We live today in a relativistic world where truth, right and wrong are no longer considered absolutes but matters of personal choice. This approach can create troubling consequences, however. Take the example of married love. While a personal choice is initially exercised in deciding who to marry, total commitment is presumably part of one’s choice. Would you marry someone whose love for you was only ‘relative?’ True love is total and unconditional, not partial or circumstantial. It does not depend upon someone’s status, current mood, or credit rating but rather it accepts the other person in toto.
Truth, like nuptial love, is also not intended as a relative value. Love, in fact, depends on truthfulness in the form of trust. So, would you marry someone who was untrustworthy or less than truthful? Yet the high rate of broken marriages today suggests that such has quietly become the norm. Relativism has placed truth on very shifting sands by subjecting it to each person’s interpretation, which is to say an opinion. It therefore transforms truth from concrete, tangible reality into a matter of opinion.
Relativism is the belief that personal experience should be the basis of all truth. And since we each experience things differently, no individual can claim to know absolute, objective truth. Science, which can investigate only material things, is thereby limited. Questions about spiritual realities like God, morality, and our final end must therefore remain in doubt. Such pervasive spiritual doubt is called agnosticism. For the agnostic the only truth is that truth is unknowable, a self-contradicting principle; for if truth is unknowable, how is one to determine the truth of such a premise?
Subjectivism as Truth
In order to escape this logical dilemma, most good relativists take a subjective view: your truth is not necessarily my truth. But since everyone is entitled to their own truth, then a limitless number of truths must all somehow co-exist. Subjectivism doesn’t deny the existence of truth outright, only that it has any singular, objective quality. And having no need or desire to arrive at any positive conclusions, it can engage in endless speculation and debate. One writer noted that this attitude robs the discussion of any seriousness, and truth degenerates into a game of intellectual ping-pong.
The discovery of truth requires an open mind to be sure, but our quest also needs to be directed toward some objective end. The clever British pundit G. K. Chesterton once noted, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Once you conclude something is true, on good evidence, it is only natural to shut one’s mind around that truth. But if one truth is considered to be just as good as any other, even its opposite, then truth becomes a rather cheap and humdrum commodity.
The relativist argues that all religions are pretty much equal because they are all more or less true. He thereby devalues the very notions of both truth and religion. It’s like saying that a diamond necklace and a cut glass replica are pretty much the same because they both sparkle and serve the same purpose. But once any meaningful distinction between the authentic jewel and its knock off copy has been lost, one is no longer inclined to value the real thing very highly.
Truth through Contradiction
Relativism also wears another face which is evolutionary. (This refers only to so-called ‘spiritual’ evolution, not those abundant kinds of well documented physical changes manifested throughout the universe.) Spiritual evolutionists define truth, morality, even God as impermanent, mutable, and ever changing sequences. Today’s truth is not yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s truth will differ from today’s. Truth is reduced to something fluid, constantly evolving into some new and higher form. This worldview was the brainchild of one George Frederick Hegel (1770-1831) whose dialectical method posits contradiction, not as an obstacle to truth, but as the vehicle by which it must be grasped. His ideas greatly influenced a controversial Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who later expounded his own theory of ‘cosmic consciousness.’
Chardin advocated a collective intellectual and spiritual evolution he believed would herald in a utopian New Age. Like Marx and Darwin before him, individuals invariably played second fiddle to any larger group interests, even in the religious and moral spheres. Progress demanded constant change, even where long held doctrines and traditions were concerned. But he seemed to confuse ‘discovering’ with ‘evolving.’ Discovery means that I come to some deeper understanding of an unchanging truth. Evolution implies that truth itself has undergone a change, a profound difference. For it is we who are changed by the discovery of truth, it is not the truth itself which has been changed. It is a question of perspective. When we are in a speeding car is the scenery really rushing past us, or are we cruising past the scenery?
But if truth itself can and must evolve, then modern science is also at risk. Suppose that the laws of physics and chemistry were equally mutable? There would be no predictable natural order in the universe, something upon which all scientific advancement depends. Imagine the consequences if the laws of gravity were constantly ‘evolving.’ Without any warning planets might well start crashing into one another. And yet relativists boldly assert that moral truths, dogmas, even God himself must change in order to “keep up with the times.”
Is it rational to believe that God, the source of all truth, undergoes continual change even as the laws governing His universe remain fixed? Teilhard would have us believe so. Chardin fell into a mind trap that Pope Pius X had warned of as early as 1907. According to the evolutionists that religious sense which lurks in the subconscious becomes the origin of all, even of supernatural religion. God, in other words, is really just the byproduct of our human subconscious, summoned up to fill some deeper human need. Rather than our continued existence depending upon God’s good pleasure, religious evolutionists turned this truth around so that God’s existence now depends upon man’s good pleasure.
The Holy Father condemned this evolutionary twist of logic when he wrote: “The question is no longer one of the old error which claimed for human nature a sort of right to the supernatural. It has gone far beyond that, and has reached a point when it is affirmed that our most holy religion, in the man Christ as in us, emanated from nature spontaneously and of itself. Nothing could be more destructive to the whole supernatural order.” [i]
In reality there exists a beautiful harmony between God, who is objective truth personified, and the vast natural order which operates flawlessly and consistently according to His preordained set of laws and plans. The very fact of such perfect order in the universe attests to some intelligent being who must have been its cause. Only the most hardened skeptic would look at a modern jet airliner and conclude that it had somehow assembled itself without any human thought, design, or action. Yet the same agnostic evolutionists, who undoubtedly believe in aviation engineers, will observe the finely tuned workings of nature and still fail to ascribe such a ‘perfect machine’ to any kind of intelligent creator.
