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May 08, 2008

Comments

Brett,

I agree with you that relativism (both moral and epistemological) is a big problem today, but I wonder if the answers you received from the leaders were due to some presuppositions on their part.

People tend to equate "objective" with certainty, and subjective with uncertainty. So maybe so many of them claimed 6-9 were subjective because they recognize that we cannot know them to be true with certainty, and that people come to different conclusions as to whether they are true or false. You and I know that a claim can be objective, and yet the truth of the claim be less than certain (or even false), but did they understand that?

Maybe you made these qualifications regarding what it means to say a claim is objective or subjective before giving them the test. If not, I think it might have played into the results.

Thanks for the comments Jason. I agree that many people confuse the metaphysical for the epistemological. And that's why I use the false claim to clarify. There is certainly much more I say regarding the distinction. And I specifically tell audiences that even if NO ONE believes a particular claim or if NO ONE is certain of its truth or falsity, that fact has no bearing on its metaphysical status. Of course, I translate it into youthy language!

With this particular audience, I was able to get clarity on their views during the interaction and Q & A. Clearly, they were affirming relativism regarding the metaphysical status of the claims, a scary thing to hear from Christian leaders.

Jason- I agree that most people assume that if they cannot know something easily or with absolute certainty, then it is not objective or that it is (in the words of some of my students) "a matter of opinion". But questions 6-9 are matters that can be known with certainty, though they are (in varying degrees) more difficult to know than "2+2=4".

Not only is relativism alive and well within the church, but ignorance of basic Biblical doctrine thrives. At the "mainstream" (EV Free) church I formerly attended, you would be surprised (and disappointed) at the number of attendees who thought Paul Crouch was a great spiritual leader of some sort. I expected these people would have been at the local prosperity outlet.

I rememeber when I was a kid in school, they used to give us these tests where there were several statements, and we had to say whether they were "fact" or "opinion." I think what they meant were "objective" and "subjective." I remember even then being confused and annoyed, because to me, you could have an opinion about whether or not something is a fact. And opinion wasn't necessarily a subjective claim. It was what you THOUGHT was objectively true, or what you THOUGHT was a fact.

I pressed my sister in law about a month ago on whether she thought morals were objective or subjective. After asking her a lot of questions, she seemed to vacillate between objectivism and subectivism, and I started thinking maybe she was just confused. Finally, after telling me that there's other cultures in other times who had different moral views than her own, I asked her, "Do you think their moral views were incorrect or just different?" She thought about it for a minute and finally said, "That's a good question." At the end of it, I decided that she just didn't know whether she was an objectivist or a subjectivist with regard to morals.

I had a history professor once who had an impossible time telling the difference between subjective claims and objective claims. He had said that all religious claims were subjective claims. We were talking specifically about the claim that God exists. So I said, "What about the claim that a guy named Jesus was crucified by a Roman procurator named Pontius Pilot in the first century? Is that an objective claim or a subjective claim?" I don't remember what he said, but I remember trying to make it simple by explaining the difference between saying, "Blue Bell is the best ice cream in the country," and saying, "Blue Bell is a company that makes ice cream." He interrupted and asked me whether a tree in the woods made any sound if nobody was around to hear it, and we just never got anywhere after that.

I remember debating with a unitarian universalist on beliefnet several years ago about whether religious claims were subjective or objective. He claimed they were subjective, and I used some of the same examples with him as I used with the history professor. I discovered in that conversation that the guy I was debating with was confusing "objective" with "true." I wasn't trying to argue for the truth of Christianity. I was just trying to demonstrate to him that Christians were making objective claims.

Great thread! I've read Greg's book on relativism, and never thought I'd met someone who plainly claimed that all truth is relative. Well, tonight I met my first died-in-the-wool relativist. He has a PhD in philosophy. The conversation went as follows:

Relativist: "Absolute truths do not exist."

Me: "Is that statement true or false?"

Relativist: "It's true in a relative sense."

Me: "What does 'true in a relative sense' mean?"

