Pluralism and Relativism: “It’s All Relative” (pt. 2)

from Feb 20, 2009 Category: Articles

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

Our Lives Have Been Changed by the Threat of Nuclear War
In the twentieth century, the buzz word that replaced evolution was relativity. We are all aware of the changes in our lives that have been brought about by the scientific revolution based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. This is the atomic age. Our lives have been changed by the threat of nuclear war as well as by new possibilities of power from nuclear energy that exist as a result of Einstein’s work.

From the viewpoint of science, relativity simply has to do with description of motion. We can say that motion may be considered from more than one reference point. If I am moving toward you, it does not matter whether my motion is considered from my perspective or from your perspective. We simply have different reference points. In this, there is a sense in which my motion is relative. It is relative to a particular reference point. Thus, relativity in motion is defined or determined by various reference points.

There is a big jump, however, from relativity to relativism. It is one thing to say that motion is relative to a reference point; it is another thing to say that everything is relative. We have all heard the statement, “Everything is relative.” We may even say it. If we do, we are perpetrating a myth of contemporary culture. I call this a myth because it couldn’t possibly be anything else. If everything is relative to everything else, then there is no ultimate reference point. There is no basis for truth. If everything is relative then the statement, “Everything is relative,” is also relative. It cannot be trusted as a fixed truth. All statements become relative. All axioms become relative. All laws become relative. Relative to what? To other statements, which are also relative. We have infinite relatives with no ultimate reference point. We have millions of “children” with no “parents.” Truth is quicksilver.

Some view ultimate or “absolute relativity” (a contradiction in terms) as a major advance in modern science. In reality it is the end of science; the final graveyard of truth. It is one thing to say that for mathematical purposes motion may be considered as relative. But if everything is relative including ethics and values then we are in deep weeds: the kind of deep weeds one finds in a jungle. Consider relativity in ethics. If I don’t like you and decide to murder you, is that good or bad? Neither. Or both. It’s relative. For you and your family—your relatives (sic)—it may be considered bad. For me it’s good since I’ve destroyed a personal enemy. In a relativistic law court why should a judge find against me? To call my act of murder “bad” would be an arbitrary judgment if everything is relative.

That is precisely where modern secular man finds himself. He lives his life with no ultimate, fixed, and absolute reference point that can define his life or the meaning of his existence. If everything is relative, you are relative, and there is no substance to the meaning of your life. The crisis in pluralism is that there is no ultimate point of reference.

In relativism, there are particulars but no universals, relatives but no absolutes. This means that we can have values but no Value, truths but no Truth, purposes but no Purpose. That is, we have no fixed standards by which to measure or to judge values, truth, purpose or beauty. Once we embrace relativism we live in a world of ultimate chaos.
Let me try to make this more concrete and relevant to where we live by looking at the effects of relativism in theology, in education, and in social ethics.

Pluralism in the Church
The tragedy of our day is that pluralism has not only been accepted as a working ideology in secular culture, but it has also been widely embraced in the church. You may have heard a congregation or a denomination proudly claim, “We are a pluralistic church.” This means that church welcomes all different kinds of theology and viewpoints. It is not merely a matter of diversity within unity.

The Bible describes the church as a body. It is made up of diverse parts. Each part has an important role to play, an important function to perform. Just as the human body needs eyes and ears and a mouth, so the church needs various parts to it. We have different gifts, different tasks, different personalities. Yet in this diversity is unity. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Ideally, we would all believe the same thing, but we do not all have a perfect understanding of the Bible. The Bible calls us to be patient, tolerant, and kind to one another in many points of disagreement. Yet there is an essential unity in truth. Certain truths cannot be negotiated. Denials of essentialtruths of Christianity are not to be tolerated in the truth.

Pluralism suggests more than just diverse opinions in the church. It allows contradictory views of Christ, of God, and of the very essence of the Christian faith. It considers them all to be right. Once a church embraces pluralism it is saying, “It doesn’t matter whether we agree on the essential points of the Christian faith, because it’s all relative.”

