Why people think as they do.

We can define culture as: “the creative output of society.” It is matrix within which we live, comprising what we think with our minds and produce with our hands – whether morally good or bad.

This means that as Christians we should be somewhat suspicious of culture. It isn’t morally neutral. It is inherently religious in the sense that it reflects the beliefs and values of those within it. So, we should view and assess every aspect of our culture through the spectacles of scripture. We should thank God for the good. And we should engage our culture in four particular ways in order to better it: first, by encouraging the good aspects; second, by restraining any bad ones; third, by building Christ’s alternative culture – the church that displays the kingdom of God as a light in the darkness; and fourth, by sharing the gospel so that more are recruited through faith in Jesus to do these same things.

This paper considers what are probably our own culture’s two most dominant traits: rationalism and relativism – traits that have arisen from a change in “western” beliefs and values over the last few hundred years. And they need to be considered so that our faith is not unsettled by them, so that we can spot their influence on us, and so that we might highlight the many problems with them in order to point our friends and families to the truth that is in Jesus Christ.

Defining terms                                                    

Our definitions and discussion will have to be somewhat simplistic. However, we might say that rationalism believes that truth is objective - it stands for all people and for all time. It also believes that such truth can be found by human reason alone, without any need of God. Truth in other words is what humanity establishes is right. By contrast, relativism believes that truth is subjective - it is true only to me. In this relativism believes that truth is found by human intuition alone, without the need for God. Truth is what “seems” or “feels” right.

In matters of religion, the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, is a rationalist. He argues that there is no scientific evidence for a God and so asserts that whether people believe in God or not, they are wrong. God does not exist.

An example of a relativist, might be the average non-Christian friend. Many are just not thinking in this sort of way. As far as they are concerned, Christianity is true “for you.” They assume that we just cannot know whether Jesus really is or isn’t the Son of God. If believing he is helps us, then that’s right for us. But if someone feels he is not, then that’s right for them.

Changing rooms

Now in making things simple, we can liken changes in culture to changing the interior decoration of someone’s lounge. In the recent history of Western culture we hear the terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” thrown around a lot. Rationalism is said to be a mark of modernism, and relativism the mark of postmodernism. People talk about them as if our society was once decorated – if you like – with modernist wallpaper. That was then stripped off, and society was re-decorated with postmodernist wallpaper.

This idea can be illustrated by considering two series of Star Trek. The initial series, filmed in the sixties, could be said to reflect modernism – with Doctor Spock’s reason and logic being relied upon, and humanity’s emotion to some extent being frowned upon. Star Trek: The Next Generation, filmed some thirty years later, could then be said to reflect postmodernism. In it Doctor Spock is replaced by Counsellor Troy and Data. Counsellor Troy’s gift is that she has a subjective sense as to people’s moods. And Data’s ambition is to experience human emotion.

The thing is, culture doesn’t change quite so neatly. Changes in culture are less akin to stripping and re-wallpapering a room, than they are to painting another colour on top of the previous colour. The traits of the previous culture are still there, but intermix with new traits to form the culture of the day. So it is that we must consider where culture has come from as well as where it is now. If you like, we must consider the various colours with which our society has previously been decorated if we are to properly understand the colour it now displays. So it is that we must consider rationalism before we consider relativism.

God and knowledge

Before all else, however, we must recognize that all truth is dependent on the Lord himself: First, he unifies knowledge. It is only in knowing we have a creator, that we can be confident that our world is ordered and so coherent, because it reflects his power and nature (Romans 1:20). It is this that means we can understand reality and establish what is true – that A does not equal B, that 2 plus 2 is not 5, that believing the earth is round and believing the earth is flat are not equally valid views. Second, God governs knowledge. As Deuteronomy 29:29 puts it: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” So we are not at liberty to decide what is and what isn’t. The nature of things is defined by God’s creation. The morality of things is defined by God’s character expressed in that creation. And God’s revelation about these things in the Bible must therefore correct and deepen whatever understanding we might have of them.

