Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 "relativism".

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. 

He identifies a "distorted respect for pluralism" in ecumenical relations, one which derives from relativism [1]. 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. [2]

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. [3]

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 doctrine.

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 their validity.

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. [4]

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 some degree?

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 that

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. [5]

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 environments.

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 cultures regardless. 

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 profoundly.

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 understand 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? [6]

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 writes:

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. [7]

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 life. 

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 relative.

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. [8]

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 upbringing.
[1] An address to Australian Bishops, 1998
[2] Veritatus Splendor, 1993
[3] 1991 Encyclical Letter Centisimus Annus
[4] The Turning Point, Wildwood House, 1982
[5] Chapter 2, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999
[6] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM, 1983
[7] Ethical Relativism: The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967
[8] Zeno and the Tortoise, Atlantic Books, 2001

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