The tide of human thought moves
slowly. At its edge are many eddies, temporary disturbances of the main
flow. In the past seventy years a new movement - almost certainly not an
aberration - has taken form. It is increasingly being labelled
Until recently, relativism has been the concern
of only a few ethicists and those interested in the cultures of our
planet. Its oldest proponent was the philosopher Protagoras (b.485
BCE), the purveyor of the view that "Man is the
measure of all things" - by which he meant that there is no truth other
than what each man perceives or adopts for himself. In this he was
attempting to bring philosophy to bear on the ordinary aspects if life. We
can't dismiss the experiences of each person, so there is no universal
truth about the everyday world of experience.
Christianity by contrast has always asserted that it has access to
absolute truths, direct from God. It was this view which prevailed until
recently in the West. The situation is now changing rapidly for
Christians at large and the Church in particular.
Pope John Paul II
began attacking relativism in the 1980s. From his various writings it
appears that his main focus is on relativism in morals and ethics.
identifies a "distorted respect for pluralism" in ecumenical relations,
one which derives from relativism . Likewise it
encourages society to
decide by itself what is good and what is evil ... [displaying] a
lack of trust in the wisdom of God. 
In the political sphere, relativism is especially dangerous because
... if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political
activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for
reasons of power ... [which] easily turns into open or thinly
disguised totalitarianism. 
A number of theologians from Protestant churches adopt much the same
stance. The Bible, they say, lays down norms for right and wrong
behaviours. To suggest otherwise is to step outside the Christian fold.
Thus the anti-relativist position of some Christians derives initially
either from adopting the Bible as a source of ultimate truth
(Protestant) or from the Church's interpretation of the Bible through
its traditions and laws (Roman Catholic).
But underpinning both
approaches is a doctrine common to almost every type of Christianity. It
is that by one means or another, God has revealed certain truths to
humanity. Since they come from God, these truths by definition provide
standards or guidelines against which to assess all the essential puzzles
and problems of life. If this is true, then the Church in its various
forms can indeed pronounce on everything of any eternal importance.
However, a product of the past few centuries in the West has been an
understanding of the world which doesn't admit that God interacts with
humanity in this way. Or rather, if God does so interact then science and
its related disciplines don't hold true as we think they do. This is
because if revelation is admitted, the cause and effect which we think
pertains in the natural world is being constantly broken by God's
interventions. We can't therefore be sure that any result or finding isn't
merely God arranging it like that.
A result of seeing the world in this
way is to remove what previous ages thought were absolute or ultimate
measures for right knowledge and behaviour. For if God doesn't provide
such measures or standards, how are you and I to know what's right and
good, or what's true and what isn't?
The term "relativism" as used by
Christians on the defensive is therefore always pejorative. It describes
something which to them is so fundamentally untrue that it can only be
taken as aiming a deadly strike at the heart of their faith. As such it is
to be instantly condemned when discovered and fought with vigour and sound
A frequent attack on relativism is to attribute to it the
power to destroy any and all certainties in life. It is described as a
teaching which denies that absolute standards exist. If we say, for
example, that morality is relative, then some think that morality itself
ceases to mean anything.
To take a case, Christian morality says that
murder is always wrong. Relativist morality, it is claimed, says that
murder may be right depending on circumstances. In other words, there is
no absolute standard in this respect. Right and wrong behaviours are
relative not absolute.
Similarly, Christians have always asserted that
the only completely true faith available to humanity comes through Jesus.
But what if all faiths are equally valid? In that case, why should a
Christian exhort Buddhists and Muslims to abandon their religions (and
ways of life) for Christianity?
Framed in this way, relativism is not a
pretty picture. It seems to offer us quicksands rather than solid ground
to walk on. We appear to be faced with demanding and sometimes impossible
practical choices every moment of our lives without sound guidelines to go
by. Knowledge itself seems out of focus, vague and insubstantial. There is
apparently no such thing as objective truth.
On examination, however,
this rendering of relativism proves to be a caricature - though it does
contain a grain of truth. Part of the problem is that although the idea is
as old as the hills, the possibility that it might be valid is very new.
The roots of modern relativism go back at least to the start of the 20th
century and more likely well into the 18th century. It was proposed that
only scientific propositions are meaningful (that is, "true" in the sense
that grounds for rational doubt can be substantially removed by science).
