We need to fight relativism, but I think often we are treating the wrong disease. We want to appeal to the mind to receive truth, but I think it’s the ego that gets in the way more than the mind.
Instead of giving today’s relativists too much credit, let’s go back to the original sin, which, despite its vintage, still gets at the heart of the problem. When Satan tempted Adam and Eve, he proposed a division from God that allowed for individual sovereignty.
Satan tells Adam and Eve that God is afraid of their potential independence, which they would gain through disobedience, because “they would be like gods.” All they have to do is eat from the tree “of the knowledge of good and evil” and, you see, that would make them “like Him.” By “knowing good and evil” they would be not just knowing what is good and evil (which is good), but deciding what is good and evil (which is bad). You know – God is just a lawgiver and He decides, but if you reach out and grasp at that fruit, you’ll be able to decide, and… presto! You will be like God. That’s better than being under His rule, right?
An interesting note, however, is that God’s will was to make us like Himself – “Beloved, we are sons of God even now, and what we shall be hereafter, has not been made known as yet. But we know that when he comes we shall be like him; we shall see him, then, as he is” (1 John 3:2, Knox). God had already made us like Himself, and would reveal later that He would draw us even closer, and in Christ we actually share His nature because He shared ours. The difference is that original sin grasps after something God wants to give us, and in so doing severs our union with Him. We try to lift ourselves up instead of letting God lift us up. It is by being united to Him that we actually become like Him, complete with His royalty that He shares with us through Christ. But it requires humility. We cannot “get a grip” on this reality as the main agent, but must actively accept the gift. Humility leads to truth, not the active engineering of the mind. Relativism is not born firstly from a desire to make truth relative, but a desire to be the ones that can make the truth.
So, how then do we treat the issue? Many go after relativism through its obvious self-contradiction. “Truth is relative” is a doctrine that disproves itself because it claims an absolute truth as it denies absolute truth. But people can continue on in relativism after having that pointed out, because the problem is they ultimately believe that they have the power to make truth. The ego is problem.
Thus, I think that the best way to fight relativism is to rekindle the relationships with reality and people that cause us to humbly accept the other, which draws us ultimately to the Otherness of God. People that peck at screens all day, live in bubbles of self-confirmation, and do not have the painful challenge that happens when something or someone challenges what we think (in general or of ourselves), the ego-inflating tendency of modern abundance reinforces relativism. We feel big. And out tendency toward isolation just adds to the problem. But when we encounter a world outside of our own control and manipulation we intuit that truth is to be found and accepted, not made. Therefore, the call to humility and encounter is, I think, better than the appeal to the intellect to abandon relativism. Pride is what allows it.
Here’s an example. I went to breakfast with a group of young farmers. Most of them are very typical millennials – relativists to the core, and quite sure of their enlightened status in the history of thought. One of them was eager to share a new theory, which he proposed as if he sat under a Bodhi Tree for years waiting for it to hit him. It turned out to be one more version of relativism.
“I think that what seems good to us might just be based on our experience,” he explained using small containers of creamer to illustrate. “Maybe that thing is only good in our world, from our perspective, but in the world of another it is not.” So far this wasn’t so controversial – we could just say maybe he means “preferences” or “tastes” when he says “good,” but he kept going. And it required more objects – forks and things – to illustrate.
“So, there really isn’t anything that is actually [objectively] good or bad,” he said, clearly getting to the clincher. “Maybe nothing is really true, but all we have is the experience and what we glean from that. We can be truly free by just being true to what is true to us.”
Everyone nodded with apparent satisfaction, except me. (It’s not that I didn’t want to join in or was humbly listening, but I was working through my hash browns, scattered and covered.) This “new” theory, it was then proposed, is how we can end divisions and wars and things like that and have real unity as people. The thoughtful sips of coffee around me made it look like we were about to bring about world peace.
I said his theory made me very sad, which was a shock to the trajectory of the conversation. “You get to just be off in your world with its own laws and truth,” I said while rearranging the creamers and forks. “While I’m off over here with what’s true to me. We live in two separate worlds, and don’t have real reason to have any unity, other than mutually shared interest, like farming, which one of us could change at any point and we would lose our supposed unity.”
I then pointed out that his idea (which was, of course, recycled relativism) would not likely lead to peace, since wars seem to be made because of different versions of what one side thinks is true and good. What would be truly uniting and freeing is if both sides had to admit a truth outside of themselves that, in humility, both should humbly accept over any “personal version” of truth – the idea of justice (which he loved) requires such objectivity. Perhaps in the particulars there is beautiful variety and difference of experience, but behind everything is an ultimate truth about things.
“For example,” I said, looking at him “If we both believed in the truth of human dignity, then no matter what differences of experience or preference we had, we would treat each other with at least justice if not outright love.” I said that we could then seek to do what is right even if our experience or preference rebelled against the truth outside of us.
This idea was clearly a wrinkle in the easy trot of relativism they had been on through most of their education. “Maybe the problem with our division,” I said, “is not that we think differently or see goodness differently. If each of us thinks that we can make up truth and live in a world we construct alone, maybe we just think too much of ourselves, and are alone too much. Maybe humbly saying something outside of us is true before we confirm it as so – maybe that truth, then, will set us free.”
Truth doesn’t just set us free in general, but it also sets us free from ourselves.
“And I’m glad we’re having breakfast and talking about truth,” I said right before we transitioned to talking about soil. “Because if the truth is outside of us, we’re probably going to need each other to get closer to it, just like we need each other to be better farmers.”