The Disaster of Relativism
Philosophers refer to our present era of intellectual history as the postmodern period. This means that we are beyond the modern period when the scientific method ruled. As hostile to Christianity as scientific modernism is, there is one crucial area in which both Christians and modernists agree. Both agree that absolute truth exists, though each has a profoundly different basis for grasping truth.
Postmodernism, however, denies that objective truth exists. Truth is only what you perceive it to be, and what is true for you may not be true for someone else. This viewpoint is called relativism.
I used to tell my students that I was not a postmodern professor, because I gave them grades based on the objective standard of my expectations. A consistent postmodern professor would have no choice but to give every student an “A,” since every student can say his “wrong” answers were true, from his point of view.
As silly as that prospect is, the bitter consequence of relativism is that all ethical systems and philosophical worldviews must also receive the same passing grade. If there is no eternal standard by which behavior and ideas can be judged, then all behaviors and all ideas must be equally regarded.
Despite its moniker, postmodernism is hardly a recent development. From the standpoint of Scripture, mankind has always been tempted to replace God’s objective will with his own self-will. I want to explore what the Bible says about this dangerous course.
The Paradigm—Romans 1
In Romans 1–3 Paul presents his indictment against sinful humanity, concluding that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Both Jews and Gentiles are guilty of violating whatever law God has given them. Romans 1:18–32 is Paul’s description of the utter sinfulness of the Gentile world. In this passage, I want you to notice two things. First, the root cause for this apostasy, and second, the consequences this had for Gentile society.
The Cause—Rejection of God
Romans 1:18 declares that God’s wrath is revealed against those who suppress the truth. What truth? “That which is known about God” (1:19). In particular, Paul argues that the Gentiles could know God’s eternal power and divine nature based on “the creation of the world” (1:20). The Gentiles were given clear proof of God’s existence and power though nature, but they suppressed this truth.
Man needs to believe in something. And what Paul goes on to say is that upon rejecting belief on God, the Gentiles invented their own religion. This religion denied God’s distinct role as Creator, and instead crafted gods in the image of creation, including man (1:21). This is mankind’s story. When we reject God in Whose image we are made, we replace Him with a god man in our own image. This is the essence of relativism—creating your own religion.
Next, in Romans 1:24–32, Paul outlines three severe ramifications of rejection of God, keying each with the phrase “God gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28). Far more consequential than man giving up God is God giving up man.
First, God gave the Gentiles “over in the lusts of their hearts” (1:24). Pagan religion was saturated with sexual overtones, complete with temple prostitution (see Gen. 38:21). It is no wonder that rejection of the true God led to promiscuity.
Second, “God gave them over to degrading passions” (1:26), defined here by Paul as homosexual and lesbian conduct. God built within His creation the ability to reproduce. Rejection of God as Creator would naturally lead to sexual abominations which fundamentally deny the life-giving reproduction inherent in God’s created order.
Third, “God gave them over to a depraved mind” (1:28). Paul’s description of the depraved mind is that it causes complete social chaos (1:29–31), or what we might call “man’s inhumanity to man.”
When mankind calls its own shots, the results are profligacy, perversion, and savagery.
A Historical Example
Not only does Scripture outline the evils of relativism, it also illustrates them. Let’s now take a look at a period of Israel’s history when “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25)—the period of the Judges.
The Root Cause
On the basis of Romans 1 we can anticipate what will happen next. First, the record speaks of a Levite’s concubine who “played the harlot against him” (19:2). This is what Paul spoke of when he said God gives the godless over to the “lusts of their heart.”
After tracking her down, the Levite passes through the region of Benjamin on his way home. At the town of Gibeah he finds lodging with an old man in the city. That night a mob from the city surrounded the house and demanded that the Levite be sent out so that they could abuse him sexually (19:22). This is the “degrading passion” Paul spoke of.
Desperate, the Levite sent out his concubine to the mob, and she was abused until she dropped dead at the door. The Levite then sent word to all the tribes about this disgrace. When the tribes demand that the men of Benjamin punish Gibeah, they refuse. Gibeah has found “hearty approval” in the eyes of Benjamin, as Paul said of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:32).
A civil war ensues in which the 11 tribes make war on Benjamin—social chaos at its worst. Of the 26,000 men of Benjamin who fought, only 600 survived (20:47).
I don’t think there is any question that our society is in the process of giving up God. Relativism abounds in our country, with no more vivid example than President Clinton. In his testimony during his scandal with Monica Lewinsky, the president repeatedly redefined terms like “sexual relations,” “alone,” and even “is” in a way that defied objective reality. The overwhelming public support he received can only mean that our society gives its own “hearty approval” to evil doers.
Relativism may sound like an esoteric philosophy, but its application is fatal to society. Our responsibility as Christians is to demonstrate consistent obedience to the truth of God’s word, and to share the news of the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” to the world (John 14:6).