Friday, September 11, 2009

Why Reject Relativism?

In my previous posting I said some negative things about relativism, and now I am writing more about why I think relativism is objectionable and should be rejected.

First, a definition of the term: Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth and that, consequently, all truth is relative to the culture or the religion to which a person or group belongs. I take this as more of metaphysical statement than an epistemological one; that is, it refers primarily to the nature of reality not to the way one knows what is real. That distinction is important, because I do not think that one can be absolutely sure he or she knows the absolute truth--and I will be addressing that problem in a latter posting.

There certainly is relativity apparent in the way reality is understood. The way any of us view the world is largely dependent upon the culture or the religion to which we belong, that is, upon the community, large or small, which has formed the "plausibility structure" which informs our judgments.

But while affirming epistemological relativity, I reject the idea of pluralism that renounces the making of value judgments among different cultural or religious views because since all are relative all are (potentially) of equal validity. According to metaphysical relativism, there is no absolute Truth that people or groups just understand to varying degrees or in diverse ways.

Relativism is a growing phenomenon in the contemporary world. It is a central tenet of the postmodern worldview. But is it compatible with Christianity--at least Christianity as it has been generally understood and believed for the last two thousand years? I think not.

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," it has been said (by Terullian, who died around 220 A.D.). But if through the centuries Christians had embraced relativism, there would have been no (or at least very few) martyrs. People don't willingly die for relative truths. If they had been relativists, Stephen, Peter (if the legend about his crucifixion is basically true), Polycarp, and a multitude of other Christians through the centuries would not have become martyrs--and Christianity would likely not have survived. If Luther and the other Reformers of the sixteenth century had been relativists, there would have been no Protestant Reformation.

Of course, some might say that Christians were martyred because of the absolutism of those who killed them--and that is, no doubt, partially true. But the absolutism of the Roman Empire--or the Roman Catholic Church--was opposed by those who believed that they had apprehended the Truth and who were willing to die, if necessary, for the sake of that Truth. That’s something no thoroughgoing relativist would likely do.


  1. I want to rif a while on relativism by substituting the idea of relationality.

    Your notion of absolutism is at odds with the notion of a reality that is in the constant process of change toward possibility, concepts that inform process thinking about reality. And for that process to proceed, every occasion of existence stands in relationship to the occasion from which it has itself emerged. Hence, radical relationality in a universe of constantly emerging concretion toward possibility defines this life.

    I'm suggesting that relativity is a pejoritive concept only if we view reality in terms of fixed and absolute notions of ultimacy. However, if all things are constantly in process of emerging toward possibility, including the absolute, we might think of radical relationality as the sine qua non of this existence. Relationality is never in stasis, but is itself always developing. Why? Because in relationality there is never only a single principle that governs.

    In a word, I like Suchocki's notion of relationality. I don't denigrate it as something that detracts from the absolute, because the absolute is itself conceived in terms of relationship with all things. If that's so, there's no way for some notion of absoluteness in the sense of foundations, or fixedness to suffice to comprehend relationship with such a diverse and complex universe.

    God stands in relationship to all things, including all religious claims and their adherents. Obviously, those relationships cannot be the same; rather, each relationship must necessarily differ from some other by virtue of the diversity of life. The reason we must be open to all of reality, though, is because God is in relationship with all reality. And that relationship provides worth and validity. I may not understand it, or agree with it, but God is nevertheless the possibility in relationship with which it stands.

  2. I received another e-mail from the same person whose comments I posted anonymously for the previous blog entry, and I am sharing his comments, which are a strong rebuttal of my position, for your consideration--and, I hope, for your comments.

    "When we ask the question whether something is 'compatible with Christianity,' are we seeking truth or only compatibility with our own notions of it? You assume in your question that Christian truth is Truth, which prevents, I believe, an adequate consideration of Truth given the bias for the preconceived notion of Truth. You argue against the relativity of value judgments based on cultural or religious values, yet your entire measure of the value of relativity is your own cultural value; i.e., you frame the question of relativity based on its compatibility with your own cultural or religious framework, the very thing you seem to try to argue against. You prove the point of relative truth based on your measurement of it in terms of your relative cultural perspective, here Christianity.

    "Again, I'm concerned you are not so much seeking truth as trying to prove the truth of your beliefs against all others. It seems always that when folks speak of absolute truth, they are stating merely that 'I have found truth, and it is mine,' never voluntarily 'I have found truth, and it is not mine but yours.' In our legal system, we know that one should not (rather, cannot) be prosecutor and judge in our search for truth, yet in our faith lives we do exactly that--we argue our position, and then claim the right/privilege to judge the value/worthiness of all other positions while prosecuting/condemning the value/worthiness of those other positions.

    "I think the examples you give of martyrs prove the danger of absolutism as you cannot separate the violence and death you reference from either the defense or imposition of absolute truth. You speak of the Christian martyrs, yet for each one, I can give you thousands (rather millions) of indigenous martyrs who died at the hands of those who proclaimed their version of truth as absolute. You say that 'Christianity would likely not have survived' but for the defense by the martyrs of Christian truths (again, you show your bias when you give the example of Truth surviving as being the same as Christianity surviving--you assume they are the same, suggesting that it is not your desire to seek truths, but rather to dispense with all truths contrary to the one you hold dear--the Christian story). I say that whole civilizations would have survived but for the arrogance of those who proclaimed and imposed their version of absolute (read 'Christian') truth on others. How many lives, societies, and civilizations would have survived had we allowed the relativism you reject instead of the absoluteness you defend? You suggest a relativist would never die for Truth (again, however, your cultural/religious bias is evident in equating Truth with the Christian martyrs' understanding of it). I say a relativist would never kill for truth."