Ever had a conversation that ended in a rather unsatisfactory “true for you, but not for me” conclusion?
“To each his own. My reality and situation is different from yours.”
“That’s what you think. I believe it’s something else.”
Such statements are familiar today. What one considers the truth is relative to one’s culture or perspective, and “ends up being reduced to the level of opinion or mere belief, and nothing more,” said philosopher and apologist Dr Paul Copan.
Speaking at the Reasonable Faith conference earlier this year, he pointed out that such a view of truth can – ironically – threaten society, with the rise of the dictatorship of relativism.
With relativism, the general idea is that if you mind your own business and keep everything to yourself, everything will be fine.
“But if you believe in absolutes or objectivity, you’re considered arrogant, judgmental, intolerant and even dangerous,” said Dr Copan.
HOW DID WE BECOME RELATIVISTS?
Before the French Revolution in the 18th century, God was the starting point of all understanding, shared Dr Copan.
People recognised that traits such as goodness, truth, beauty and dignity all made sense because of God and the clarity that the Christian faith offered. But when the monarchy fell under the Revolution, Christianity was overthrown as well. God was no longer the foundation of knowledge – the individual was.
This paved the way for modernist metanarratives like rationalism and Marxism to help people make sense of the world. Human progress also started to grow in significance; people saw that they could achieve things and make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4).
But this too quickly fell apart in the 20th century: The two World Wars shattered confidence in human nature. Humans were recognised to be flawed, wicked and inhumane. These metanarratives started to oppress each other.
Society began to take on a postmodern worldview. Truth has become a mere construct of the human mind and society. We are shaped by our contexts, and they are not universally true.
“We can no longer speak of any universal truth or reason or morality or duties – we just have fragmented individual or cultural perspectives,” said Dr Copan.
THE PROBLEM ABOUT TOLERANCE
Think about a world where a universal standard of what constitutes a crime like theft or murder doesn’t exist. Instead, each agrees to perceive and judge them differently – what would society look like then?
If you can imagine chaos ensuing, that’s the alarming consequence of relativism: In believing that there’s no absolute truth, there’s thus no standard for people to be held accountable to.
Naturally, redemption becomes unnecessary – there’s no moral standard to which you have fallen short of (Romans 3:23). Repentance is thus not on the radar.
Relativism also encourages a false definition of tolerance, according to Dr Copan.
Quoting novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, he pointed out how tolerance is “the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing…. lives for nothing.”
True tolerance is negative, not positive!
“We tolerate things we don’t really like… tolerance is not celebration, not enjoyment, but putting up with,” observed Dr Copan. “But relativists see tolerance as accepting all views to be true and legitimate.”
Tolerance implies a moral standard whose origin is questionable, he noted. How then can any moral judgment be taken seriously, and where does this standard come from if all views are equally true?
Moreover, relativism also steers us away from making true and right judgments (John 7:24), and instead assumes a moral standard where it’s morally wrong to judge!
HOW CAN WE RESPOND?
So what can we do when we encounter relativism? Dr Copan offers a few ideas:
Learn to make distinctions between truth and attitude: Believing in a truth doesn’t mean you should be arrogant. This also applies to person vs belief: We can respect others even if we don’t accept their beliefs.
Dialogue, don’t debate
Listen and seek to build relationships. Avoid being quick to shoot down ideas and beliefs.
Give others time to process truths, and to move from distrust to trust. This can simply be achieved through the way we live our life.
“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 2-3)
As a representative of Christ, we can be a source of trustworthiness, friendship and kindness that relativists might not have experienced for themselves.
Navigating relativism might be a challenge, but as God’s people, the truth should matter enough for us to be able to be unafraid to engage personally, show grace and speak the truth in love.
- What does being tolerant mean to you?
- Do you care enough about the truth?
- What are some beliefs you find difficult to share with others?