If this approach is correct, huge swathes of traditional human discourse
become nonsensical - particularly metaphysics, theology, aesthetics and
ethics. Even disciplines based upon scientific thought such as psychology,
history, and paleontology, to name but a few, would be stripped of much of
Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth and other theologians
countered this with a breathtaking sidestep. They in effect isolated
Christian teaching and theology by defining it as different in kind from
all other types of discourse. Reason can take us only part of the way to
truth, they said. After that "faith" as a meta-rational type of trust in
God takes over.
At about the same time as this debate was taking place
(in the first half of the 1900s), a startling proposal came from the realm
of physics. Fritjof Capra describes the result of the work of Werner
Heisenberg and Niels Bohr known as "quantum theory":
... the crucial feature of quantum theory is that the observer is
not only necessary to observe the properties of an atomic phenomenon,
but is necessary even to bring about those properties. My conscious
decision about how to observe, say, an electron, will determine the
electron's properties to some extent � The electron does not have
objective properties independent of my mind. 
If this is true at the physical level, might it not be that truth
also depends upon how we perceive it - if not completely, at least to
One outcome of debate about this is summarised well by
Paul Murray and Michael Poole. It turns out that truth can be
arrived at in the sense of a deep and wide consensus. Mathematics and pure
sciences can yield this sort of certainty. But even then we must recognise
We are all always embedded in linguistic and conceptual frameworks,
cognitive and evaluative commitments and shared practices which,
rather than acting as an obstacle to rationality, actually constitute
the contexts within which human rationality appropriately functions.
Consequently, we each bring differing perspectives to the process of
rational reflection in such a manner as rules out any chance of there
being arguments which are equally persuasive to all.
This exposes the "take it or leave it" position of John Paul II and
others. We are not dealing here with relativism as something which
destroys truth, but as a genuinely important discovery we have made
about how to qualify what in the past have been regarded as absolute
truths. One way of putting it is that we "construe" the world rather
than know it. Each of us constructs a unique individual world; and our
unique constructions are built with the help of our physical and social
Relativism is thus clearly not the denial of any
standards against which to judge the adequacy of competing truths. It
does, however, challenge the Christian version of truth as totally
constrained by revelation. At its best, relativism is a way between truth
narrowly defined by self-proclaimed authorities, and truth as subjectively
defined only in terms of difference.
Relativism (in the true sense,
undistorted by defenders of the faith) is likely to continue to pose
difficulties for absolutism - that outlook on life which seeks power
through limitation of freedom. For the meanwhile, however, established
concerns of the Church focus on two aspects of relativism:
1. Cultural relativism It's a given that groups of
people - what are often called "cultures" - often differ greatly in the
way they approach right and wrong.
For example, in much of the West it is generally illegal for a man
to have more than one wife at a time. In many African cultures (despite
colonial laws of the past, and despite the efforts of Christians) this
does not always hold. Which culture should be upheld? In some remote
areas of Papua New Guinea murder and cannibalism may to this day be
regarded as a duty. Who is to say that this should not be allowed?
The cultural absolutist in the West, for instance, may claim that
African polygamists and head-hunter cannibals damage society. The
implication is that Christian-based laws and traditions apply to all
In contrast, the relativist thinks that cultures are primarily
derived from individual upbringing and cultural tradition. Therefore
cultures are just different rather than "right" or "wrong". No culture
can rightly claim to be superior.
Some Christians may stand aside and suppose that this clash of
outlook doesn't much affect them. That is, until they realise that the
conflict around cultural relativism impacts their belief system
Few who study the Bible would now deny that our 21st-century global
culture is profoundly different from that of 1st-century Palestine. They
probably agree that Jesus was a man of his time, brought up in terms of
the culture of his time (though many would argue that as "God" Jesus was
able to bypass cultural limitations).
Many esteemed and entirely orthodox theologians and biblical
scholars have nevertheless pressed the point of cultural relativism.
That is, they have pointed out (a) that we can understand
long-gone cultures to a degree; but at the same time (b) we can't
everything about them. We have to struggle through the mists of
time and cultural difference to arrive at our conclusions.
M Barnes asks what happens to the absolute claims of the Christian
theologian if the relativist approach is true.
If a religious tradition can only be understood within its own
historical and cultural context, does it not follow that it is
true only within that context? How does the theologian reconcile
his affirmation of the eternal significance [of Jesus] ... with an
acceptance of the contingency of all historical and cultural
manifestations of the truth? 