Relativism manifested in its agnostic, subjective, and evolutionist forms has nonetheless exerted a profound effect on modern man’s concept of absolute truth, God, and religion. But its greatest impact has been on the moral condition of both society and the individual. Morals are more than just beliefs. They govern our actions towards others as well as interactions within the body politic. Therefore morals have significant personal as well as communal dimensions.
In the prevailing culture of relativism morality has become a very subjective thing. This in turn has produced a very unhealthy concept of public morality, especially among the young. Pope John Paul II addressed this very problem upon his arrival in Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day. “To educate without a value system based on truth is to abandon young people to moral confusion, personal insecurity, and easy manipulation.” Chris Stefanick expanded on that same theme by noting, “Relativism produces a society of “do-nothings” in the face of moral evil.”[ii]
Moral relativism is most often justified under the guise of either consequentialism or proportionalism. Both arguments essentially boil down to “the ends justifying the means.” Robert Moses once cynically remarked, “If ends don’t justify the means, then nothing does.” (Moses also used this logic to dispossess tens of thousands of New Yorkers of their homes through condemnation.) But how valid is his argument?
In any moral action two things must be considered: 1. Is the intended end of the act good, bad, or at least morally neutral? 2. Are the means used to achieve that end good, bad, or neutral? If both the means and ends are either good or neutral, there is no moral dilemma. But if the intended end of the act is evil, say the killing of a rival, then no good means can justify it. Conversely, if the intended end is good, say to preserve one’s family, the means used in doing so become paramount. One must always choose those means which are either good in themselves, or likely to cause the least harm to others.
Relativism muddies the water in those difficult cases where the intended end may be good but the means used to achieve it may not be. But if some act is objectively evil, then no good end can possibly justify it. Yet judging only by some intended consequence, relativists often justify an evil action by arguing that the good done outweighs the evil inflicted.
But can abortion be justified in order to enrich the life of the mother? A moral relativists might argue, “That depends on any number of factors.” The moral realist would say, “No, because the means used is objectively immoral and therefore no intended good consequences (to the mother) can justify the taking of an innocent human life.” Relativism denies the possibility of any moral certainty, however, even in areas like abortion and euthanasia. It preaches that the individual is free to view right and wrong exclusively through the lens of the subjective self. Pope Benedict XVI gravely warned that “relativism, which recognizes nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires.” [iii]
As a result the larger context of communal life suffers. Family, church, and society are implicitly removed from the ‘truth equation’ making every individual his or her own moral arbiter. Such a system eventually produces moral chaos, leading to widespread social breakdown and neurosis, given enough time. (To wit, our society has witnessed an explosion in emotional and psychological disorders, broken families, substance abuse, and homelessness over the past 50 years.)
Former president Barack Obama once defined sin as, “being out of alignment with my values.” What he was effectively saying, in reverse, is that if something aligns with my values it must be moral. So if blowing up a bus aligns with some terrorist’s values, does that make mass murder a moral act? Or if that example is too extreme for you, what about cheating on a final exam, or sabotaging a fellow worker’s promotion for spite, or stealing your best friend’s husband because, “you really love him?” Under the moral code of relativism any of those things might be construed as moral acts.
Perhaps this explains why Pope Benedict described the dominant philosophy of today as a “dictatorship of relativism.” It robs us all of the certainty and security we once enjoyed when everyone agreed that certain things were right and others were wrong, no matter what creed one professed. Those halcyon days are long gone replaced by a new culture in which nobody is permitted to ‘impose’ objective norms of good behavior on anyone else, even their own children. Consequently, good manners, consideration for others, and basic courtesy have been largely replaced by rudeness, coarseness, and selfish indifference.
Chris Stefanick rightly pointed out, “we now give our children acceptance without guidance and love without truth which, instead of setting them free, leaves them morally abandoned.”[iv] Meanwhile they are being readily indoctrinated in a whole new standard of ‘morality’ where animals have the same rights as humans, if not more; where ordinary people are cast as despoilers of the planet for simply riding in a car, having “too many” children, or turning up the thermostat. And while ‘hooking up’ and every sort of ‘consensual’ sexual deviancy is widely encouraged and approved of under the banner of ‘tolerance,’ Christians are roundly accused of intolerance and blamed for fomenting guilt, racism, exploitation of women, wars of conquest, and just about every societal evil known to man over the past millennium.
Unfortunately, the one thing that today’s culture of tolerance and relativism tends to deprive these young impressionable minds of is access to any objective moral truth. And without that they will never discover true freedom from the tyranny of selfish desires. That kind of freedom can only be found in responding affirmatively to the message and person of Jesus Christ who promised, “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8: 31-32)
But without subscribing personally to that Divine objective and unchanging truth, no authentic experience of freedom and love is attainable. Relativism ultimately leads men and women to despair because it hides the truth from them ─ and yet we were all made to desire and know the truth, because it is the very foundation of love itself, which is our greatest desire.
Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.
[i] Pius X, encyclical of 3 July 1907, Pascendi Dominici Gregis
[ii] Stefanick, “Absolute Relativism, the New Dictatorship,” Catholic Answers, 2011
[iii] Benedict XVI, address to the Ecclesial Diocesan Convention, 6 June 2005, Rome
[iv] Stefanick, ibid.