|What Is Truth? The Fight Against Practical Relativismby David V. Edling and Molly Routson
The Challenge to Truth-Thinking
Resolving Everyday Conflict
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“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”1 Professor Allan Bloom began his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, with these words; and over the following decade relativism became so ingrained in the so-called “closed American mind” that it warranted its own epoch-defining cultural label: postmodernism. Postmodernism is our society’s term for the majority’s firmly held belief that truth is not knowable and, therefore, cannot be absolute. Speaking of students entering the university, Bloom went on to state that, “the relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.” Bloom didn’t use the terms “postmodern,” “postmodernity” or “postmodernism,” but he clearly saw its effects in the belief systems and lives of his students.Seven years after Bloom penned his work, Lutheran professor, theologian, and cultural observer Gene Edward Veith stated in his book Postmodern Times, “It is hard to witness to truth to people who believe truth is relative. It is hard to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to people who believe that, since morality is relative, they have no sins to forgive.”2 Even a cursory review of the foundational principles of biblical conflict resolution (see the Peacemaker Brochure) demonstrates the total irrelevance of such concepts to a truly postmodern thinker. If morality is relative, whatever is right for you is fine with me as long as you do not impose your standard on me. Conflict, theoretically anyway, shouldn’t be an issue between postmoderns because no absolutes exist over which to disagree. Of course, we know that even postmoderns fight, because people don’t actually live in a manner perfectly consistent with their beliefs!
When enough citizens believe that morality is relative and no absolute truth exists, what chance is there for society? Isn’t moral relativity a presupposition to a working definition of anarchy?
Consistency, or Not!
Veith points out that to disbelieve in truth is, of course, self-contradictory. He states, “To believe means to think something is true; to say, ‘It’s true that nothing is true’ is intrinsically meaningless nonsense.” The very statement, “There is no absolute truth” is postulated as an absolute truth! The problem is not, however, that people are raising these questions about relativism and absolutism—philosophers and theologians have mused about such questions for centuries.
Over half of all people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians believe that truth is always relative to the situation.
What is alarming is that today, the average man on the street holds a deeply troubled view regarding what truth is. Even in the church, according to pollster George Barna, over half of all people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians believe that truth is always relative to the situation. Barna states, “Substantial numbers of people who call themselves Christians believe that activities such as abortion, gay sex, cohabitation, drunkenness and pornography are morally acceptable. Without some firm and compelling basis for suggesting that acts are inappropriate, people are left with philosophies like, ‘If it feels good, do it’, ‘Everyone else is doing it’, or ‘As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s permissible!'”3
Postmodern thinking has invaded the core of traditional American values. Veith notes that postmodern worldviews and postmodern cultures surround us, and ordinary Americans cannot avoid these influences. Veith recounts a story that demonstrates the postmodern mentality:
Leith Anderson has observed that the new generation tends to think unsystematically. As a result, people often hold ideas that logically contradict each other. Anderson, a megachurch pastor, gives the example of a young man who says that he believes in Reformed theology, the inerrancy of Scripture, and reincarnation. He doesn’t grasp that Christianity is incompatible with reincarnation, which rests on a very different worldview. Even when this is pointed out to him, he shows no interest in revising his beliefs. Because he does not think in systematic terms, he does not see how different systems clash. He “likes” the Bible, and he also “likes” the thought of coming back in a different life.
This kind of illogical inconsistency may be seen all the time. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is all too evident in our own lives. How often do you deviate from a firmly held belief just because you want to? We believe in (and do) what we like because our thinking has been deeply influenced by a postmodern view of the nature of truth.
- A Christian woman may say she knows it is sinful and wrong to gossip but engages in it constantly.
- A Christian businessman may know pornography is destructive and evil yet regularly visits the airport newsstand to purchase the latest edition of Playboy.
- A Christian teenager may have taken a vow of sexual abstinence until marriage, yet he eagerly seeks opportunities for physical involvement with the opposite sex.
- A pastor may preach against the evils of indulging in secular media, but then he retires to his TV room to indiscriminately view shows that promote anti-Christian themes.
