What are Relativism and Postmodernism?

In my blog on “What Must We Believe,” I start with the statement, “I fear that the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message…” Over the weekend, I received a question on this statement from Aaron in Alexandria via email. He had gotten into a discussion with some co-workers, and they had all reached some confusion about the ideas of postmodernism and relativism — what they are, why they matter, and most importantly for Aaron, why a clear-thinking Christian should care. Let’s see if we can help him think through this.

First, I’m no expert here. I will rely heavily on a course I took on “The Challenge of Postmodernism” from Dr. Millard Erickson at BIOLA, and on the book, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Thin Air” by Greg Koukl. Credit given, let’s proceed.

Immediately, we are faced with the challenge that postmodernism is not monolithic. That is, there is no universally accepted definition of what beliefs or positions constitute postmodernism, and certainly no book (like the Bible or other definitive work) that serves as a common foundation or reference point for establishing postmodernism. However, with little disagreement, we can establish some widely-held concepts that most postmodernists will affirm.

First (and most importantly for the Christian), nearly all postmodernists deny the existence of absolute truth. All truth, then, is subjective — it is “in the eye of the beholder”. There is no such thing as an actual right and wrong, things being intrinsically good or evil, there are only opinions and personal preferences. I like chocolate ice cream, you don’t — I think murder is wrong, you don’t — these kinds of claims are largely equivalent. They’re just personal preferences. When a postmodernist or relativist hears you say something is “wrong,” all they hear is something equivalent to “yuck” or “eww”. To them, it simply means you don’t like it, no different than presenting me with pimento olives. YUCK. You’re just emoting, expressing displeasure.

Some claims, like “murder is wrong”, may have developed some social weight, such that they are frowned upon (even disciplined or punished) by society…but when you commit a murder all you’ve really done is violated a social norm. You haven’t done anything wrong, just gone against the norm a bit and offended some social sensibilities. Similarly, some behaviors (like murder) may be disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective, and have hence fallen into disfavor…but again, they aren’t objectively or intrinsically wrong, just a dumb thing to do if your goal is to preserve the human species.

This rejection of absolute truth and relegation of all truth claims to the subjective is the basic definition of relativism. So, to answer one of the initial questions AB asked, relativism and postmodernism are closely related — so much so that relativism is likely one of the most significant defining beliefs of postmodernists. The two are related, but not equal…so almost all postmodernists are relativists, but not all relativists are postmodernists.

Hand-in-hand with a rejection of absolute or objective truth is the rejection of religious exclusivity. Most postmodernists will also embrace religious pluralism. To be fair, we can look at pluralism in two different ways — first, pluralism on one definition is a fact. There are many different religions, and they believe many different things. This is pluralism in a largely descriptive sense, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. However, in a more prescriptive manner, most postmodernists affirm that not only do many different religions exist, but they are all equally valid. No religion is better than any other, no one religion or denomination is “true” and others “false”, they are all equally true (or, for the large contingent of postmodernists who reject theism, equally false).

These two concepts — relativism and pluralism — are as close as we will get to core, defining beliefs of postmodernism. Of course, clear-thinking Christians should see that both views are objectively false, and pluralism is demonstrably false. Biblically, there are actual rights and wrongs, and things aren’t wrong just because they violate some social norm. The “wrongness” of murder and rape aren’t something extrinsic (defined by society or culture), nor are they subjective (defined by individual preferences), murder and rape and other actions are intrinsically, objectively wrong. Wherever murder goes, the wrongness goes with it. In the great words of Greg Koukl, “If you think torturing babies for fun is okay, I’m not going to ‘appreciate your alternative moral perspective’. I’m going to think you need help. FAST”. Beware of the slippery slope you’re on if you think society defines what is right and wrong, it’s a dangerous one. If the Nazis had won, then their values would have been the societal norm, and from their perspective, elimination of “The Jewish Problem” would have been the most advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

When it comes to pluralism, we can readily concede the descriptive point. There is no question that there is a plurality of belief systems and religions throughout the world. However, they are not all equally valid, nor are they all true. This is easily demonstrable by picking one of a thousand readily apparent examples. Picking an easy one, the Christians claim Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews claim he was not. Now, it’s possible that the Christians are right and the Jews are wrong. I’ll even admit that it’s possible that the Jews are right and the Christians are wrong (though I obviously don’t think that’s the case). However, I hope you can see that at no time, in no way, can they both be right. Christ cannot both be the Messiah and not be the Messiah at the same time in the same way, which is exactly what pluralists propose. This is one of the inviolable laws of logic, called the “Law of Excluded Middle” — something is either A or not-A, but cannot be both.

For clear-thinking Christians, both relativism and pluralism are highly toxic. Absolute (objective) truth exists and can be known, and Christianity is clear in its exclusive claims. You cannot simultaneously affirm the objective truth taught in the Bible and the subjective truth taught by relativism. Of course, you cannot affirm both the exclusive claims of Christianity and the “all are equal” mantra of pluralism. Christianity is objective and exclusive. Postmodernism is subjective and pluralist. Show me a Christian postmodernist and I’ll show you a married bachelor.

Q & A: Mormonism

I’m fascinated by the fact that my post on “Would I Vote for a Mormon” is my most popular blog yet — received almost ten times as many hits as any of my prior blogs. I’ve also received via email a lot of questions on the post, too many to answer in individual comments, so this follow-up blog will answer some of those questions I’ve received.