Hearts and minds

In pursuing truth, however, we must not only engage our brains, but be aware of our hearts. Our sinful nature makes our minds unreliable in establishing truth. As Romans 1v18-32 makes clear, we suppress what can be known of God in the creation and so are prone to error in our attempts to understand all sorts of things. The most obvious example in our day, is how our culture suppresses the biologically evident truth about human sexuality and gender in order to follow what people want to do or be, or to fuel pride in being seen as “approving” of them. Nevertheless, the Christian is being renewed in his mind and so should be more able to think or reason more clearly.

The important truth to understand here, is what’s called total depravity. It means that sin has made the totality of our being untrustworthy. Our reason, emotion and will are all affected by it. Because our wills want to sin, we suppress God’s truth with our reason and delight in what is evil with our emotions. So, whenever we are faced with God’s truth, there is a danger that we will reject or twist it, in order to suit our own ends.

It’s important then, to understand that a society’s beliefs do not arrive in a vacuum. Nor are they formed by pure reason. They are the logical working out of certain presuppositions which are formed by fallible minds so often driven by pride, self-confidence and a desire to live independently from God - as was the case in Eden. Of course, if those presuppositions are wrong, so will the resulting beliefs be. And in the history of ideas, that leads us first to rationalism.


1/ Rationalism

In his book “Escape from reason” Francis Schaeffer describes how humanity’s “epistemology,” that is our theory of how we know what we know, changed from the thirteenth century on with a Christian Theologian named Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas believed that God unifies and governs knowledge, he also believed that human beings did not need God’s revelation to discern it. He believed that by human reason alone – alone being the important word – we could discern what is and what isn’t (although he accepted the Bible helps us grasp more).

Well there are no prizes for guessing that this led to God being side-lined. Thinkers effectively made their own reason God, assuming that it could establish what God is like, what is right and wrong, and in what sense humanity needs salvation.

The evils done in the name of Christianity during the time of the reformation and English civil war only encouraged this view. They switched people off the idea of holding firmly to revealed truth. The achievements of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries then increased people’s confidence in reason as an alternative. The discovery of medicine such as penicillin gave confidence that by reason alone we could eradicate sickness. The theory of evolution gave confidence that we would progress by our reason to an increasingly perfect state. And a related focus on education gave confidence that by mere instruction we could fully counter our tendency towards evil.

Where then did this increasing confidence in reason lead? Initially it led to an intellectual movement known as Deism. Deists still believed in a Creator, but held that he was rather like a watchmaker. He designed the world but then left it to tick on by itself without his intervention. This view essentially holds that God unifies knowledge but doesn’t speak and so govern knowledge. It’s a view that many of our friends hold. God exists, but he is unknowable and uninvolved. We must therefore decide our own way to live and solve our own problems.

It is here that we must mention a hugely influential 18th century thinker called Emmanuel Kant. He taught that any knowledge we can glean is limited to the realm we can perceive through our senses. Failing to do justice to the fact that God has revealed himself in space-time-history, he then placed God in a different realm, and so beyond all scientific enquiry. By this, he was saying that you can believe in a God by faith, but you can’t really know whether a God exists or what they are like. This is why many today assume that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved, and that faith is about blind belief without evidence.

In this cultural context, Deism inevitably led to Atheism, the conviction that there is actually no God at all. You see, though God’s reality is evident in the creation, because in our sin we don’t want to face up to that, we need the clearer evidence of his existence revealed in Jesus and recorded in the Bible. Yet the deists rejected any notion that God had revealed himself in this way, and Kant had added that what we perceive in the natural realm can tell us nothing about what is in the divine realm anyway. And so, it has become common to assume that there is no good reason to believe that there is a God at all.

There is however a problem for the atheists in all this, that is rarely acknowledged. You see they not only get rid of the one who governs knowledge, but the one who unifies knowledge as well. The likes of Richard Dawkins therefore attack belief in God by inconsistently relying on what only belief in God can guarantee – that our world is rational and ordered, and that we are not just a random collection of atoms and so we do actually have reason and can use it to understand our world. Without God we can have no confidence that we are not simply deceiving ourselves about reality, like the insane person who thinks he is Frodo Baggins living in Middle Earth. CS Lewis writes that scientific atheism, “gave us a theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid.”  

