Feb 19, 2009

Pluralism and Relativism

18 Min Read

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.

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 relativ_ity_ to relativ_ism_. 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 _essential_truths 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.

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.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt was previoulsy published in R.C. Sproul's book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986.