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Absolute Relativism

• Greg Boyd

Is it possible to claim to know any absolute truth in an age in which everything is heading in the direction of relativism? In this sermon, Greg gives us three reasons to take relativism seriously and understand why people might think it plausible.

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Today we live in a world where the foundations are being shaken on all fronts. Common assumptions that there are absolute truths that all humans have in common are disintegrating. People are opting for relativism because they assume there is no such thing as truth. Relativism is the belief that all truth is relative to a person’s culture or personal preferences. Is it possible and plausible to claim to know any absolute truth in an age in which everything is heading in the direction of relativism?

There are three reasons to take relativism seriously and understand why people might think it plausible.  First, absolute truth claims are dangerous. Most conflict and violence throughout history has been done by people who believed they knew the absolute truth about God or about the “right” way to govern society.

The second reason can be summed up with the question, “What are the odds?” Consider the thousands upon thousands of different religions, denominations, schools of thought and individuals making distinct claims. Ask yourself, what are the odds that you happened to stumble onto the one group that happens to believe the whole truth and nothing but the truth? They are small. Then we must be honest and say that the person who has found the truth is really lucky because they are part of the right group. Those who argue for relativism use this point to say that there is no truth because there is no one that lucky.

The third reason for considering relativism is the argument that beliefs are determined by chance. What we believe depends on circumstances outside our control. If you had been born into the culture and family of someone from a dramatically different background, you’d probably believe what they do. Relativists say that to the degree our beliefs are determined by chance, we can’t claim to know absolute truth.

These are three reasons why many opt for relativism, which presents some problems for Christ-followers because the Christian faith is founded on an absolute truth claim: Jesus Christ is Lord! This claim cannot be true for me and false for you. It is what it is. Therefore if we believe Jesus is Lord of all, we can only conclude that relativism must be false as a world view. In the light of this, there are three reasons why relativism falls short of being a viable way of understanding how truth works.

First, relativism is self-refuting. The claim that “all truth is relative” is itself an absolute truth claim. To make a claim about the way truth works is a claim that is believed to be true.

Secondly, relativism has unacceptable implications. If truth is relative to particular cultures, then we must accept that if Hitler had won the war and conquered the world, it would be “good” that all Jews and other “undesirables” were exterminated. If truth is relative to culture, we must then accept that the way that culture views goodness as good. This means that if all truth is relative, you can’t say that any practice in any culture is wrong.

The third critique is relativism is impossible to live consistently. People tend to be relativists when it comes to matters of religious belief and sexual morality and other matters they don’t really care about, but they quickly become absolutists on matters that are important to them.

In response, Christians are called to embrace the truth claim that Jesus is Lord of all. This is the only truth claim that can guarantee peace in a world of differences. Unless the greatest absolute truth that a group believes includes the belief that we are called to unconditionally love all others, we cannot hope for peace on earth until all humans come to agreement on this. The claim that Jesus is Lord is the only absolute truth claim that places at the center the command to unconditionally love all people—even our enemies—and to unconditionally refrain from violence. Therefore, in a relativistic world, the absolute truth of the Lordship of Jesus has great power because this truth claim makes space for others so that we can befriend them and hear them out, without the need for violently convincing them of this truth.

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Topics: Defense of Christian Faith

Sermon Series: Unraveling Truth

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The MuseCast: February 14

Focus Scripture:

  • John 18: 36-38

    “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

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2 thoughts on “Absolute Relativism

  1. rachel says:

    I’m looking for a passage in the Bible that shows God understands what we are callling relativism. Different people’s brains work differently, and Jesus always showed love to ALL types of folks. But there seems to be a disconnect in the Bible and, thus, amongst Christian believers between love/compassion/logic/belief/faith. What passage in the Bible shows God’s understanding of our confusion?

    1. Emily says:

      Hi Rachel,
      Great question! Here’s a reply from Paul Eddy:
      Our cultural situation of postmodern relativism was not part of the time in history when the Bible was written. However, we see clear evidence in Scripture of God’s compassionate understanding and loving empathy for whatever state of confusion humans find themselves in. For example, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus looked out at the crowds of people in his time and place: “He was moved with compassion for them, because they were faint and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Matt 9:36). This is the same compassionate love that led Jesus to say to all of us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29).

      Although the Bible does not specifically address postmodern relativism, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God does say these words to us: “Come to Me and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). In other words, our loving, compassionate God invites us to an ongoing conversation in which we bring our all of our thoughts and reasonings — even our entire worldview — to God. In the process of sharing this intimate and conversational relationship with each of us, God desires to gently and progressively shape and reconstruct our understanding of life so that it more closely aligns with God’s truth and reality. This is what the Apostle Paul refers to as “being transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2).

      —Emily from Communications

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