None of these examples may describe your inconsistencies, but please don’t be so self-righteous as to believe that your Christian worldview is actually practiced with the precision of a laser-guided smart bomb (which, incidentally, frequently misses the mark). Life just isn’t like that! We know we sin; and through God’s faithful gifts of repentance, confession and forgiveness we know we can, again, and then again, make the necessary course corrections to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). However, because of the explosive proliferation of the key tenant of postmodernism, that truth is relative, even the most committed Christian finds it increasingly difficult to resist the drift toward practical relativism. Practical relativism is our term for the Christians’ slide into relativism, which is occasioned by the combination of cultural postmodern influence and the reality of our own inconsistency.
The Antidote for Practical Relativism
How should a Christian view the nature of truth? As a Christian, you may quickly respond that moral absolutes do exist and they are knowable because God has faithfully revealed them in Scripture. This is indeed true, and to believe it is at the foundation of our lives. Because of our problem of inconsistency, however, to say this may not be enough. It is hard to resist the pragmatic and seemingly inevitable responses to our real life dilemmas: when we want something, the acceptability quotient for deviation from the truth increases because of the influence of our postmodern context.
Because we do believe that moral absolutes exist and that God has given them to us as imperatives in our lives, we must resist this slide into practical relativism.
Nevertheless, because we do believe that moral absolutes exist and that God has given them to us as imperatives in our lives, we must resist this slide into practical relativism. In our own power, we are unable to withstand this pressure, because we know that having Christ in our lives is never just a matter of trying harder in our own strength. God’s grace reveals itself in ways that bring evidence of a changed nature, even the ability to know and to live out a consistent worldview with respect to the true nature of truth. Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” This comprehensive promise of God links the key elements of knowledge and obedience in a way that can ground us for the fight against practical relativism.
What do we need to know about the true nature of truth so that we will walk consistently (that is, with an undivided heart) in awe and holy fear of our faithful Lord? Many years ago, the Roman provincial governor Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” and this question is as relevant today as it was then. How did Jesus respond? What can we learn about the nature of true truth that will equip us for the fight?
Four Truths About Truth
The apostle John recounts for us Jesus’ interaction with Pilate in John 18:28-19:15. As Pilate struggles to sort out the accusations of the Jewish leaders, as well as the puzzling identity of his prisoner, one of his questions for Jesus is, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Jesus’ enigmatic answers to all of Pilate’s questions do not alleviate the governor’s confusion, but our Lord’s four statements can help us to understand the nature of “true truth” and to live consistently before our God. These four statements are:
1. “Is that your own idea,” asked Jesus, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:34)
2. ” My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)
3. “You are right in saying I am a King. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)
4. “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:11)
Let’s briefly examine each of these statements from the perspective that seeks to understand the nature of truth.
1. Truth Confronts Presuppositions
In verse 33 of John 18, Pilate steps back inside his palace after hearing the charges being brought by the Jews against Jesus. He asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus does not answer Pilate’s question. Rather, he challenges Pilate to examine why that question may or may not be relevant. Jesus says, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” (verse 34). Jesus challenged the presuppositions inherent in Pilate’s question.
D.A. Carson uses the metaphor of computer files to explain presuppositions. He says that the people we attempt to evangelize “are not empty hard drives waiting for us to download our Christian files onto them … They retain numerous files that are going to have to be erased or revised, because as presently written, those files are going to clash formidably with Christian files.”4 Likewise, even we as Christians contain a large amount of data that is embedded in our minds and influences how our brains process other incoming data.
As truth confronts presuppositions, therefore, it first of all forces us to come to terms with the integrity of our belief system.
To expand upon this analogy, our worldview, or our set of presuppositions, is like our operating system. It is impossible to not have a worldview; the question is simply a matter of which operating system you are using. Postmodernism resists the necessity of having a foundational worldview, but such denial is wishful thinking rather than a realistic postulate. As truth confronts presuppositions, therefore, it first of all forces us to come to terms with the integrity of our belief system—and if we are going to live in denial or if we will live consistently according to that belief system.