The impact of rationalism today

The signs that rationalism remains are all around us. But as we consider them we must remember two things: First, that because culture has developed somewhat from the days of rationalism, these things are not assumed quite as strongly as they were a few decades ago. Second, that as is so often the case, rationalism does contain some truth. The examples I give of how it shows itself are not therefore to be totally rejected.

1/ Scientism

This is perhaps the most obvious consequence. The word moves beyond science to seeing science as the solution of all things, as all there is to help us solve our problems. Rationalism has led to what’s called a “closed view” of the universe. This is the assumption that there is no God “outside” our universe who ever enters in and operates within it. Much modern science is ironically therefore based on religious faith. It is based on the “belief” either that there is no God or that God does not influence our universe. It therefore defines science in such a way that excludes God as a factor in any theory that seeks to understand our world or our origins. It believes in the virgin birth of the universe with neither mother or father!

2/ Anti-supernaturalism

This is inherent in this modern view of science and led to the rise of liberal theology in the late eighteenth century. If there is a God, he is not involved in our universe, it reasons, and so miracles just cannot happen. The Bible is not therefore inspired, but contains only the reflections of religiously minded people. Jesus is not God incarnate, but just a good moral teacher. And the resurrection didn’t happen, but was just an idea intending to portray ideas of a new start. What then of the miracles recorded in the Bible? They are myths, the liberals say, created by those early believers to portray their ideas about God. One wonders whether this lack of conviction about the activity of God in our universe lies behind the lack of prayerfulness and faith even among genuine believers today.

3/ Determinism

By sidelining God, rationalism leaves humanity purely at the whim of natural processes. It has therefore led to the assumption that we are determined in all we do by our biological makeup – nature, and by the environment in which we live – nurture. We see this particularly in some modern psychology that assumes evil to simply be the result of our genetic imperfections, a bad birth experience or a dysfunctional family. Ultimately it removes the idea that we are free and responsible beings.

4/ Humanism

The flip side of this is the assumption that humanity is essentially good and so destined in time to evolve more and more into a morally and physically pure and sophisticated state. By reason it is assumed we will one day eradicate our genetic and social imperfections, and that sufficient science, medicine, therapy and education will bring about a Utopia – a sort of heaven on earth. Humanism is therefore a kind of non-religious religion, in which humanity is god, effecting its own plan of salvation. This explains why law and education increasingly seeks to control even how we think and feel. It is not merely trying to maintain order and equip for life, but to attain a world where there is no disharmony at all. Of course, this becomes increasingly oppressive, because sin is a reality and won’t be removed, leading to more laws and more invasive education. Humanism also explains why the main aim of people today is fulfilling their own potential. Everything is about development. The irony in this, is that it becomes very self-absorbed and so works against true moral progress. A sense of being “unfulfilled” moves people to leave their marriages to the harm of their spouse and children, or turn down jobs that might do much good. Indeed, even when good is done it is often done primarily to make the one doing it feel better about themselves and develop as a human being.

5/ Secularism

This is the view that religious conviction should be kept out of public life – whether politics or education. If there is no God involved in our world, it is reasoned, then people’s religious convictions have no weight, are without foundation, and so have no right to shape how our society governs it life. Religion should therefore be removed from its structures. But by not acknowledging the huge leaps of faith implicit within deism and atheism, secularism is like a dishonest security guard manning the metal detector at customs. It seeks to keep all religion out of public life whilst covertly admitting its own!

6/ Forumalaeism

At a more general level, the reliance on reason and science, and the assumptions of determinism, lead the every-day person to believe that if only they adopt the right rational process or formula, they can achieve pretty much anything. Our book shelves are therefore full of “self-help” books promising “seven steps to success.” And even in our churches, we find ourselves relying on formula rather than God for our numerical growth or in fostering a sense of his presence.

