RELATIVISM by Walter Henrichsen,
In the March Dear Co-Laborer letter we examined That Which Delights the Heart of God. It was meant to be a bridge between the previous series, Who Defines the Ministry, and the current one, Relativism, even though the two are not inter—connected.
Because a broken dependent heart seeking the face of God is more important to Him than theological accuracy, it is possible for a person to be involved in an activity that is not Biblically considered the ministry, have him consider it the ministry and still receive the blessing of God. On the other hand, God is not indifferent to truth. The notion that there are no absolutes, that issues are relative, and that a person’s heart is all that matters is raising havoc in the church.
In this next series we will look at the origin of relativism and how it affects our lives today. This first in the series may appear a bit technical, but I hope it will lay the foundation for the rest of the material. In September we will look at other contributing factors and the way they have impacted our lives. In the following letters we will look at ways relativism has influenced society.
Again, let me urge you to interact with me on this as it develops. Your comments and challenges are very helpful.
Many years ago I represented the Navigators with Wycliffe Bible Translators at their missionary training camp in southern Mexico. While there we visited a tribe of primitive Indians who worshipped god-pots–clay pots in the shape of a bird. We asked the chief of the tribe a number of questions. One was, “What do you do if your god-pot doesn’t answer prayers?
His answer: “We break the god-pot and make another.” I remember reflecting on his answer and thinking that it was a simple solution to a rather profound and complicated problem. Having majored in philosophy in college, it occurred to me this was analogous to what happened in the history of philosophy. It was the making and breaking of god-pots.
Philosophy assumed the existence of something other than just the material world and that there exists a transcendent system of ethics that is absolute. One of the quests of philosophy was the identity of this system. Each philosopher in his turn set up his idea (god-pot) only to have it destroyed and remade by the next philosopher. Simplistically speaking, the story of philosophy is the making and breaking of god-pots.
For the most part this process came to an end with the emergence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel (1770-1831), a German idealist philosopher. Born in Stuttgart, he graduated from the Protestant Theological Seminary at Tubingen University in 1793. After a modest beginning he emerged as a philosopher of great notoriety, eventually taking the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin.
The teaching of Hegel and its ramifications will comprise the rest of this letter. My explanation borders on being simplistic. In the true sense of the word, I am a layman when it comes to philosophy, so if you are a philosopher and feel that the following is limited, you will understand why.
In essence Hegel argued that the quest for a transcendent absolute, in the history of philosophy, never produced fruit because it does not exist. His explanation became what we today call dialectical materialism.
Let’s begin by looking at these two words, starting with “materialism.” Hegel argued that the material world is taken without reservation as the real world. It did not come into existence through God’s creation or through any other supernatural or transcendent way. Matter precedes the human mind, and people are merely the outgrowth of matter. Time and space are forms of the existence of matter. The material world is the only world that exists.
“Dialectical” comes from the word “dialect” which is a manner of speaking, discourse or language. Thus “dialectical” is the practice of weighing and reconciling contradictory arguments, for the purpose of arriving at truth, through discussion and debate.
All reality (material world) is made up of opposing forces which, when interacting with one another, change into something new. This new entity is temporary, relative and in the process of change as it collides with other forces. These produce new changes, new conflict, etc. This change is unending. The thesis collides with the antithesis becoming a synthesis which in turn is a new thesis which collides with the antithesis.
What is true for things is also true for thought. Thought follows the same pattern, and ideas gain their logical content through being inter—connected to and in conflict with other ideas. Through this new ideas emerge which again are opposed by other ideas, and so forth.
An illustration of this is the teaching of Marx and Engels who applied Hegel’s dialectical materialism to sociology, producing communism. A “class” of people is a group in conflict with another “class” over the production and control of wealth. They struggle with one another, producing a classless society.
This conflict need not be violent, but the bourgeoisie do not want to share the wealth with the proletariat, and revolution is the result.
Marx and Engels disagreed with Hegel in that they felt that when the conflict was resolved in a classless society, there would be peace and tranquility, a utopian society, rather than the beginning of a new cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
Some also argued that it is possible to move into a classless society without revolution. This can be done in stages. Stage one is socialism whose motto is: “From each according to ability, to each according to work performed.” Stage two is communism whose motto is:
“From each according to ability, to each according to need.” Educating the masses is necessary as you move from stage one to stage two, teaching them that to work for the good of society as a whole is better than working for personal profit.
Western Europe is an example of a society seeking to move peaceably through the stages to egalitarianism. In England, when Labor is in power, the government nationalizes the banks, railroads, industry, etc., moving towards a collective ownership of the means of production. When the Tories are in power, government moves in the direction of reversing nationalization, selling it back to individuals.
The issue revolves around the nature of man. Is his nature influenced by supernatural forces that transcend the material world? Or Is he purely a material being, and thus his nature can be manipulated by education? Is man’s propensity to greed and selfishness a spiritual or an educational problem? Should society be established so as to account for the fact that man will not work as hard for what he cannot keep as he will for that which he can keep? The debate in the U.S. over taxes during the last seven years has at its core these questions.
Since the material world is the only world, there is no transcendent standard of ethics. Ethical decisions are not made on the basis of an absolute standard of right and wrong, but rather on the basis of what society deems best. Law is born out of pragmatism–that which society believes is right based on current experience.
Society has no obligation to be faithful to a transcendent standard of absolutes, because such a standard does not exist. Absolutes in the sense of right and wrong as taught in the Judeo— Christian religion are merely the expression of one class seeking to impose its will on another class.
It is immediately apparent that this thinking has gained wide acceptance in our own culture. In the next several letters we will look at other factors that have contributed to relativism as well as spell out various manifestations in the U.S. today.
One obvious illustration is how the law views immorality vis-a-vis discrimination. The state does not care if you fornicate, commit adultery or divorce, but it is deemed unlawful if the Rotary Club excludes women from Its membership. The Bible says nothing about the latter while condemning in the strongest of terms the former. For the followers of Hegel, morality is merely a question of what a changing society considers to be best.
Rejoicing in Christ,
In the July issue we explored the beginning of modern relativism by looking at the thinking of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel (1770-1831). Following Hegel on the stage of history was Charles Darwin (1808—1882). In his Origin of the Species (1859) and later in Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) he proposed what has cane to be known as the theory of evolution. Hegels philosophy argued for the evolution of the material world, and thus history. It seemed logical to conclude that Darwin’s work was merely a confirmation of Hegel’s thesis.
Paul Johnson, in Modern Times, considers Einstein’s theory of relativity a major contribution to the further slide towards relativism. Albert Einstein (1879—1955) developed the general theory of relativity (1914—16), arguing that the time elapsed between two events and the length of an extended solid body are relative to the choice of a coordinate system in time and space, and thus relative to the observer. To put it another way, he said that there is no absolute motion.
Johnson is worth quoting on this important development:
For most people, to whom Newtonian physics, with their straight lines and right angles, were perfectly comprehensible, relativity never became more than a vague source of unease. It was grasped that absolute time and absolute length had been dethroned; that motion was curvilinear. All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres. “The world is out of joint,” as Hamlet sadly observed, It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards of measurement. At the beginning of the l920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. (p. 4)
Marx, Freud, Einstein all conveyed the same message to the l920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man’s behaviour in society, were not to be trusted. Moreover, Marxist and Freudian analysis combined to undermine, in their different ways, the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code, which was at the centre of nineteenth-century European civilization. The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision – which both dismayed and exhilarated – of moral anarchy.” (p. 11)
Paralleling the field of science, theology developed along the same lines. The study of Scripture from the standpoint of literature dealing with such things as authorship, date and literary sources and types is, as you know, called higher criticism. It is a valid process used by scholars in varying degrees through the centuries.
After Hegel, however, higher criticism took a turn in the direction of what many today call liberalism. D. F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1836) applied the Hegelian method to theology denying supernatural acts and the deity of Jesus. Julius Wellhausen (1844—1918) was a German Old Testament professor whose work on the first five books of the Bible (History of Israel published in 1878) viewed the Old Testament as a composite document that evolved into its present form.
Aldolf Harnack (1851—1930), another German scholar, applied the Hegelian method to the historicity of the Bible. These influences are felt in most theological seminaries in the world today. Under the guise of scholarship it introduced relativism to the standard which for centuries has been considered absolute.
When you embrace the premise of Hegel, you lose all sense of moral direction. If there is no such thing as wrong, then why criticize “unethical” behavior? If there is such a thing as “wrong,” who decides what it is? If at is the state, then “wrong” is like breaking the speed limit on the highway. If you travel 65 mph in a 55 mph zone, you are wrong in the sense that you are liable for a fine, but not in the sense of being evil or sinful. For all know that the speed limit is a relative decision based on a set of data which is constantly changing. The state says the speed limit is 70 mph yesterday, 55 mph today, and 65 mph tomorrow.
Should the nation then be shocked over the conduct of Ivan Boesky and others involved in insider trading on Wallstreet? How does their action differ from that of the treachery of Walker, Pollard or Lonetree? The perceived consequences are different, but in none of these examples has an immoral act been committed, simply because relativism makes no allowance for morality in the absolute sense. All of these men had in common that they acted according to what they perceived best — with no reference to an absolute standard to which they would someday have to give account.
A current illustration of our society’s disregard for law based on its commitment to relativism is seen in the Iran/Contra hearings before Congress. Magazines and newspapers have been filled with editorials expressing amazement at the public’s sympathy towards Oliver North and its antipathy towards the U. S. Congress.
To explain how this came about, let’s use as an illustration Bill, who is a financial planner. Steve comes to Bill with some money, asking Bill to invest and manage it for him. Bill informs Steve that his money is invested in an instrument we will call “X,” but instead Bill takes Steve’s money aid invests it in “Y” because he is convinced that he can make more money for himself in “Y” while at the same time returning a profit for Steve commensurate with what “X” would produce. What Bill did with Steve’s money finally canes to light. Bill is indicted, prosecuted and incarcerated. Bill broke the law.
The U.S. Congress adopts the Gramm-Rudman Deficit Reduction law requiring the government to live within its means and begin reducing the deficit. Each year it “modifies” its own law refusing to live up to its commitments.
The U.S. Congress enacts a law which establishes an eight per cent airline ticket tax as well as a general aviation fuel tax for the purpose of collecting money for the upgrading of airports and air traffic control systems. Currently this trust fund has a surplus of some five billion dollars. The media is filled with illustrations of the need to upgrade both our airports and air traffic control systems, citing delays and near air disasters as examples of that need, but to “fight the budget deficit” Congress refuses to spend the money, having already used it for other programs. Finally the situation becomes so acute that Congress is prodded into action, borrowing from other programs what, had been spent earlier. Congress, however, will never be indicted because Congress makes the law and ostensibly is not obligated to live within the parameters of its own commitments.
Most perceive that there is not that great a difference between what Bill did with Steve’s money and what Congress has done with the money allocated to its own stewardship. Bill is wrong, and Congress is right. Thus there is a perceived hypocrisy on the part of Congress.
A poll taken by Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman and reported in the July 20, 1987, Time magazine noted that of those surveyed only 22% felt that Col. Oliver North’s actions in diverting Iran arms profits to the Contras was legal, and yet 69% answered “No” when asked if North should be sent to jail for his role in the matter. In other words, they perceived that he broke the law but felt he should not be punished for it.