Relativist: "Based on my experience, all truths are relative."

I pointed out the self-refuting nature of his claim. But he responded by saying that no truth claims exist, only linguistic constructs (?) which are all relative ... I lost him here.

In addition to prayer, is there any more that can be done with this individual?

I don't necessarily seek agreement with the relativist, but would like greater clarity.

Shaun, it is easy to claim to be a relativist until you have a personal stake in the matter. A "Relativist" will suddenly become convinced of True Truth, if you cut in front of him in line, try to pay him with monopoly money, or anything else that affects him personally.

But for this particular guy ask him if he has a class that he teaches. If he says yes ask him if everyone in his class gets A's?

He will probably be quite shocked at the question, but press him on this point. When he says no, tell him that everyone's answer is true to them, if just believing something makes it true, how can he give anyone a bad grade?

Wanda- Good call. CS Lewis says this in Mere Christianity. Relativism is one of those ideas that sounds nice on paper but ends up being impractical and flat out destructive if carried out to its natural ends and applications. I tell my students, "If anyone ever tells you 'there is no real right and wrong', slap them in the face. They'll quickly change their tune"

I would definitely recommend Greg and Francis' book "Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air". It is easy to read and full of good advice about refuting relativism. I have used it in my high school theology/philosophy classes with great success!

(10) Anyone who can bench press 350 pounds, can't be wrong.

I wonder if number 10 would shed a bit of light on this. Just because someone prominent or otherwise intelligent makes a foolish statement, doesn't mean that it is true. I think that this plays, to some degree, into the whole relativism conundrum. If enough prominent people say it, it must be true then....well, I don't think so, but others just might.

I think it is a mistake to be overawed by celebrity or talent to the degree that it overshadows our awe of the truth. Doing otherwise is a mistake.

Ryan,

Only if you are using "certain" in a non-technical way.

Sam,

I hear what you're saying. That was the thrust of my point. People can get confused about the question itself. I think the best way to convey the test is by asking whether the claim describes one's own personal preference, or whether it describes something out there in the real world (even if the claim is false, such as "George Bush is the president of Russia.").

Jason- What do you mean by "non-technical"? If you mean "non-scientific", then we are admitting a certain empiricist bias. One can have proof without having empirical proof.

It's a shame that so many people in our culture don't actually take the time to understand the 'patron Saints' of postmodernism and then perpetuate this kind of rubbish. Then again, it's a shame when Evangelicals then think that relativism is actually argued for by, say, Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, or even Nietzsche. For those who actually take the time to read these thinkers, we just can't win because such great minds like Moreland, Craig, Smith, or Groothuis say that they are relativists, so we're shot down before we can say anything...or our words are just interperted through these ready-made (mis)conceptions and no conversation can actually occur. It's a shame...

That test for whether relativism is alive and well today seems pretty poor. Of course many will say that some of those items are subjective, because to many that just means "unproven" or "non-scientific." If you ask students (which I have) whether they think Jesus can both be God and not be God depending solely on what your opinion is, they almost universally say that's insane. If you ask them if it's true that Christ either is God or it is not the case that Christ is God, they will say that it's true, and even necessarily true. If you ask them whether it's ok to cut your father's hands off if you're in a different culture, most will say no.

I teach philosophy at a university in Indiana and have found that most students are very opposed to moral relativism ONCE THEY ARE CLEAR ON WHAT THE MORAL RELATIVIST ACTUALLY SAYS. Of course, if they're not clear on that, and if they think you're asking them if religious claims are empirically verified and scientifically established, then they will undoubtedly say, "No, they're not objective." But if they're clear that what you mean by objectivity is that these are claims which express propositions which are capable of being true or false, then most will say, "Yes, if that's what it means, they're objective." I think there may be something to the view that the craziest forms of relativism really are only held by a few drunk sophomores. My impression is that that sort of relativism only exists as a target behind the pulpit.

"Of course, if they're not clear on that, and if they think you're asking them if religious claims are empirically verified and scientifically established, then they will undoubtedly say, "No, they're not objective."

