We are certainly fighting over something. That much is clear to nearly every conscious American. It is equally clear that much of the conflict centers on the battleground of certain buzzwords. Justice. Equality. Freedom. Rights. Love. Life. Systemic. Health care. Safe. Violence. All of these and maybe another dozen others are at the heart of the tension in our society today.
But as we’ll point out in part 2 of this series, a conflict cannot be resolved unless there are common rules of engagement. And from this author’s perspective, there is a disturbing absence of agreement on the rules that undergird this particular conflict. Not an absence in the sense that we disagree on the rules, but in the sense that we’re operating subconsciously, a priori, on two different sets of rules altogether, and we don’t always even recognize that.
As a result, what often gets chalked up to dishonesty or deception is, in reality, far more structural and pernicious than that.
One of the great exasperators of the tension in American society—and one of the great threats to any kind of peaceful resolution—is that both sides are operating from different, opposite, and irreconcilable views of things like meaning, truth, and reality. One side in the conflict more or less presupposes that those things are fixed and objective. By contrast, the other side presupposes that they’re relative, socially-constructed, and ultimately non-existent.
I am convinced that no one is being dishonest or deliberately attempting to deceive. And that’s the really troubling part. Rather, I am convinced that all parties are actually sincere in what they are affirming and defending. The difference is in the foundations from which those affirmations and defenses spring.
As the old proverb goes, we’re using the same vocabulary, but we have radically different dictionaries, each grounded in two different and opposite world views.
The Roots of Relativism
A few years back while we were still on the CA Central Coast, we were selling a dryer on craigslist and a young guy in his early 20s drove up from Santa Barbara to buy it from us. He and I ended up having an extended conversation in my driveway about religion. As a Christian, I naturally affirmed the exclusivity of Jesus as the truth and the only way to God, while he repeatedly, and agitatedly, affirmed the relativity of it all: “It all depends on your perspective,” were his exact words.
This idea of moral and religious relativism is, of course, nothing new. It’s exactly what we’ve all been hearing in American society for decades. My own grandma, whom I love dearly, has always affirmed it conceptually and tried to instill it in me as long as I can remember. I can still picture being about 5 years old in her kitchen and her telling me, “There’s truth in all religions.”
In her defense, my grandmother is one of the sweetest, kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known, and so far as I can tell, her relativism has evidently always been a part of that. So, while I think she’s wrong, I am certainly not trying to demonize her. I am simply making the point that the relativism—this bizarre notion that you can have your truth and I can have mine—is nothing new in American society.
Moral Relativism ≠ Different Perspectives
To this day, that young man’s almost-militant assertion of relativism has stuck with me almost as a kind of meme, a living case-in-point of exactly where our society is at today. That two opposite things can be simultaneously true, and that truth can be relative and dependent on my experience—those things are uniquely aspects of western thought going back to the Enlightenment.
And we’re not talking about the old parable of two people witnessing a car accident from different angles and providing different details as a result of their perspectives. Contrary to what we’ve all been spoon-fed since kindergarten, that is absolutely not the idea of relativism that permeates so much of American thought today.
What we are talking about is much more substantial than mere different camera angles on a car wreck. It does far more than affirm the simple existence of different perspectives. It actually affirms the simultaneous existence of contrary “realities”—like, for example, that God can both exist and not exist, or that morality can be both obligatory and relative.
The Inevitable Fruit of Society Divided
As we’ve already suggested, relativism has increasingly challenged Christianity’s dominance as the conditioner and influencer on western thought for the past few centuries. In other words, assumptions about the reality of reality, the actuality of truth, etc., have slowly given way over time to the ideas that truth and reality are dependent upon one’s own perspective and experience. Consequently, every area of life—including our ideas of what a person is—has been affected. As a result, over the past few decades—and especially over the last 10 years or so—relativism has begun to bear real, tangible, definite fruit in the everyday lives of everyday Americans.
But what else would we expect? You can’t feed people for a few centuries on the idea that ‘your truth is your truth and mine is mine and it’s all somehow still true,’ and avoid creating a foundation that you can’t actually stand on. At some point, the necessary product will be an entire population of people whose approaches to all of life are governed by personal impulses, intuition, preferences, sentiment, assumptions, etc., and who are absolutely unphased by things like facts (cf. police statistics) and science (cf. biology), which is exactly what we have today.
“You can’t feed people for a few centuries on the idea that ‘your truth is your truth and mine is mine and it’s all somehow still true,’ and avoid creating a foundation that you can’t actually stand on.
I’m not critiquing any particular ‘side’ of either of these issues per se, by the way. It is simply an observation of what we are seeing in society at large, namely, a world divided into two sets of people who are all looking at the same ‘facts’ but drawing two completely different and contrary conclusions. That is because our interpretation of the facts depends not on our objective ability to observe the facts (because there is no objective observation of any facts), but on our underlying values and commitments which form the grid or the lens through which we interpret everything.
In other words, when half of a given population believes one thing about what reality is, and the other half of a population believes something else about what reality is, it makes perfect sense that they would each come to different and even contrary interpretations of any given fact.
And our point is just this: when you breed people for a few hundred years on the idea that there is no such thing absolute truth, and that becomes their fundamental assumption about reality, it is inevitable that they will eventually begin to live that way.
Enter the problem of language in the 21st century, which we will deal with in part two.
The Necessity of Christ
What is the solution to the problem (and it is a problem) of relativity? Answer: Christ. In Jesus Christ, we have certainty.
As Francis Schaeffer said, “We have a sufficient intellectual certainty in the testimony of God and what we need is to believe that.”
We know what the world is because we have its definitive definition from the Creator himself, and we know what a person is because the mind of the One in whose image we are made has been revealed to us (Gen. 1-2). I have certainty about the actual meaning of words because we are made in the likeness of One who is himself a communicator (Gen. 1.26). I know right and wrong because I have been made in the image of creation’s Lawgiver, who is just and good (Rom. 2.14-15).
I know that you have dignity and that I am obligated to honor you as an individual because you are made in God’s image (Job 31.13-15.). You are crowned with glory and honor in the mind of God (Ps. 8.4-5), and I don’t have any right to disregard or deface that. There’s all this talk about “kindness” in our world today, but it’s only truly mandatory in a world governed by the Kind One. Otherwise, in a world where you have your truth and I have mine, your insistence on kindness is a suggestion at best, an imposition at medium-grade, and an illusion at worst.
In Christ, we have meaning. Apart from Christ, life is meaningless (Eccl. 12.1-14). This world needs Jesus, who is the Author of all things, including meaning itself (Rom. 11.36). So it is incumbent upon us as stewards and ambassadors of Christ to be found faithful and to work while it is day to reconcile the world to him (Jn. 9.4, 1 Cor. 4.1-2, 2 Cor. 5.20-21).
That includes being committed to, and insisting upon, things like the real, actual meaning of words, and objective, transcendent truth (2 Cor. 1:12).
“We have a sufficient intellectual certainty in the testimony of God and what we need is to believe that.”
–Dr. Francis Schaeffer