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The Myth of Relativism: Christianity in a Postmodern World


Now, given what I have said, why then do educated and intelligent people claim to be moral relativists? This is a very interesting question, which has a fascinating answer, an answer that is rather simple once one sees it. Western culture has been passing through a period of transition during the past four centuries, a period often described as the rise of modernity. The Medieval Christendom that was shattered in the Reformation, and the wars of religion that followed it, has slowly died and been replaced by a new form of civilization based more squarely and firmly on classical paganism than on a synthesis of Christianity and paganism, as was the case in Christendom. Modernity is the age of the triumph of reason in public life and the relegation of revelation and faith to the margins of society—to the realm of the private. Modernity is the age in which Christianity has become narrowed down to becoming merely a consolation for individuals in private and occasionally, in times of crisis, a prop for the civil religion of the nation state in public. But the only public role allowed Christianity in the modern world is that of a prop for civil religion—a role of subservience to the nation state. The state, on the other hand, has moved from a marginal aspect of society in the Medieval period to center stage in the modern period. The state continues to take on more and more of the functions that a previous stage of civilization held to be the work of God.

The state is responsible for our security, our financial well-being, our civil liberties, and our welfare. If we are sick or poor or old, it is the state that steps in to provide care. The state makes laws; it does not simply recognize natural law and conform to it, the state rather literally makes law. By an act of the legislature something becomes legal or illegal and our culture is rapidly losing its ability to distinguish between what is legal and what is morally right and between what is illegal and what is immoral. The state is seen as the all-powerful benefactor of individuals and, as such, is owed our absolute obedience when a crisis situation arises. Modern, liberal, Westerners think it is natural, rational and perfectly normal to kill and die for the state. Why? It is simply because the state is the guarantor of our highest value, which boils down to individual freedom. We worship freedom by making it the absolute value. Westerners are not relativists, they are liberals.

But then why do some people insist on calling themselves relativists? Well, to understand that you simply need to ask yourself what is the best way to overturn a widely held consensus when you are a minority group. Is it to mount a heroic frontal assault on the social consensus held by the majority of people all around you? Or is it to start, rather, by raising questions, by expressing doubts, and by probing into some of the weaker points of the widely-held consensus? It is the latter strategy of course. If you want to overthrow a widely held consensus and substitute for it a new ideology, you start by questioning the consensus at points where reasonable people will be likely to admit that you may have a point. Once you succeed in convincing enough people that the present consensus is not perfect, you can gradually and slowly start calling for the toleration—not yet the adoption—but merely the toleration of your new, minority point of view. Once the alternative is established in the public mind as thinkable, you are well on the way to replacing the old consensus with the new one.

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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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