1. AB: Who defines what Christianity is?
A. No one person, at least no one on this Earth. The Bible clearly defines what a Christian is, and what beliefs are necessary to call yourself a Christian. This was largely the topic of my prior blog on “What Must We Believe“. So, as stated in that post, if you reject any of those key beliefs, or affirm beliefs that are clearly contradictory to them, then you cannot call yourself a Christian. Am I saying that Mormonism rejects some of the core beliefs or Biblical Christianity, or holds beliefs that are contradictory to those beliefs? Yes, and I think LDS adherents who are students of their faith and history would readily agree.

2. DM and AB: Have you seen the “I’m a Mormon” billboards with Mitt Romney on them? I am worried that the Mormon church will capitalize on this any way they can…”branding” Mormons as just a family-loving, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. That actually sounds like a pretty good “brand” to be associated with. What’s not legitimate about a faith that promotes those values?
A. I think you’re entirely correct about the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Not only that, I wouldn’t for a minute dispute that the LDS are a family-oriented, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. I think all three are accurate characterizations of LDS, but we have to dig a little deeper. It’s a good “brand” to be associated with, and there’s nothing wrong with promoting those values. In fact, my entire post was intended to affirm the fact that I think Christians and Mormons affirm almost exactly the same values — I think it was clear in the blog that the very reason I’d vote for an LDS candidate is because we share the same values. The only aside that I mentioned, which really could be a whole series of blogs in itself, is that while Mormons and Christians affirm the same basic ethical, moral, and family values, they affirm a remarkably different set of religious/theological beliefs.

3. DM: Do you think a Mormon getting elected President will lend legitimacy to a cult system or belief that is contradictory to Christianity?
A. Possibly, but I don’t think so. I just don’t see enough overlap between a candidate’s political views and their theology. I don’t really see how getting elected President would “lend legitimacy to” his theological views. If we were in a country where the elected or appointed political leader was also the de facto religious leader (Saudi Arabia, Iran, arguably Israel), then certainly so. But in the United States, where we have a clear distinction between our religious and political leaders, the election of a candidate to political office in my view lends no special credence to their religious beliefs. At the end of the day, even if we concede that a Mormon President lends credence to their theology, that still is not in and of itself a reason not to cast that vote — at that point, a close examination of the alternative candidate becomes necessary.

Just my thoughts, others may disagree.

Would I Vote for a Mormon?

I rarely comment on politics, especially on blogs. The only exception is when the political and religious spheres intersect — and with a Mormon securing the Republican nomination, the two have rarely (in my lifetime) overlapped more. I’m frequently asked if I would vote for a Mormon, as recently as last week in my Bible study class. I thought I’d make my answer public, mostly because I think we need some clear thinking on this issue.

My first real exposure to Mormonism was in the ninth grade, when I was living in South Korea (my father was stationed there in civil service). My neighbor, Dan, was in the same class as I was, and we quickly became good friends (we remain close friends to this day). The more time we spent together, including time with his parents and three brothers, the more apparent it became — even at that young age — that we believed different things. My curiosity was piqued, and I started studying the differences, fascinated by them. My study of Mormonism has continued for over 25 years now, and I credit that experience with being the catalyst that eventually resulted in my current pursuit of a doctoral degree in apologetics, counter-cult ministry, and comparative theology.

So, back to the question at hand. Would I vote for a Mormon for President? Absolutely, and I’ll tell you why. First, make no mistake — the theologies of Mormonism and historic, evangelical Christianity are vastly different, even contradictory. If pressed, I’ll concede that I do not believe Mormons to be Christians (perhaps I’ll go into detail in a future blog). It’s not that there aren’t critical differences, there certainly are — it’s just that they don’t matter when presented with this question.

When faced with making a selection between two candidates for the Presidency, theology just isn’t that important. I’m electing a President, not a pastor. I know some of you may be shocked to hear me say this, so let me add some context. What matters is values, not theology. This is where clear thinking becomes so important. In assessing candidates, I will examine their values very, very closely — especially on key areas my Christian convictions intersect the political sphere. This primarily includes bioethical issues (e.g. abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, assisted suicide), but also touches on other areas like normalizing unBiblical behaviors (homosexuality), parental autonomy (educating and disciplining our children), and so forth. I sincerely hope these issues, which are simultaneously political and theological, are of great importance to all clear-thinking Christians (my convictions on these issues are important, but not to this particular blog). So, here’s where the rubber meets the road — on all of these issues, the convictions of historic, evangelical Christians and Mormons are precisely the same. I cannot think of a single relevant difference between Mormons and Christians on any significant issue where politics and religion intersect.

Let’s put it another way — if you are an pro-life evangelical Christian, and you are faced with voting for either a pro-choice Catholic (yes, they exist, many of them) or a pro-life Mormon, what would you choose? In the case of a Presidential election, I believe a clear-thinking Christian should see that in a political contest, pro-life versus pro-choice is more relevant than Catholic versus Mormon. If you’re a Calvinist, would you vote for an Arminian? If you’re a dispensationalist, would you vote for a preterist? These issues, along with nearly all other purely theological distinctions, simply aren’t relevant. What matters is values — convictions on key issues — not theology. Would I vote for a Mormon? Sure. Without hesitation.