Tag Archives: Relativism

You’re So Vain

freeimages.com/livingos“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…”

Carly Simon may not have had in mind the exclusivity of truth claims when she wrote those lyrics back in the 70’s, but that charge of vanity is also sometimes leveled at anyone who claims to be “right” about something, especially in the realm of morality. I read an opinion online recently that any one religion feeling their beliefs are superior to another is “egocentric and self-centered”. But it’s only egocentric and self-centered if all views are equal. If, for instance, Jews were actually correct that Jesus was not God incarnate, but only a blasphemous rabbi, or if the Muslims were actually correct that Jesus was a prophet and nothing more, then I would not say they were egocentric for saying they were right and I was wrong. On the contrary, their statement would then be rooted not in themselves, but in the objective truth that Jesus wasn’t really God (assuming for the sake of argument that was correct). This is actually the opposite of egocentrism and self-centeredness because the nature of objective truth means that we can be genuinely right or wrong based on the object we make a statement about, not our subjective opinion of the object. This is really other-centered rather than self-centered.

In fact, it’s the relativist worldview that is egocentric, as it seeks to define truth relative to one’s own standard. But some things really are independent of any standard we invent. Think of it this way: suppose I were color-blind and about to eat poison fruit that looked identical to a certain edible fruit except for the critical detail that they are the 2 colors I can’t differentiate. Should you, coming up to me right before I take the fatal bite (not being color-blind and knowing the danger I was in), refrain from telling me the truth for fear of appearing self-centered? No! First off, that would be selfless of you to try to warn me of the danger I was in. But I also wouldn’t call you self-centered because your warning was not simply your own personal opinion, but rather your awareness of the objective toxicity of the fruit. It’s poisonous whether or not either of us are aware of it, and whether or not either of us do anything with that knowledge. Regardless of whether I think the poison fruit will kill me, I’d still be dead in the morning.

Likewise, there’s another poison called sin that is killing each and every person on this planet, and there’s only one cure: Jesus Christ. It’s not self-centeredness, but rather selfless love,  that motivates (or at least should motivate) Christians to try to warn people of the danger they’re in. “But”, you might ask, “don’t other religions think they are helping people just as much with their proselytizing, too?” Yes, I would say they probably do, and they are probably very sincere in those efforts. But that is precisely where objective truth comes into play. Being sincerely wrong doesn’t alter the consequences of our choices. And so it’s not vain or self-centered for the Christian to believe they’re right and others are wrong if their beliefs are grounded in the unchanging standard of God’s truth instead of their own opinions.

Some would accept that truth is conformance to reality, but then say that only applies to description, not prescription. In other words, moral values prescribing what is right and wrong are allegedly outside the scope of objective truth because these aren’t statements about “real” physical objects that can therefore conform to reality. Yet the same unchanging God who made all of our physical reality also prescribed certain behaviors as right and others as wrong, whether we agree with them or not. And if reality is that which exists, then if these laws have been decreed by God, and so exist, then morality is simply part of the non-physical portion of reality. Just as descriptions of the natural world will be truthful when they conform to physical (or natural) reality, behavioral prescriptions will also be true when they conform to that non-physical (or supernatural) reality.

In the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of the Bible, we have a unified message from the Author of all of reality. And our understanding of both nature and morality need to be rooted in God’s truth if we don’t want to be tossed about by every new wave of ideology that comes across the bow as we sail the seas of this life. Rather than self-centered vanity, this is a most humble reliance and focus on our Creator as the only transcendent source of Truth.

Foundational Assumptions

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake
Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

There’s a saying about what happens when you assume, but the fact is that we all have to make assumptions at some point. You can’t build a structure without some baseline support like footings or piers; and you can’t build a theory, a philosophy, a worldview without some basic assumptions. In engineering, a common assumption is that a few test borings on a job site will inform you of the soil conditions across the site enough to complete your foundation design safely. We assume uniformity unless the test borings indicate otherwise. Some of the areas of my state are notorious for holes and caverns called karst formations. A geotechnical engineer colleague told a group of us of one case of a test boring showing solid rock about 10′ from a proposed footing location, only to pour the concrete footing and not fill up the hole. The reason: the concrete dumped in the hole had broken through the roof of a previously unknown small cavern…. Site uniformity is sometimes a very inappropriate assumption. Hopefully, like good structural foundations, your foundational assumptions for your beliefs are well-grounded. For instance, whether you believe that objective truth exists will determine a great deal of what you can reasonably believe. I say “reasonably” because one can, of course, believe whatever one wants, but if you want to hold reasonable views that are not self-contradictory or absurd in their actual application, then you need to have good foundational assumptions.

