Relativism: Does It Contain Any Truth?
Taken from Josh and Sean McDowell’s revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
Does our personal version of “truth” (relativism) trump God’s objective truth?
In our current “Truth is what I say it is” culture, we have to ask if the issue of truth really matters. I mean, we all seem to be doing okay in life with our own version of truth, right?
Actually, no. When a society embraces a slippery slope of “truth,” its foundation turns from firm to shaky. A culture’s attack on truth ultimately affects the culture itself. People may hate the supposed strictness of God’s objective truth, but we have only to look around to see that societal morals that were once black and white have muddied to endless shades of gray. To ignore the negative side effects of this is to certainly put one’s head in the sand.
Like Neo in the Sci-Fi thriller The Matrix, our human nature prompts us to choose the pill that gains us a truthful reality. We’re hard-wired to seek out truth. And we instinctively know when we’re deviating from God’s objective truth, even if we ignore it or try to erase it as the standard to which we should be living.
Let’s look at three truths about truth, and why the assertion that “truth is relative” is completely wrong. Real, objective truth matters. In every area of our lives.
~ The Truths About Truth ~
Truth Is Logical
Logic presupposes that truth is real, and that “first principles” are truths that cannot be denied, because they are self-evident. Logic applied to reality is a key example of a first principle. All logic can be reduced to a single axiom: the law of noncontradiction. This law says that no two opposite statements can both be true at the same time in the same sense. Logic must apply to reality. And because of that, we can use logic to test truth claims about reality.
Truth Is Objective
Though we can make subjective claims based on personal preferences — for example, “Chocolate ice cream is the best flavor in the world!” — this makes the claims only “true” for us and anyone who agrees with us. The statement is only true because we believe it to be true. These statements of “truth” can easily change, based on our current preferences.
But objective truths are true no matter what we believe about them. They do not change because of our thoughts of whims. They are mind-independent and depend on the object itself.
“Objective truths, as opposed to subjective preferences, are based on the external world,” states apologist Sean McDowell. “They are related to the world independently of how we think or feel. For example, the sentences ‘1+2=3’ and ‘George Washington was the first president of the United States,’ and ‘Sacramento is the capital of California’ are all objective truths, that is, they are accurate statements even if we don’t believe them.”
Truth Is NOT Relative
We are free to have all the subjective preferences we want — from religion to politics to morality — but objective truth is not swayed by our personal views or even the collective view of society. So those who argue that all truth is subjective are espousing a form of relativism.
Relativism creeps into our vocabulary in statements like, “Well, that’s true for you, but not for me.” Unfortunately for those who champion relativism, the concept fails for two main reasons, which I outline below.
~ The Failure of Relativism ~
The first failure of relativism is that it is self-defeating. The second is that relativism leads to absurd logical outcomes.
To be consistent, the relativist must say, “Nothing is objectively true — including my own position. So you’re free to accept my view or reject it.” But here’s the reality: when a relativist asserts, “Everything is relative,” he expects his listeners to embrace HIS view of reality. And he expects his statement to pertain to all statements EXCEPT his own.
Norman Geisler puts it this way: “The only way the relativist can avoid the painful dilemma of relativism is to admit that there are at least some absolute truths. As noted, most relativists believe that relativism is absolutely true and that everyone should be a relativist. Therein lies the self-destructive nature of relativism. The relativist stands on the pinnacle of an absolute truth and wants to relativize everything else.”
The point not to miss: One can’t hold to relativism and insist that others do so as well. It’s a contradiction.
Relativism is a popular idea because, on the surface, it sounds accepting, inclusive, and easy-going. But it is only when we think through its implications, and apply them rigorously to life, do we see the pitfalls of being so accommodating.
As philosopher Paul Copan notes:
“Truth’s elusiveness in some areas of life is a major reason people believe something can be ‘true for you, but not for me.’ Looking around, the relativist comes to one firm conclusion: Too many people genuinely disagree about too many things for use to know truth. Significant — almost irreconcilable — differences in vital dimensions like religion, morality, politics, and philosophy can make it seem rash or even arrogant to say one’s perspective is true or mostly true and others are totally or partially wrong. Supposedly, then, the sensible conclusion to draw is that relativism must be true.”
In actuality, however, the only part of relativism that is true is that our perspectives do change the way we view events.
So while social and personal relationships do tend to define what people take to be true and false, these influences do NOT determine what is true or false with respect to objective reality. We may not see the truth correctly, but this does not diminish that the actual reality of truth exists.
Skeptics can cry, “God doesn’t exist!”, and personally believe it to be true. But God’s existence, in no way, is determined by our view of it.
~ Conclusion ~
As philosopher and author Steward E. Kelly says, an attempt to deny that truth exists is hopeless. “If there were, hypothetically speaking,” he adds, “no such thing as truth, then would it be true that there is no truth?” Apologist Ravi Zacharias puts a finer point on this when he says, “Truth by definition is exclusive.”
If truth were all-inclusive, he adds, “nothing would be false. And if nothing were false, what would be the meaning of true? Moreover, if nothing were false, would it be true to say that everything is false? It quickly becomes evident that the denial of truth as an absolute either ends up denying itself or else in effect not making any truthful assertion about truth.”
When we choose to view “truth” as subjective, we make it impossible to argue for any sort of binding morality or ethics. Bottom line: when real, objective truth dies, ethics die, too. Relativism undermines even the value of humanity.
Apologist Gregory Koukl puts it this way:
“If truth can’t be known, then the concept of moral truth becomes incoherent. Ethics become relative, right and wrong matters of individual opinion. This may seem a moral liberty, but it ultimately rings hollow. “The death of truth in our society has created a moral decay in which ‘every debate ends with a barroom question, ‘Says, who?’ When we abandon the idea that one set of laws applies to every human being, all that remains is subjective, personal opinion.”
But the Bible draws a clear contrast between truth and error; the Bible does not present truth as a cultural creation. When Jesus drove a stake into the ground by claiming, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” He did so to give us a clear standard of truth to follow.
Imagine if God continually changed His mind, and kept us guessing as to His nature and what he wants/expects from us. Sounds like the petulant Greek gods, if you ask me. Fortunately, God is NOT like that. His loving character never changes. And neither do the truths He has chosen to share with us via His Word.
From what influence are you determining “truth”? From the world, or from God’s Word? Because only the latter offers the real thing.