Christians are often very resistant to the idea of relativism. Rick Cornish (2005), in his little book 5 Minute Apologist: Maximum Truth in Minimum Time describes the relativist position to be that '[t]ruth is no longer considered the same for all persons, at all times, in all places. Pick your own truth; one version is as good as the next.' He argues that the idea of relative truth is 'bankrupt' for three reasons:
- It defeats itself. In other words, if a person claims that truth is relative they are asserting a truth which, if truth is relative, makes this assertion relative as well and, therefore, must not be absolutely true.
- Relativism 'entails that opposites are true'.
- It 'renders knowledge impossible.'
If relativism is, indeed, the notion that truth is no longer 'the same for al persons, at all times, in all places' then Cornish's criticisms are very telling and Christians should resist it. At a popular level, where something is often said to be actually true or false depending on the person holding the belief, then the above criticisms are certainly relevant. But is this popular notion, described by Cornish, actually representative of a truly relativist position?
The Philosophical Dictionary defines relativism as the:
[b]elief that human judgments are always conditioned by the specific social environment of a particular person, time, or place. Cognitive relativists hold that there can be no universal knowledge of the world, but only diverse interpretations of it. Moral relativists hold that there are no universal standards of moral value, but only the cultural norms of particular societies. (Kemerling 2002)
There are a number of important points to notice in this definition:
- The relativist position is about human judgments, not about the nature of absolute truth. It is absolutely essential to get this distinction right otherwise we end up commiting the straw man fallacy.*
- The essential assertion of relativism is that human judgments are affected by the circumstances within which a person lives. This is an eminently sensible and obvious assertion. An individual's understanding of truth is affected by where they live, their history, their age, and so on. It is also limited by a person's abilities to inquire into something and the level of their thinking skills. This essential assertion, then, is perfectly acceptable to a Christian. Why else would it be true that God's thoughts are higher than human thought (Isa Å:8-9)? Is it not because God, being who God is, has a different view of reality than we do and, therefore, the judgments God makes about what is true are different to ours?
- The essential assertion of relativism can be applied to two different types of knowledge:
- Knowledge of the world Humans cannot have comprehensive, perfect knowledge of the world.
- Knowledge of morality There is no possibility of objective morality. Instead, morality is determined by cultural norms of various societies. There is no way to objectively decide what is morally good or evil.
When thinking about the legitimacy of relativism it is important to consider each of these areas separately. Surely a Christian can accept that human knowledge of the world is always going to be less than perfect and comprehensive and influenced by the nature of human abilities, opportunities, and experience.
It is in the area of morality, though, that most Christians will have a problem with relativism. Most Christians want to argue that, in the area of morality, God provides the source of objective knowledge about morality. But even if this is true, the reality is that even Christians disagree on moral questions even while using the same source material in Scripture. There may, indeed, be absolute moral principles, such as the principle of loving one's neighbour as oneself, but it is in the application of principles like this where even Christians come into conflict with each other.
All of this allows us to arrive at some answers to these questions:
- Is there such a thing as absolute truth about the world? In other words, are assertions about the world either actually correct or incorrect? Answer: yes.
- Is it possible for humans to have an absolutely perfect and comprehensive knowledge of the world? Answer: no.
- Is there such a thing as absolute truth about morality? In other words, in a certain situation, is there actually one morally correct way of responding? Answer: from a Christian point of view -- yes.
- Is it possible for humans to have an absolutely perfect and comprehensive knowledge of what is right to do in a specific situation? Answer: no.
In other words, it doesn't matter whether we are talking about knowledge of the world or moral knowledge -- in both cases, human judgments are fraught with the consequences of being human! Christians can agree with the relativist on both of these points. The only difference between most Christians and the moral relativist is that most Christians accept the Bible as the source of absolute moral principles.
I return now to Cornish's criticism of relativism. In my view, Cornish's critique does not adequately distinguish between the popular form of relativism and the philosophical form of relativism. He is quite correct in saying that the popular form of relativism is bankrupt. His analysis of relativism mixes these two in the same discussion. So when Cornish suggests that the relativist who argues 'that it's impossible to absolutely understand truth' is incorrect because '[s]he mixes concepts. She assumes that belief in absolute truth requires that one has an absolute understanding of truth...' then Cornish correctly identifies that distinction. In much of his disussion, however, Cornish himself confuses popular relativism with philosophical relativism.
What do we make, then, of Cornish's argument against relativism? If we are discussing popular relativism, then it is true that:
- It defeats itself;
- It is untenable because it entails that opposites are true; and
- It renders knowledge impossible.
However, when discussing philosophical relativism, then:
- It does not defeat itself;
- It does not entail that opposites are true; and
- It does not render knowledge impossible.
Can a Christian be a relativist? Yes, they can, because, along with the "true" relativist, the Christian believes 'that human judgments are always conditioned by the specific social environment of a particular person, time, or place.' (Kemerling 2002). Christians affirm the notion of absolute truth but, in humility, recognise the impossibility of knowing it perfectly. In that sense, we stand with the relativist!
*'The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.' (Labossiere 1995)
Cornish, R 2005, 5 Minute Theologian: Maximum Truth in Minimum Time, NavPress.
Kemerling, G 2002, Relativism, viewed 16 May 2005, http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/r9.htm#relm.
Labossiere, MC 1995, Fallacy: Straw Man, viewed 16 May 2005, http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html.