On what do you build your worldview? Relativism is the view that truth is relative to each culture, time, or even to each person in some forms. It is a lot like soil sensitive to a process called liquefaction. It seems to support weight alright when things are good, but when an earthquake hits, it turns to quicksand and provides absolutely no support. Scientism, the idea that science, or more specifically, the scientific method, is the only way of knowing truth, is a lot like those problematic karst formations. The scientific method, and science in general, is rock-solid in its area of applicability. Where it’s dangerous is when used outside of those areas. Science is great at describing stuff in the natural world, at telling us what is. My whole career as an engineer is predicated on science’s correct descriptions of the way the natural world works. Where it falters is when it’s asked to prescribe, to tell us what ought to be. We can do social experiments to see if people are selfish or mean or hateful, but science can’t tell us why they ought not be that way. In the areas it was designed to be used, science is trustworthy, but outside of those areas, it’s like building on Swiss cheese. Atheism and secular humanism often go together, as one denies God while the other elevates man to God’s position of ultimate authority. Yet this has turned out to be like building in a swamp full of peat and other “compressible material”: the higher one tries to build, the more weight one puts on the foundation, and the more it sinks. As the last century’s experiments in Communism – which were solidly and proudly atheistic – proved, man without God makes for a foundation of morality that sinks to frighteningly awful depths. Is there anything solid we can build a philosophy of life on?

There’s a saying that to build high, you have to dig deep. In other words, a house may be able to sit on a simple slab-on-grade, but a skyscraper will often have foundations going several stories underground. And when you dig down and hit something solid like Manhattan bedrock, you have the makings for some of the tallest buildings in the world. When building your framework of beliefs, some ideas will be necessarily self-limiting. They simply can’t hold up under examination. On the other hand, the Christian worldview is able to encompass all of reality because it is uniquely authored by the Creator of all reality. That is why Jesus was able to compare those who heeded His words to those building on rock:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
– Matthew 7:24-27, NASB.

Build smart. Build your life on the only solid rock – Jesus Christ.

“All roads lead to Rome”?

5-road-roundaboutMany atheists will say that all religions are the same, that “religion” as some broad homogenous category “poisons everything”. Religion is not true, contradicts reason and science, is detrimental to us,  and should therefore be abandoned, they say. Relativism, a current philosophical fad which claims that nobody is objectively “right” (except the relativist, apparently), also claims that all religions are the same, but instead that they’re all equally good. Sincere belief in any of the different world religions (or even your own made-up religion), will get you into heaven/paradise/nirvana/etc.

Are all religions the same? Do “all paths lead to Rome” (or heaven, in this case)? Both the atheist and relativist claims seem to break down under closer examination. The atheist claim that religion poisons everything ignores all of the tremendous benefits to humankind done in the name of Christianity (i.e. hospitals, insane asylums, and orphanages were all distinctly Christian inventions to care for “the least of these” who were very disposable in Roman and Greek culture[1]). Simultaneously, they magnify things Christians (or those claiming to be Christians) have done in opposition to Christ’s teaching, or group together actions of other religions with Christianity to get a negative “lump sum”. By that logic, we could lump Rolls-Royces and the old Yugos together and say all cars are worthless junk. Clearly, that would be a hasty generalization. Meanwhile, the relativist claim is self-refuting. Mutually exclusive worldviews can’t all be true. Jesus Christ stated in no uncertain terms, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father, but through Me.”[2] Yet Islam claims Jesus was only a prophet – honorable, but nothing more.[3] B’ahai claims He was a “manifestation of God, but not, in essence, God”. Judaism views Him as a blaspheming rabbi who claimed wrongly to be God and was justly killed for it. Other religions are happy to claim Jesus as only a prophet, teacher, or sage. Likewise, while religions will generally agree that things like murder and stealing are wrong, they disagree significantly on key issues like the nature of God (or if there even is a “God” or gods, e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) and the nature of an afterlife (i.e. individual entrance to heaven, or absorption into the Brahman and subsequent annihilation of individuality).  These simply cannot all be true.

