Jun11 2011

Absolutely Relative


Over Memorial Day weekend, some friends of mine brought to my attention an interesting exchange that was taking place between a few college students on Facebook. It all began with a discussion surrounding a movie that had just recently come out.  The first student had rightly pointed out that many things about the movie, including the language, was in very poor taste.  Other comments followed as a few more students joined the conversation.  Most of the students agreed with the first guy and some of them went on to point out that movies which promote such obscene humor not only have a compromising effect on Christians who view them, they have a subtle, yet corrosive effect on our culture in general.

            As expected, not everyone agreed and it wasn’t long before some students began to challenge this idea.  One of those students was “Dave” (not his real name).  Dave, as a non-Christian, identified himself as “Ignostic”, which he said is “not to be confused with ‘agnostic’.”  In any case, Dave made it clear that he was a relativist and he made several comments to try and convince the other students that it’s pointless for them to make moral judgments about such movies because “morality is relative.”  I have no doubt that Dave is a very intelligent guy and he was very persuasive in pointing out several examples from various cultural and historical traditions which, on the surface, give the appearance that morality is “relative to cultures”.  There was one statement in particular that caught my attention as he attempted to summarize his comments by saying, “You cannot escape the context you are born into.” 

            This is not the first time I’ve heard that view expressed.  In fact, I just recently spoke to a woman who teaches political science at one of our universities who stated that this “context” view is quite common within higher education.  While it may be tempting to accept such a view purely on the basis that it’s “generally accepted” today in our colleges and universities, that should not stop us from calling it into question.  In fact, the ability to examine the strengths and weaknesses of an idea is what a good education is all about.  One thing that we often forget is that despite a great education, even a person of great intellect is capable of making egregious errors in reasoning because, just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect.  I believe that this story is an example of that.   

            There is something fundamentally wrong with this relativistic notion that “you cannot escape your context.”  To illustrate, suppose that I’m a Christian student in a college classroom and my professor has just said, “You cannot escape the context that you’re born into.”  If that really is the case, then what would be the point in teaching that to me?  As a Christian, I do not share that view.  So, in order for me to change my way of thinking and to embrace this “context” idea, I can only do so if I have the ability to step out of (“escape the context” of) my Christian worldview.  Yet, my professor has just told me that it’s impossible for anyone to escape their context!  Or suppose that someone was raised in a community that is very racist.  If he cannot escape the context that he was born into, then what would be the point in trying to persuade him that racism is wrong?   It only gets worse at this point.  What about the person who initially came up with this “context” theory?  Isn’t his theory, itself, really nothing more than a result of his or her own cultural context?  Did he come to his conclusions simply because he was raised that way?  If his theory is nothing more than a product of his context, why should the rest of us accept it, even if we could accept it? 

            This “context” view runs into the same problem that undermines all relativistic views-  they can’t live up to their own expectations.  Right from the start, they begin to lose traction because the person promoting the idea is attempting to apply his view or theory to everyone except himself (“the self-excepting fallacy”).  It’s one more example of an idea that has been allowed to take root in our culture, not because it is reasonable, but because we are either unwilling or unable to question the foundation on which the idea was built.  “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…”  (Romans 1:22)



3 Responses to “Absolutely Relative”

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