I am not a rabid anti-postmodernist; there are aspects of postmodernism that I find very helpful when talking and writing about faith. Relativism, however, is not one of them.
One of the best examples of postmodern relativism is the catchphrase “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Often, this phrase is heard in the context of a conversation between a Christian (or other person of faith) and an atheist or agnostic. The person of faith says something that makes the other person uncomfortable, so he responds by saying “that may be true for you, but not for me.”
My guess is that at least half of the time, the person mouthing this slogan is not making a statement about deeply held philosophical beliefs, but is just trying to end a conversation without actually having to come right out and say “I think you’re wrong.” In many cases, I suspect that the person saying it has never taken the time to think through the logical ramifications of his position; he just likes the fact that it makes him sound deep and tolerant and all the other things people like to think of themselves as being.
And, as often as not, it does effectively stop the conversation.
For the percentage of people who really believe that truth is relative, the simplest response to this statement is to make sure that they understand that if all truth is relative, then what they believe is no more true than what someone else believes. In fact, the person saying “it’s true for you, but not for me” may believe it, but if his conversation partner doesn’t, then “it’s true for you, but not for me,” isn’t true for everyone, so the assumption that truth is relative is, itself, relative. (Confused yet?)
In 2010, I had the honor of blogging for the Lausanne 2010 conference in Capetown, South Africa. One of the advance papers written for the conference was “Truth Matters, Stand Up for Truth.” by Chinese theologian Carver T. Yu. In the paper, Yu describes the plurality that those in the East have always lived with—a plurality that accepts the right of other religions to exist, but also assumes that, in the end, one of them will prove to be true—and the rest will find out they were wrong.
Yu goes on to describe what he sees as a different, more destructive pluralism infecting today’s world:
The pluralism in vogue today is entirely different. It is an ideology that proclaims that truth is a cultural construction valid only for the culture that constructs it. It has therefore no bearing on another culture or system of meaning. There is no truth that can claim to be truth for all. All truths are relative to one another. The pluralist pushes the point further from cultures to individuals. The individual is now presumed to be the ultimate ground of reality, the foundation on which meaning and values are created. The postmodern pluralist believes that each and every individual creates her own logic and makes her own rules in constructing her own world of reality and value.
Yu includes in his paper the oft-told story about Ravi Zacharias who, while giving a lecture at Oxford, was confronted by a student who believed that “right” and “wrong” were only personal preferences. Zacharias then asked the student if he would think it was wrong if he (Zacharias) killed a baby in front of the class as a demonstration. The student replied, “I would not like it, but I could not say it was wrong.”
Yu’s concern is that if society cannot say something is “wrong” in an absolute sense, then there is no basis for arguing against the belief that might equals right. The strong can, and will, do whatever they want to the weak without compunction because without moral absolutes there is no basis for stopping them. The person who believes that all truth is equally valid (or equally invalid) has no justification for trying to stop a power-mad dictator from slaughtering thousands of innocent people. Even if most people may not like it, the relativist—if he is consistent—must conclude that there is no objective argument against it. There is only preference.
Without moral truth, might will become right. Tribal war is inevitable. Without the divine decree that the human person is made in the image of God, affirmed by the Creator to have absolute value and to be absolutely inviolable, why should anyone take the assertion that “all are born equal” seriously? What is the ground for such a belief, which is supposed to be the foundation of democracy?
While I agree with the author that relativism is logically unsustainable (which I won’t go into in this post), I don’t see it as the huge threat to society that Yu, and many others, do. Sure, the moral relativism and pluralism that Yu is describing is an effective way to neutralize the influence of faith in public life. And it has succeeded in marginalizing those who appeal to universal ideas of right and wrong in matters of public policy.
But moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a way of life.
I don’t know anyone (including any honest atheist) who can consistently live out the belief that objective values of right and wrong do not exist. Defending moral relativism as a philosophical position might be possible for a while for someone who lives a comfortable, sheltered life in the suburbs. But the moment anyone comes face to face with real-world evil and cruelty (or even just an episode of Law & Order: SVU involving children), their conscience demands that certain acts be labeled “wrong.”
There may be the rare moral relativist who tries to be consistent and say that what Hitler did in killing 6 million men, women, and children wasn’t “wrong,” but (and I’m just guessing here), most people would not agree with him. Most people know intuitively—in their bones—what evil looks like and do not find the argument that morality is a construct of each individual society persuasive. As a group, we assert that a senseless act of cruelty is wrong—and that the perpetrator should have known better—whether it happens in a rural province in Bhutan or in New York City.
This, I think, is why the “moral argument” for God is far and away the most persuasive apologetic paradigm. Unlike other more cerebral syllogisms, the premise that objective moral obligations do, in fact, exist is something we all just intuitively know. It is, if you will, an aspect of the imago dei that appeals to both reason (objective moral imperatives exist, therefore there must be a source for such imperatives) and intuition (torturing children for fun is wrong!)
I am not as concerned as Yu that moral relativism will inevitably lead to a worldwide “might is right” movement that sweeps the world back into the Dark Ages. While “it’s true for you, but not for me,” may be an effective way to end an uncomfortable conversation, it is simply not the way people work. And we intuitively know it.