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The Myth of Relativism: Christianity in a Postmodern World


So, to sum up so far, what we have here is a story designed to explain the degraded and unstable state of contemporary Western culture. It is a story of two kinds of people: moral relativists and moral absolutists and the decline is said to be caused by the fact that gradually the former have displaced the latter from positions of cultural leadership. Western culture is declining into immorality, materialism, individualism, crime, drugs and sensual indulgence because of moral relativism becoming dominant. The problem is that Christians and their moral absolutist allies used to be in charge and now they no longer are in charge. The solution is to get out of our ghettos and get into society and infiltrate positions of power and influence as Christians in order to get back to a situation in which moral absolutism once again has control. This is what some people refer to as “the culture wars.”

Now what are we to make of this story? I hear more or less sophisticated versions of this story all the time from many different sources, but I’m afraid I have serious doubts about various aspects of this diagnosis and recommended cure for what ails the West. That the Western world is in a state of serious moral disintegration is not, let me hasten to say, in any serious doubt, at least as far as I am concerned. The economic injustice of two billion people living on less than $2 US dollars per day is an indictment of the apathy and selfishness of the West. The violence of abortion as a means of birth control, increasing tolerance of euthanasia, the death penalty and the readiness to resort to war to advance and protect the economic advantages of the West are a damning indictment of our so-called culture of human rights, which Pope John Paul II more accurately labeled a “culture of death.” The degradation of the majority of the population through sensual indulgence as seen in filthy and violent forms of entertainment, sexual promiscuousness and the breakdown of family stability is chillingly evil and betrays a self-absorption and immaturity on the part of adults that is frightening. Children are being abandoned by parents to an alarming degree as the parents seek novel forms of sensual pleasure and self-fulfillment even to the extent of failing to discharge the elementary human duty of raising their own children. And children are being shaped and formed by the violent, materialistic, promiscuous culture of Hollywood and the rapacious, predatory, and morally decadent culture of Wall Street in such a way that one almost despairs of the future.

So I agree that there is a problem. I agree that moral standards are low and going lower still with no end in sight. But is the problem moral relativism and is the solution moral absolutism? Well, let me come at that question from left field, so to speak, rather than head on. I doubt that there actually is any such thing as true moral relativism, at least as held by the culture-shapers and leaders of modern Western society. There may be a few muddle-headed, shallow thinkers who think they are moral relativists. These are the sort of folk who are absolutely certain that there are no absolutely true statements. It is rather difficult to know what to say to someone who makes such a blatantly and obviously self-contradictory assertion. How does one take that seriously? It is rather like someone saying that they are Blue Jays fans and that they always cheer for the Red Sox. You feel like replying, somewhat impatiently, “So which is it?” If relativism is true it also false to assert that relativism is true. So it is false and true at the same time. But that is just the point, the would-be relativist objects—relativism says that things are both true and false at the same time in the same way to the same people. But to say this is to affirm a contradiction and to violate the basic rule of logic—the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction says that a statement cannot be both A and non-A in the same way at the same time. Now, despite the fact that it is called a law, we know of course that anyone can choose to break it. Anyone can be self-contradictory and can utter a contradictory position. But once one does that, then one is shut up into one’s own self; one is confined to a little world with a population of one. This is called solipsism—the place one finds oneself when one takes a relativistic position and embraces self-contradiction. You can believe your contradiction, but you can never expect anyone else to join you in your belief because if two opposite facts can both be true in exactly the same way at exactly the same time for the same person, then anything is as likely to be true as anything else. So you have no reason to expect anyone to agree with you. Relativism leads to solipsism and only people who don’t think very clearly really embrace it.

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2008

About the Author: Craig A. Carter, Ph.D. (University of St. Michael's College, Toronto), M.Div. (Acadia University), is Professor of Theology at Tyndale University College in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Brazos Press, 2001) and Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Brazos Press, 2007).

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