This is probably going to the heart of the matter. If it has the veneer of propriety based on authority approval, then it is considered reliable. Without careful examination of the particulars in question, it is easy for students to swallow just about any goofy theory as long as it is within the pale of the above defined parameters. In order for students to look beyond the restrictions of artificially imposed academic fences, they must have the capacity for honest and critical self evaluation and be encouraged by their teachers in that direction. If they are, they have a chance at coming to the obvious conclusion that they have fallen victim to conformity of group think, which is just about always detrimental to sound thinking.

Kevin,

You don't think it's possible for others (*not* just Moreland, Craig, et al) to read those "patron saints" and come away with very different conclusions than yours based on good reasons (which, in the end, you may find unconvincing, of course)? Are you really suggesting that Allan Bloom had no idea what he was talking about?

Aaron- I know your questions were for Kevin, but I would answer "no" to the first and "yes" to the second. Having "reasons" is not the same as using reason. Relativism has at its heart a self-contradiction. It is vacuous and empty not just in its premises but in its practical application. Proponents of relativism may have good "reasons" for what they believe (or don't believe or whatever...) but they are certainly not reasonable.

Does anyone find it ironic that Derrida wrote a very long BOOK to tell us how useless language is?

To all those involved in this thread, at least we can all agree on this one thing: #5 on Brett's list is in no way metaphysically possible.

"I pointed out the self-refuting nature of his claim. But he responded by saying that no truth claims exist, only linguistic constructs (?) which are all relative ... I lost him here."

The claim that truth claims are "linguistic constructs" is apparently a claim about the nature of truth claims. That is, "linguistic construct," is a property, Y, of any truth claim, X. But to say that Y is essential for X is to make a claim about the relationship between a thing and its properties. Your friend is seemingly to say that X is the sort of thing that in any possible world will have z certain property Y if it is to remain X. That's a pretty strong claim, one that it seems to me he believes he has warrant to accept as "true," that corresponds to a particular state of affairs that is in fact the case in every possible world.

He apparently also believes that you have an intellectual obligation to embrace this view as well. This means that you, as a human being, have a property, Z, that requires that you accept the strongest positions on matters philosophical. Now we have yet another truth claim about our intellectual obligations and what constitutes intellectual virtue.

If he continues to say, "but that's a linguistic construct too," he is not arguing anymore. He is stipulating. That's fine. But it's just a form of intellectual bullying. I would, at that point, ask him why anyone should agree with him about anything. Throw the onus back on him. If he says in reply, "I don't care," you are doing with an adolescent who is playing games. That sort of coffee house goth-chic nihilism is so 90s! :-)

Ryan,

Have you even read this book that supposedly demonstrates the uselessness of language? I ask because, well, that description doesn't match any book of Derrida's that I've read (and many claims by himself that such isn't the case). Which, I think, further demonstrates my point: people make such claims without ever taking the time to actually understand the thinker by reading their primary sources in depth. I have yet to find any Evangelical critic of so-called postmodernism that actually delves into the primary texts, as they rely extensively on secondary sources. Either they make sweeping generalizations without quoting or referencing any primary text or they rely on secondary sources that either quote or merely cite the given text (with the primary exceptions of Rorty, who actually *is* a relativist, and Nietzsche, who followed the Kierkegaardian path of intentionally making things difficult; two *very* good choices to 'demonstrate' [notice the scare quotes] relativism by relying on primary sources).

Now, to answer Aaron, yes, there are plenty of people who have read Derrida et al. and come away with the claim that they are relativists. What I am willing to claim, though, is that the experts, those who spend their lifetimes investing time and energy into these thinkers, by and large would not agree or, in the least, would be *much* more hesitant to make the sweeping claims of Moreland et al.