In effect, then, if the cultural relativist is correct, the Bible is
stripped of its place as an absolute point of cultural reference.
Christians of all persuasions will find this hard to handle and most
will reject it in order to sustain their claim to cultural superiority.
A few, however, recognise the validity of a relative approach to
cultures - including the culture of Jesus two millennia ago. They argue
that Jesus remains a powerful influence on us if we choose to make him
important in our lives. But he is to be understood on his terms first,
and then as it were "translated" from the Bible into the frame of
reference of our cultures today. That, it would be said, is how Jesus
retains his eternal relevance to human life.
2. Moral relativism Morality is a subset of
culture and refers to norms of right and wrong. Disagreements about
morality can be described in terms of what is "fundamental". R B Brandt
There is fundamental ethical disagreement only if ethical
appraisals or valuations are incompatible, even when there is mutual
agreement between the relevant parties concerning the nature of the
act that is being appraised. 
Take this statement as an example:
It is morally right for a child to treat his or her parent in
whatever way is best for the long-term welfare of that parent.
Two people who agree about this statement could be said to have
reached fundamental agreement.
That is, any difference is only about how to apply this
ethical principle. One of the two thinks that very old and feeble
parents should be executed to give them a better quality of life after
death. The other thinks that there is no afterlife, and therefore that
an early death cannot be in parents long-term interests.
Considered like this, contemporary debates about euthanasia, for
example, often don't derive from fundamental disagreement.
Christian and non-Christian alike may support the proposal that
Everything possible should be done to heal sick people and to
ensure that they don't suffer unnecessarily.
They disagree not about the supreme importance of life, but about the
means by which undue suffering should be prevented. One group
allows euthanasia to prevent suffering in the face of inevitable death,
the other generally doesn't.
Christians assert that they can settle moral disputes, fundamental or
not, with unfailing rectitude because their moral standards have been
revealed to them by God. Church authorities in turn claim the right and
duty to interpret God's revelation and therefore to adjudicate in moral
disputes. In reaction to moral relativism, some Christians interpret it
as an absence of moral standards. They maintain that relativism becomes
a willful and damaging freedom to "do what I like, when I like"
regardless of consequences - a sort of moral anarchy.
This is clearly a caricature of the complexities which surround the
debate about moral relativism. But absolutists do have a point.
It is that in the absence of a revealed or "given" absolute of some
kind, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to locate a normative basis
for moral choice. Moral choice about divorce, for example, is somewhat
simplified if I know that God has said definitively that marriage is for
But if I don't accept this revelation, on what basis can I assert
that marriage is more than a social contract to be made and dissolved
according to law? And if revelation isn't the measure of truth or value,
it may follow that everything we normally call right or true is
Nicholas Fearn puts it like this:
... every truth requires a measure of some kind. Truths are not true
in and of themselves, but are true within a system of thought, or
according to certain rules that test their veracity ... How we are to
evaluate the measure is another issue, and one that does not always have
an easy answer. 
Perhaps the only available basis of moral choice might have to do
with consequences deriving from actions. That is, it may be that certain
human choices will result in the destruction of the natural system of
which we are part and upon which we depend for our short and long-term
survival. If that is the case, then we do in fact have as close to an
absolute basis for moral choice as is possible.
The ins and outs of relativism are far more complex than I have
indicated here. Having said that, however, conservative attempts to
demonise relativists such as those of some Christians are
over-simplistic and therefore not worthy of much attention.
To summarise: The decision to accept the absolute moral norms of
traditional Christianity may or may not be valid. It may be made in a
knee-jerk way as an unthinking response to personal and cultural
influences. Or it may be made in the light of a conclusion that the
nature of the world is such that it is, as it were, permeable to direct
and perhaps mystical communications from God.
A central implication of the relativist position is that each of us
can choose our morals to some extent, but not our upbringing or
culture. We may decide, for example, that the whims of a democratic
electorate are preferable to the whims of a dictator and move from the
latter to the former. But we remain deeply imbued with the norms of our
 An address to Australian Bishops, 1998
 Veritatus Splendor, 1993
 1991 Encyclical Letter Centisimus Annus
 The Turning Point, Wildwood House, 1982
 Chapter 2, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999
 A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM, 1983
 Ethical Relativism: The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
 Zeno and the Tortoise, Atlantic Books, 2001