7/ Nihilism

This refers to the sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness that many feel today. And it surely the logical consequence of rationalism. Listen to how the atheist Richard Dawkins writes: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[1] Another atheist, Bertrand Russell, puts it this way: “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving… his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”[2]

The consistent rationalist can only end up in drowning in despair. If this random universe is all there is, then we have no significance. Scientifically we are worth no more than a blade of grass, because we simply boil down to our DNA. Ethically, we have no grounds for deciding one way of acting is better than another, because our preferences are simply the result of how the world has fallen together to this point. Morally, we have no real grounds for caring when one human being suffers, because that is just part of the way things are. And judicially, we have no ground therefore for a justice system in which people are punished, because they only do what they do because they have been conditioned to be that way. Evil is just what human animals do, just as wolves hunt down deer. 

Few live as consistent nihilists, but its assumptions are very present – perhaps most clearly in arguments for abortion or euthanasia. It is assumed individuals are just atoms and cells that are here by accident. So, if they serve no purpose and may in fact hinder the humanistic dream, there is no reason not to terminate them.

Worldviews under construction

Here it is worth pausing to note that without the Bible to ground us, belief systems develop as their implications are worked out. Humanity sort of make it up as they go along. So, a Christian theism that held too high a view of reason led to deism where what was believed about God had to conform to reason. That in turn led to atheism, as the Bible as the great proof of God was no longer held to as reliable. And that then developed into humanism with its confidence that by reason we can save the world ourselves, and nihilism with its recognition that if we are to live consistently without a God, there is no rhyme or reason to try to do that! And it is here that relativism has tried to come to the rescue.

2/ Relativism

Relativism is built upon the assumption that because there is no God to unify or govern knowledge, when it comes to ideas there is no real truth at all that applies to everyone – there is just what different people think.

Two types of relativism have been acknowledged: Cultural relativism is the view that truth is therefore relative to a community or society. In other words, the aborigines may have a certain set of beliefs and values which are true for them, the Third Reich another set that are right for them, and the Western Democracies another set that are right for them.[3] Personal relativism is the form of relativism we are perhaps most aware of. We hear it whenever a friend labels our faith as “fine for you.” Because there is no objective truth as to beliefs or values, each individual just chooses whatever is true for them. It is subjective.

The rise of relativism

Now relativism in many ways developed as a reaction to rationalism, and in three particular ways.

1/ Reaction to the implications of rationalism

The 18th century saw a reaction against what was seen as the destruction of nature and suppression of true humanity brought about by science through the Industrial Revolution. These reactionaries were known as Romantics. They urged a return to an idealised natural state, but combined that with a rejection of religious truth, particularly in the area of sex, because they saw it as restrictive in restraining people’s natural instincts.

Others reacted against the deterministic view that our decisions are simply the result of our genes and environment. Those in the 19th century are sometimes known as Bohemians, and they asserted a radical freedom to do absolutely anything, living unconventional lives and embracing free love. This began to mean a stress not on what was right or wrong for everyone, but what was right or wrong for me.

Two characters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries need special mention here because their ideas reflected the same sense that inherited norms were holding back or supressing humanity: Karl Marx held that societal (and so religious) structures were holding back the economic development of everyday people and so should be thrown off. And Sigmund Freud held that traditional (and so religious) values were supressing the expression of our true sexual self which was fundamental to happiness and fulfilment.

Others in both the 19th and 20th centuries reacted against the nihilistic view that we are simply a chance collection of atoms and so have no real purpose. Their worldview is known as existentialism. Rather than face the despair that is the logical result of rationalism, they simply took a blind leap of faith that there is meaning and significance, and that it is to be found in living “authentically.” In other words, we are to define our own meaning in life by being and becoming whoever we want to be – in modern speak “being true to our self.” This struck a cord with both Bohemian and Romantic thought.

Existentialism lies behind the controversy over gender dysphoria. It is assumed that if someone “feels” a different gender, that’s who they really are. And because matter is only as it is by chance - and forever changing, there is no reason why that person should not change their body accordingly. In fact, they should do, because that is more “authentic.” It could be argued existentialism also fuels our modern concern with having a cause to fight for – whether one of the various rights movements or environmentalism. Having lost our sense of significance as those created to image and serve God, we seek to create our own significance by finding something to make our lives matter. The irony is that in a world without God, there is no way of arguing that is a good or worthy thing.