Which points me to another oddity of Evangelical works on so-called postmodernism: that they rarely reference the experts or, alternately, rely on merely one authority without any grasp of the difficulties of interpretation among the experts in the field of Derridian, Foucaultian, Wittgensteinian, Nietzschean, and/or Heideggerian studies. Being ignorant of these discussions, the Evangelical 'expert' on so-called postmodernism is ignorant of the dynamics of interpretation in the field, the reasons for either accepting or rejecting a given interpretation, and so on. It's like someone critiquing the realm of biblical studies without being versed in the different movements of interpretation, their particular arguments, and so on. In my mind, this puts the 'expert' status of these Evangelicals into serious question.

On Alan Bloom, I really don't know his argument or if his methodology is similar to that of, say, Douglas Groothuis whose critique of both Derrida and Foucault rely almost exclusively on secondary sources. So I can't say. If he agrees with Groothuis et al., then, yes, I would say he is mistaken. I wouldn't go so far as saying that he "had no idea what he was talking about," but that he was mistaken (there *is* a huge difference). I'll even say that Charles Taylor, a long-standing Heideggerian and excellent philosopher, was wrong in his understanding of Foucault and Derrida, though I agree with so much of his other work and even his reasons for rejecting Derrida and Foucault (or at least his understanding of these figures). I guess, in short, is I would say that things are much more complicated than your question seems to allow.

But let me repeat one more time, to make sure I'm clear: I agree that relativism should be combatted. It *is* self-refuting, dangerous, parasitic, and practically every other negative adjective that Evangelicals throw its way. My problem is when figures like Heidegger (about whom I have the most experience and can give the best defense), Derrida, Foucault, and I would even argue Nietzche are included as relativists. It is not the claim about relativism per se, but the inclusion of thinkers who simply are not relativists in the lists.

Kevin- Yes, though sorry to say, not in the original French.

I'm curious, then, where he says anything remotely like what you claim he is saying. Can you provide a somewhat representative quote or perhaps a small collection of ideas that lend one to thinking that Derrida says "how useless language is"? Or perhaps I'm not thinking of the same book that you are and I've somehow missed this rather *huge* claim...

Kevin,

Actually, Bloom is (or was - he died in the 90's) not a Christian. He was a philosopher, academic, and writer, and he wrote the bestseller _The Closing of the American Mind_ in 1987 as a critique of the state of higher education in this country. One of his interesting examinations is the role that German philosphy since Nietzsche, and particularly that of Heidegger, has played in in our cultural shift towards relativism in America. I think you'd find it interesting - check it out on Amazon.

>>But let me repeat one more time, to make sure I'm clear: I agree that relativism should be combatted. It *is* self-refuting, dangerous, parasitic, and practically every other negative adjective that Evangelicals throw its way.

This is good - common ground, even. But it leads me to ask why you posted what you did, as the original post was about this kind of popular relativism, and not the thought of Heidegger, et al. Your concerns may or may not be valid, but they seem like a separate issue. Would you agree that the response Brett got indicates a strong relativistic streak in evangelical culture?

My concern is because relativists and Evangelicals alike think they are using Heidegger in arguing for relativism: the former think he is a proponent of relatism and the Evangelicals similarly agree. In short, it is simply bad scholarship on the part of both. And even more so, it seems to be programatic: that following this horrible 'scholarship' on figures like Heidegger is seen as obvious, beyond dispute, and that he can continue to be named with those 'other relativsts' in [name your group or individual here].

If people, both inside and outside the so-called 'postmodern' camp, would actually understand what Heidegger is trying to get at not only would they drop all this relativism crap (and, again, that is what it is), but they could actually make a strong case against so-called 'absolute truth' without denying the existence of genuine truth that can be shared and public (Heidegger's claim since at least _Being and Time_, though also obviously before and *most certainly* after).

In short, since it is widespread belief in "popular relativism" and its Evangelical critics that Heidegger et al. are relativists like the former, it is certainly relevant as not bringing up this fact (which is agreed upon by every single Heideggerian scholar that I know of, even those who think he is an idealist) simply perpetuates the lie that so-called 'experts' of postmodernism continue to tell in their ignorance.

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