When those on the Congressional panel inquired from North as to why he lied to Congress regarding the diversion of funds, North said it was because he could not trust Congress, and the people’s general response was not only to agree with North’s assessment, but to cheer him on in his stand against Congress, even though they felt that he broke the law. Furthermore, the survey went on to note that 50% of the people said they felt the proceedings were motivated more by politics than by evidence.
The disturbing thing about all of this is not whether aid should or should not be given to the Contras, nor whether arms should or should not have been sold to the Iranians. Rather, it is in the wholesale disregard for law. One of the reasons why people consider law negotiable is they hold in contempt those who make the law.
This contempt in part is based on their perception that Congress doesn’t keep its own rules and therefore tees no reason why the citizens should keep the law either.
The citizens, however, are not motivated to replace their congressmen with those who will live up to their commitments simply because, having embraced relativism, commitments are negotiable.
“Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (The last words in the book of Judges.)
Rejoicing in God’s Sovereignty,
German philosophy has played a crucial role in shaping the thinking of Western man–not only on the continent of Europe but also in the United States. Hegel, Marx, Engels and Nietzsche were all Germans, as were many of the existential thinkers that followed them, including Heideger. So also in the field of theology: Strauss, Wellhausen and Harnack were German, as was Freud in the field of psychology and Max Weber, the famous sociologist.
One doesn’t have to be acquainted with these men to be Influenced by them. Each in his own way contributed to the acceptance of relativism which has so profoundly affected our culture. A partial tracing of these men and their thinking may be helpful in getting a feel for where we are today. With this in mind, I have sought in the first two issues on relativism to trace in a limited way their contribution to where we are today. It may be helpful if we briefly look at one more man–Friedrich Nietzsche.
Possibly more than any other philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) forced people to face the implications of relativism. He didn’t write from the perspective that there were absolutes and that relativism takes man into an abyss of darkness. Rather, he laid out in stark terms the conclusions of relativism with a resigned, fatalistic acceptance. Nietzsche was a nihilist.
For example, Strauss in his Life of Jesus (mentioned in the September issue) sought to abandon absolutes without at the same time abandoning morals. Strauss exhorted his generation never to forget ‘that you are a human being and not merely something natural.” Commenting on Strauss’ desire to embrace relativism without abandoning morals, Nietzsche said, “Strauss fails to recognize that preaching morals is as easy as giving reasons for morals is difficult.”
In his third meditation Nietzsche reasoned that man is commanded to realize his true self. In a later writing he argued that ‘the striving for excellence is to overwhelm one’s neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one’s own feelings.” He didn’t propose violence, but rather that one’s true self could only be realized by comparing favorably with others. Having surrendered a norm outside of man, man became the measure of all thing.
Nihilism was a word coined in the 1860’s that carried with it two meanings: (1) “norms or standards cannot be justified by rational argument”; and (2) “a mood of despair over the emptiness or triviality of human existence.” The combination of these two meanings was used to describe the atheist. Nihilism is at the heart of relativism–from Nietzsche’s day until the present.
Originally the term “nihilism” was used to describe an anarchist. For example, one Russian nihilist of the mid-nineteenth century is quoted as saying,
“Here is the ultimatum of our camp: what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left–there will and can be no harm from it.”
Later the term was enlarged to include a disbelief in the possibility of justifying moral judgments in a rational way. Moral values were seen as the product of individual free choice, the product, of social conditioning or brute feelings.
Many saw the renouncing of an absolute moral system as a quick road to ruin. For example, in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov Ivan is quoted as saying, “If God does not everything is permitted.” Man will always consider law negotiable without accountability. Without God there is no ultimate accountability, and thus “everything is permitted.”
Today nihilism isn’t linked as closely with anarchy and atheism as it is with the individual who is victimized by industrialization and social pressures-—the robot-like conformist who is indifferent, detached and baffled by life. When one doesn’t know from whence he came, it is impossible to determine where he is going. People who embrace such a world view find little incentive to embrace an absolute moral law. For the nihilist, law is a political/social phenomenon that is both pragmatic and relative.
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), a French economist, statesman and author, wrote a small book entitled The Law. In it he argued that the purpose of law is to protect lire, liberty and property. This is a view commonly help by people before and since Bastiat. What he did in his little treatise, however, was to spell out the implications of this. He pointed out that as long as law stays within the parameters of protecting individual life, liberty and property, who makes the law is relatively unimportant. But when law is used to redistribute wealth and enforce a social agenda, then who makes the law becomes all important.
The battle that raged over the confirmation of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court is a case in point. The issue was never his qualification as a judge, but rather how special interest groups (either from the right or left) profit from the law. Never mind that Bork had the reputation of being a strict constitutionalist (i.e. he is reportedly prone to limit the use of law to the protection of individual life, liberty and property).
As a matter of fact, this is what bothered these groups. He was not perceived to be a socially active judge, that is, one who will promote the cause of the special interest groups.
When the purpose of law goes beyond the bounds of protecting life, liberty and property,or when the law abuses one of these three, then everyone wants a say in who makes the law. This is motivated by either a desire to correct perceived injustices in the existing law or to use the law for personal gain.
The U.S. Income tax, made law with the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution on February, 23, 1913, has been used through the years to redistribute wealth. Rather than protect individual property, the law “plunders” the individual’s property (to use Bastlat’s word). Furthermore, if the collecting of revenue was all Congress wanted from taxes, the tax forms could be reduced to a single page. Through the tax system Congress seeks to manipulate people to accomplish predetermined goals; thus, the constant shifting of the tax laws in regards to real estate, agriculture, etc.
Under the guise of justice, injustice is done. Wealth is stripped from some and given to others because it is more “just.” Justice shifts from being a morel issue to one of economics and social needs. Forgotten is the fact that the fundamental purpose of the law has been set aside and that people’s life, liberty and property are now abused. Wrong and right are measured by egalitarianism and economics.
In a later issue we will explore more fully how the state uses law when it has abandoned a transcendent truth system upon which law should be based. Here, however, let us note that the Bible admonishes the believer to be generous and sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, but makes no provision in either Testament to see that it is done through legislation. Theocratic Israel had no income tax. The people were commanded to give a tithe to the priests, not the poor, and even this was enforced by moral rather than legal constraint.
In Genesis 3 man declared his independence from God. The Cross is man’s return path to God, but it is a path of dependence. Faith is an expression of dependence. Thus “without faith you cannot please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
It is obvious to the casual observer that God has created the world and the people that are in it in an unequal way. Nations are not equal in regards to size, natural resources and circumstances. Individuals are not equal in regards to gifts, abilities and circumstances. This is providential with the purpose of forcing man to see his dependence upon his Creator.
Thus man Is forced with the choice of either addressing the inequalities of life by the rulership of God in his heart, resulting in a voluntary giving of his abundance to those in need, or by legislated redistribution, resulting in the immoral act of plunder. In the former man is dependent upon God; in the latter he is independent and ostensibly in control of his own destiny. Man would rather have the latter than the former, and God has created inequality for the very reason of forcing man to choose.
But he pays a terrible price in so choosing. It can only be had at the price of relativism, the use of law for the purpose of manipulation, and ultimately greed and envy where everyone interprets law in terms of what is best for himself. In such a system absolutes give way to relativism and Biblical hope gives way to nihilism.
Civil law is for the common good; God’s law is for individual good as well as the common good. Civil law is relative; God’s law is absolute.
Civil law may not necessarily be good for every individual, but it is good for society as a whole. Of necessity it is constantly changing, simply because what is best for society as a whole is constantly changing.
God’s law is limited in that it doesn’t cover every eventuality. There is, therefore, a great deal of room in society for civil law. Examples of this include the speed limit on the highway, regulations regarding immigration, local zoning codes, and the age when people are eligible to vote.
An illustration of civil law not necessarily being good for each individual can be seen in laws covering immigration. It may be argued that it is in my best interest to have my foreign friend become a citizen of the United States, but he may be unable to do so because he does not qualify.
Civil law, however, must always be subservient to and consistent with God’s law in order for a society to be under the authority of God. In the United States we claim to be a nation under God, as seen in the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag . . . , one nation under God, . . .” The fact that in practice we are not under the authority of God is what has caused so much trauma in our society these past several decades.
Relativism is embraced by a nation when it no longer recognizes God’s law and establishes civil law in violation of God’s law. In an earlier issue, for example, we noted that such a turn of events has resulted in our nation establishing laws condoning divorce, immorality and sodomy.
ESTABLISHING RELATIVE LAWS
When a society repudiates the premise that there exists a set of transcendent absolutes which are meant to govern all men, it is still faced with the need to establish some basis for law. No society can survive with each person defining right and wrong for himself. Thus a society that has embraced relativism falls back on two bases for determining right and wrong:
1. Fairness. Innate to each person is a sense of fair play. As children we all complained to our parents that it wasn’t fair that our brother or sister got a bigger piece of the pie than we did. This leads to laws that take from the rich and give to the poor.
If history has taught us anything, it is that a nation that allows too great a disparity between rich and poor cannot long survive. The Bible sought to ameliorate this disparity with Jubilee and admonitions not to neglect the poor. As already noted, there was no legislated enforcement of these commands in Old Testament Israel, but failure to comply was met with dire consequences.
An unwillingness to live under the authority of the Bible is a practical form of relativism, no matter what one’s theological presuppositions may be. When a person rejects God’s standard, then “fairness” legislated by law is where he ends. This is at the heart of socialism.
2. Negative Consequences. Because there are no absolutes, wrong is in the consequences of an act, rather than the act itself. This is why we conclude that it is wrong to deny women membership in the Rotary Club but allow consenting males to commit sodomy. With no absolute right and wrong, what other choice is there? It is the logical compromise between not allowing people complete and unbridled freedom and not enforcing a set of moral standards upon them.
For example, when we visit the memorial to the Holocaust in Israel, we find that there is no mention of sin or the fact that God is grieved by man’s inhumanity to man. Rather, the focus is on the consequences of the act (i.e. the near destruction of a people).
Again, in the movie, “The Killing Fields,” the story centers on the tragedy of millions of Cambodians being slaughtered rather than a wrong act being committed.
AIDS affords a case study of the dilemma a nation faces when it repudiates the existence of a set of transcendent absolutes. Rarely in history has a people faced a major epidemic, known it’s cause, and with a slight change in behavior been able to eliminate it in a short period of time.
Why, then, don’t we? To do so would require the bringing of behavior into compliance with the standards of God, and that is “unacceptable.” So the solution is to blame others and insist that enough money be invested in research to find a cure. It is interesting to note the media’s lack of any reference to morality in the discussion of AIDS.
When studying the Bible one gets the impression that God sees things differently.
1. Fairness. Not only can the casual observer see that God has created people unequally, He says as much in the Bible. For example, at the burning bush God says to Moses, “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)
Again, God says, “When ye be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession” (Leviticus 14:34). And again the Psalmist declares, “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: He putteth down one, and setteth up another” (Psalm 75:6—7).
Using man’s standard of fairness, God is not fair. Not only are people on earth unequal, so also in heaven. Angels aren’t equal. Even Jesus, when on earth, was not equal in authority with the Father (cf. John 5:30, I Corinthians 11:3).
2. Negative Consequences. Throughout the Bible God places the emphasis on the act rather than the consequences of the act. This is why God seems inconsistent when He has a man stoned who picks up sticks on the Sabbath and says nothing when Moses kills an Egyptian.
MORALITY BASED ON VHAT IS REASONABLE
This difference between how God views law vis-a-vis how relativism views it will be further explored in the next issue. But note that this is why many view the commands of God as unreasonable.
