What is Truth – The Dangers of Relativism and the Need for Objective Truth

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John 18:37-38a – Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

In this passage, Pilate asks the most profound and essential question of life and then chooses not to stay for an answer. “What is Truth” has challenged the minds of the greatest philosophers, yet Jesus not only acknowledges that an objective truth exists but that such a truth is also something one can know and belong to. Many today would challenge Jesus on his statement. The major cultural understanding of truth today is that of relativism.

What is Relativism.

Simply put relativism states that there is no objective standard of true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly exists.

Basically put that might be true for you but that doesn’t make it true for me.

So what can ultimately be inferred from this is that there is no objective truth.

This case against Truth was first laid out by the philosopher Protagoras. He coined the phrase that “man is the measure of all things.”

Socrates immediately dismantled such thinking by asking Protagoras a series of philosophical embarrassing questions.

He asked Protagoras how he can call himself an authority to be learned from if we determine truth or falsity by mere opinion. Secondly, he asked Protagoras why he felt the need to debate opposing views that by his own standard must be deemed as true.

Despite the clear and ancient refutation of Protagoras, the spirit of this song humming has been reincarnated by many postmodern thinkers with just a few twists.

Today’s thinkers argue that truth is not based upon its connection with objective reality by various social constructs devised for different purposes. 

Perhaps no better summary of this type of relativistic thinking exists than Michel Foucault’s “there is no gods eye view of anything therefore there is no objective truth.

What shall we make of this? Why have I assumed this is a bad way to see the world? Let’s begin our assessment of relativism with an interaction that Jesus had with some classic practical relativists—not self-conscious, full-blown relativists, just de facto relativists, which are the most common kind, and they are prevalent in every age, not just this one.

Consider Matthew 21:23-27.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Look carefully at how the chief priests and elders deal with truth. Jesus asks them to take a stand on a simple truth claim: Either John’s baptism is from heaven or from man. Declare what you believe to be the truth. They ponder: If we say that John’s baptism is from heaven, then we will be shamed because Jesus will show that we are hypocrites. We say we think his baptism is from heaven, but we don’t live like it. We will be shamed before the crowds.

But if we say that John’s baptism is from man, we may be harmed by the crowd, because they all believe he was a prophet. There could be some mob violence. Therefore, since we don’t want to be shamed and since we don’t want to be harmed by a mob, we will not say that either of those is true (that John’s baptism is from heaven or from man), and we will assert another statement to be the truth: We don’t know the answer to your question.

What are we to make of this? This is not full-blown relativism. Rather, what we see here are the seeds of relativism. 

The human mind was created by God to discover and embrace and be shaped by the truth—to respond to truth in knowing and enjoying God and serving man. But Matthew 21:23-27 is a picture of what has become of it because of the depravity of sin.

The elders and chief priests do not use their minds to formulate a true answer to Jesus’ question. How do they use their minds? They reason carefully: “If we say this, then such and such will happen. And if we say that, then such and such will happen.” They are reasoning carefully. Why? Because the truth is at stake? No, because their skin is at stake. They don’t want to be shamed, and they don’t want to be harmed.

So what has become of the mind and its handmaid, language? Answer: The mind has become the nimble slave of their passions (the adulterous heart, Matthew 16:4). And language does the dirty work of covering up the corruption. Truth is irrelevant here in guiding what they say. It doesn’t matter whether John’s baptism is from heaven or from man; what matters is that we not be shamed and that we not be harmed. So we will use language to cover our indifference to truth and our allegiance to the gods of pride and comfort, and we will say, “We do not know.”

And Jesus responds: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” In other words, I don’t have serious conversations with people like you. Jesus abominates that kind of arrogant, cowardly prostituting of the glorious gifts of the human mind and human language.

I said this passage reveals the seeds of relativism. What I mean is this: The claim that there is no one standard for truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone is rooted most deeply in the desire of the fallen human mind to be free from all authority and to enjoy the exaltation of self. This is where relativism comes from.

Relativism is not a coherent philosophical system. It is riddled with contradictions—both logical and experiential. every businessman knows that philosophical relativists park their relativism at the door when they go into the bank and read the language of the contract they are about to sign. People don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover that they need to do what they want. It allows them to dance around truth, in a way that satisfies far too many. They don’t care about truth. They care about their skin. Therefore, their minds and their words simply function as useful means of avoiding shame and harm and covering their self-centeredness and cowardice. That’s the deepest root of relativism.

The Evil and Destructive Effects of Relativism

  1. Relativism commits treason.

Relativism is a revolt against the objective reality of God. The sheer existence of God creates the necessity of truth. God is the ultimate and final standard for all claims to truth—who he is, what he wills, what he says is the external, objective standard for measuring all things. 

When relativism says that there is no standard of truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone, it speaks like an atheist. It commits treason against God.

