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“Sowing Subversion in the field of Relativism”

Mark L Y Chan, PhD (University of Nottingham)

Due to globalization and the migration of peoples across national boundaries, religious pluralism has become more pronounced in the so-called Christian West. A shrinking world has brought religions and their adherents closer to each other.

We meet people of other races. We learn about their cultures and beliefs through television and the Internet. The growing presence of mosques and temples—not to mention ethnic (i.e., non-Western) restaurants—reflects the increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of Western societies.

This pluralism may be relatively new in the West, but it has always been the order of the day in the lands of Asia. Virtually all the major world religions have their roots in Asian history, and they continue to command the allegiance of billions.

The majority of Christians today live alongside people of other faiths. In this, they are not unlike the earliest Christians, who proclaimed Jesus as Savior and Lord in the face of the many gods and lords of Greco-Roman society.

Like them, we are called to embrace, embody, and declare the truth that God has revealed himself definitively and finally in Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, sinners find forgiveness of sin and are reconciled to God. How then shall we proclaim the finality of Christ, given the fact of religious pluralism and the relativizing of absolute truth claims that often comes with it?

Living in a racially and religiously diverse society, Singapore’s Christians have had to learn not only how to live with adherents of other religions, but also how to work with them for the common good. And they are to do this without compromising their faith. Some argue that social harmony can only be achieved and maintained if religionists desist from making exclusive truth claims. The church’s challenge is to demonstrate the fallacy of this way of thinking. 

From Pluralism to Relativism

Some Christian thinkers have jettisoned the uniqueness of Christ and embraced pluralism. They maintain that all religions are equally valid paths to God or an ultimate divine reality, and that no single religion can claim to have the final word on truth.

They move beyond a descriptive and social pluralism, which allows for a diversity of religious expressions, to a metaphysical pluralism. Such pluralistic ideas (in both the West and Asia) unwittingly sound like Vedanta Hinduism, which teaches that, just as all rivers flow into the same ocean, so all religions lead to the same ultimate reality. Jesus is but one among many ways to that reality.

Some professing Christians in Asia regard Christ as but one avatar among many possible manifestations of the divine. Their relativizing of the truth of Christ owes much to the monistic assumptions of their culture. To be sure, followers of Christ in Asia need to embody the truth within their cultural contexts, but never at the expense of God’s truth.

To pluralists, religions are historically contingent expressions of an underlying ultimate spiritual reality. They argue that one should look beyond creedal distinctions to the life transformation that comes from an experiential encounter with that basic reality that all religions point to and mediate.

This decoupling of spirituality from religion not only carries the aroma of political correctness, it also sits well with the postmodern tenor of our time.

Postmodernism defies easy characterization. It means different things to different people, and Christians are not uniform in their attitude about it. What concerns us are the more deconstructive and radical aspects of postmodernism, particularly its incredulity toward absolute truth, its rejection of all overarching stories that explain life and give it meaning, and its relativization of all truth claims. These aspects have major ramifications for the whole church in her efforts to embody the whole gospel and bring it to the whole world.

The postmodern mindset is allergic to universal and absolute truth. We simply do not have access to the absolute truth, the postmodernist says; all we have are truths—social constructs fashioned from raw materials drawn from historical and social contexts. In place of truth as an overarching metanarrative, postmodernists offer community-specific stories that have no truth-validity outside the communities in which they function.

Postmodernism tribalizes truth. If truth is a matter of perspective, then everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Postmodernists celebrate a diversity of viewpoints and embrace differences. Since there is no neutral or trans-contextual platform from which to judge competing claims, one simply has to put up with a multiplicity of viewpoints jostling for supremacy and acceptance.

To the postmodern pluralist, truth is whatever emerges at the end of the struggle between claims. Truth is defined by power, because all claims to truth are simply manipulative attempts by the powerful, or those with vested interests, to impose their will.

To postmodern pluralists, to assert that Jesus is Truth Incarnate may well be a front for colonial imperialism, cultural chauvinism, or religious intolerance. Here’s a hermeneutic of suspicion in the service of political correctness!

Truth and Moral Choices

The same suspicion applies to morality. Questions of right and wrong are attempts by others to impose their will on us. Why should one accept other people’s definitions of right and wrong? Postmodern thinking soon leads to the kind of moral relativism where judging between right and wrong is a matter of private interpretation.

Without a universal framework of right and wrong, the claims of the terrorists who detonate themselves and take innocent lives have as much validity as those who dispatch troops to forcefully stop them.

On what basis can a postmodernist oppose others’ choices? Whether people are experimenting with embryos or making money off corrupt regimes or providing financial shelter for crooked business corporations, there’s no basis for saying they are wrong. Only expediency and economic pragmatism have the final say.

The same goes for decisions at the individual level. Right and wrong are most often determined on the basis of what is useful or what best fulfills a person’s aspirations.

