In his TV series Edges, Christian communicator and broadcaster MAL FLETCHER looks at some of the big issues of the day. Here, Mal examines moral truth in an age of relativism.
One historian has said, "We live in an age of uncertainty about everything." In a world like this, where can we find values that work -- and do we need moral absolutes to guide us? More than 20 years ago, Alvin Toffler's seminal work Future Shock warned the world about what Toffler called the "roaring current of change." He predicted that increasingly rapid change and technological advance would leave people feeling disoriented and confused, cut off from traditional anchors of security. Today, a whole generation can testify to the accuracy of Toffler's predictions. Ours is a world of incredible complexity, where the only certainty is change itself. We live in the "whatever" generation. "Whatever" is not a cry for revolution, it's a sigh of resignation. Given the endless stream of life decisions we face every day, people often respond to the problems of the world with cynicism and downright apathy. "I can't decide what's right for you," they say, "and I don't really want to know, so just do whatever."
For centuries, individuals and nations gained strength from the conviction that some things are universally right. People accepted this because these absolutes were enshrined in the teaching of Christianity; because human experience had proven them right; and because people have always had an in-built witness to them - a witness called conscience. In our time, many people scoff at moral absolutes. They replace them with less certain things - like pragmatism and image. Pragmatism says, "If it works, it must be right. If a thing can be done, it should be done, even if we haven't thought through the consequences." Image says, "The appearance is more important than the reality." If we like the way things look, we don't bother to check behind the mask.
Because we reject absolutes, we've watered down the idea of tolerance. Societies that have been strongly influenced by Christianity have usually been tolerant societies. Tolerance recognises that people have a right to make certain choices, even if their choices are unhealthy. Traditionally, it might have said to someone, "You can believe that if you want to, but it's wrong." Today, we have a less gutsy kind of tolerance - it says, 'You can believe anything you want to, because nothing is wrong."
Pragmatism, image and this new form of tolerance are built on relativism. Relativism claims that there is no such thing as eternal, objective truth; there's no truth that is true for everyone, at all times. Whether an action is moral or not depends entirely on the context. Relativism has given birth to a strange child called "political correctness". Many people today have only one moral goal: not to offend anyone else. Political correctness says, "You can call anything true, as long as you don't insist that it is the truth for everyone." Relativism says: the best you can do is to be like everybody else. As long as you think like everyone else, you won't go wrong.
What has relativism produced in society? It's led us down a road to insecurity, alienation and conflict. Divorce rates have soared. Crime has increased and prisons are full. People try to blame someone else for their faults and society's once trusted institutions have become the targets of public cynicism. Bible absolutes are based in righteousness. It says that the highest good you can do is to be like God in your attitudes and your actions. When the Bible talks about morality, it doesn't point us to arbitrary rules; it directs us to the nature of God himself. It says, be faithful and truthful because that's the nature of God. The Bible says we should base our moral decisions on one question: "If God is as the Bible describes him, how would he respond in my situation?" God's moral principles are not arbitrary laws given to stifle their creativity. They are descriptions of what is real in God's moral universe.
Everyday, we expect that we'll have to obey the natural laws of physics. If we don't, we know there'll be consequences. The laws of physics are not laws in the legal sense: they are descriptions of the way things work in the physical universe. We live in a moral universe too -- one that is governed by moral principles. In this moral universe, truth is always exclusive of error. Something that was wrong can't become right -- no matter how much we dress it up or change its name. Moral laws simply show us how to avoid trouble that comes from breaking the moral pattern.
Thankfully, God hasn't left me to live up to his standards in my own strength. (Let's face it, most of us can't even live up to our own standards most of the time!) God sent his Son to cancel my moral debt, to give me a fresh start so that I can live right in the power that he gives. Now, I not only know the truth, I can live it out, so that it truly sets me free!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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