Those who repudiate absolutes do so by suggesting that the God of the Bible is “barbaric.” “A God who kills the two sons of Aaron because they made a mistake in the sacrificial system (Leviticus 10:1—2) or executed a man for picking up firewood on Saturday (Numbers 15:32—36) is not the kind of God I want to follow.” If an individual doesn’t clearly understand this difference between how God and man view law, he can be easily intimidated and put on the defensive by the relativist.
Man’s way of viewing law will always appear more reasonable than God’s by virtue of the fact that it is man’s view. It is in the nature of the case that we are enamored with ideas that originate with us to a greater degree than those that originate with others. The unregenerate mind will almost always conclude that the reasoning of man is superior to that of God.
Paul said, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14).
Because of this, the correcting of the convoluted thinking present in our nation today must be done through the preaching of the Gospel rather than the U.S. Congress. We cannot legislate change that will eliminate the ills of relativism.
Rejoicing in Christ,
The Bible teaches that we live in a fallen world. Sin has so disrupted the moral order that all of creation has been affected. Because of this man is not only in need of redemption but also a moral standard to govern his behavior. Thus we find in the Bible both the message of salvation and also the commandments of God which are meant to regulate behavior.
If there is no God, then there is no absolute standard of morality and consequently no sin. That is, sin is relative in that it is defined by the majority in a society of shifting moral attitudes. What was sin in one generation or culture may not be in another. Those influenced by a Judeo/Christian culture define sin in Biblical terms (i.e., sodomy, fornication, lying, taking God’s name in vain, etc.). In the 1920’s the United States defined sin as drinking. Today we define it as denying another equal opportunity and argue that fornication, divorce and sodomy are not sin.
PROCESS vs. PRODUCT
With God process is more important than product, but only because the eternal is more important than the temporal. For example, II Peter 3:10 reminds us that God will burn all things when He returns. But this is not to say that there is no pragmatic value in what we produce. If it is only the process that is important to God, then temporal results would be superfluous. But results are important to God. It is the stewarding of our temporal resources that make up part of the basis for our accountability before God (cf. Colossians 3:22-24). The objective or focus, however, must always be eternal.
William Buckley in U from Liberalism notes that for the relativist method is supreme and results are depreciated. For example, in philosophy finding Truth is not what is important but the search for truth. At first glance this seems consistent with the statement that “process is more important than product.” With the relativist, however, it is the eternal dimension that is missing – a dimension impossible to hold presupposing that truth is relative.
By instinct people are product rather than process oriented. The businessman wants the “bottom line.” All of us want to know how something is going to turn out. Relativism solves this problem with the promise of a future utopia. This is why most, if not all, relativists are socialistic. Socialism is eschatological and utopian. It is a system that looks to the future for its fulfillment of the ideal. It is a vision of the future in which racism, sexism, nationalism, economic inequality, and nations arming for war will cease to exist.
This “ideal” is an agenda created by man and serves man’s interests as he perceives them. It is at the heart of man s declaration of independence from God in Genesis 3:1-7. It is man seeking to create a system that is man-centered with no need for God.
The Bible is eschatological and utopian as well. It has a future hope in an ideal environment in which man will be at peace and free from want. But it is different from the vision of relativism in that it begins with a cataclysmic event in which Christ returns to rule.
It is God’s vision for man and God-centered. It is the reversal of Genesis 3:1-7 in that for man to participate he must renounce his Independence and declare his dependence upon God. Thus man is to live in hope of this event, not trying to bring it about by human reason or effort, but by living under God’s authority as revealed in the Scripture.
In order for man to implement his system he must repudiate the validity of God’s system, for the two are mutually exclusive. One is a declaration of dependence on God; the other a declaration of independence from God. Independence from God leads to the repudiation of a transcendent absolute. Right and wrong is decided by the utopian vision. The immediate good is sacrificed for the vision of the future, even if the act is immoral.
An example is found in “Letters to the Editor” in Time magazine (June 29, 1987) where Xiao Zhou wrote, “When guards took everything from my parents during the Cultural Revolution, I was only ten years old. I formed a strong hatred toward ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ although I did not hate my parents, for I thought some leaders had made a mistake by including them. I do not know where my hatred came from. I was too young to be considered a revolutionary. Probably it was the mad atmosphere that twisted my young mind. I still wonder how Mao brought out the most evil aspect in human nature and turned it into madness. Only a few people like Cheng refused to lie in the face of brutality. In order to avoid further mistreatment, most people ‘confessed’ things they had never done until, gradually, lying became a national disease. The love and trust destroyed during that devastating time are still missing in Chinese society. I know I am fighting the sickness I caught 20 years ago.”
In such a system justice is the creation of the state for the achieving of its own ends. The individual and his rights are subservient to the state, for the aim of the state, as Buckley points out, is the establishment of the millennium–without God.
Immanuel Kant said that belief in the soul is the necessary footing or foundation for morals and ethics. Without the soul there is no eternal accounting and thus nothing but raw pragmatism to guide life. Decisions are made on the basis of the here and now. There is no need for the soul in a purely temporal system.
In the tangle of complexities that surrounds the Iran-Contra affair it is easy for conservatives to overlook the fact that lying and deviousness with Congress took place. It may be argued that Congress is wrong, but they are our elected representatives with the power to enact laws. Representatives of the Reagan administration lied to Congress to hide Administration policy.
When President Reagan mined the waters of Nicaragua, Senator Moynihan correctly pointed out that he was breaking International Law in that the U.S. was committing a hostile act against a country it recognized. Moynihan reasoned that if the U.S. wanted to mine Nicaraguan waters, it should break diplomatic relations and declare war.
In these illustrations those who embrace an absolute standard of morality compromise that standard for the sake of expediency. There is little difference between those who embrace absolutes and then sacrifice them on the altar of expedience and those who repudiate the existence of absolutes.
Thomas Sowell in his A Conflict of Vision notes that when you have no absolute, it is the presence of naked power that impresses – especially as it Is used in accomplishing an agreed upon goal. Thus any excess is either viewed as a necessary “evil” or a defect in the expression of the agreed upon vision. Some believe you must fight fire with fire, and it is necessary to embrace the tactics of the opposition to win. To yield to such a temptation is to become a relativist. To break the law because the cause seems right is to embrace relativism and destroy the last line of defense against Satanism.
Bonded in the Truth,
In earlier issues on relativism we noted that at the heart of the question as to whether there is a set of transcendent absolutes that function as a compass for all people everywhere is man’s view of the nature of man. If man has evolved to where he is from lower forms of animal life, then the only difference between a man and a dog is biological. As we have seen, this was the thesis of Charles Darwin applying Hegel’s dialectical materialism.
The fundamental issue surrounding evolution is whether man is created in the image of God and is thus eternal in nature, or whether he is as temporal as any other form of life. If the material world is the only world, then truth is by definition relative and ethical decisions are made on the basis of a pragmatic sense of what society deems right and wrong at any given moment of time.
In this issue we will explore the implications of this from the perspective of what the framers of our Constitution had in mind and how it is being played out today in the U.S. Supreme Court.
TWO HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY
The celebration of the 200th birthday of our Constitution has given writers an opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of this venerable document. Time Magazine in its July 6, 1987, issue points out that there have been mere than 10,000 constitutional amendments introduced in Congress since 1789, but only thirty-three proposals have won the necessary approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and just twenty-six have passed the final hurdle of adoption by legislatures in three-quarters of the states. Commenting on this, Columbia University law professor Vincent Blasi said, “it’s dangerous to amend the Constitution too much. It won’t have the look of fundamental law.”
It is interesting that even people who deny the existence of transcendent absolutes agree that there is the need for “fundamental law” and that laws which are constantly changing are by definition not “fundamental.” Although the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century thought of their settlement becoming a theocratic commonwealth, the framers of our Constitution did not.
They were, by and large, theists or possibly deists, who agreed that there exists such a thing as “natural law.” But like the philosophers before Hegel, they could not totally agree as to what that law entailed. Thus, instead of going to the Bible and establishing a government patterned after Old Testament Israel, they wrote our current constitution, realizing that further enlightenment might reveal aspects of natural law that they had overlooked.
Natural law is not Biblical law, even though the Apostle Paul said that God wrote this law on the tablets of men’s hearts (cf. Romans 2:14—15).
What this means is, natural law is absolute and transcendent, but because it is written on the hearts of people, it cannot be seen absolutely. It is based on the conviction that there is a God, that He has revealed Truth and that men can agree on the core of what that Truth is even though they may not agree on each and every particular.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen drew attention to this fact in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast January 18, 1979, in Washington, D.C.:
Whence come our rights and liberties? Where do we get the right of assembly? Where do I get the right of free speech? Whence comes the right to worship? From the Federal Government? If our rights came from the Federal Government, the Federal Government could take them away. From the Supreme Court? If the Supreme Court gave us our rights and liberties, the Supreme Court could deprive us of our rights and liberties. Our founding fathers had to ask themselves this question when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. They looked across the waters and found one answer, namely, that the rights and liberties come from the will of the majority. They rejected that position, for if our rights and liberties come from the will of the majority, then the majority can take away the rights and liberties from the minority. Furthermore, the majority is the custodian of minority rights. They sought about for some basis and ground of human rights which would make them independent of man and they set it down in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Inalienable – they cannot be taken away because they come from God and not from the courts, congresses or majorities. Then, to make it doubly certain, in the Bill of Rights, it was stated that when certain rights are mentioned in the Constitution it must never be assumed that the people have no other rights than those granted by the Constitution.
The current debate surrounding the Constitution, part of which resulted in the U.S. Senate refusing to confirm Judge Robert Bork as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, centers on the question of how we are to view the Constitution. Is it, although flawed because it is founded on natural law, nonetheless based on a set of transcendent absolutes? This was the premise of the framers of the Constitution. Or, is truth relative, making the Constitution nothing mere than a document reflecting the values and opinions of the times in which it was written? This is the view of people like Justices Brennan aid Marshall.
Lino A. Graglia, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that this is not a new controversy. It has raised its head in various ways ever since the Constitution was written. An illustration is the “Dred Scott” case in 1857. Graglia says,
The Supreme Court held the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, and determined that Congress could not prevent the spread of slavery to new territories. There was no basis for this decision in the Constitution; it was simply an unwarranted intervention into political affairs on the part of several justices. The effect of the Dred Scott decision – the Supreme Court’s most significant contribution to American history – was to make a political solution of the slavery question impossible and to make the Civil War inevitable.
Quoting Justice Curtis in his dissenting opinion, Graglia says:
“When a strict interpretation of the Constitution, according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws, is abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control its meaning, we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean.”
As far as I know, Judge Bork never revealed whether he believes in Absolute Truth. His argument with the Senate had to do with the point Justice Curtis made: is the Constitution to be interpreted according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of any document, including the Bible? Bork argued that judges in constitutional cases should interpret the Constitution in accordance with the intent of the framers, those who wrote and ratified it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the view of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Speaking before a convention of patent lawyers in Hawaii a little over a year ago, he said the framers “set an unfortunate example” by trading “moral principles for self-interest” in approving a Constitution that was “defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation” before human rights were broadly recognized (U.S. News & World Report, May 18, 1987).
What was amazing about Judge Bork’ s hearings before the Senate was the fact that he was arguing that Congress should make law, not the courts. It is the job of the courts to ensure that the laws are properly executed and that they do not violate constitutional rights. You would have thought that the lawmakers would affirm such a view.
