Relativism’s Spectacular Failure

Relativism fails, and it fails spectacularly. I’ve seen it often enough in conversations with skeptics on my Thinking Christian blog. Here are two examples. Both of them unfortunately happened when I was using an older blogging technology with a commenting system that’s gone defunct, so I can’t direct you to them online anymore. But these are real conversation excerpts, I assure you.


Jacob was and probably still is an international public policy analyst. He also called himself a post-structuralist, which is rather similar to a postmodernist. Postmodernism is famously hard to define, but it tends to deny “metanarratives,” grand stories that explain reality. Everything is fragmented. In terms of language and truth, it tends to deny objective truth of language, and to attribute “language acts” to power acts instead. You do not speak to express truth but to maneuver for power in personal relationship.

So Jacob said to me once, and I quote,

… What is a ‘correct understanding’? What do you mean by that turn of phrase? My guess is that a ‘correct understanding’ is one that you happen to agree with or think that others should agree with. I would disagree. It is not necessary to use the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’–we participate in a culture in which those are familiar resources that we draw on to describe the world in significant ways. Is it necessary to describe the world in any one way in particular? I don’t think so. Why? Because the world I live in is not a functionalist system–I am not a cog in a machine. … The teacher trains the child to emit the signs that the teacher was taught to emit and their teacher was taught to emit and the people that certify teachers were taught to emit. Or said differently, of course 2 + 2 = 5 is an illegitimate answer. The child will probably be corrected, or retrained, if they said that it equaled 5.

Nevertheless, I’m quite sure that if he paid for his two Wendy’s $1 burgers with a $5 bill, he’d be unhappy if they gave him $2 back in change.

Then there was Paul, the music professor out west, who thought moral truth was completely subjective:

What does it mean to ask if one group is right and the other is wrong when right and wrong are defined by each group? The situation is relativistic. Both are right for themselves. I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture’s morality, from many cultures’ morality, but not from Hitler’s. … “That does mean that I give up the ability to say that in their own times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong…. I can still ‘want’ to out-law slavery in other societies because that is my moral code, instilled in me by my society. There is nothing stopping me from doing so, even as I acknowledge that, in slave culture, slavery is not wrong.

I have read this quote in conferences in North and South Carolina, saying, “What Paul means is that right here, in Carolina, in 1840, slavery was not wrong. I say it with fear and trembling, because I know how unspeakably awful his conclusion is. It’s just wrong to think it was not wrong. Same with the Holocaust, of course.

But it’s gone to extremes. The Family Policy Institute of Washington went to the University of Washington to ask how far people would go in allowing people to claim their own truth about their own identity. Joseph Backholm asked, “If I told you I was a woman … Chinese … 6’5” tall and a basketball player,“ he got answers like, ”Okay, be who you are!“ and ”So long as you’re not hindering society and causing harms to other people.“ ”I wouldn’t tell you you’re wrong… It’s not my place to … draw lines or boundaries“ with another human. And, ”if you thoroughly debated me, … I feel I’d be open to thinking you’re 6’5“.”

The great virtue they’re expressing there isn’t truth, it’s openness. We must be open to whatever anyone says is their truth. That’s what it takes to be a good person in today’s society. Which leaves Christianity in the hard position of being bad, since Christianity insists on there being one truth that’s true for all — the truth in Jesus Christ.

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