One can no longer be an intellectually sophisticated relativist. The view is now widely accepted as a complete failure. Its problems are too numerous and its benefits too few. That I can make such a statement and not feel compelled to list out those problems is as sure a sign of its demise as any. Furthermore, the denial of relativism isn’t simply what one must do to be a consistent Christian (though it is at least that). Open any standard textbook in Critical Reasoning or Ethics, regardless of whether the author is a Chrisitan, and you’ll find in the opening chapters a denunciation of relativism. You’ll be hard pressed to find more than a (comparatively speaking) handful of relativists in philosophy departments today. Given the utter failure of relativism, why should one bother thinking about it at all? There are two reasons it’s worth mentioning again. First, the reality of relativism’s failure has yet to reach the popular culture at large. One must be familiar with the theory, and what is wrong with it, in order to explain to our family members, co-workers, and friends why they should reject it. Because I believe that readers of The Bayview Review are already familiar with relativism’s problems I won’t spend time on the first reason here. Instead I’d like to focus on the second of the two reasons. A large number of people today, including Christians, will tell you that they believe relativism is false but then live their life as if it’s true. Too many Christians today are practical relativists. This is deeply problematic and must be addressed.
What do I mean by practical relativism? The practical relativist affirms there is such a thing as objective truth (e.g., moral, theological, epistemological, etc.), but when discussing some particularly controversial topic refuses to stand firm on what they take to be true. For example, there are a growing number of Christians that believe the Bible does not condemn monogamous homosexual relationships. Where the Bible speaks about homosexuality it is either only a cultural prohibition (and thus doesn’t carry forward to today) or is referring to promiscuous homosexual relationships. In the abstract, the practical relativist will denounce relativism but in practical situations like this refuses to take a stand either way. Instead of taking a definite stand on the issue, the practical relativist begs off the question and simply asks for advocates of both sides to be generous to one another. Being generous to one another is good, but it is hardly sufficient to settle vitally important questions like this one.
So that’s what I mean by ‘practical relativism’, what would cause someone to take this approach? I’m sure there are a lot of motivations, but I’ll just briefly outline two of them. The first reason one may accept practical relativism is that there is doubt about the actual falsity of relativism itself. There may be a verbal admission that relativism is false, but there is not an inner conviction that it is so. When I was enrolled at Biola University I recall hearing JP Moreland say in class that “Beliefs are the rails upon which our lives run.” Regardless of what people say, you can usually tell what they believe by how they live. If one denies relativism, but is never willing to take a stand on religious or ethical issues then there is a good chance that person doesn’t truly believe relativism is false. They think there are good reasons to reject it, but those reasons have not fully convinced them it should be rejected. It seems that the cure for this person is to go back and reconsider all the very good reasons that have been given for the failure of relativism. As one gains conviction that relativism is false, one will be less hesitant to refrain from taking a stand on various controversial issues.
A second reason people approach life as practical relativists is simply that they lack the conviction necessary to take a bold stand. After publishing my post “Why Diversity is Overrated” I heard various people all make a similar objection. Most said that my approach was arrogant because it assumes that I’m always right. But this is simply confused. I fully admit that I might be wrong on just about any issue. But in every case where I might be wrong I have no reason to think that I am wrong. Just think about it. If I had reason to think I was wrong, why would I go on believing whatever it is that’s under consideration? Conviction and arrogance are not the same, even if they are distant cousins. If you have good reasons to think that there is truth to the matter at hand, and you have good reasons to think that your position is the correct one, then you ought to demonstrate the conviction necessary to sway people to your view of things. The more serious the issue, the more true this is.
I’m now in the final book of Winston Churchill’s massive The Second World War and can only recall a few times that he admitted he was wrong about something. Even when he recalls the times he was overruled by the War Cabinet, or by Roosevelt, he finishes the account by saying something along the lines of “I believed I was right then, and I still do.” When it comes to war between great nations nearly every decision is, to use his frequently employed phrase, “of vital importance.” There was no room to allow his advisers to simply say “Well, there are several ways one might approach the issue and they all seem to have something going for them.” Instead he demanded that his people form an opinion for themselves and share that opinion with him, no matter how many others might disagree. When he finally made a decision it was because he thought he was right on the issue. It wasn’t presumptuousness or arrogance that led him to take this approach to war decisions. He took this approach because he had good reasons to believe he was right and had the conviction to stick to that belief.
War is a serious issue and Churchill was right to conduct that war as he did. But war is not the only serious issue. If Christianity is true, then people’s refusal to accept it as such is a serious issue. Given that Christianity is true, it is “of vital importance” to accept that God has a view on the moral conduct of his creation. Accepting this must allow for a full and frank discussion of topics related to moral conduct – even those that our society no longer finds problematic. It will not do to simply ask people to be generous in having the conversation. That is the starting point, but only the starting point. Churchill vowed to defeat Hitlerism in all its forms, wherever it stands. Because there is a truth to the matter, whether in ethics or morality, and God has allowed us ways of learning that truth, we must vow to do to relativism what Churchill and the Allies did to Hitlerism.
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