Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Relativism Pt.2: A Response

I've been thinking a lot about how to respond to the article a few posts back from John Piper called Relativism Challenged. It is far to tedious, and I believe unnecessary, for me to go paragraph by paragraph/point by point through his essay. So I think I'm going for more of a general approach, although if through responses there seems the need for clarity or specificity, I will be glad to dialog in more detail.

Piper begins by trying to define "relativism". I think he does a poor job both in his definition and his over-simplistic analogies. For one, he does not do the word justice by suggesting that there is only a single type of relativism. Yes he is trying to make the term easier to understand (a simple Wiki-search reveals the complexity), but there are some philosophical concepts that when over-simplified completely distort the defined understanding of the term/concept. It also doesn't help that he has a definite bias when it comes to this topic. If one has read/heard anything from Piper in the last 2 years, they know that he sees relativism as a threat to the "truth" of Christianity. While I can understand why some would think that, it is not an honest way in which to tackle an explanation of a philosophical concept. It isn't a healthy way in which to even tackle reality in general.

While he does begin to tackle ONE facet of relativism, he later departs from that concept into a convoluted marriage of several relative theories. He doesn't quite get the type of relativism that is present in today's Christianity.

So what is the relativism we face? Here is a better explanation, although not as eloquent. This is practical relativism, over say strictly moral or object relativism. Defined, (as Jeff put it in the comments of the previous post) relativism is the lenses through which we take in and process reality. How we do these things are relative to our race, upbringing, ethics, culture, socio-economic class, age, geography, sex, Religion, etc... A person who is of an African-American Heritage does not see and interpret things the same way as a white person does. Neither does a male and female think and process alike. This is called CONTEXT. We all think out of several specific contexts, and my contexts may not be the same as yours.

The picture above is a neat take on Joseph Jastrow's Duck-Rabbit Illusion (real image here). Wittgenstein refers to this illusion above to make the point that we all see and process differently. Some first see a duck, and some first see the rabbit. People sometimes will not be able to see both, and thus argue that it is a duck vs. a Rabbit.

That leads us to the part that people like Piper and John MacArthur are fighting against in our emerging worldview, relative (T)truth. This is what they see as the biggest threat to Christianity. What is Truth? See, we can't even begin talking about what it is without relativity showing up. It is just fact that people perceive truth differently.

As is shown very poorly (and I would argue, irresponsibly) in the conclusion of his essay, Truth for him is a conglomeration of many smaller truths. Allow me to play devil's advocate. He states that Jesus is the "Truth". And here's how that conversation can go:

What makes Jesus the "Truth"?
That he is the "way, truth and light, no one comes to heaven or the father
except through him"
How do I know that is true?
The Bible says it is so.
But what if I don't believe the Bible to be true?

Thus the argument and definition of "Truth" has already become convoluted. Usually the argument/debate's next step is to either pull a Bible out and use apologetics to "prove" truth, or the person results to threats of, "well it just says so and you have to believe it or you will go to Hell."

To say that our postmodern/relative culture does not believe in "Truth" is a false and unfair statement. While there are a few people out there that will say "I don't believe in Absolute Truth." One should point out that to believe there is not an absolute truth is to claim a truth. However, most people say something along the lines of this: "I believe in a higher Truth, but do not believe that it is completely knowable because it is so big and we are so small in comparison." In fact most people would call this Truth, "God".

And there-in lies the big difference. This understanding of "Truth" is not based on a set of concepts or standards, this "Truth" is based on something bigger than theology, the Bible, and even Jesus. In fact, this "Truth" is so big that it transcends any one context (culture, race, class, religion, etc...). Paraphrasing and substituting a sentence by Marcus Borg about the Bible, "The Bible is not [Truth], it is a finger pointing to [Truth].

Piper makes the statement before his 5-part "solution", how evil and destructive some of [relativism's] effects are." Now that is a subjective and relative statement at it's finest. From the point of view of a Christian who proclaims that they hold the "Truth" (concepts and ideas deemed to be true above other "truths"), relativism is a scary thing. Although Piper doesn't truly understand practical relativism (judging from this article and other resources he as published/preached), the idea that "Truth" is not concepts and ideas is threatening.

However, many who understand this reality of relativism see it not as evil, but as a great chance. Why? Because it people are more open to dialog about God now than they have been in the last century. However, because of the way God has been "delivered" in the past century, one has to be cautious in HOW they speak of God. People are willing to discuss but do not want to be lectured or proofed/apologized.

I find it interesting that many people like Piper and John MacArthur (and MANY others) believe that Apologetics is the correct way to reach the more relative thinking people. There is even something called "The New Apologetics" that has stemmed out of this.

But emerging people desire authentic conversation. They want to be HEARD and not preached at or debated. They want you to give them something to think about as they leave, but they also want to contribute to to discussion in such a way that you leave thinking about something they've said too! It's not arguing that there is ONLY the duck OR the Rabbit, but working together so that both see the duckrabbit.

For the first time in a long time, people are searching for "Truth", but they already have a head start in believing that this "Truth" is a higher power. For the first time in a long time, Christianity can become a monotheistic belief again. Throughout modernity we have made other Gods in Christianity. Doctrine, theology, rules, titles, preachers, pews, the Bible, etc... have all become our demi-gods. But we have the chance to start anew and say that God is bigger than any one person, theology, book, etc.. can understand. Let's explore "Truth" together! What do you say?


Other helpful links:

no, i did not simply do research on Wiki. I simply refer to that for convenience and easy understanding. There are many great books/philosophers/ministers/etc... out there that I could point one to. Here are just a few simple links from both sides:

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