So it was that at the beginning of the twentieth century there was already a tendency towards truth depending on me rather than on revelation, tradition or a community, and on truth being established by my intuition or feeling rather than my reason. Moreover, the seeds of thought that would lead to seeing my sexual feelings as fundamental to what is most true for me were there in Freud, and the mindset that sees any challenge to what I feel as oppressive and to be thrown off, is there in Marx.

2/ Reaction to the failures of rationalism

In the first half of the twentieth century, the hopes tied to rationalism then took a direct hit in the unfolding of incredible evil. It was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who had first suggested that all claims to truth were attempts to gain and exert power over others. Well so it seemed to be. Under Hitler, the fascists used the so-called truth they held to as justification for worldwide bloodshed and the extermination of 5 million Jews. And under Stalin, the Marxists used theirs to kill what is estimated to be over 10 million people.

Faced with such wickedness, people began to realise that humanity was not necessarily good and not necessarily evolving to the perfect utopia that was hoped for. More than that, it was recognised that progress in science and reason meant progress in the extent to which humanity can harm itself.

Perhaps more than anything else this led to an increasing suspicion of what’s known as meta-narratives or grand-stories: a rejection of any claim to overarching and objective truth, whether it was political or even religious.

This is why many of our friends now assume that to claim that my truth must be your truth, will inevitably lead to my oppressing you in order to force you to accept my truth. It’s why there is such a readiness to label those a religion critiques as victims. Just consider how readily people reject Christianity with the phrase “all religion causes war,” or claim that all Christians are “hateful and intolerant.” This is particularly ironic when you consider that both Fascism and Marxism were atheistic. They caused the greatest wars and displayed the greatest intolerance, but people don’t reject atheism because of this, nor tar every atheist with the same brush.

3/ Reaction to the successes of rationalism

We noted earlier that rationalism remains despite all this. Its greatest accomplishments are perhaps in the area of technology. And there are two by-products of technology that have had a huge influence on how we view truth.

The first, is the access we have to information. We now live in a global village: We can enter and experience the culture and religion of any country in the world within 24 hours. And if we can’t go abroad, we can taste something of these cultures through our TV’s and on the net, or even outside our doors as the ease of travel means that we now live in a multi-cultural society.

Just consider the impact that has had on how we understand truth. Faced with so many different beliefs, values and cultures, it seems arrogant to claim that I have found objective truth to which others need to conform. After all, what makes me so qualified to find what is true and not the next person. Surely, people say, my beliefs, values and customs are simply the result of my being born where I have been born.

The second, is the means by which we are exposed to information. The internet in particular means that we are facing an information overload. And just as with overeating, this leaves us unable to digest the information we receive. We just don’t have time in our busy schedules to do the work necessary to establish whether what was said in that blog or magazine was actually true. Moreover, our desire for easy stimulation, leans us away from what is thoughtful and weighty towards what is comic and lite, leading to the infantilization of our culture where so many lack any seriousness about life and reality.

This is only enhanced by our surrogate mother - the TV. Consider how it has raised us as its children to think. First, it is image based. This means that much of what it portrays is ambiguous, because images can so easily be read any number of ways. And this leaves us prone to prefer the same medium, and be uncomfortable with lectures or books that may portray truth more ably. Second, TV is quick moving. This means that it is difficult without rewinding things to actually pause and reflect discerningly on what has just been said. And so we find discernment something that is far from instinctive to us in other areas too. Third, TV programming is diverse. This means that we can watch a news reel of children starving in Darfur, and move immediately to our favourite episode of Eastenders. This leaves us blurring what is real in our own lives, living out fantasies, and trivialising what is serious. The right response to starving children is to stop, pray and act. But instead we flip channels to our favourite show. Fourth, TV is ratings driven. This means that the content of what is shown has to relate to what we want to see. And our hearts will always tend towards what is depraved or entertaining rather than pure and personally challenging. So it is that even news reports and documentaries twist the facts in order to engage the viewer, leaving us all less concerned for accuracy and less confident we can ever really know “the truth.”

Whose authority?