Instead, what has happened is, the Senate confirms justices to the court who strike down laws the legislature has made that have nothing to do with the violation of people’s rights as guaranteed in the Constitution – such as capital punishment – and make laws out of issues not guaranteed in the Constitution nor enacted by the legislature – such as abortion.
A JUDICIAL AGENDA
How can such a thing happen? What would motivate men like Senators Kennedy and Metzenbaum to vote against a judge who doesn’t want to legislate and for a judge who does? The answer lies in their view of man, which in turn shapes their social agenda for man’s future. As already discussed, with the surrender of Absolute Truth man becomes the measure of all things. His hope is in his ability to create a society of his own liking unaided by any standard outside of man. This philosophical presupposition unites like-minded people in their common vision, a vision which is both eschatological and utopian (as already noted in the last “Dear Co-Laborer” letter).
You would think that such a lofty and noble view of man would make such people confident of the democratic process. But just the opposite is true. Justice Brennan is quoted as saying that the view, that all matters of substantive policy should be resolved through the majoritarian process, has appeal, but only under some circumstances. And even under optimum conditions it ultimately will not do so. It will not do because the majority is simply not to be trusted.
The Intelligentsia have never trusted the masses any mere than they trust the absolutes of the Bible. The only thing they trust is their vision for the future, no matter the price the present generation has to pay to see it fulfilled. Without the rudder of Biblical Absolutes to guide them their morality is responsible for some of the most hideous crimes ever committed.
Paul Johnson, the British historian, notes that ideas have no value apart from their pragmatic impact on people’s lives. When a utopian vision is forced upon a society without consideration for how it affects individuals, great hurt follows. In the next issue we will further explore this.
Grateful for His Word,
In the last issue we concluded with the observation that the Intelligentsia have never trusted the masses any more than they trust the absolutes of the Bible. Instead, they trust a vision in which man is autonomous, in control of his destiny and lacking nothing. One of their favorite philosophers is Plato.
In one of the most influential books ever written, Plato’s The Republic, Socrates argues for the ingredients that make up a just Society. In Book I of The Republic Socrates is in dialogue with Thrasymachus over whether a ruler will exercise his power with restraint having the best interest of his subjects at heart. Socrates argues that he will, using the illustration of a physician who prescribes medication for his patients, desiring only their best.
Thrasymachus counters by suggesting that the ruler is like the shepherd who tends the flock and fattens the sheep for the slaughter. He concludes by noting that ‘justice is the interest of the stronger.”
Socrates cannot agree with his friend. Socrates believes that justice is in the best interest of all, including the ruler. As The Republic develops, Socrates argues for the creation of an elite class of the brightest and most able who are trained to become the “philosopher-kings” of the republic. Because they are bright and well trained, they will rule with justice and equity.
Historically the Intelligentsia have been enamored with Socrates’ vision simply because they are persuaded that they are that elite class who, if only given the reigns of power, will correct the mess in which the world finds itself. This is the reason why, as already noted, men like Justice Brennan have little confidence in the rule of the ignorant and unlearned masses through the democratic process. They do not know what is best for themselves and need the benign dictator embodied in the idea of the “philosopher-king.”
Academia over the past 100 years has been enamored with Marxism, a current manifestation of Socratic philosophy. In England during the days of Queen Victoria and the establishment of the colonial empire, the Fabian Society permeated the British university system with its socialistic beliefs. Thus, all of Great Britain’s colonies were educated in socialist philosophy, and when they gained their independence after World War II, they became socialist States.
Today, countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are bankrupt because of socialism and look to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to sustain their economies. Tanzania’s president, Nyerere, practically destroyed his country’s economy, yet the people remain mesmerized by the socialist vision. As one Tanzanian put it, “With great respect to the old teacher, Nyerere, we can’t afford to be socialists until we’re well off.”
Although academia is loath to admit it, National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany was Marxist. For Hitler it became more a vision for the Aryan race than a philosophy for all the world. It was Marxism with a cloak of nationalism, thus “National Socialism.”
Hitler’s National Socialism is an embarrassment to the Marxist, in part because it sought to liquidate the Jewish race, and so much of the Western intelligentsia is Jewish. As we will see in a later issue, this same vision of socialism embodied in nationalism now finds its incarnation in Zionism.
THE RISE OF STATISM
Will Herberg (1909-1977), an interpreter of American religion and culture, wrote an article in March of 1968 in which he pointed out that the moral crisis of our day is not the violation of accepted moral standards, but the rejection of moral standards. The absence of absolutes that govern behavior leads to self-aggrandizement. Quoting Jacob Burckhard, he says, “When men lose their sense of established standards, they inevitably fall victim to the urge for pleasure and power.”
He continues, “Human problems are increasingly seen as technological problems, to be dealt with by adjustment and manipulation; the test is always how it satisfies desires or enlarges power, not conformity to a truth beyond man’s control.” With such a mindset people fall prey to the vision of the “philosopher-king” who can satisfy their desires or enlarge their powers.
In communist Russia, the elite class of rulers envisioned by Plato is seen in the politburo. Like the U.S. Russia has repudiated the existence of moral absolutes. Thus, in its quest for a utopian vision where the people’s desires can be satisfied, the state holds absolute away over what is right and wrong. Paul Johnson, in Modern Times, says:
Marxism had never produced a philosophy of law. The only true Soviet legal philosopher, Evgany Pashukanis, argued that in the socialist society Law would be replaced by Plan. This was logical, since the notion of an independent legal process was incompatible with the notion of an inevitable historical process interpreted by the ruling Marxist elite. Pashukanis’s own case proved it: law was replaced by plan – Stalin’s – and he vas murdered in the 1930s. The 1958 enactment could not be applied in practice because it would have given the courts the beginnings of an independent status and so allowed them to erode the monopoly of power enjoyed by the party. Even under Khrushchev no Soviet court ever returned a verdict of “not guilty” in a political case; nor did a Soviet appeal court ever overturn a guilty verdict in a political case – thus preserving an unbroken record of entire subservience to the ruling party from Lenin’s first years of power until the present. (Emphasis added.)
What we discover, then, is that Thrasymachus was correct, “Justice is the interest of the stronger.” This holds true even though Socrates overruled Thrasymachus, even though the Intelligentsia embraces Socrates, and even though societies have implemented the Socratic vision for the Republic.
The insidiousness of it all is seen in the fact that even in the face of failure, the Intelligentsia fall back on one of two rebuttals: (1) “It isn’t quite perfected yet. What we need is a little more time and money.” (2) “Their model was flawed because they didn’t implement the principles correctly. When we do it, we will do it right.” The “plan” becomes absolute, because law based on a set of transcendent absolutes does not exist. The “plan” is the implementation of the vision without any moral restraint.
RELATIVISM IS A TRAP DOOR TO UNBRIDLED EVIL
The dictionary defines statism as “the principle or policy of concentrating extensive economic, political and related controls in the state at the cost of individual liberty. It is the support or belief in the sovereignty of a state.” A nation that does not base its laws on a set of transcendent truths must fall back on a relative system whereby the state determines right and wrong based on a fluid set of circumstances.
Paul Johnson, in Modern Times, notes that statism sought to produce the utopian society (the same vision Socrates had in the Republic). “But the experience of the twentieth century is emphatically that Utopianism is never far from gangsterism.” Rather than being an agency of benevolence, it became a tyrant. As noted in the last issue of “Dear Co-Laborer,” when an utopian vision is forced upon a society without consideration for how it affects individuals, great hurt follows.
Up to 1914, it was rare for the public sector to embrace more than 10 per cent of the economy; by the 1970’s, even in liberal countries, the state took up to 45 per cent of GNP. But whereas, at the time of the Versailles Treaty, most intelligent people believed that an enlarged state could increase the sum total of human happiness, by the 1980’s the view was held by no one outside a small, diminishing and dispirited band of zealots. The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways; and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivaled waster. Indeed, in the twentieth century it had also proved itself the great killer of all time. By the l980’e, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural death of over 100 million people, more perhaps than it had hitherto succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means. (Johnson, p. 729)
Parenthetically, one hundred million people in 60 years is about 1.67 million people per year. We abort approximately this number of babies every year in the U.S.
Johnson pronounces the system bankrupt and dead. But men will lust after the vision of Socrates in defiance of God until they are converted, or until Jesus returns to establish His kingdom.
NATURE OF MAN
Relativism assumes that man is neither good nor bad, but neutral. He is a blank slate that can be written on. People are like animals In that you can train them to be and do anything you want. Just as you train a dog to be “house broken,” to sit when commanded, roll over, chase a stick, etc., so also a human.
Because man evolved from the animal world, the only difference between a dog and human is biological. He may be a higher form of life but is like an animal in this important sense of being neither good nor bad.
Psychologists debate the degree to which humans are shaped by their environment vis-a-vis their heredity. All of us have read articles arguing that our problems are the result of environment or heredity. For example, newsmagazines feature articles on schizophrenia, tracing this emotional disorder to an isolated DNA. Hopefully by genetic engineering personality disorders may someday be eliminated.
Philosophically aborting a human is no different than aborting a cat. Emotionally people cannot equate the two, at least not yet, and there is a utilitarian reason for making the distinction: the preservation of our species. Still, as the human race multiplies, making this small planet even more crowded, pragmatism will prevail, bringing us euthanasia as well as abortion. It is interesting to note the increasing visibility of animal rights movements. Relativism is on their side.
Relativism argues that there is no such thing as a set of transcendent absolutes. Such absolutes presuppose a Supreme Being to whom all must give account, and this is an impossibility in relativism’s scheme of things. The norms of society are based on: 1) Fairness – which for all practical purposes means equality, and 2) Wrong – which is in the consequences of the act rather than the act itself (cf. Dear Co—Laborer Letter, March 1988).
For example, when Barbara Walters interviewed Donna Rice regarding her sex scandal, she was asked if she felt guilt. Donna Rice said, “no.” When asked what lessons she learned from it, she said that one has to live with the consequences of an act and that the consequences not only affect you but others also.
This is an amazing conclusion in light of her confession that there was no feeling of guilt. But it is compatible with relativism’s premise that wrong is in the consequence rather than the act, which is another way of saying that wrong is getting caught!
June 27, 1988, Time magazine had an article on ethics entitled, “Not in My Backyard You Don’t!” It highlighted the dilemma that people acknowledge that there is a legitimate need to care for the homeless, AIDS victims, drug addicts, build more prisons, dispose of garbage and toxic waste, etc., but they do not want to pay the price of doing it. Needs are legitimate just as long as they do not touch me.
Time notes, ‘But from an ethical point of view, there is little distinction, so long as society lawfully sanctions both treatment for drug abusers and manufacturing processes that create poisonous wastes. . . The ultimate issue of community is, what do we owe other people?’ (Emphasis added.) ‘Society’ is the only standard. Consequently, people become selfish in an almost absolute way. The only question is, “How does it affect me in this temporal environment?”
People are neither good nor bad, but they are improperly educated. Thus when people do not conform to the norms of society, it is either a genetic problem, as in the case of schizophrenia, or it is a societal problem in that society has inadequately educated the person.
For this reason it is preferable to call penitentiaries correctional institutions. In the recent campaign between Bush and Dukakis the issue of furloughing murderers was debated. Was it wrong to allow Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, back on the streets? If Horton’s problem is educational rather than a depraved nature, then society is to be blamed for improperly training him.
