Meet Frank and Carl. Frank owns a jewelry store; Carl is a diamond thief. However, Frank isn’t aware that Carl is a thief. It’s a typical morning at the store, and at about 10 AM, Frank begins polishing some necklaces. Carl strolls in, feigning an interest in buying something for his wife. They talk about possible purchases, just as they’ve done every day for the past week. Then the topic changes:
Frank: You know, I was watching TV last night, and they had some religious fanatic on there. This wacky fundamentalist was saying he believes there is absolute truth. And, to top it off, he said he knew this absolute truth and was trying to impose his beliefs and his morality on everyone else. Now, that just doesn’t make any sense to me. How can one man claim to know the truth? How can one man say he has all the answers? What arrogance!
Carl: Yeah, I know what you mean. I grew up in the church and heard that all the time. My mom was the worst? she was always trying to shove religion and the Bible down my throat. But, thank God (ha!), I’ve moved past all that.
Frank: I mean, everyone knows today that all truth is basically relative. It all depends on your culture and individual background. How can one culture say it’s right and another is wrong? There is no absolute right and wrong. What truly enlightened person believes that?
Carl: I’m right there with ya, buddy.
Carl says he has a meeting and leaves yet again without making a purchase. He’s been casing the joint for a week now, and tonight he’s ready to make his move.
At 10 PM, he routinely makes his way past the alarm, without a glitch. He’s got his ski mask and a Glock 33 (with a silencer), and everything is going as planned except for one thing — there’s a light on in the back. Frank’s not usually here at this time; I need to make sure, and, sure enough, Frank is sitting there, paying bills.
In terror, he immediately yells out, “Hey, don’t shoot? don’t shoot?don’t kill me?you can take whatever you want!” Carl: That’s exactly what I intend to do.
Frank: Hey, wait a minute. Don’t I know you? I recognize your voice. You’re Carl.
Carl: Frank, buddy, you shouldn’t have done that. Now you’ve shown you know who I am, and if you know who I am, you’ll turn me in, and if you turn me in, I’ll have to go to jail, and I don’t want to do that. So, Frank, it looks like I’m going to have to kill you.
Frank: You can’t kill me! It’s not right!
Carl: Wait, wait — what do you mean “it’s not right”? You told me today you don’t believe in absolute right and wrong. It depends on the individual, right? So, I’m going to have to kill you. I have no choice; I’ve got to look out for myself.
Frank: But I’ve got a wife and kids?I’ve got to take care of them.
Carl: Your wife and kids will get insurance money and will probably be better off without you. But what do I care about that anyway? I have to do this. I can’t trust you, Frank.
Frank: Oh, you can trust me. Look, I won’t turn you in. Trust me, please. Take everything I have?I don’t care?please just spare my life.
Carl: Frank, you just don’t get it. Remember our conversation today? Do you remember what you said — “There is no absolute right and wrong”? How can I trust you? What does your word mean? Tonight it’s right for you to say you won’t turn me in, because it benefits you in this moment, but tomorrow it may be right for you to turn me in because you no longer have a gun to your head and you want your stuff back. Well, I’m doing what’s right for me here. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in the slammer, wearing an orange jumpsuit. I’m sorry, Frank. [He slowly squeezes the trigger, leaving Frank no time to recant his relativistic stance.
Do the Right Thing?
Now, this may seem like an extreme example to you, but indulge me a minute. If your motto is, “It’s true for you, but not for me,” then you’ve got to give Carl his due. You must give him permission to kill Frank. He has that right because self-interest rules the day in his mind. That’s a stupid story, you may be thinking. Anybody knows that killing is wrong. Well, why is killing wrong? Why does an objective standard of right and wrong all of a sudden apply when it comes to murder? “I feel that it is wrong,” you may say. But Carl felt it was right for him. You may then reply, “Well, it’s against the law to steal and to kill. They voted and passed legislation about this. It’s up to society to determine what’s right or wrong.” Okay, but what if I said to you that black people are inferior to white people and that a bunch of white people should take over the ships of the Royal Caribbean cruise line, go down to Africa, and bring some black people back with them to be their slaves?
By now you’re really thinking I’m a nutcase because everyone knows slavery and murder are morally reprehensible. On what grounds, though? You just told me that society determines what is right and what is wrong — and just a while back in our nation’s history, society said slavery was okay. Society also elected Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, giving him 90 percent of the popular vote. And after World War II, when the Nazis were on trial for exterminating nearly 12 million innocents (half of whom were Jews), their defense was that they never broke German law.
Don’t you see that in saying I don’t have the right to impose my beliefs on you, you are imposing your beliefs on me by telling me what I shouldn’t do?
Does that sound like a reasonable defense to you? Should their heinous crimes have been dismissed under that kind of logic? Absolutely not. But you have no standard for objecting. You cannot oppose theft, murder, slavery, genocide, pedophilia, or anything else you would consider unjust as long as society or the law deems them acceptable. So if moral truth is merely a social construct, you inevitably will have oppression.
“Hitler’s regime and slavery are two extreme examples,” you may be objecting. “Nevertheless, we can take society out of it. My point is, no individual should impose his morals or religious values on another individual. You don’t have the right to tell me what to believe.” But don’t you see that in saying I don’t have the right to impose my beliefs on you, you are imposing your beliefs on me by telling me what I shouldn’t do?