Truth requires honesty! In his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus is essentially asking, “How was your thinking formed, Pilate? On what is it founded? Are you merely repeating something that you may have heard from others, or do you know enough for yourself to honestly make this inquiry?” By his reply, Jesus confronts Pilate’s alleged knowledge and his heart’s motive. Truth-thinking means peeling back the layers of rationalization, self-serving pride and fear that drive the desire to avoid the hard work of critical self-evaluation. The nature of truth discerns and questions presuppositions hidden in the self-contradictory claims postulated by a postmodern worldview.
The point of application for a Christian seeking to walk in God’s truth is to question every question. The excuse, “Everybody else is doing it,” should never be a satisfactory reason for Christian thought, belief, or action. Even sincere Christians fall prey to practical relativism as we allow cultural standards to justify our compromises. Our fight entails challenging bias, presumptions, and presuppositions so that our worldview is not limited by a single perception. True truth confronts all such narrowness.
2. Truth Distinguishes Real Issues From False Ones
Pilate continues to press Jesus, asking, “What is it you have done?” (verse 35). Again, Jesus does not answer the question. He says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate was thinking and speaking and acting temporally, while Jesus was doing so eternally. Second century Christian moralist Tertullian said, “Truth does not blush.” Even knowing that Pilate has no philosophical or other worldview basis that will allow him to put these words into an appropriate context, Jesus still speaks the truth of an eternal kingdom—of a heavenly realm.
You have probably heard the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” This tale tells of two swindlers who are hired to weave a new robe for the emperor. As the men begin to “weave” the clothes, they tell the emperor and his people that only those who are knowledgeable enough are able to see the clothes. Of course, no one can see the fabric that is allegedly being created, but nobody wants to admit his own folly, supposing that everyone else can see the clothes. When the day finally arrives for the emperor to model his new clothes, a large parade is held in honor of the occasion. Having been told of the clothes’ “magical” properties, the people of the city continue to “ooh” and “aah” at the outfit until an unabashed child finally shatters the illusion by exclaiming, “The emperor is naked!”
The issue with which the people preoccupied themselves—the issue of the beauty of the emperor’s clothes—was irrelevant because it was based on a false premise. It is impossible, and ridiculous, to evaluate the emperor’s clothes if he is not wearing any. In much the same way, when Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is from another place,” he casts aside the false issues related to Pilate’s earthly perspective in favor of true issues that have eternal consequences.
By unabashedly proclaiming his kingdom and kingship, Jesus makes an intentional distinction between what is true and what is false.
The old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but not so popular,” can never be a restraint to its proclamation. Just because Pilate cannot make a proper evaluation of these words doesn’t prevent Jesus from speaking the truth. By unabashedly proclaiming his kingdom and kingship, Jesus makes an intentional distinction between what is true and what is false. “Pilate, you are thinking of worldly realms, but the truth is much greater. There is much more, and that ‘more’ is more significant and more glorious than what you see and experience here in this temporal life. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”
In speaking truth, Jesus confronts Pilate’s understanding of the issue before him. How ready are you to have your limited perspectives confronted? The 17th century rationalist philosopher Spinoza acknowledged, “He who would distinguish the true from the false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false.” Knowing the true issues, Jesus prayed for us, “Sanctify them through the truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). We are often confronted with truth that seems to contradict our natural instincts and experience; but faith is about being sure and certain so that we can distinguish true issues from false ones (see Hebrews 11:1). Every person in this world is confronted with a decision about the issue of truth. If you have named Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and acknowledged his eternal kingship, you have made a decision about the issue of truth.
The next statement addresses the questions of “so what?” and “now what?”
3. Truth Is Not Relative!
Truth is not relative. It is absolute, and you are either for it or against it. Jesus’ next statement to Pilate is Scripture’s strongest assertion concerning the nature of truth. In John 18:37, Jesus answers Pilate’s statement, “You are a king, then!” with these words: “You are right in saying I am a King. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me (emphasis added).