Learning is the highest virtue. Socrates’ philosopher – king in Plato’s Republic is the highest office. The university campus is not an immoral environment. Quite the opposite; they set the norms for acceptable behavior in society. Education is “value free” or “value neutral.” It is the intelligentsia that decides what is best.
The solution to man’s “problems,” therefore, is appropriating more money to improve the conditions that cause people to go astray (e.g. housing, schools, job training, and education). It is not that helping people is wrong or counterproductive, but rather this fails to identify the problem. Does the problem reside primarily in the nature of man or in the way society influences him?
By and large the media favors the left. This is not because those in the media find no fault in the likes of Mao, Ho, Castro and Ortega, but because these men have embraced the correct philosophy and at least are trying to make it work.
Relativism appeals to reason, and reason dictates that man is autonomous and must make his own laws. These laws have as their goal the uniting of mankind in a utopian society. The end justifies the means. “Excess” is justifiable if it is motivated by the correct end or vision.
Because the media sees itself as part of the intelligentsia, it participates in ruling. Thus it does not simply report the news, it editorializes and seeks to influence in the direction of this common vision.
Just as the relativist believes the only difference between a human and an animal is biological, so also between a man and a woman. There is no God-given role to men and women, and therefore no difference. Apart from childbearing, which is purely biological, they are the same. Their uniqueness lies not in how God has created them but in their achievement as they compete with their fellow human beings.
To insinuate that there is a difference in roles is to evoke the harshest of responses. Even in the church it is insisted that the Bible be stripped of its sexist language.
Commenting on the militancy of the feminists, one woman writer says, “These manqué Liberals, struggling with a Puritan legacy in a no-fault culture, seeking salvation without admitting to sin, ask to be delivered from a sterile world but not at the price of surrendering what holds them to it.”
This is a word that has become disreputable in recent years. Partly it is because people want to be independent and in control of their lives. The recommended antidote is for the individual to suppress his rights and freedom for the good of the whole.
On the surface this seems good, even Biblical. And it is good if the individual sees his worth in being redeemed by the One who has chosen him for all eternity to be an “heir of God and joint-heir with Jesus Christ.” This results in a voluntary giving of self in meeting the needs of others.
On the other hand, there is an anti-individualism advocated that has as its focus the welfare of the state at the expense of the individual. This view argues that the worth of the individual is found in his contribution to the whole. As an animal he has no intrinsic worth. Rather than the state existing to serve the individual, as our founding fathers envisioned, it is the other way around; the Individual exists to serve the state.
Interestingly, when the state teaches that the individual has no intrinsic worth, people, instead of becoming self-sacrificing and willing to expend themselves for others, become selfish and self-centered. One university student had written on his sweatshirt, “Nothing is worth dying for.” What he is saying is, “I am not worth dying for.” This means, if he is trapped in a burning building, a fireman shouldn’t risk his life trying to save him.
Because there are no transcendent absolutes and therefore no afterlife, there is no ultimate purpose to life. To talk about purpose becomes a disturbing issue, one to be avoided.
Technology assists in helping people to avoid it. Communication has become entertaining. TV, video, newspapers and magazines seek, by and large, to entertain. Even In church, if the pastor doesn’t ascend out of the floor on a mechanical platform backed by a fifty rank organ and a two hundred-voice choir, he has a hard time keeping his congregation.
There is no time or inclination to read and ponder the great books which probe the issues of life. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture cannot ask hard questions. We don’t want those hard questions asked. We would rather dull our intellects with self-indulgence lest we are forced to ponder the implications of relativism
Relativism has captured the imagination of the intelligentsia. Society is being systematically brainwashed with its tenets. What is the solution?
Many believe it is in “getting involved” in the fray of legislation and protest. I would like to suggest that just the opposite is true.
Peter Berger, a professor at Boston University points out, “Religious institutions serve their most important secular purpose precisely when they are least secular in their activities. Society, under certain circumstances, can easily do without church-operated soup kitchens or universities. But society can ill afford to lose the reminders of transcendence that the church provides every time it worships God.”
It is precisely when the people of God are calling the lost to faith in Christ that they best serve as a strategic counter-balance to relativism.
Yours for the propagation of the Gospel,
The distinction between traditional justice and social justice has been noted by many authors. Traditional justice assumes the depravity of man and establishes laws to encourage virtue and discourage vice. Traditional justice – most frequently seen in civil and criminal justice – assumes a set of rules that are right for all people at all times. It is based on a set of transcendent absolutes.
Social justice is a utopian concept, calling for a world order that is egalitarian. Thus the current social order is judged on the basis of this vision of the future in which the common good is equally distributed among all men. The vehicle for change is the state. Traditional justice is relativized by the state in its quest of utopia. Social justice becomes revolutionary, insisting that traditional justice accommodate itself to the desired end.
An example of this Is affirmative action, where in the name of social justice individual rights are compromised. Traditional justice Is subservient to social justice. Laws protecting the Individual are compromised to achieve desired ends. This Is the basis of Income redistribution, rent control laws, hiring quotas, etc.
When the state takes upon itself the task of providing for the total needs of people, religion becomes its competitor and eventually Its enemy. This is why Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses and why in most communist states religion is discouraged, if not suppressed.
In Scandinavia, where the welfare state is highly developed, religion has declined. In the name of separating church/state affairs, the state takes on the role of being a religion. The people look to it for the meeting of their needs, much like religious people do their god. Even In Sweden, where it Is the Lutheran State Church, the church has waned while the state waxes. It is estimated that in Stockholm only one out of every two hundred people attend church.
Because social justice replaces traditional justice as the final arbiter, morality in Scandinavia has also declined. It is reported that in Sweden, where the legalizing of abortion was pioneered, they are now moving in the direction of legalizing incest. In Sweden and Denmark one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, and the ratio of legitimate – illegitimate births is equal.
Can the law become the instrument of the state to enforce social justice; and thus relativized, can democracy survive? Many would argue that
this is debatable, but it seems to me that the obvious answer is no.
Democracy assumes that there is no universal vision towards which all are moving. There are only individual visions or dreams. The purpose of the state is to create an environment of equal opportunity which is not the same as egalitarianism but established on just laws giving each person the chance to fulfill his vision.
The moment the state takes upon itself the task of defining for all a common vision, totalitarianism is not far behind. The people are no longer free to decide. As in affirmative action, the rights of the minority take precedence over those of the majority. Law is seen, not as a standard of transcendent absolutes, but the mechanism of the state to implement its utopian vision. The only immorality is that which conflicts with the state’s vision. Law regulates economics, not morality. The individual is free to choose his own moral standards (ostensibly within the parameters of not infringing on the rights of others) but becomes a slave to the vision of the state.
The individual is forced, through taxation and other coercive measures of the state, to participate in the accomplishing of its vision and, at the same time, victimized by the behavior of people who are freed from the restraints of traditional justice. All one has to do is watch the progression of cinema over the past twenty years to see the ratcheting of immorality from one degree of lewdness to the next.
Concerning the 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” we were told that it was a deeply religious film by a sensitive film writer. Who decides? Can the blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Poles or any other group be blasphemed, villanized and ridiculed under the guise of being sensitive? If it Is the affected group that decides, then “The Last Temptation of Christ” was, from all reports, a deeply offensive film.
In an environment where morality is relativized and the vision of the state is absolutized, democracy cannot survive, for the individual is faced with the twin evil of having no protection against what natural law, tradition and the Scriptures have historically declared to be wrong, while at the same time being forced to participate in a dream not of his own making.
It may be asked, how can a democratic people be forced to participate in a dream not of their own making? Two Influences bring this about. First is the dream of better things to come that is endemic to the human race. It is natural to have hope, unnatural and sad to meet those without hope. Thus, those with hope either dream of attaining better things in this life, or in the one to come. The more secular a people, the more temporal their hope and the more prone they are to allow the state to define utopia.
Second, relativism insists that there is no cause/effect relationship between what the Bible calls sin and what society acknowledges as negative consequences. The confession of Ted Bundy to James Dobson before Bundy’s execution is an example. Bundy noted that it was his addiction to pornography that led to a life of sexually related murder. Immediately the public was cautioned that such linkage is unscientific and that you cannot prove that one caused the other. There are simply too many variables. The Meese Commission claimed such a link based on “assumptions that are plainly justified by our own common sense.” The ACLU countered that those who are guilty of sex crimes have a natural interest in pornography.
Without Biblical absolutes it is difficult to convincingly link the effects of sin with the sin itself. And to the degree that it can be done, it is then argued that there was really nothing wrong with the effects In the first place.
A SENSE OF WELL BEING
Relativism destroys a society’s sense of well being. Charles Murray notes in In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government that the wealth of a society lies, in part, in the quality of Its people. If there is no morality, but only individual preferences, then society feels unsafe because people do that which is right in their own eyes. A poverty develops which is far worse than that produced by an inadequate standard of living.
When people are told that they have a right to what is not theirs, and that it Is the job of the state to take from the “haves” and give to the “have nots,” then any perceived inequality becomes an excuse for hostility. People who look to the state for the meeting of their needs find that their needs are insatiable. Hedonism, void of moral restraint, bankrupts a society. Civility among people and what may be called civic morality is eroded. People, perceiving themselves as deprived, become sullen and angry.
One author notes that the fear of crime in society is not measured solely by statistics on crime but must also include the subjective dimension of how safe its citizens feel. Using this criteria, most people feel unsafe in public. They are accosted, glared at, verbally abused. Civility is absent.
“The deterioration of politeness and public manners is at a sufficiently rapid stage to be measurable within any one individual’s experience,” said Dr. Willard Gaylin, a psychoanalyst who is president of the Hastings Institute of Society, Ethics and Life Sciences, as reported in our local newspaper. Ratings on TV talk shows break viewing records based on the degree to which they are nasty and rude.
This rudeness and lack of civility makes people uncomfortable if not unsafe. The absence of moral standards and the presence of unrealistic expectations, feeds this problem. It Is the fruit of relativism.
With the decline in the belief in the soul’s existence and the conviction that all life holds is here and now, the individual is left to live in a spiritual vacuum. The state tells him that he must sacrifice for the common good and that the needs of the less advantaged take precedence over the needs of those more richly endowed. Believing that the here and now is all he has, his only hope is to be counted as part of the deprived minority, and thus the recipient of the state’s largess, or turn against the state.
In either case the state will end bankrupt or be forced to terminate the democratic experiment, replacing it with a totalitarian form of government. With no hope in an eternal destiny with its day of reckoning when all people everywhere will be judged on the basis of a set of transcendent absolutes, man is left to live out his temporal existence like an animal.
Grateful for His sovereignty,
One of the most attractive expressions of relativism is what is called “cultural relativism.” James Rachaels in his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, defines cultural relativism and explores Its ramifications. I am indebted to him for much of the following but not the conclusions. As far I can tell, Mr. Rachaels does not adhere to any transcendent system of truth.
The sociologist, William Graham Sumner, writing in 1906 said:
The ‘right’ way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end or our analysis.
According to this position, believing in a universal truth in ethics is believing a myth. The customs of different societies dictate different moral codes, precluding the possibility of having an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. Rachaels suggests that the cultural relativist operates from six presuppositions.
1. Different societies have different moral codes.
2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.
3. The moral code of our own society has no special status. It is merely one among many.
4. There is no universal truth in ethics – that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
5. The moral code of a society determines what is right within the society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least in that society.
