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The Myth of Relativism: Christianity in a Postmodern World


Now, what better way to attack moral certainty and absolute truth than by means of a “humble” relativism? This is a perfect strategy for two reasons. First, you are playing offence not defense so you are relieved from the burden of defending your own alternative ideology at its weakest points. You don’t have to be specific about what kind of social order you advocate—you just have to show that the present one is imperfect and, since every human social order is imperfect that is a manageable task. Second, moral relativism sounds very much like liberty itself. You are actually calling for the adoption of your highest value even when it appears that you are being open minded and only calling for the freedom of individuals to assert their own highest values.

Of course the clash with Islam makes this more difficult in one way; but it makes it easier in another way. The clash with Islam makes it more difficult for liberals to argue their case because the Islamic worldview says that justice and piety require entire societies to work together in a socially cohesive manner and that is a fundamental challenge to the corrosive individualism of the West. It challenges the West in a way that forces the real issues out onto the table—what if individualism and social justice are incompatible? Which do we choose then? Of course, this is not a dialogue in which Western liberals, with their religious commitment to liberty as the absolutely highest value, wish to engage. It has the potential to call the religious exaltation of liberty to the position of the highest value into serious question. But, since Islam is so different, so “other,” so medieval—it is easy to caricature and engage in a propaganda war. Since 9/11, we have been in a clash of civilizations and the clash is not one of dialogue, but rather one of propaganda and hostility. The real enemy, from the West’s point of view, is not Islam as a religion, but the challenge to individualism and liberty as the absolute value. So George Bush can claim not to be against Islam, but what he means is that he is not against Islam as a domesticated, privatized, modernized religion which functions to give individuals consolation in private and to prop up the nation state in times of crisis. But insofar as Islam insists on being a worldview, a politics, a way of life for an entire people, Bush must oppose it root and branch because it threatens Western liberalism.

Now there is a delicious irony in the West’s response to Islam. If we look at what has happened since 9/11 what do we find? Essentially, there has been a huge over-reaction and the bills are yet to come due. The rule of law has been suspended in order to fight terrorism. People have been held in secret jails for years without being charged with a crime, without any presumption of innocence, without due process and without respect for their legal rights. Now, if the terrorists did this, what would the United States say? It would say that this kind of behavior demonstrates why such people must be defeated. The privacy of citizens has been invaded by wire-tapping and spying. The use of torture has been condoned. Civil liberties have been ignored—both those of the terrorists and those of US citizens! Afghanistan, which had terrorist bases, was invaded, which at least made some sense. But Iraq, which had no involvement with terrorism, was also invaded, which made no sense at the time and still doesn’t. In short, the Western response to terrorism, led by the United States, has been to become more like the kind of society from which we supposedly need to be saved. This is extremely ironic.

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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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