To say, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” is to set up a stark contrast with the views that many people today hold regarding truth. Remember the young man who says that he believes in Reformed theology, the inerrancy of Scripture, and reincarnation? Or the Christian who chooses to live lifestyles that are admittedly contradictory to God’s Word? Relativism and situational ethics have no place in the Christian worldview. What is true—and right—does not depend on the situation or an individual’s opinion. It is absolute, and we choose to go against truth if we do what we want rather than what we profess to know is right. In fact, whether or not we profess to believe in truth, it is still an absolute standard by which we are required to live.
Truth is not relative: what is true is independent of our opinions or desires. Furthermore, Jesus proclaims that he has come into the world to testify to the truth. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus asserts that he is the truth (John 14:6). But many will ask, “Why should we accept what Jesus says about the nature of truth?” First John chapter five answers that question. As you read it, ask yourself, “What are my alternatives?” The stakes are very high: your life itself!
We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5:9-12).
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).
Jesus is God’s living incarnation of truth, and he bore witness to the nature of true truth. His teaching about the nature of truth was that truth is knowable, it is not relative, and it is absolute. Modern Christians are condemned as intolerant (the greatest sin of postmodernism), because we definitively hold that there is only one way to achieve life. By believing that, we also believe that Jesus is truth and that his formulation of the nature of truth is true.
There are eighty references in the Bible to the formulary “I tell you the truth…” On pain of eternal death, we either believe Jesus or we do not. Mark Twain once said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” Do you have doubts about the nature of truth because practical relativism driven by cultural postmodernism has taken you captive? There is only one way out: repent and believe wholly, passionately, and consistently in your Lord Jesus Christ!
4. Truth Cannot Fail!
The fourth and final statement made to Pilate confirms two other aspects of the nature of truth: one, that truth is not dependent on anything outside of itself, and, two, that truth cannot fail because it has eternal origins. Pilate asked, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” and Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:10,11).
Pilate’s belief in his own absolute power over the life of Jesus rested on his temporal perception of the scope of his authority. Was that belief ultimately true? If you believe in the resurrection, the answer is no. Jesus certainly died at the hands of earthly powers, but his resurrection from the dead proves that our Lord’s earthly circumstances were determined by his heavenly Father. Truth did not depend on what Pilate thought, and truth does not depend on what we think. Truth is! If something is morally true, it is not because a committee gathered and declared it so. Truth’s origin is far more substantial because it transcends even our biggest ideas. Having roots in eternity means the nature of truth is independent of and unfettered by the limitations of the human mind.
In the end, truth will not fail; it will conquer, simply because that is the nature of truth.
Do you know who said, “I believe that in the end the truth will conquer”? History remembers him as the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” John Wycliffe. His unshakable belief was that the Bible and the Lord it revealed were the only authoritative guides for faith and life. In the end, truth will not fail; it will conquer, simply because that is the nature of truth. In this final statement to Pilate, Jesus makes it clear that his coming sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world is no mere accident or even the result of an intentional conspiracy of men. Jesus had said to Peter earlier that same dark night, “Put your sword away. Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). In his death on the cross, truth was not defeated—it conquered! Wycliffe was right—truth triumphs in the end because its nature is to never fail.
The indomitable nature of truth is, on a small scale, experientially ingrained in all of us. Little children who are encouraged to tell the truth may be warned, “Your lie will find itself out!” Or, upon hearing the news of a scandal in a corporation or government, people often remark, “How did they ever think they would get away with that!” Practical relativism, when honestly examined, cannot be practiced with consistency. Although many people with a postmodern mindset will excuse lying when it seems expedient, they cannot escape their inherent sense that justice and truth are related. For example, those who defended Bill Clinton when he was the focus of impeachment investigations may be less sympathetic to business executives who are exposed for compromising their ethical and corporate standards. Given the right set of circumstances, every individual will feel a natural sense of outrage when the truth is not told. If, in these examples, the nature of truth is such that it cannot be suppressed, how much more will Truth prevail—Truth as it was embodied in the man who rose from the dead!