6. It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other people. We should develop an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
Illustrations of this abound. For example, certain of the tribes of the American Indians indigenous to this country deserted elderly widows, allowing them to die through neglect and exposure to the elements. Certain tribes in Irian Jaya practice cannibalism. There are numerous examples of cultures practicing infanticide. To impose our moral code on such people and pronounce them wrong is nothing short of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. What Is necessary is to practice a sort-of moral isolationism. As Herodotus writes in his History, ‘Different cultures have different moral codes.” What is thought right in one group may be utterly abhorrent to the members of another group and vice versa.
The shortcomings of such a system are immediately apparent. If we embrace cultural relativism, then the United States is bigoted in denouncing apartheid in South Africa. Or, possibly more importantly, we have no moral grounds for judging as wrong the anti-Semitism of Second World War Germany.
Rachaels goes on to note that if right and wrong are relative to culture, then it has to be true for our own culture as well as for others. Such relativism would not only forbid criticizing other societies, it would prevent us from criticizing our own, as we did slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. Furthermore, it would be hypocritical to talk in terms of a culture progressing in any moral way. For example, we might conclude that we prefer the way that women are treated in Twentieth Century America vis-a-vis the way they were treated a couple of centuries ago, but we could not call this progress, for progress implies a right and wrong which simply does not exist in cultural relativism.
All ISSUE OF PRAGMATISM
Rachaels seeks to “save the day’ by suggesting that there are morals that are common to all societies. For example, even though societies practice infanticide, all societies acknowledge the fact that human infants are helpless and require great care to survive and that it is in the best interest of a society that the children do survive simply for the preservation of the group.
This is the reason why there is a general prohibition against murder that transcends cultures. Even the cannibals of Irian Jaya are not allowed to apply their trade to fellow members of their tribe. These moral “rules’ are common to all societies in that they are necessary for the society to exist.
Notice, however, that this is a moralism born of pragmatism. For I may elect not to practice euthanasia with my parents, because I recognize that someday I will be old and it is not a precedent that I want to establish for my children. That is, I don’t want my children to treat me the way that I treat my parents. The problem is that pragmatic morality ends up being relative. For example, I may reason that if I am in severe pain, I would like my children to mercifully take my life, and therefore I ought to do the same for my parents.
REVELATION AND REASON
Truth, if absolute, must be the product of revelation, not reason. Truth may be reasonable in the sense that it does not contradict reason, but reason unaided by revelation can never lead to truth. Reason is the product of the mind, and the mind must deal with pragmatics.
Look again at the example of euthanasia. The Bible commands, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is reasonable in that it does not offend our moral sensibilities. After all, they are the ones who gave us life and provided for us through the years of our immaturity.
Now these same parents are old, incontinent and suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. They are in constant need of care and a threat to our financial survival. Euthanasia is suggested as a solution – a quick, painless end to a life that is already finished. Reason unaided by revelation will give way to a pragmatic morality.
THE SATANIC VERSES
Roger Rosenblatt, writing in U.S. News and World Report, (2-27-89) suggests that the reaction to Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, is the product of the zealot’s imagination at three levels: (1) The protestors by and large haven’t read the book, and so imagine the content. (2) The faith they seek is the product of the imagination (3) They imagine the consequences of surrendering to the perceived threat.
Levels 2 and 3 presuppose that revelation is nonexistent apart from the mind’s ability to imagine it and that reason is all life has to offer. “Reason” therefore dictates that to be offended by Rushdie or Scorseses film, “The Last Temptation,” is indicative of the zealot’s imagination gone wild, while to protest against apartheid or women being denied access to the ministry of the church is reasonable.
Inevitably zealotry must ignite explosions like the Rushdie riots, because it thrashes about in a rigid structure that it sought in the first place. Zealots deliberately will allow isolation (another act of the imagination). They allow themselves no room for skepticism and criticism, and yet it is the internal skepticism and criticism that give birth to the outbursts. In a way zealotry is a self-realizing prophecy; outer forces are indeed as threatening as they seem, for they have instilled the self-doubt that must eventually bring the zealot to his knees.
This is the conclusion of reason, as it evaluates revelation. Relativism is the product.
The cultural relativist finds fault with those of us who believe in a set of transcendent absolutes based on revelation, in part because we are inconsistent with our own system. Not infrequently the church absolutizes what the Bible allows as cultural preferences. Christians call it legalism. It is, in part, what Rosenblatt calls “a rigid structure.’
Legalism is adding to the commandments of God. It argues that certain things are wrong not because the Bible pronounces them as wrong, but rather because reason (especially reason enlightened by the Holy Spirit) dictates that they are wrong. Women’s apparel, the kind of cinemas one may view, what is an acceptable standard of living, the use of alcoholic beverages are all illustrative of our tendency to add to the commandments of God.
Usually these “additions” are the fruit of interpreting the positive commandments. For example, I Thessalonians 5:22 says “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” This is a positive commandment stated negatively. But what constitutes the appearance of evil? The cultural relativist is correct in noting that this will differ from society to society.
Again, Philippians 4:5 says, “Let your moderation be known to all men.” What does a moderate lifestyle look like? Tony Caupolo writing in World Vision’s Magazine said that anyone who owns and drives a BMW is living ever living in a Third World country with a per capita income of 5500 per year could as easily argue that anyone who owns an automobile is living in sin. Truly such issues are relative.
Legalism leads to relativism, for when you add to God’s commandments, as the legalist does, you end up being an authority greater than God. In essence, what you are saying is, “It may be that this thing is not specifically prohibited in the Bible, but if God had known our abuse that the practice of this thing leads, He certainly would have included it.”
This is a short step from saying, “It may be that this thing is expressly prohibited in the Bible, but if God had known our culture and the need to have this thing, He certainly would not have prohibited it.” When you assume the right to correct the deficiencies of God, you inevitably end up compromising the Biblical absolutes.
This is the reason why fundamental, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians in so many circles have less than sterling reputations in the marketplace.
They misrepresent the facts, refuse to meet their obligations and are poor credit risks. They reason, “If God had known that in the last half of the Twentieth Century men would use litigation as the basis of doing business, He would have not included passages such as I Corinthians 6.”
It is also the basis for concluding that there are “cultural” commands, such as the role of women in the church. Such arguments are the flip side of legalism and lead to relativism, for who decides whether a command is cultural? Invariably it is the culture seeking to modify the Biblical command.
Relativism is a hollow philosophy that will collapse like a supernova, vanishing into a black hole from which no light can escape. As Paul notes in Romans 2:1, the relativist cannot live consistently with his own system. Let us not prolong the life of this dead “star” by embracing a legalism inconsistent with revelation.
Grateful for His Truth,
Darwin’s theory of evolution has no room for reason, philosophy or theology. Everything is a combination of chance and necessity. For example, a seed falls to the ground and takes root. It was chance that placed it there, and the necessity of survival that dictates that it adapt, let’s say, to drought. There was no thought or reason behind what happens. There is no philosophical or theological justification for what happens.
When applied to man in the form of “Social Darwinism” the theory breaks down in that man is incapable of not reasoning. His actions cannot be “value free” in the sense of evolution, simply because reason was involved in the action. Choices were made. Decisions were executed. The action was not the product of chance.
Cultural relativism, the subject of the last issue, is the product of applying the theory of evolution to society. Such a theory argues that there can be no transcendent absolutes, even within a society. You cannot argue that American involvement in the Vietnam War was wrong; nor can you say that Noriega’s handling of Panama is wrong. There is no such thing as morality. All action is amoral.
Amorality is far more insidious than immorality. With the latter it may be argued that change must take place, for there is a standard that has been broken. An immoral act is deviant behavior. Not so with amorality; the action–any action–is neutral. I may not agree with it, but I cannot say that it is wrong.
The State may establish laws that prohibit certain behavior, and when these laws are broken the offender is punished, but the offender can never be charged with immoral behavior, only illegal behavior. The law can be changed by the State, making the act legal and thus permissible. Morality is never the issue.
MORAL VS. LEGAL
There are two types of accountability: 1) Temporal, i.e. by faith I believe I will be held accountable for my behavior in this life, and 2) Eternal, i.e. by faith I believe I will be held accountable for my behavior in the life after death.
There are two factors in accountability: 1) The certainty of getting caught, i.e. what are the odds that I will eventually be held accountable for my actions? and 2) The price paid when caught, i.e. is the reward from unacceptable behavior worth the price I must pay for the behavior?
There was a movie shown on a recent flight I took entitled “Things Change.” It was the story of a poor man who was willing to take the rap for a mobster in exchange for wealth. For this man three years in prison was a price he was willing to pay in exchange for the hope of living the rest of his life in wealth. In other words, the price for taking the rap was worth it.
If my concept of accountability is solely temporal, then I will blur the distinction between legal and moral, jettisoning moral considerations in favor of evaluating the act on the basis of legality and evaluating the pros and cons on the basis of the two factors.
For example, Psalm 15:5 says that a mark of a godly man is that “he swears to his own hurt and changes not.” I enter into an agreement with a man and in private promise him that I will accept a certain arrangement. Later, when it appears to me that it is in my best interest to renege, I will do it on the grounds that I am not legally bound.
Or again, God tells me that I am morally obligated to care for the widow, orphan and helpless. Yet when I find that it is economically expedient to evict them from my apartments, I will do it, providing I am not legally culpable.
Or again, a friend who is a tradesman was owed money by a contractor. When he went to collect, the contractor refused to pay saying, “Sue me!” knowing full well that my friend didn’t have the power or resources to pursue it.
Judgment is the foundation of morality. Without it truth is relative. An individual will always consider a law negotiable without accountability, whether that judgment is man’s in the temporal or God’s in the eternal. The possibility of getting caught and having to pay for the crime is either consciously or unconsciously uppermost in the mind of a person when he contemplates breaking the law.
Parenthetically, this is the reason why so many professing Christians break the Biblical commands. They have deceived themselves into believing that grace eliminates eternal accountability.
Society doesn’t make it easy for the believer to distinguish between legal and moral. For example, can I video tape a ball game or the “Cosby Show” and put it in my library? Can I put a CD on a cassette tape for use in my auto? Can I reproduce a cassette tape of a message by Howie Hendricks or Chuck Swindoll for a friend? Can I photocopy an article for a group of people? Can I reproduce computer software for a family member in the same house; how about a family member living elsewhere, or a friend? Where does it end?
If you allow the producer of the product to define the limits, it will be different than how the law defines it. Most of the time those who represent the law will not commit themselves.
For those of us who understand that “legal” is not enough and that God calls upon us to act morally as well, it is imperative that we establish Biblical convictions in these and other areas, knowing that we all must give an account to God (Romans 14:12; II Corinthians 5:10).
In verse 2:1 Paul argues that all men are accountable on the basis of how they judge others:
“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”
When I judge as wrong something another person does, even if that judgment is done in the secret of my heart, I am saying that truth is Absolute! For what I have done is argue that there is a standard of behavior that all people (or at least that person) must obey. Such a standard necessitates an authority outside of man, else how can I say that he is wrong in breaking the standard?
Paul’s argument is that all people everywhere are incapable of living their lives without making moral pronouncements. His rationale for this is seen in verses 14-15 of the same chapter:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another.”
This is the reason why Social Darwinism and/or Cultural Relativism cannot work. Reason, philosophy and theology are incapable of not making moral pronouncements. A denial of this leads to the embracing of naked power as one’s authority, and the consequence is moral chaos.