Pluralism: The Antithesis of Christianity
Some time ago I spoke at a meeting of religious leaders and I told them, “If anybody comes to you and tries to sell you on the virtues of pluralism as a basis for church renewal, run for your life. Pluralism, as a philosophical idea, is the very antithesis of Christianity. No church can survive for long in that kind of chaos.”

When I finished with my address, one of the members of the group stood up and started to speak in favor of pluralism. To avoid hypocrisy, as soon as he started to talk in favor of pluralism I ran from the podium and out the door. Needless to say, this was to everyone’s consternation. I left hundreds of people looking for a speaker who had just vanished. Finally, I popped my head back in the door and said, “I just told everyone ten minutes ago to run for your life if anybody tries to persuade you about the virtues of pluralism, so I had to demonstrate it myself.” I hope they got my point.

Let me illustrate the problem of relativism in schools. I can remember when my daughter entered kindergarten for the first time. It was at a progressive school in Boston that had a sophisticated curriculum. At that moment I realized there was a sense in which her mother and I were no longer the primary influence on the shaping of her mind and her ideas. Now she would be sitting under someone else’s tutelage for six or seven hours a day in a public school system. That is a traumatic thing for those parents who are concerned about the development of the mind of their child. I wanted to monitor closely the education that she was getting.

She came home after kindergarten and I asked her, “What did you do today in school?” She answered, “We played with a puzzle and we worked with modeling clay.” I thought, “That doesn’t seem too dangerous.”

After about six weeks, we received a notice inviting us to an open house for parents where the principal of the school would explain the curriculum. My wife and I went to that open house. The principal of the school was a congenial and articulate man who desired to put our fears to rest. He said, “I know you parents are feeling the loss of your role in the education of your children. We want you to understand that everything that is done in this school is done with a carefully thought-out purpose.” He then unveiled the curriculum in a way that astounded me.

He said, “From 9:00 a.m. until 9:17 a.m. every morning, the children play with these puzzles.” He held up the puzzles. He continued, “I know when your child comes home from school, you ask, ‘What did you do today, honey?’ and your child says, ‘We played with puzzles.’ You probably think that all they’re doing here is having a good time and that we’re merely sophisticated baby-sitters.

I want you to understand that these puzzles were created by a team of expert neurosurgeons. They were designed in such a way as to develop the motor muscles of the last two fingers of the left hand.” I thought, “Wow!”

The principal continued with the schedule. “From 9:17 to 9:32, they are involved in this particular activity. This activity was put together by a group of researchers at a midwestern university.” He proceeded through the entire curriculum and his evident point was that every single dimension of that curriculum had a specific purpose; nothing was left to chance or arbitrary action.

After he was through, I was overwhelmed. He then smiled and asked, “Are there any questions?” The response of the audience was spontaneous laughter as if to say, “Who’s going to ask any questions about this? We can’t believe it.”

Instead of questions the audience broke out in spontaneous applause. I raised my hand. The principal acknowledged me and I asked, “You have carefully explained that every item in this curriculum has a specific purpose attached to it, and I’m impressed by that. My question is, ‘What is the overarching purpose of the curriculum?’ You have only so many hours in a day and there are only so many possible individual purposes that you can implement in the curriculum. You have to make a decision about what goes into the curriculum. Therefore, you must have some overarching blueprint that governs the selection of the individual and particular purposes that you have in the curriculum. What I’d like to know is what is the overall purpose? If I put it another way, what kind of child are you trying to produce?”

His face became beet red. He looked at me in obvious discomfort and said, “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that question.” His reply was stated in genuine humility. He was cordial. His voice signaled no hostility. I said to him, “I deeply appreciate your honesty. You gave me a candid answer. I thank you for that, but I must confess that your answer terrifies me.”

The Boston school curriculum had numerous purposes, but no stated purpose. It was quite efficient, but to what end? The question we must raise with relativism is, who decides what is important? On what basis are decisions made? Let me illustrate the importance of this from a current controversy in our society.


This is part thirteen 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.