A whole raft of factors therefore contribute to the relativistic rejection of objective truth: An emphasis on personal freedom and so personal truth, a downplaying of reason in order to escape despair, a subsequent reliance on intuition, a scepticism of objective truth claims as oppressive, a feeling that they are inherently arrogant, and a general training of our brains to be undiscerning and unconcerned about matters of truth at all.

What you may have spotted in all this, is a change in what we look to as our authority in what we believe. No longer is it religion – God speaking in his word, tradition – what we have received from history, community – what we inherit from our families, or even ideology – what is taught by a system like communism. Now it is very much the individual who only buys into any of these things if it seems true for them at this time. This should not surprise us, because relativism is built on rationalism’s confidence in the individual.

Of course, some still talk of the authority behind cultural relativism being the majority opinion of religion, tradition, community or ideology. But, the fact, is that in the west there is no received consensus as to truth, but only an ever-changing mass of individuals and their ever-changing convictions. This is why our society’s views can change so rapidly as has been in seen in matters of sexuality and gender under the influence of the LGBT lobby. If the individual can be made to feel something is more true to them than something else, they will shift and embrace it with little thought as to what might be said by any of the authorities appealed to in the past. And in an entertainment culture, they may make this move on the basis of little more than a three minute youtube clip that has been carefully crafted to appeal to their emotions.

What this all means is that the “truth” most embraced by a western culture tends to reflect that embraced by its most vocal and influential members – especially if they can control the media. In other words, its cultural relativism reflects the changing winds of personal relativism. And there are five related authorities that tend to govern this: Emotion determines truth by what “moves me.” So, a moving documentary telling how a gay couple met and faced opposition, leans us towards acceptance of their relationship without consideration of what it is really like, of its impact on others, or its acceptability to God. Intuition determines truth by what “I sense.” Things are accepted or rejected by whether they instinctively feel right or wrong, without thought of how our instincts are themselves shaped by our ideas and environment. A lady I knew was convinced she was a reincarnated Abbess because she visited an Abbey and sensed she’d been there before. Preference determines truth by what “I like.” Harder truths about God and his purposes are therefore rejected with the words “I like to think of God like this,” as if that really makes a difference! Experience determines truth by what “I perceive.” Those raised in broken homes may therefore reject marriage as an institution because of their bad experience of it. Pragmatism determines truth by what “works for me.” If being a Christian, Buddhist, Environmentalist, or non-Binary gender-fluid millennial gives a sense of belonging, identity and wellbeing, it is adopted. But when it stops doing so it is rejected.

The impact of relativism today

As we will see, none of these authorities are wrong in themselves. But it is not hard to see how uncertain, limited and prone to error they are. Whereas rationalism majors on what is thought, and so engages our critical faculties, relativism majors on what is felt, which is much more immediate and so potentially undiscerning. And this leads to a number of traits that mark our relativistic society.

1/ Individualism

At its heart, Western society is individualistic. It is concerned with the freedom of the individual to act as they please – so far as this doesn’t encroach too severely on the freedom of others. And this does follow, if truth is ultimately a matter of individual preference. Laws today therefore seem less concerned with restraining wrongdoing in areas that are objectively wrong, than protecting people’s right to act as they wish. However, individual freedom always impacts the community. A woman’s right to abort her foetus, impacts not only the foetus, but the way wider society sees (and teaches its children to see) the unborn, the role of women, and the nature of personhood itself.

2/ Pluralism

Many of our friends will regard all beliefs or views as equally valid. Assuming that God hasn’t revealed himself, they look on the numerous cultures and convictions in our world and consider it impossible to establish whether one is more true than another, and arrogant to suggest ours is right. This is exacerbated by the fact that what is felt is given such authority. Everyone’s feelings seem to point in different directions. And sifting their beliefs or views with our reason is seen as intolerant because rejecting certain ideas is assumed to be a rejection of those who hold them, which feels negative, uncaring and so wrong. God is therefore whatever you believe him/her/it to be – and morality is what you want it to be too.

3/ Tolerance

This is obviously the buzz word of our culture. But it is not the old tolerance where we debate in a gentle manner and agree to disagree. The new tolerance is one where we effectively patronize one-another by saying each other’s beliefs or views are “fine for you,” even when they are mutually inconsistent and perhaps downright evil. It has the veneer of being caring, but doesn’t care at all.