Amazed by His grace,
In the last issue we noted that for all practical purposes people cannot consistently embrace relativism. Their inability to live without making moral judgments precludes this. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 2:1:
“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”
1. God’s judgment of the individual is based on the degree that he is able to live consistently with his own moral judgments – whether they be public or held in the secret of his own heart.
2. When an individual makes a moral judgment, even if he is able to live consistently with it, he has nevertheless argued that truth is transcendent and Absolute. For such a person is saying that there is a system of right and wrong outside of himself that others must obey.
Thinking people who do not want to live with the implications of absolute truth and refuse to acknowledge that they will one day give account to God also realize that society cannot be set free to do as it pleases. Anarchy would be the result.
Therefore, they seek to establish governmental laws that curtail unacceptable behavior. Note a couple of illustrations of this and where it leads:
A. Society has concluded that it is wrong to discriminate. It is interesting that 50 years ago to say that one was “discriminating” was to pay him a compliment. Now such a statement could well land him in jail.
To enforce anti-discrimination we have established laws that are affirmative in nature. That is, they are positive rather than negative. Most laws say you cannot do something. Affirmative action says that you must do something.
For example, the law says that you must allow all people the same basic rights, irrespective of race, religion, sex or even sexual “preferences.” To enforce such laws requires a gargantuan bureaucratic apparatus. Remember, negative action only requires a person to be passive. What I don’t do is passive, e.g. to not kill requires that I leave others alone. Positive action requires a person to be active. What I do is active, e.g. I must treat you the same way I treat others.
It is easier to monitor the behavior of negative action than it is of positive, simply because the negative command requires no action. An affirmative law, such as making sure that I do not discriminate in my hiring, requires action in that I must make sure that the personnel department follows the prescribed procedures of the law, and then I must send reports to Washington to show compliance.
Washington in turn must hire people to read the reports, send investigators to my factory to see that I reported accurately, add people to the judicial system to prosecute my failure to comply as well as additional people to the criminal system to penalize me. It is easy to see that the result is a governmental system that grows and grows, draining resources that could otherwise be used to create wealth. This in turn tends to lead to arbitrariness on the part of government and eventually totalitarianism.
B. The current problems in the House of Representatives illustrate the fact that people cannot exist without making moral judgment. The June 12, 1989, issue ran an article on the problems of congressmen being corrupted by their easy access to money via honorariums, political action committees and favors showered on them by special interest groups. It is not that most of these congressmen are breaking the law. That isn’t the point. Rather there is a “consensus” that something is wrong.
Such a consensus is a moral judgment. Without Absolutes, however, there is no moral court to which you can appeal – only a legal one. Thus the lawmakers seek to design laws to keep themselves within the bounds of this public consensus.
But public consensus is a changing thing. What this means is, Congress is told that there is no Absolute standard of morality upon which law is based, but they will be held accountable for immoral behavior as defined by the populace at any given moment. It is an unsolvable problem.
The Biblical solution to all of this is outlined by the great Apostle in the same Romans 2 chapter. In verse 16 he reminds us that we must all stand accountable to Him.
“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
If I do not believe that there are eternal consequences to my temporal acts, then I will base my morality on expediency and be guided by legality.
So also, as a Christian, if I do not believe that there is an appreciable and apparent difference in heaven based on my works on earth , then I will look at the command of God the same way. Take, for example, Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:19-20:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
If my treasures “laid up in heaven” do not make an apparent and appreciable difference in the quality of my eternity with God, then what is my motivation for obeying Jesus? Even if you are convinced that such motivation has as its basis a love for God, when times are difficult and the cost of obedience appears to be high, you will go for the “now” rather than the future.
For the Christian and non-Christian alike, judgment is the key to relativism. Irrespective of your religious or philosophical beliefs, you will consider any standard negotiable if you are not convinced that there is accountability.
A shocking example of this is the “wilding” taking place in New York City. It is reported that there were 622 recorded incidents of wilding in New York last year. Young people who attack in gangs are without conscience. They brag about their deeds, and one even admitted that he thought it was “fun.”
Solomon put it this way:
“Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the son of men is fully set in them to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
As a society we have lost the capacity to punish swiftly and severely. Most crimes are never solved, and only about ten per cent of those arrested go to jail, according to a recent magazine article. The result is, an increasingly large percentage of the population have no regard for the law. There is no “downside” to crime.
The same is true for believers as well. Even though they believe that there is a morality based on absolute truth, they feel that there is no “downside” to immorality in the eternal. Granted, they believe in accountability in heaven, even a difference in rewards. But, because they do not believe that in heaven there is such a thing as regret, they reason that differences in rewards in heaven may be appreciable but not apparent.
To substantiate this, they quote Revelation 21:4 where John describes heaven:
“And God shall wipe away all tear. from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
“What do I care if you have fifteen diamonds in your crown and I have none, just so long as I am happy and void of ‘sorrow’ or ‘pain’,” is the way they reason. Such logic leads to legality void of morality, irrespective of theology. It is for this reason that the morality of many, if not most, Christians is no better than that of the non-Christian.
If in your heart of hearts you do not believe that meeting the expectations of God has a very real and substantial difference in the quality of your eternity in heaven, then in the time of testing you will compromise your morality. Accountability is essential for truth to be Absolute!
Anticipating His return,
This will be the next to the last issue in the series on Relativism. In the Spring I want to begin a new series exploring the Grace of God.
In the last issue we explored the concept of Accountability and how it is inextricably tied to the question of relativism. Without accountability we consider authority negotiable and thus become pragmatic relativists.
To phrase it another way, it Truth is Absolute, there must be accountability. This in turn leads us to ask, “What other things must be true in order for Truth to be Absolute? It seems to me that there have to be three other ingredients, or four in total.
These four are presuppositions that govern or dictate the course of my life. I cannot prove that they are correct any more than I can prove that Truth is Absolute, but it is possible to say that if Truth is Absolute, then these four presuppositions must also be true.
Actually, in their logical order, Accountability is the fourth of the four presuppositions. They are:
1. There is a God who is the Sovereign of the universe,
2. It is possible to know this God,
3. He has communicated His will to us, and
4. He will hold us accountable for the way we respond to what He has revealed to us.
Let’s look at these four one at a time.
THERE IS A GOD
If there is no God, then truth is relative. Someone must decide what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. If there are two gods, then there are two truth systems; ten gods, ten systems. If there is no God, then truth is decided by each individual, and that is the meaning of relativism.
Take, for example, the word “good.” How do you define it? Who decides what “good” is? This is the point of Jesus’ question in Matthew 19:17:
“And He said unto him, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God; but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”
There can only be One standard for “good.” What God does, is by definition, good. He is the Supreme Court. There is no higher tribunal to which a person can appeal.
Thus Jesus said that only God is good. It may be argued that all those who act like God are also good, but the thesis of the Bible is that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standard of good. When Jesus asked, “Why callest thou me good?” He was asking, “Are you saying that you recognize me for Who I am, God?”
If there were two gods, there would be two standards of “good,” unless the two were able to agree on what good is. Therefore, if there is no God, then “good” must be defined by each individual. This in turn means that we cannot accuse others of not being good. A person, under such circumstances, may say that he doesn’t feel that he himself is good, but he cannot say that others are not good.
This was the point I was trying to make in Relativism, Part 11. Social Darwinism argues for a cultural relativism in which you can argue that an act may be illegal, but never immoral. If there is no God, then there is no such thing as transcendent truth that is Absolute. This in turn means that there is no such thing as morality.
That our society has embraced such a philosophy is evident from the TV and film industry where people not only act in a sub-human fashion, they act in a sub-animal fashion. That is, their behavior is far worse then that of the animals from which they argue that they have evolved. But then, they would never admit that it is “worse,” for that would be to admit that there is such a thing a morality.
GOD IS KNOWABLE
Not only does there have to be a God for Truth to be Absolute, we, His creatures, must be able to know Him. If man cannot know God in a personal way, then whether Truth is Absolute or not is irrelevant.
A well worn illustration is that of a man seeking to communicate with an ant. He concludes that to do such a thing he would have to become an ant. Man cannot become an ant, of course, and therefore it is impossible for him to have a personal relationship with these little insects.
Man may be sovereign. He may have a well defined set of expectations for the ant, but if the ant and the human cannot communicate with each other, then as far as the ant is concerned, the expectations of man are irrelevant.
The analogy obviously breaks down in that man is not sovereign and, since there are more than five billion people in the world, they cannot agree on a set of expectations for the ant. Man, not having the attributes of God, cannot establish a relationship with the ants.
Nevertheless the point stands. The premise of the Bible is that God has taken the initiative with the human race and has revealed Himself, first in a very personal way in the Garden of Eden, then through the Law and various theophanies, and finally in the Old Testament through the prophets. In the New Testament He has revealed Himself through His Son Jesus Christ, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and through the writers of the New Testament literature.
Truth is Absolute and Transcendent because a personal God has established a personal relationship with His creatures. God is knowable.
HE HAS REVEALED HIS WILL
It is theoretically possible for there to be a God and for Him to be knowable without His having any particular expectations for His creatures. If this were true, then there would be no Absolutes, for God’s will would be unknown.
The Bible, of course, is where God has revealed His will, and this is where the authority of the Scriptures becomes crucial. If the Bible is not a trustworthy, reliable document, then how God really feels about a given issue is debatable. Then we really cannot know His will.
This in turn is why the authority of the Bible is so consistently attacked. People do not want to know His will, for if they discover what it is that God wants, they will become obligated to obey Him. People want to do what they want, not to follow the leadership of Another.
Rebellion has always had at its core, “Hath God said?” These words of the serpent to Eve ring in our ears today as we hear people argue that the Bible must be interpreted in light of the cultural and social milieu in which it is read. It is an endeavor to obscure the fact that God’s will is known.
Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament professor at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, writes in the September issue of Perspectives, “The Bible is the Word of God; that’s not in doubt. But when you read it and with whom you hear it changes its meaning. We should be suspicious, I believe, of anybody who claims that the Bible is fixed so that it always, everywhere, says the same thing.”
Applying this view of the Bible, Elizabeth Moltmann, a professor at Tubingen, West Germany, interprets Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman thusly; “At this point, Jesus made one of the most revolutionary discoveries of his whole life. He met a woman who was determined and stubborn and who had a richer image of God than he had himself. He recognized her faith and assured her, as none of the other religious founders ever did, that her determination, her stubbornness, her passion was justified:… From a doubly underprivileged human being, a woman and a foreigner, the man Jesus learned to see with fresh eyes the divine generosity and the divine will to be present for all human beings…”
We will be discussing the place of the Bible in the question of relativism in then next issue, but using the Bible to affirm our own will, rather than for the purpose of doing the will of the Father, is where the church in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is living. We have taken the specific commands of the New Testament and ignored them on the basis that the are “cultural” or “non-essential.”
For truth to be Absolute God has to have communicated His will, and that is the purpose of the Scriptures. This means that there is no such thing as a “cultural” or “non-essential command.” To believe otherwise is to use the Bible for personal ends rather than to live under its authority. To put it another way, it is to say either that God has no will or that His will is not known.
This fourth and final ingredient is essential, as we have already seen, because without accountability we will negotiate with those aspects of the Bible that run counter to our culture.
Whenever we argue that the “culture is different,” and use this as an excuse for disobedience, we mean by it the culture of our day rather than the culture of the day in which the Bible was written. That is, it is the pressure our own culture has brought to bear on us that causes us to want to avoid obeying the Bible. If we need to be accountable, we would rather it be to our culture than to God.
