Pluralism and Relativism: “It’s All Relative” (pt. 1)

from Feb 19, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from Pessimistic Existentialism pt. 4)

As missionaries attempting to understand the way of thinking in our culture, we must turn our attention to twin topics under the umbrella heading of secularism—pluralism and relativism. Let us think once more of the high wall we examined earlier, the wall representing the line of demarcation separating the present time from the eternal world. It is the barrier to the transcendent realm of unity, the wall that confines and restricts us to this time and this place.

We are cut off and isolated from any contact with the eternal world. The transcendent realm is where we find unity. The world in which we live is the world of diversity. Universals are beyond the wall; the particulars of our experience are here and now. The transcendent realm is also the realm of the absolute. This side of the wall is the place of the relative.

Unity          Universals          Absolutes
Diversity          Particulars          Relative

The basic idea of pluralism is this: We have diversity here in this world. We have no access to ultimate unity, no way to bring the diverse things of our experience into a coherent whole. We have particulars but no universals; relatives but no absolutes.

Printed on our currency is the motto of the United States of America,E Pluribus Unum—”From the many, one.” It calls attention to the dream of our forefathers, that people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds could come to this country from all nations of the world and form one nation. Out of that plurality and diversity of background, unity was to emerge. The idea expressed in our Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence was straightforward: We would have one nation under God. The original assumption of our forefathers was the conviction that there is a transcendent being; transcendent truths would be the basis by which all these disparate groups and ideas were to be unified.

In our present concept of pluralism, we have taken a significant step away from the original idea upon which this nation was founded. Originally, the idea meant to take from the diversity or the plurality and to bring them together into harmony. Now, modern man is saying that he is cut off from God, cut off from the transcendent point of unity. All we have left is plurality. The new motto for this understanding of the culture would read something like EPluribus Plurus—”From the many, many.”

In discussing plurality and pluralism, we must distinguish between the two. To speak of a plurality is simply to say there are diverse ideas or peoples or backgrounds. However, as soon as we add that suffix ism to the word plural, we are saying something different. We are now saying that plurality is all that there is. There is plurality but no unity; there is nothing that brings ultimate coherence.

It’s fascinating to recognize certain buzz words that come into fashion from time to time. In the nineteenth century, the word evolution was used as the “open sesame” to a cave full of problems. When we think of evolution, the sciences of biology and anthropology usually come to mind. Evolution is a scientific term to describe the progressive development of a species from its origins. In the intellectual world of the nineteenth century, however, the concept of evolution was not restricted to biology but it was applied widely to many endeavors. All of history was suddenly interpreted in light of the general scheme of evolution. There was a belief in the movement from the simple to the complex, from the primitive to the sophisticated.

Theology was examined in the nineteenth century through the lens of evolution. In the “higher criticism” school of biblical scholarship, biblical religion was viewed as a gradual development from a primitive belief in many gods to a higher view of monotheism. This perspective saw the belief in one God as a late development in the history of religion. It was thought to be as recent as the eighth century b.c. with the advent of the Old Testament prophets. Moses, it was said, was not really a monotheist and Abraham was a myth.

The evolutionary approach to the Bible speculated that Jewish religion followed the general pattern of development that went as follows:


Animism: In this schema all religion is said to begin with animism. Animism is the notion that apparently inert objects are inhabited by spirits. They are “animated.” Trees, rocks, totem poles, and even certain animals are worshiped because they are indwelt by spirits. Normally these spirits are evil spirits. The job of religion is to make peace with the spirits, to ward off their evil power. Primitive people place offerings before these objects, chant to them, and do religious dances around them.

Polytheism: The second stage of religious evolution is polytheism. Here the “gods” have separate identities. They are not mere spirits inside of rocks or crocodiles. They normally have a special abode in the sky or on a distant high place such as Mount Olympus. Each nation has its own set of gods and each god has his or her particular function. Think, for example, of the gods and goddesses of Rome and Greece. Other cultures had similar pantheons. We find them in Egyptian religion, Persian religion, and throughout the ancient world.

Henotheism: Henotheism is a transition stage in the ladder of evolutionary development. It is a sort of halfway house between polytheism and monotheism. Henotheism has one god for a nation or ethnic group. Though many gods exist, each of the gods has his own sphere of dominion. For example, the evolutionists think they observe this in the Old Testament where Jehovah is seen as the national god of the Jews. The other nations have their own territorial gods as well. The Caananites had Baal and the Philistines had Dagon. These gods enter into the battles between the nations.

Monotheism: As the word suggests, monotheism reduces religion to one God who is supreme. He is a high god. He rules over all nations. There are no territorial or ethnic limits to His dominion. He rules over all human activities such as love, war, harvest, and the like. This is the latest and final stage of religious evolution. It is alleged to have come much later than the book of Genesis. The idea that Jehovah was the Creator of the whole world was viewed as a later insert addition to the Jewish writings, a rewriting of their own history by which later monotheists wrote their religion backwards into this history.

Not only did evolution influence theology but it also affected theories of politics, economics, and philosophy. All of these disciplines came under the influence of this all-embracing concept during the nineteenth century.


This is part twelve of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.