We are in a fight against practical relativism, but it is a fight that has already been won. It was won on a hillside outside of Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. The competing philosophies of this world will assault you. The Chinese philosopher Hu Shih said in 1919, “Only when we realize that there is no eternal, unchanging truth or absolute truth can we arouse in ourselves a sense of intellectual responsibility.” To the postmodern, that statement is music to his or her ears. Intellectual responsibility has become the hill on which the postmodern’s flag of legitimacy is planted. That hill is far from the hill of eternal truth. In our world today we hear many fine sounding, clever and intellectually stimulating arguments. For the sake of so-called “intellectual responsibility” do we succumb to moral relativism? Or do we go to that hill where there was a cross, a symbol not of intellectualism, but a symbol transformed to one of truth based in love by the one who hung there.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20)
For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)
In our fight for truth, our responsibility is to remain faithful to the gospel—to Truth—but to present it in such a way that people can understand it. This takes work. We must be careful to distinguish between truth as relative and truth as relevant—it is always relevant, but it is never relative.
The truth that we present will be rejected, and it will be offensive to many. We need not fear opposing viewpoints. False premises cannot be shown to be false without being placed next to the truth, just like a counterfeit dollar bill is most readily discovered when placed next to a real one. “Truth does not blush;” as bearers of truth, neither should we blush. Paul tells us in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Our greatest hope in knowing and proclaiming truth is salvation for everyone who believes. Jesus promised his followers, “If you hold to my teaching … then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Truth and Life as a Peacemaker. As peacemakers, those who practice Christian conciliation, why is it important that you have a deep understanding of the matters discussed in this paper? Please again consider the observation of Gene Edward Veith quoted at the beginning of this paper, “It is hard to witness to truth to people who believe truth is relative. It is hard to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to people who believe that, since morality is relative, they have no sins to forgive.” At the heart of biblical peacemaking, of course, is forgiveness. Christian conciliation becomes an exercise in meaninglessness if those participating don’t passionately and completely embrace truth as expressed in God’s Word, truth even about sin and forgiveness. As a peacemaker you need to be fully engaged in the fight against practical relativism, and you must also be ready to encourage others to join the fight with an equal passion and counter-culture urgency even as they seek to resolve their conflicts. James 3:18, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” is the therefore passage built on the preceding statement of true truth (see James 3: 13-17). Understanding our times, the postmodern era, is part of our fight on the battlefield for true peace built on the true truth of eternity.
What is truth? What is the nature of truth? Those questions may be the most important ones any of us will ever consider. The stakes are high. Have you heard and believed that Jesus is truth and that he teaches us the nature of truth so that we may walk in it, with an undivided heart, fearing with an awesome love, and praising the name above all names? That is your fight. That is your hope.
O God of truth, whose living Word
Upholds whate’er hath breath,
Look down on Thy creation, Lord,
Enslaved by sin and death.
Set up Thy standard, Lord, that we
Who claim a heav’nly birth,
May March with thee to smite the lies
That vex they groaning earth.
Ah! Would we join that blest array,
And follow in the might
Of Him, the Faithful and the True,
In raiment clean and white!
Then, God of truth for whom we long,
Thou who wilt hear our pray’r
Do thine own battle in our hearts,
And slay the falsehood there.
Christian Hymn, Thomas Hughes, 1859
1 Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schustor, New York, 1987).
2 Veith, Gene Edward. Postmodern Times (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1994).
3 Barna, George, quote from “The Church Around the World,” vol. 30, no. 6 (Tyndale House, Carol Stream, IL, 2002).
4 Carson, D.A. “Athens Revisited.” From Telling the Truth, ed. D.A. Carson. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000).
David V. Edling holds an MAR (Theology) degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in California and a JD from California Western School of Law. He is a Senior Ministry Consultant for Peacemaker Ministries (www.Peacemaker.net), an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically.
Molly Routson serves in the International Division at Peacemaker Ministries. She completed an MDiv degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005.