Many are willing to alter the express commands of the Bible because in the security that they find in Christ they feel that God will not hold them accountable in any appreciable way. I believe that this is the reason why the Bible is in general, and Jesus in particular, speaks so much about judgment.
This judgment must be impartial an based on the facts. In the world the courts impute guilt to a person based on the available information, but the court can never be certain that the person is really guilty. The defendant, based on the available information, is declared guilty or innocent.
With God, all things are known, and His justice is perfect. As Hebrews 4:13 says:
“Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.”
As we saw in an earlier issue, Karl Marx, encouraged by the conclusion of Darwin in his Origin of the Species, proclaimed that the triumph of socialism was certain. Truth was relative and social evolution, through thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, was assured.
This means that there is no God, no set of Transcendent Absolutes, no standard outside of man. It is assumed that things will evolve ever higher. But is this not a form of purpose based on the assumption that there is a God? Why can’t things devolve rather than evolve? The God of the Scriptures promises that the world order will disintegrate in fulfillment of His purposes.
Man cannot live without purpose, and apart form God’s revealed Purpose, he can see no purpose for a devolving world even though to be consistent, he must admit that such is possible. The avowed relativist is incapable of living the implications of his system.
The same is true in the moral arena. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who pointed out that the statement, “A loving God would never cause disease,” is a contradiction of terms. If there is no God, then truth is relative and there is no basis for establishing what is loving and unloving that is applicable for anyone but myself.
If there is a God, then Truth is absolute and He decides what is loving and unloving. Thus He may determine that causing disease is in fact a loving act.
No one is capable of living his life on any other basis than assuming that Truth is Absolute. And for Truth to be Absolute, the above four things must have taken place.
Grateful for His revealed Word,
In the last Issue we explored four things that had to be in place in order for Truth to be Absolute. They were:
1. There is a God,
2. He is knowable,
3. He has revealed His will, and
4. We are accountable to Him.
Someone pointed out that four miracles had to have taken place in order for the Bible to be the source of Absolute Truth. In this, the last issue on relativism, we will look at these four miracles, They are:
1. God wanted to communicate with His creature, man,
2. God was able to communicate with him in such a way that the finite could understand the infinite,
3. The recipient of revelation was able to communicate it to others in a way that did not violate its original purity,
4. The original manuscripts were preserved to this present day in such a way that the Bible retains the inerrant Word of God.
GOD WANTS TO COMMUNICATE WITH MAN
When you try to grasp the immensity of the universe and ponder the fact that the Creator of it all wants to establish a relationship with finite man, this Is a miracle! The Psalmist said:
“What is man, that thou art mindful of rim? and the son of man, that thou visitist him?” (Psalm 8:4)
When you add to this difference between finite man and his Sovereign the fact of man’s sin, then the miracle is magnified. God’s message to Israel through the prophet Hosea helps put this in perspective.
Hosea is commanded to enter into a marriage which is nonsensical in the eyes of man:
“The beginning of the Word of the LORD by Hosea. And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.” (Hosea 1:2)
In Hosea we see a man who against custom, legal sense and reason woos a worthless woman. Love among people is awakened by something in the beloved. It is seen in the natural attraction people have for babies and small children.
Nothing in man evokes such a response from God. We are not cute, clever, attractive or desirable in any way. We are like Gomer the whore. Instead of responding properly to her faithful husband, she lusts after all who pass by.
“And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)”
The One who stands over the whole miserable situation knows her wretched plight better than she herself does. Yet He takes her under His legal protection forever. Only then will she know Him in the full sense.
Not only is Israel both an illustration and a demonstration of the fact that God wanted a relationship with man, Israel is also an illustration and demonstration of the fact that He takes the initiative to develop that relationship. This is the first of the four miracles.
COMMUNICATION BETWEEN GOD AND MAN TOOK PLACE
In order for the Bible to be the source of absolute Truth, this first miracle must be followed by a second: The infinite must be able to communicate with the finite in such a way that the finite can comprehend.
An infinite God has thoughts that He wants to communicate to man who is not only limited by creation but also by culture, language and, most significantly, sin. This required a supernatural act.
God reminds us in a well-known portion of Scripture:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 56:8-9)
Isaiah calls to our attention the fact that two people have thoughts: God and man. But the gap between the two is so great that man cannot begin to grasp the thoughts of God. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, makes the same point:
“But the natural man, receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14)
If man doesn’t think like God, then how can God get man to think His thoughts? Only through the miracle of revelation. There is nothing innate in man that would give him the capacity to even begin to grapple with the thoughts of God, apart from God – taking the initiative through revelation.
THE PROPHET TRANSMITTED GODS MESSAGE ACCURATELY
Not only did the one receiving the revelation have to understand the mind of God, he had to communicate God’s Word to the audience without altering in any way God’s message.
All people are limited by their intelligence, vocabulary, world view, past experiences, etc. Take, for example, the fact that in the Greek language there are four words for our English word ‘love.” Our English word “cleave” can mean opposite things, depending on how it is used. Such illustrations are without number.
Scholars call to our attention the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish the difference in style between writers like John and Paul. Yet their words, encompassing all the limitations of their personalities, remain the inerrant, infallible word of God.
We all know that a person cannot think without a vocabulary. The richer the vocabulary, the better and deeper the thoughts. Yet many of those God chose to be the transmitters of His revelation were men of limited education and understanding. By and large they were not great thinkers aware of the world situation and the philosophical/theological milieu that produced the world. They were “ignorant and unlearned fishermen.”
That these simple men could transmit a timeless message that perfectly captured the thoughts God wanted to communicate to His people is a miracle!
YOUR BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD
This fourth and final miracle is where most of the attack on the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures is fought. It is hard for modern man to concede that these Bibles that we use today, an abundance of translations at that, can be the Word of God in the same sense that the original manuscripts were.
Thus we read confessions of faith to the effect that “we believe the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible Word of God in the original manuscripts.” The problem is, we don’t have the original manuscripts. If they are required in order to have an inerrant Bible, then we don’t have a perfect revelation from God.
And if our revelation is imperfect, how do we distinguish between truth and error? Do we look to the scholars? If they say that at least five different sources authored the Pentateuch rather than just Moses, do we believe them? If so, then do we conclude that Jesus didn’t know any better when He ascribed them to Moses, and what does this do to our confidence in His judgment?
Is John Stott accurate when he argues that hell is not eternal but lasts for a period of time commensurate with the guilt of the sinner after which is annihilation? If it is true that there is no eternal hell, even though the English Bible leads us to the conclusion that there is, and that this understanding can only be ascertained by a thorough knowledge of the original languages, then what else are we misinterpreting in the Bible? Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did God really mean it when He said He didn’t want us to divorce?
It is easy to see that there is no end to the uncertainty created by such a line of logic. This fourth miracle is no greater or harder to believe than the other three. All four miracles must be present in order for Truth to be Absolute. If any one of the miracles is questioned, then reason must be called upon to arbitrate. This for sure leads to relativism.
The book of Judges closes with a familiar but, nonetheless, startling statement:
“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right In his own eyes.”
The author does not say that they did that which was wrong in their own eyes, but what was right. The moral chaos recorded in Judges is the product of people doing what they feel is right. It is reason unguided by revelation.
People can feel that they are doing right and be morally wrong. This is what the Nuremberg trials at the end of WWII were all about. Men did that which was legal under the German system of government and what they felt was right in light of the times in which they were living. The Allied governments prosecuted them because, although they did what was legal, they committed immoral acts.
Thus a person can do what he feels is legal and right and still be immoral. But without a standard of Absolutes by which you judge all action, there is no such thing as an immoral act. People doing what they think is right without reference to an Absolute moral code produces a moral wasteland, the kind of wasteland we in the U.S. are currently experiencing. It is a morass from which reason is incapable of extricating us.
The current governor of New York is quoted as saying that he personally does not believe in abortion, but since it is permitted by law, he must uphold that law. Interestingly, it is precisely this issue that caused many officials in Nazi Germany to be condemned to death at the Nuremberg Trials. They agreed that the act was wrong, but felt constrained to uphold the law.
The distinction between moral and legal is something we have looked at in earlier issues, but it may be profitable to review what happens when legal replaces moral as the only consideration in a society:
1. Laws, although legal, can become immoral. When this happens, people’s consciences become offended and they lose confidence in the legal system. They become cynical and feel comfortable breaking the law.
2. Immoral behavior sanctioned by legality causes the mind to justify itself and the conscience is “seared.” Contrasting the editorial view of Time magazine on the subject of homosexuality fifteen years ago with today is an example of this. At that time Time adamantly opposed homosexuality as an attack on the very fabric of society. We all know their view on it today.
3. Bureaucracy is needed to maintain order. As Solzhenitsyn observed, “When Western society was established, it was based on the idea that each individual limited his own behavior. Everyone understood what he could do and what he could not do. The law itself did not restrain people.” Without an absolute standard of morality there is no long-term basis for decentralization. There is no basis for the checks and balances between powers and bureaucracies. If a man does not feel accountable to the morality established by God, he will naturally gather to himself all the power the law allows. Thus there is the need to establish more and thicker layers of bureaucratic control to check this trend. The power then gravitates to the center, and totalitarianism results. George Washington and our founding fathers understood this as did foreign observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville.
Much of evangelical Christianity is mirrored in the conflict that raged over the confirmation of Judge Bork to the U.S. Supreme Count. Senator Orrin Hatch, a member of the Judiciary Committee that held the confirmation hearings on Boric has written, “The truth is that the judge who looks outside the historic Constitution always looks inside himself and nowhere else.
The theory of original understanding (also ‘interpretivism’) is democracy in essence, and deviation from the theory – ‘noninterpretivism,’ in the scholarly jargon — is nothing less than a surrender to the anti-democratic forces that prefer, in Judge Bork’s words, ‘rule by talented and benevolent autocrats over the self-government of ordinary folk’…. As Bork notes, ‘if the people can be educated to understand and accept a superior moral philosophy, there would be no need for constitutional judges since legislation would embody the principles of that morality.’”
In other words, the anti-Bork forces want to interpret the Constitution in light of the norms and beliefs of the current cultural setting instead of interpreting today’s issues in light of the Constitution. This is why they successfully campaigned against his confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Bork wanted the Judiciary to handle the Constitution in the same way God expects the believer to handle the Bible.
Many evangelical Christians are of the same mind as the liberals on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Just as the liberals want judges who practice “noninterpretivism, so evangelicals want to handle the Bible (Our constitution) in a similar fashion. Rather than seeking its original intent, they want it interpreted in light of today’s culture.
The role of women in the church, the issue of divorce and remarriage and sexual promiscuity are simply illustrative. For example, a recent Gallup poll revealed that approximately fifty percent of university students in the U.S. who call themselves evangelical Christians condone pre-marital sex.
Ours is the generation of “believers” who adhere to a doctrinally fundamental view of the Bible while privatizing their morality. They look to the Bible for the view of such things as the Person of Christ, Salvation and the promise of heaven, while looking to themselves for their own view of what is right and wrong.
People are incapable of maintaining their moral bearings without reference to an Absolute Standard that is authored by a Sovereign God, a standard that has maintained its inerrancy in its present form. Rather than trying to dodge what God says in the Bible, let us be grateful He has left us with an infallible revelation and commit ourselves to following it with all of our hearts!
His for a life of obedience,