4/ Liberalism

If truth is what is right for me, then every individual is free to do as he pleases irrespective of the consequences to others. This is radical liberalism, but its roots are there throughout our culture and even politics. Just consider the lack of response when someone commits adultery. “I fell out of love with my wife” seems to be adequate justification. There is no outcry over the appalling damage inflicted on the wife and children, or the husband’s failure to keep his promises.

5/ Hedonism

Hedonists seek pleasure above all else. This is certainly a mark of our culture. Relativism leans people towards being unconcerned about injustice in the world or responsibility at home. All can live as they please, ignore the weighty things in life, and wallow instead in entertainment and the pursuit of personal happiness. Perhaps the massive use of pornography in our day best illustrates this. It is enjoyed now in the mainstream, irrespective of how it supports the sex trade or displays an unfaithfulness towards one’s spouse.

6/ Deconstructionism

Because truth is what I want it to be, some have gone as far as removing meaning from words altogether. At an extreme level this is said to mean that communication itself is impossible, because my own context will always mean I interpret things in my way. At a milder level this is seen to mean that I can establish my truth from a book irrespective of what the author intended. And this has led some to readily reinterpret history to assert their own particular agenda – whether by denying the holocaust, or reading homosexual relationships into history where they may not have actually been present.

7/ Nihilism

Ultimately relativism brings us to the same place as rationalism. Rationalism leaves us without meaning or morality because it tells us we are just a chance collection of atoms without accountability. Relativism leaves us without meaning or morality because it concludes, therefore, that there is no over-aching truth to live for or live by. Either way, if these worldviews were lived out consistently, they would end in utter chaos, purposelessness and evil.

The problem with relativism

It’s not a pretty picture. And the fallout of relativism is all around us. But there are three particular problems with it that we need to be aware of as we engage with our culture and teach our children to be discerning.

1/ Relativism’s inconsistency

The fact is that relativism is self-refuting. The relativist claims there are no absolutes, but by doing so they make an absolute statement. They claim all views are equally valid, except the view that all views are not equally valid. They hold that everything must be tolerated, but are intolerant of intolerance. You can see the point. The fact that there is objective truth is proved by the very claim that there is no objective truth.

2/ Relativism’s circularity

In his book “The righteous mind” Jonathan Haidt notes how western more “liberal” cultures tend to decide matters on the basis of how caring, fair and free of oppression something seems, whereas more “conservative” non-western cultures also have a concern for loyalty to the community, outside authority, and the idea of things having a sanctity. What is striking is how the more liberal basis for decision-making is therefore particularly focused on the individual and their feelings. We’ve seen this is a quite logical outworking of the relativism that will inevitably mark a more atheistic society. The problem, however, is that our feelings or instincts themselves are a product of our cultural environment. And so, this way of deciding matters is self-reinforcing: Culture tends to reflect the instincts of the majority, that in turn shapes the instincts of any others within it, which in turn strengthens the culture’s sense that what it holds to is obvious. This is why people cannot conceive Christianity even being worth consideration. So much of it goes against their feelings and instincts, which have been crafted by the culture from the moment they were born. Ironically, the only thing that might challenge this is a word from outside of themselves and their culture, like a revelation from God!

3/ Relativism’s implications

Very few of our friends will live as consistent relativists. They will hold objective truth in matters of science, history, and to some extent, morality too. We need to show them that, in this, they cannot have their cake and eat it. If there is no objective truth then they should end up as nihilists, where anything goes. We must show them that relativism ultimately leads to there being no grounds for law or justice – because there is no fixed morality, no integrity – because I can change my views and values at my personal whim, no humility – because I ultimately see myself as the absolute centre of the universe, and no dignity, worth or significance, because everything is just a meaningless and ever changing collection of atoms, that can be treated and thought of in whatever manner one feels they want to. In short, we must show them that despite its claims to be caring, fair and a challenge to oppression, relativism ultimately ends in tyranny, because the strongest and most powerful are given the grounds to do just what feels right for them – often manipulating others to get them on side. By showing our friends where relativism leads we hopefully begin to wake them up to the fact that it is unliveable, and that it doesn’t actually resonate with their instincts after all.