In James 2:10-11, we see the dynamics of treason in relation to God’s law: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Why? “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’” 

The key to James’ argument here is that he connects our relation to God’s law with our relation to God himself. The reason your failure in one point makes you guilty of all is that the same God gave all the law—and what matters is that in rebelling against the law you are rebelling against him.

Relativism is a pervasive rebellion against the very concept of divine law. Therefore, it is the most thoroughgoing rebellion against God. It is a treason that is worse than outright revolt because it is devious. Instead of saying to God’s face, “Your word is false,” it says to man, “There is no such thing as a universally binding divine word.” This is treason.

  1. Relativism breeds hypocrisy and duplicity.

Everyone knows in his heart that believing relativism to be true is contradictory, and everyone also knows intuitively that no one even tries to put it into practice consistently. Therefore, both philosophically and practically, it cultivates duplicity. People say they believe in it but do not think or act consistently with what they say. They are hypocrites.

It is contradictory because the very process of thinking about relativism commits you to truths that you do not treat as relative. Relativists employ the law of non-contradiction and the law of cause and effect whenever they talk about their belief in relativism and its relation to the world, and these laws are not relative. If they were, relativists could not even formulate the premises and conclusions that they say lead them to relativism.

This is a deep duplicity. And when one does it knowingly, it is immoral. This is most obvious when relativists live their lives. Because they know that there is an objective meaning that can be transmitted between two human beings, and we have moral obligations to grasp what is meant. Whether we write love letters or rental agreements or instructions to our children or directions for a friend or contracts or sermons or obituaries, we believe objective meaning exists in what we write, and we expect people to try to understand. And we hold them accountable (and often get upset) if they don’t.

  1. Relativism destroys language.

 In a culture where truth is esteemed as something objective and external to ourselves that we should pursue and embrace and cherish and employ for the good of the people, language holds the honorable place of expressing and carrying and transmitting that precious cargo of truth. In fact, a person’s use of language is assessed on the basis of whether it corresponds to the truth and beauty of the reality he expresses.

But when objective truth vanishes in the fog of relativism, the role of language changes dramatically. It’s no longer a humble servant for carrying precious truth. Now it throws off the yoke of servanthood and takes on a power of its own.

It doesn’t submit to objective, external reality; it creates its own reality. It no longer serves to display truth. The goal of language is no longer the communication of reality, but the manipulation of reality.

This is the exact opposite of the commitment that Paul had in the way he used language. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, he said, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

Let that be your banner young people!

  1. Relativism disguises pride as humility.

If you believe in a truth that all people must embrace in order to be saved, you will be called arrogant. On the other hand, relativism is put forward as the mark of humility. What I want to suggest is not that all lovers of truth are humble, but that relativism is not a humble stance but a cloak for pride.

It works like this. Truth with a capital T—Truth rooted in God’s objective reality and word—is a massive, unchanging reality that we little humans must submit to. Knowing is the humble task of putting ourselves under this reality and submitting to it. Understanding is literally taking the humble position to stand under the truth and let it be our rule.

But what about relativism? It poses as humble by saying: “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like a servant saying: I am not smart enough to know which person here is my master—or if I even have a master. The result is that I don’t have a master and I can be my own master.

That is in reality what happens to relativists: In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, they exalt themselves as supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility. This is the essence of pride. The only way pride can be conquered in us is for us to believe in Truth and be conquered by it so that it rules us, and we don’t rule it.

  1. Relativism leads to enslavement and totalitarianism.

If we cultivate a view of truth that makes it unreachable or non-existent, then we create a kind of worldview that will simply colonize slaves. People are not freed from sin through the fog of relativism. They stay in chains.

Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:10, “[They] perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” We are not playing games. Relativism leads people away from a love of the truth and so enslaves them and destroys them.

When relativism holds sway long enough, everyone begins to do what is right in his own eyes without any regard for submission to truth. In this atmosphere, a society begins to break down. Virtually every structure in a free society depends on a measure of integrity—that is, submission to the truth. 

When the chaos of relativism reaches a certain point, the people will welcome any ruler who can bring some semblance of order and security. So a dictator steps forward and crushes the chaos with absolute control. Ironically, relativism—the great lover of unfettered freedom—destroys freedom in the end.

Michael Novak put it powerfully like this:

During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. “There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with your self. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.

Embrace the Truth Of God’s Word

Remember the chief priests and the elders. If we say “from heaven,” we will be shamed for not believing. So we can’t say that is true. If we say “from man,” we will be mobbed because they say he’s a prophet. So we can’t say that is true. So we will make up a truth: “We don’t know.” What a bondage. They cannot own the truth because they are enslaved to the fear of shame and harm. May it not be so with you.

In John 8:31-32, Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17)

If you trust Christ to remove your shame and your guilt, if you trust Christ to protect you from harm, and bring you safely to his eternal kingdom, and be for you the supreme Treasure of the universe, then you will be free to see the truth and embrace the truth and love the truth. The Word is Truth because it is the very revelation of the epitome of truth, Jesus Christ. Let it be the standard for your life!

Live the truth, love the truth, fight for the truth.

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