Many Christians today spend a noticeable amount of energy lamenting how Western culture has gone all relativistic – that is, the idea that truth is not absolute, but relative to the individual. Simply put, what’s true/right for me is true/right for me, but not necessarily for anybody else. It’s a philosophy (or perhaps more aptly described, an anti-philosophy) which makes “tolerance” the golden ideal. Any absolute truth claim, therefore, is labeled as exclusivistic and intolerant, and therefore bad/impossible/politically incorrect.
I’m as peeved at this excuse for a worldview as anyone else – it’s nothing short of intellectual laziness, perhaps even intellectual/philosophical suicide. But that doesn’t mean we who do believe in absolute truth should so quickly brush aside this Relativist thought. (For one, I daresay relativism has invaded Christianity quite infectiously, causing many of us, especially non-denominational protestants, to fool ourselves into thinking that all denominations believe the same things. Yes, there is considerable agreement, and the basics such as the Nicene Creed are almost universally acclaimed, but there are also some very real differences which are virtually unreconcilable without one perspective or another breaking down.) But that’s not what I want to highlight right now. Rather, I want to point out the ‘good’ in this ‘evil.’ Or, what I am tempted to call with some admitted dramaticism, Relativism’s greatest weapon!
Because relativists believe that moral & spiritual truth is primarily individual and personal, they look particularly closely at an individual’s life. They’ve generally given up looking at institutions like “The Church,” so when Christians identify themselves in corporate terminology, it doesn’t mean much to the relativist. This hits harder for Roman Catholics because they’re far more likely to say “I’m Catholic,” and because Roman Catholicism has a very firmly established reputation, more often unflattering than flattering. Many Evangelicals, however, have a very individualistic approach to the Christian faith and religion, so there’s more potential for dialogue with the relativist.
But it is in this dialogue that the witness breaks down. Why? Is it because Evangelicals are bad talkers? Well, some are, perhaps many, but on the whole that isn’t the primary issue. The issue is that what we describe as Christian faith, hope, and love don’t actually show up in our lives. And remember, relativists are looking at us on an individual level pretty closely, because they’re not inclined to lump us together in categories (especially as most Evangelicals usually go out of their way to describe their ‘personal faith’ rather than ‘the doctrine of the Church’). This issue, of our lives not matching our professed beliefs, is not a new problem for Christians. Check out this quote:
Right now, my brothers, we must repent, and be alert for the good, for we are full of much stupidity and wickedness. We must wipe off from us our former sins and by heartfelt repentance be saved. And we must not seek to please men or desire to please only ourselves, but by doing what is right to please even outsiders, so that the Name [of Christian] may not be scoffed at on our account….
How is it scoffed at? By your failing to do what [God] want[s]. For when the heathen hear God’s oracles on our lips they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But afterwards, when they mark that our deeds are unworthy of the words we utter, they turn from this to scoffing, and say that it is a myth and a delusion.
When, for instance, they hear from us that God says, “It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but it is to your credit if you love your enemies and those who hate you,” when they hear these things, they are amazed at such surpassing goodness. But when they see that we fail to love not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, then they mock at us and scoff at the Name.
If this sounds like a recent sermon, you’d be on the right track. It is from a sermon, but it was written in the mid-100’s, known to us today as II Clement (though research has strongly suggested that Clement of Rome was not the author). I added the underlines for emphasis. The quote in the last section is from Luke 6:32-35, one of the times that Jesus clarified what it means to love our neighbors.
This nearly 1,900-year-old sermon is just as fresh today as it was on the day it was written! Let us stop being stupid and wicked, failing to do what God wants us to do, and instead seek to love others, starting with our so-called ‘brothers and sisters’ and then we can really learn to love those who hate us. It’s become popular to quote St. Francis of Assisi about proclaiming the gospel and only using words when necessary. But this is what Francis meant – really living as if what we believe is true. If more people recognized the gravity of this statement, perhaps the quote wouldn’t be so popular. But boy, is it true, and boy do we need to hear it and heed it! Otherwise, we’re falling victim to relativism’s greatest weapon: personal scrutiny.