Such decisive individualism is ironic, given the importance that postmodern thought places on community and tradition. Suspicious of authority and bereft of any transcendent and objective standard by which to offer guidance, individuals fall back on their own authority and decide what is true and right on pragmatic grounds. Postmodernism not only tribalizes truth, it privatizes it as well. We see this, for instance, in the way sexual behavior is considered a private matter, left for the individual to decide.

This individualistic orientation fits neatly with the de-centered, anti-authoritarian, and egalitarian character of our Internet age. Its impact is evident in the way spirituality is often understood. Those who sign up for a pluralistic view of ultimate spiritual reality—one that is ineffable, amorphous, and independent of religious truth claims—can be spiritual without getting mixed up in institutional religion. They are free to pick and choose from the wide array of religious ideas and fashion a mix-and-match spirituality after their own image. So we find those today who in one breath affirm the incarnation of Christ and in another preach reincarnation.

Such freedom is attractive. Adding to its appeal is the oft-repeated contention that exclusivists are naive, arrogant, disrespectful of other cultures, and intolerant of other faiths. Their absolutist views serve only to heighten interreligious tension, exacerbate intercommunal conflict, and in some cases, even incite violence. To avoid further polarizing our badly fragmented world, one must, some argue, adopt a pluralistic approach to religions and a relativistic stance on truth.

What do we make of the claims and criticisms of the relativist? And how shall we commend the truth of the gospel today? 

Commending the Truth

To begin with, the belief that knowledge of the truth necessarily translates into arrogant intolerance confuses conviction with condescension and rational disagreement with disagreeable behavior.

Over the years, the National Council of Churches of Singapore has conversed with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore about matters that concern both religious communities. They have had friendly exchanges, for instance, on how each faith understands community engagement. The bishops, imams, and theologians who gather are all committed believers, and there is no question about their having deep differences. Yet the tone of their interactions has always been gracious and respectful, and because of this, the gatherings have been productive.

Real tolerance entails putting up with what one considers to be error. Precisely because there are genuine differences between people, we see tolerance as a virtue.

By insisting that there is no such thing as universal truth, except the universal truth that there is no such thing as universal truth, relativism is as absolutist as the claim that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. One cannot insist with the pluralist that all religious and moral truth claims are equally valid, and at the same time maintain with the relativist that there is no one ultimate truth that alone makes sense of the diversity of truth claims.

The Christian faith condemns arrogance and an attitude of superiority toward people of other faiths and, for that matter, people of no faith.

To be sure, there have been bigoted Christians and very insensitive practices within missions and evangelism in the church’s long history. But these are indicative of the church’s shameful failures rather than the essence of Christian faith.

Christians are called to love rather than tolerate people, and in so doing to mirror God’s love for all people. This includes ardent relativists, sanguine pluralists, and pugnacious atheists. In commending the truth in the face of relativism, we must keep in mind that we are at root dealing with people, not cold ideas. The relativist is not just a representative of a worldview but a flesh-and-blood person with all the needs and longings of a human made in God’s image. More important than winning the argument against relativism is winning the relativist for Christ.

Convinced relativists, like people everywhere, are not immune to difficulties and troubles. A global economic downturn or a devastating earthquake does not discriminate between relativists and exclusivists. When relativists are struck down by the exigencies of life, it is rare that cogent arguments for truth will draw them. More likely, it is practical care and concern shown by loving Christians. We cannot provide warmth to a cold relativism, but we can wrap a blanket around a shivering relativist.

Meeting people of all faiths and persuasions at the level of our common humanity is a good starting place to share the truth of Christ. In the safety of genuine friendship, where trust is earned and respected, people can honestly question their fundamental assumptions. Christians can sow seeds of subversion in the field of relativism by raising questions about the adequacy of moral relativism as a guide for living. Can one really live without absolute truth? How many are actually persuaded that there is no difference between Mother Teresa and Pol Pot?

Relativists may insist on the absence of universal truth, but they instinctively assume the reality of it. This is because people have an irrepressible yearning for God and a longing for the truth. God’s truth will prevail because there is something coherent and persuasive about his Word, something that rings true to life.

Given the relativistic temper of our times, it’s easy for the church to lose confidence in the gospel as “the power of God unto salvation” and to back off from proclaiming Christ as the only way to God. To guard against this loss of nerve, Christians need to be seriously grounded in the truth of Scripture and the knowledge of Christ. The work of commending truth in our world must therefore begin at home—in the life, worship, and disciple-making catechesis of our churches.

To believe in absolute truth is to run counter to the spirit of the age. We can expect to be ridiculed, ostracized, and opposed. We need to be reminded that the one who was Truth Incarnate, the one John describes as “full of grace and truth,” became Truth Crucified at the hands of those bent on snuffing out the light of truth. Darkness did not have the last word. Light pierced the tomb of Jesus, and in the resurrection of Christ, we have Truth Vindicated.

(Dr Chan is a lecturer in theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and editor of Church and Society in Asia Today.  This piece was retrieved from Christianity Today, February, 2010 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/globalconversation/february2010/index.html)