We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Case for Relativism

"Relativism" has a bad name in many U.S. Christian circles.  In a recent posting entitled, "Evangelicals: We Must Stand Firm on Biblical Authority, Exclusivity of Christ," Dr. R. C. Sproul referred to "relativism" as being the idea "that says it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere."  In other words, relativism amounts to a lack of standards, commitment, and serious faith.  It is nonchalant, blithely saying that when it comes to beliefs "it doesn't matter."  In that posting, relativism is associated with contemporary social values inimical to the Christian faith, ones that have to be overcome with a determined stand for an exclusive gospel that preaches a salvation limited to Christianity.

Relativism as such has nothing to do with indifference to or a nonchalant attitude about beliefs.  Relativism doesn't say that beliefs don't matter. It says, rather, that beliefs have a context and the believer should be keenly, carefully aware of that context.  How and what we believe depends in part on the context in which we hold our beliefs.  Culture shapes how we believe.  History shapes how we believe.  Our personal experiences powerfully impact how we believe.  Our inherent (perhaps partly biological) tendency to be liberal or conservative in our thinking shapes how we believe.  Interestingly enough, philosophy has a particularly strong impact on our beliefs.  In an American Protestant context, the early church's experience with Greek philosophy continues to powerfully shape our understanding of God.

The choice we have to make about our contexts is the degree to which we ignore or acknowledge their influence over the ways we believe.  Many American Christians choose to ignore that influence and reject the idea that human beliefs are relative.  They seek to absolutize their beliefs.  Fewer, but still a significant number of believers, embrace the fact that faith is dependent on many factors and is not absolute.  Each choice is dangerous.  The "true believers" are seriously in danger of confusing what they believe about God with God.  The "relativists" are seriously in danger of losing sight of the importance of sharing their faith with others.  The relativists are apt to put their candle under a bushel.  The absolutists are liable to put their candle at the feet of something that is not God.

The middle way (via media) is to hold one's faith firmly, share it where appropriate, and understand that others can choose other faithful paths, which are spiritually viable but not our own.  What we believe matters.  Realizing that we are fallible in what we believe and that all human belief systems are relative also matters.  Otherwise, we tend to confuse our beliefs with the One we believe in.