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.

5 thoughts on “What are Relativism and Postmodernism?

  1. Using the Bible as your argument just seems to support the postmodernists point, the book is true to you, but not to others, since there is no way you can prove to me that the Bible is absolute truth.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jack — much appreciated. I understand your concern, and it’s a common “comeback” to accuse the Christian of capitulating to postmodernism. However, I’d ask you to read the blog again. You say, “Using the Bible as your argument just seems to support the postmodernists point,” but if you’ll read closely you’ll see that I never actually use the Bible as my argument. All I really do in the blog is define relativism, modernism, and postmodernism, I don’t use the Bible to support any of those definitions — I state my sources at the beginning of the blog. For Christian readers, I have used several examples from the Bible to make the point clearer, but this certainly doesn’t support the postmodernist position.

      You also claim that “…the book (Bible) is true to you, but not to others.” This is the postmodern view of the Bible, but it is false. When speaking of the entire book, it’s simply an impossible point for either of us to defend. But I would submit to you that the Bible makes thousands upon thousands of truth claims that are objectively verifiable. Pick any person the Bible says existed, any place, or any event the Bible says occurred, and thousands of these people, places, and events have been verified by historical documentation, archaeology, anthropology, and other disciplines of science. The Bible is so far from postmodernism in this regard, it cannot be compared. Take the story from Luke 2, that many of us read at Christmas — in the beginning of this chapter, the Bible claims that Quirinius was governor of Syria while Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome. This is not a claim that is “true to me, but not to others.” This is a claim that is objective — it is either true or false. There are thousands of claims and truth statements like this throughout the Bible, and they are not “true to me, but not to others.” Now, if I claim that the Bible is divinely inspired, or that it is the word of God, that is a claim that we can dispute. But you cannot dismiss the Bible as purely relative, because it makes thousands of objective claims. You also cannot say that I’m using the Bible as my argument (since I didn’t), and you can’t say my blog supports the postmodernist viewpoint (it doesn’t).

      As I said in the blog, postmodernism supports religious pluralism — I do not, and the Bible certainly does not. Postmodernism supports relativism, especially with moral truths — I do not, and the Bible certainly does not. The twin pillars of postmodernism — relativism and pluralism — are rejected by the Bible and by me. I am not supporting the postmodernist viewpoint in any way. You are right that I cannot prove to you that the Bible is “absolute truth” (I’d use the term “objective”), however, I can show you how thousands of claims that the Bible makes are objective, and verifiably true. If those do not constitute sufficient “proof” for you, then we can discuss further. Thanks again for a great comment!

  2. Pingback: Journey to Truth (Relatively Speaking) | R E F L E C T I O N S

  3. Thank you for the article – it’s helped me understand the basic ideas of postmodernism and relativism.

    I was thinking about your Law of Excluded Middle example. I would be inclined to suggest that this may be a False Dilemma (or False Dichotomy). On the face of it, it seems reasonable to suggest that there are only two option – A) Jesus is the Messiah (Christian); B) Jesus was not the Messiah (Jewish) – However, I propose that there is an inherent assumption within this that allows for a third possible state which can exist and yet be a completely separate choice from these two statements, and that is: ‘A Messiah can never exist’.

    I would argue these three statements are the three true partitions of all possibilities because in statement B) there is an inherent assumption that a Messiah can reasonably assume to be able to exist (in the context of the accepted definition of A/The Messiah).

    Just my thoughts. As a disclaimer, I’m not very knowledgeable on Christianity or Judaism and am not clear on the definition of Messiah, but I don’t think it’s necessary for my argument (although I’m not against further understanding!).

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