Pluralism and Relativism: “It’s All Relative” (pt. 3)

from Feb 21, 2009 Category: Articles

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

Relativism and the Issue of Abortion
One of the most controversial issues of our day is that of abortion. It is tearing this country apart politically, economically, socially, and in every other way. Legislation is pending in every statehouse over the question of abortion. The issue is not whether or not it is all right to have an abortion if a person is subjected to rape or if the mother’s life is in danger. Those are moral questions that theologians and students of ethics work with. The issue today is over the question of abortion on demand.

This issue has drawn sharp lines between people. On the one hand are those who vehemently oppose abortion on demand; they have initiated the movement called “pro-life.” On the other hand is a group of equally committed people in favor of abortion on demand, called “pro-abortion.” In the middle is a mass of people who call themselves “pro-choice.”

Legislatively, the difference in our society is determined by this middle group. Consistently we hear people from this group saying, “I personally would not choose to have an abortion, but I believe every woman has the right to make that choice for herself.” On practical, legal or legislative levels, there is no difference between pro-choice and pro-abortion. A pro-choice vote is a pro-abortion vote. A vast number of mainline Christian churches have gone on record adopting this pro-choice position.

The issue goes deeper than that, however. The question we must face is, does anybody ever have a right to do that which is wrong? When we ask this question we must ask, what kind of right? Legally, we have the right to be wrong. In our country I may disagree with you, but I will defend to the death your right under the law to state your views. The concept of certain rights of freedom, including the freedom to be wrong, is very important to our society as a tolerant democracy. We have a legal right to be wrong, but does God ever give us a moral right to be wrong?

We must distinguish between legal rights and moral rights. We may claim that the pro-choice position is an argument for legal rights, but, in actuality, we are talking about moral rights. If the issue is whether or not there should be a legal right for a person to choose abortion, we are begging the question by saying, “My argument for having a legal right is that I have a legal right.” Behind the philosophy of pro-choice is the idea that everybody has the moral right to choose for themselves to have or not to have an abortion.

Who Gives You the Right to an Abortion?
Now I want to ask this question: Where does that moral right come from? I have yet to hear anyone raise that question, nor have I seen it in the press. Today everybody is talking about rights. There are women’s rights, prisoners’ rights, children’s rights, and so on. The question is, “Where do we get these rights?” What is the foundation for a right? Is it natural law? I would not want to defend the right for abortion on the basis of natural law. Is it a right that is given to us by our Creator? Does God give us the right to choose abortion? Does nature give you the right? Who provides the right? The concept upon which this large group of people build their argument has no foundation. Before we claim a right, we should be able to state where that right comes from.

To continue with this illustration of the abortion issue in our discussion of relativism, I could ask the pro-choice people what it is they are really saying. What is their claim based on? The answer would be preference. They want to be able to choose. It is one thing to say I want something. It is totally different to say I have a right to it. It is strange that this position emerges in a context of pluralism and relativism, because it comes from the idea that no one in a relativistic society ever has the right to impose his standards on somebody else. Why not? Because everything is relative. Abortion is relative to each individual. If you want to have an abortion, you have the right, say the pluralists. You have that right because morality is relative in a pluralistic society. The one thing that our country cannot tolerate is one group of people imposing its views upon another group.

In pluralism, a view of toleration emerges with a subtle shift. In classical thought, toleration, patience, and longsuffering with people who differ from us were Christian virtues. God’s law requires that we be tolerant and charitable with each other. But it is one thing to say that all different views are tolerated under the law; it is a short step from there to say that all different views are equally valid. Pluralism says not only are all views equally tolerable under the law, but all views are equally valid. If that is the case, then we are saying that every view has as much validity as its contradictory, in which case truth is slain. We can have truths, but truth is impossible. Once you realize that you have destroyed truth, even truths are not true, values have no value, purposes have no purpose, and life becomes impossible.

We can argue the relative merits of Confucianism and Christianity, but they can’t both be true at the same time because they conflict. We can argue between Buddhism and Judaism. They can both be wrong, but they can’t both be right about the ultimate issues in which they differ.

Relativism Ultimately Results in Statism
Pluralism and relativism have no possibility of being true because, from the beginning, the very possibility of truth itself is eliminated.. If everything is true, then nothing is true. The word truth is now empty of meaning. That is why modern man finds himself in a dilemma. He is thrown into chaos long-term, and man cannot continually live in intellectual chaos. There is a sense in which our present culture, more often than in any other period in history, is “up for grabs.” When this emptiness has happened in the past, something has come to fill that vacuum. Relativism is ultimately intolerable. What will come to this vacuum is some form of statism because something has to bring unity. The good of the “state” will become the ultimate point of unity.

The rapid growth of the centralized state is happening before our eyes in the United States. Consider the areas in which the state functions today where it did not function thirty years ago. Consider the areas where the people of America formerly looked to God for their security, their meaning, and their decision making and now, instead, they look to the state. This eventually becomes statism, where the state becomes the goal of life. The state becomes the reason for us to live. The state unifies, transcends, becomes absolute, and is eternal.

The state steps in and says we are going to be united. How? By going to the same schools, by learning the same things, by saying the same words. At the extreme, look at the nation of China, a uniformity by enforced unity. We may say that is the very opposite of pluralism. No, that is the result of pluralism. That is the result of the loss of transcendent unity. The God whom we worship is a God who brings unity, but at the same time preserves diversity. We all have a sinful tendency to force everybody else to conform to us. Even in the church we see this tendency. I am a teacher and I want to exalt teaching as the only significant gift of the Holy Spirit. You’re an evangelist and you have no time for the teacher. Yet God has said one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism—but a diversity of gifts and talents, a diversity of personality. Your humanness is beautiful in the intricacies of its diversity, but your humanness also finds an ultimate point of reference in the character of God. Take away that ultimate reference point and humanity itself is demeaned.

We cannot live on this side of the wall alone. We are going to either have God on the other side of that wall or we will substitute the state in His place. I challenge you to find one culture in the world where that has not happened. That’s what terrifies me.

The American government faces a serious crisis. People are demanding from the state more than the state can give. People are looking to the state for salvation. Unfortunately, the state does not have the equipment to save a fallen race. The state exists on this side of the wall. It can never provide ultimate unity for our plurality unless it becomes absolute. Relativism provides a moral vacuum that screams to be filled. As nature abhors a vacuum, totalitarian governments love one. They rush in to fill a vacuum.


This is part fourteen 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.