Before we drown in a sea of quasi-semantics, let me give you another scenario: There is a man jogging by himself through the park one night. As he passes through a more secluded area, he sees someone brutally raping a young lady. He says to himself, Well, I don’t agree with what this man is doing, but who am I to say that he’s in the wrong? You would likely say this is outrageous, but would a true relativist have any basis for condemning this jogger? I don’t think so. After all, he was only respecting the values (or lack thereof) of the rapist.
Now, I’m not saying that all relativists stand for murder, oppression, and rape. In fact, I believe many relativists are philanthropic by nature. What I am saying is that they don’t always realize the repercussions of their claims. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche admitted these repercussions when he wrote,
The obliteration of God — and therefore, all objective standards for truth and morality — would usher in an age of nihilism, the rejection of all objective meaning in value. All that is left is the will to power, by which only the fittest survive.
What it comes down to is this: When you throw objective moral truth out the window, it’s every man for himself, every woman for herself — and the individual freedom you intended is forfeited and replaced by chaos and abuse.
You Say “Tomato”…
To be sure, when you move from culture to culture there are certain norms that differ. For example, I lived in Mexico City during the summer of 1989, and I observed firsthand some major differences between Mexicans and Americans. In Mexico (at least at that time), you did not leave your parents’ home until you were married — it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old. In fact, to leave the family nest for any reason other than marriage was considered a disgrace. In the United States, however, children are encouraged to leave home after they turn 18 or graduate from high school. To continue to live with your parents well into your 20s is not an ideal situation for most Americans.
Much like the notion of cultural norms is the idea of preferences. For instance, I prefer mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, and perhaps you like vanilla. I like the Houston Astros, and maybe you are a dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fan. When I am referring to absolute truth, I am not referring to norms that vary from culture to culture, nor to personal preferences, both of which are legitimate.
No Escaping the Truth
In reality, we can say we’re “true” relativists all we want, but when the chips are down and the gun is to our heads, we all believe in absolute truth. We shake our fists in anger at Osama bin Laden, at genocidal killers in Rwanda and Sudan, and at our English teacher for giving us a D because she didn’t like the color of our skin.
Why? Because we know that there is a right and there is a wrong outside of anyone’s personal opinions about it. Something in us cries out for justice. We can’t escape it any more than we can escape our longing to have intimate connections with others. It’s the way we’ve been created. Every person in every culture has been made in the image of God. Though we have become estranged from him and have distorted that image, it is still there. And written on that image, though faintly perhaps, is a conscience endowed with the absolutes of who God is and what he requires of us.
There’s a part of us that is drawn to God because we have an innate need to be in a relationship with our Creator, yet there is another part of us that wants to run away from Him.
Paul talks about this in the book of Romans. Here he is referring to the Gentiles, who did not grow up under the law as the Jews did:
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
This passage affirms that, by nature, we know what’s right in God’s eyes even if we haven’t had it spelled out for us in the law. Earlier, Paul writes,
Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
These words hit the mark. We know what we are to do, but we don’t always like to do it. God has revealed himself to us through our conscience, through nature, and through the Scriptures, but we don’t want to bend the knee to him and acknowledge that he is in control. We want to run our own lives.
I struggle with this, and so does anyone else who’s honest. There’s a part of us that is drawn to God because we have an innate need to be in a relationship with our Creator, yet there is another part of us that wants to run away from him — a part that wants to create our own “truths” that fit into our own self-focused agendas.
Go to the Source
Here’s what Jesus says about truth: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In other words, he is the source. Now, does this mean we can’t find truth in other religions, or in “secular” songs and movies? Absolutely not. All real truth is God’s truth, and he can — and many times does — speak that truth to us through all sorts of media. And because he is God, he can transcend what even the writer, artist, or producer may have originally intended. That said, any “truth” that does not have its foundation in a knowledge of God will eventually turn in on itself. Relativism is a case in point.
Of course, everyone has the right to believe in anything he or she wants, but just believing in something doesn’t make it true. For any group of people, for any family, for any community to survive, it must have universal absolutes. No one really lives their life in a relative manner. When you pick up the phone and order a pizza, and the person on the other end of the line says, “It will be delivered within 45 minutes,” you expect that someone will drive to your house and deliver a pizza within that amount of time, don’t you? But for a relativist to be consistent, he would have to say that it’s up to the pizza guy to decide if that was really the agreement. That’s just silly.
Not only is relativism an unlivable worldview, it is also self- contradictory. Isn’t the claim that there is no absolute truth an absolute truth claim in and of itself? For this very reason, relativism is at best confusing and at worst deceptive. It may seem all-encompassing, but it is just as exclusive as any other religious or philosophical perspective. Someone who believes in relativism cannot help but be just as dogmatic as someone who espouses Christianity or any other religion. It’s impossible to avoid being emphatic about our particular belief system because (hopefully) everything in our lives — our thoughts, decisions, and actions — is based on or affected by our beliefs.
All I’m asking for is a little consistency, a little integrity here, which is the same I ask of myself. If I claimed to follow Christ but lived my life as though I didn’t — with absolutely no conviction about it — you would think I was a huge hypocrite. And I would be. So if you really, truly don’t believe in an absolute right or wrong, then you negate your ability to criticize or even compliment the way others live their lives, whether they are Charles Manson or Paul McCartney.
Adapted from Why Mike’s Not a Christian
Copyright © 2006 by Ben Young, published by Harvest House, used with permission.