. Ah, if wishing made things so: We seek and find “loopholes,” bend the rules, or out-and-out sin, just as much as pagans do. Some of us strive for integrity, but again, all have sinned: Some of us occasionally, some rarely, and some constantly, put our constantly shifting values, priorities, and pleasures above God.

Christians will claim, “I follow Jesus,” or “I follow the bible,” and legitimately mean it… and of course not follow everything Jesus or his bible teaches. Or “I’m orthodox,” yet redefine all our theological terms till they’re not really. Or “I’m fruitful,” yet redefine the Spirit’s fruit the same way. As much as we may claim we believe in absolutes, and live by them, we don’t really.

I don’t say this to condemn. It’s basic reality. The quicker we realize it, the sooner we function in the real world, and not an imaginary one. We only strive for absolutism. Well… in some things. We relatively strive.

Okay, now for the apologists.

The reason relativism falls under the category of Christian apologetics, is ’cause relativism is one of the things which freaks out apologists most.

’Cause they’re trying to teach absolutes: Jesus is the way, truth, and life; Jesus is the only way to the Father; Jn 14.6 salvation comes via nobody else; Ac 4.12 and of course there are God’s commands against murder, theft, adultery, idolatry, and so forth. Dt 5.6-21 And when they preach these things, they’d really appreciate it if people would just accept these absolutes, and stop dismissing them as “that’s just what you believe, but I’m figuring out my own way through life.” No, they insist, stop treating God’s word as relative! It’s true.

Relativism and relativists, apologists insist, are the problem. In fact it’s the other way round. People who are extremely logical, who insist on sorting the universe into clear categories so they can understand it better, who demand their worldview be orderly and consistent, don’t know how to deal very well with people who won’t do that. Nor with people who sort things into a different order than theirs. They can’t relate. They can’t adjust. They can’t be all things to all people, so they can save as many of ’em as possible. 1Co 9.22, 10.33 Those adaptations, they insist, are compromise. You know, relativism.

So when Paul pointed to a pagan monument to the Unknown God and said he’s the father of Jesus Christ, or quoted pagan Greek poets in order to share Jesus, Ac 17.22-31 they might read and quote that passage, but never ever repeat Paul’s tactic. If I told a Middle Eastern audience that Allah is the father of Jesus, and quoted the Quran in order to point people toward Christ, they’d be horrified, and call me a compromiser and heretic and secret Muslim. Doesn’t matter that Paul did the same thing; Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they don’t know about me, so I’m only permitted to evangelize by their narrow standard.

So when these apologists preach, they often say the first thing we Christians gotta do is attack relativism. Attack anything and everything which isn’t absolutist Christianity. Get people to doubt relativism. Disprove relativist philosophy. Debate atheists and evolutionists. Get relativism out of the schools, out of the courts, out of society. In other words, get humans to stop behaving according to human nature. Only then can the gospel of Christ Jesus get through to ’em.

In other words, achieve the impossible before we can share Jesus. Which means we’re never gonna get around to sharing Jesus.

Look at Paul again. The man didn’t first demolish the Athenian worldview, then demand they give it up, before he proclaimed Jesus. He adjusted the gospel so it was something the Athenian culture could relate to. Well, to a point. Resurrection weirded some of them out. Ac 17.32 But regardless, Paul got converts. Ac 17.34 His adjustments worked. In fact, a lot of Christian theology is the result of taking the methods of Greek philosophy, rejecting any paganism and immorality we found in it, and applying the rest to the study of God.

And we need to do as Paul did. Don’t waste your time fighting the culture. You’ll just wind up alienating all the people you’re trying to save, who won’t understand what you’re doing, who’ll think you’re fighting them—and as a result won’t listen to a thing you have to say about Jesus. If the Spirit orders you to get politically involved (and don’t just assume he has because you’re outraged about something), that’s one thing. But until he does so, stick to sharing Jesus, and leave the politics to those who seek power instead of surrendering it to Christ.

Relativists, by nature, aren’t consistent. Not all pagans think alike. (Heck, not all Christians think alike.) You gotta find out how they think on a case-by-case basis. So ask questions. What do they believe? How much do they believe it?—do they live their lives that way, or are these just ideals which they admit they never live up to? Is there any space in their belief system for God? For miracles? For Christ?

Yeah it’s time-consuming. That’s why we listen to the Holy Spirit at the same time. Sometimes he tells us just the thing that’ll flatten their entire belief system, make ’em realize we really do know God, and make ’em call out to him. Other times he makes us do the hard work, ’cause he wants us to really know and love these people, and not just look at converts as “another jewel in my crown.” The reason they’re relativist is because they’re individuals, not categories. And God loves ’em as individuals. As should we.

Christian apologetics.