I want to give one example that I think simultaneously addresses both the atheistic view of all religion being equally bad and the relativist view of them all being equally good.  The difference between Christianity and Islam can be best exemplified by their views on death: The faithful Christian says “I don’t seek death, but my death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if more people came to accept God’s free gift of  eternal life through Jesus Christ”, while the faithful Muslim seems to say “My death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if it condemned more unbelievers to death while guaranteeing my life in Paradise.” Big difference there. One seeks the benefit of others at the potential cost of one’s own life, while the other seeks one’s own benefit at the cost of others’ lives. Some may say that’s an oversimplification, but I think it corresponds well with the reality being observed in many parts of the world right now. For instance, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, and the apostle Paul said that such was his love for the Jews that he would be willing to be accursed – to forfeit his own salvation – if that could guarantee the salvation of his kinsmen. Compare that self-sacrificial spirit to Islam’s “blessings of the shahid” (martyrs), where dying in battle for the cause of Allah guarantees your entrance to Paradise, 72 virgins, riches and honor, and the ability to intercede for 70 of your relatives.[4] This is not hyperbole, but a guarantee of salvation for someone and their whole family at the expense of others.

In the end, all religions are not equally good or equally bad. Rather, one is true, and we must exercise discerning judgement so as not to be deceived. As the apostle John tells us, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”[5] The first step is recognizing the implications of one of the 3 fundamental laws of logic, the Law of noncontradiction, and not falling for the copout that all religion is the same.

[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Zondervan, 2001), pp. 151-169.
[2] John 14:6, NASB.
[3] See Surahs 5:72-75, 5:116-117 in the Qur’an, among others.
[4] Compare Romans 9:3 for the Christian with the following Muslim hadiths, here, here, herehere, and here.
[5] 1 John 4:1, NASB.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

cant-handle-the-truthIn the movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson famously go back and forth in court with Nicholson finally shouting back from the witness stand the classic line “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth can certainly be a powerful, devastating force at times. But what is truth? The Bible records Pilate asking Jesus that very question almost 2,000 years ago.[1] It’s a big question, but let’s look at one small aspect now.

Truth can be defined as the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”[2] This indicates that truth is not subjective since it “transcends perceived experience”. In other words, a statement is true when it corresponds to the object it describes rather than the perception of the observer. Hence, it may be described as objective truth. A color-blind person may incorrectly perceive some colors, but the actual color may be  independently verifiable by the wavelength of light being reflected from an object. That a particular apple’s appearance corresponds to what we call “red” is then objectively true regardless of how, or even if, we perceive it. Likewise, the statement that there is life on other planets may or may not be true; but if true, it will be because of such life existing and not because of our knowledge of it.

What then are we to make of claims today that “everything’s relative”, or that something may be “true for you, but not for me”? First, isn’t it a little ironic to use an absolute term like “everything” to deny absolutes? In fact, both of these statements are actually self-refuting. They “commit suicide” as Greg Koukl would say. What’s implicit in the relativist’s first statements is that everything is relative except their absolute statement. How convenient. But “everything” includes that statement, which puts it in the same category as saying “white is black”. Their 2nd  claim implies that statements may be simultaneously true and false for 2 different people, except for their statement that is assumed to apply equally for everyone. But I can simply apply the claim to itself and say that “true for you, but not for me” is exactly that – not true for me – and ignore it. Ideas have consequences, and because of this self-refuting nature, the concept of relative truth can lead to very real absurdities. Bob may sincerely believe that he can jump off a cliff and fly (without a hang glider or other aid), while his friend John sincerely believes he can’t and pleads with Bob not to jump. Is this a case of “true for Bob, but not for John”? Is John wrong to try to help his friend see his error?  Applying his knowledge of physics and its correspondence to reality to the situation tells John his belief that John will plunge to his death would actually be true for both of them, in spite of Bob’s sincerity to the contrary. That Bob cannot fly on his own is true for all people, for all time, and in all places. That is the nature of truth; we do not create it by our beliefs or statements, but rather discover it.

We can determine when statements about our material world are true (i.e. the law of gravity) by testing them. But what about immaterial truth claims? Are these actual truths or simply opinions? Can we test for truth? Yes. A true statement will always satisfy the 3 fundamental laws of logic[3]:
The law of identity – a statement is identical to itself and different from another statement. A thing is what it is. Saying “Hitler was evil” and saying “Hitler was good” are not equivalent!
The law of noncontradiction – a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. For a very clear (if somewhat harsh) verification of this law, the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna proposed this demonstration: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[4]
The law of excluded middle – a statement is either true, or its negation is true. There is no middle state between existing and not existing.

There are other tests for truth, but these are foundational prerequisites, for no matter how coherent or comforting a claim is, if it fails these tests, it simply can’t be true. And this is how “relative truth” fails.

[1] John 18:38, NASB.
[2] “Truth”, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,  1996 ed.
[3] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 132. See also D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical, (Random House, 2005), p. 26-28.
[4] Avicenna, The Book of Healing, Part IV, Metaphysics I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, published 1027.