What is Relativism?

Relativism is the philosophy that truth and morality are dependent upon the perspective of the individual. Absolutes that transcend time, culture, society or personal opinion do not exist. No one can rightly say the Christianity of Western Europe is right and the animism of central Africa is wrong, or vice versa. Relativism views truth and morals as products of their time. For example, according to relativism, the wrongness of homosexuality was just a product of Victorian and Puritanical cultures which sought to repress human sexuality.

According to relativism, truth and morality are determined by the individual, the culture, and the particular situation. What is right for one person is not necessarily right for another. Relativism is the foundation of the postmodern world view, and is one of the most dominant views of truth in America today. Because of relativism, all truth is negotiable. Even truths which were once strongly held by many people can now be set aside if they are deemed inconvenient, unpopular or unpalatable. According to relativism, all truth claims are to be tolerated and doubt is a virtue. The only real sins in relativism are being dogmatic, too certain or attempting to force a particular view of truth upon someone else.

Relativism is evident in the ancient fable of the blind men and the elephant. The different religions of the world are like three blind men trying to explain an elephant. The one at the front holds the trunk and declares an elephant is a thick, muscular cylinder able to move about in all directions and grasp things. The one at the back disagrees quite strongly. He feels the tail and decrees an elephant is a thin, rope like object which is able to move rapidly. The one in the middle says they are both wrong. He touches a leg and describes the elephant as a thick, strong, leathery pillar. All determined truth based upon their perspective. Each defined a part of truth, but none were entirely right.

Christianity does not dispute the inability of individuals to fully see and understand truth. A Biblical worldview affirms that perceptions of what is true and right are affected by the perspective of the individual. What makes Christianity unique, and contradictory to relativism, is the assertion that truth is absolute and is given by One outside humanity. Reality, truth, justice and oughtness are defined by One who is above mankind and human culture.

Sin has damaged man’s ability to understand and apply truth to life. But human inability to see truth does not lessen its truthfulness. The blind men of relativism are limited by their inability to see and comprehend the entire elephant, but the elephant is still an elephant. Their mis-definition does not change the reality of the elephant. If a sighted zookeeper described in full detail the true nature of an elephant, the blind men would be obligated to accept as true the expert testimony of one who knows. The rejection of the authoritative declaration of what is true for a limited, incomplete understanding is folly.