Borrowing capital from Christianity

Of course, it is one thing to say this, but quite another to convince people of it. They will appeal to certain ideas and values being self evident and not in need of justification – perhaps arguing that rationalism and relativism have left us with a fantastic legacy of concern for equality and rights. However, in his book “Dominion,” non-Christian author Tom Holland has convincingly shown that this is because our society has borrowed from the Christian society which preceded it, but without realising that. In other words, it still shows something of the colours it was painted with before it was painted with rationalism and relativism. In an interview touching on just this point Holland says: “That is the course that, by and large, the west has taken. It has [said] ‘We’ll take over Christian morals and ethics thank you very much, but we’re not actually going to bother with any of the mumbo jumbo that requires us to go to church.’ The question that is posed by that, of course, is whether or not you can continue to have the bloom if the roots have been pulled up. And we don’t know the answer to that as a society.”[4]

The thing is, we have seen that without the root the bloom is fading. Foundational ideas of the sanctity of life, the nature of marriage and gender, and the gracious tolerance of those we disagree with are rapidly being re-written, with law becoming increasingly invasive in an attempt to assert the new morality or deal with the fallout from it. Without the Christian truth that all are equal and to be cherished in bearing the image of God, and called to live according to his design and purpose, rationalism and relativism will only further lead us from what is good and beneficial.

3/ Revelation – the third R

There is some truth in every deception. So, as Christians we would not want to reject everything within rationalism. Our reason is God-given and important. The problem is a failure to recognize that it is corrupted and controlled by our sinful nature. It’s the same with our feelings, which are so significant with relativism. They too are God-given and important. We should be moved by things that matter. But we should not let our reason or feelings dominate in establishing what’s true.

In short, we must reject both rationalism – with its emphasis on objective truth found by reason alone, and relativism – with its emphasis on subjective truth established by feeling alone. Instead, we must look to revelation – that is, objective truth from God, humbly understood and subjectively believed.

You can understand it with this triangle:

Scripture, reason and feeling all enable us to grasp what is true. Each informs the other, but only scripture is entirely trustworthy. When our reason is in error, our feelings may awaken us to it. We may have a sense that we’re thinking wrongly. But scripture will clarify whether that is the case. Likewise, when our feelings are in error, our reason may highlight it. A pause for thought will suggest our instincts are out. But scripture will clarify whether that is the case too. And both our reason and feeling may also give us new insight into scripture, not over-riding or correcting it, but helping us look deeper and so grasp it more fully.

But we must remember that the key presupposition lying behind both rationalism and relativism is that there is no such thing as revelation (scripture) – that there is no personal God making himself known in our universe. We’ve seen that this presupposition is without foundation, but simply reflects the historical development of ideas. We’ve also seen that rationalism and relativism are both positions of faith themselves, and ones that have nihilistic, terrible and unliveable consequences that few could ever accept. In other words, the Christian worldview is a much better fit for what people instinctively know, than the secular worldview that they embrace so inconsistently and unthinkingly. Put another way, Christianity is actually a much better fit with both our reason and our feelings - when they are rightly considered.

But Christianity also has the firmest of foundations in all Christ said and did. And so it can be helpful to ask a rationalist or relativist to live for a moment in the land of “if.” Without attempting to totally dissuade them from their presuppositions, you simply ask them to imagine for a moment that there is a personal God active in our universe. You then ask whether they would accept that “if” that is the case, that this God could give good reasons to believe and ensure the existence of objective truth. If they say yes, you can at least then ask them to read the gospels for themselves before dismissing Jesus because of their presuppositions.

[1] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995), quoted from Victor J Stenger, Has Science Found God? (2001)

[2] How now shall we live, p.253

[3] We see this view in the suggestion in the media that although execution is wrong “for us” it is somehow right for the Iraqis to have executed Saddam Hussein. Now either it is morally right or wrong to take someone’s life as punishment for a crime. This is not something that depends on consensus.