Deconstructing a Worldview
So much for the theory. Now let’s apply the process to a real example. In this chapter I shall consider how to apply positive deconstruction to a very popular and pervasive view: relativism.
In order to explain this, I shall use some real examples from my conversations with other people. It is, however, important to realize that at this stage, I am still giving you a desk exercise: we shall be thinking about how to subject this worldview to positive deconstruction for ourselves. Only in chapter 6 shall I move on to the question of how to use this approach to help real people who hold these views.
You may find it helpful to draw up a worksheet like the one in Figure 3 and use this as we go through the four stages of positive deconstruction. I do this whenever I come across any new worldview and want to go through the process of positive deconstruction.
Stage 1: identify
Very rarely do I meet people who tell me that they are relativists. Almost every day, however, I talk with people who make relativistic statements. They say such things as:
‘It may be true for you but it isn’t true for me.’
‘You can’t say that is wrong; it might be wrong for you, but it’s right for me.’
‘Missionaries shouldn’t try to convert people. If people are happy with what they believe, leave them alone.’
Each of these statements derives from the underlying philosophy of relativism.
‘Relativism’ is the name given to the idea that everything is relative (by which I don’t mean Auntie Gladys). It is the belief that there are no absolutes – no absolute truth, no absolute right or wrong, in fact no absolute anything. To the relativist (someone who believes in relativism), everything is relative; it depends upon who you are, where you are, what you are, when you are, and so on. Truth is relative, morality is relative, religion is relative, everything is relative. A belief can be true for me but false for you; a decision can be right for you but wrong for me. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it this way: ‘The thing is to find a truth which is true for me.’ More recently the British theologian Don Cupitt has said, ‘Capital T truth is dead … truth is plural, socially conditioned and perpetually changing.’
These philosophical and theological ideas have trickled down into our culture, which is now almost wholly relativistic. A recent survey, published as The Invisible Generation, revealed that 70% of young people believe that absolute truth does not exist and that all truth is relative and personal.
Although many people accept relativism, however, most do not know what it is. This isn’t a philosophy that they have thoughtfully considered and then accepted. Rather, it is simply one in which they are immersed day by day as they learn from relativistic teachers, read relativistic magazines and watch relativistic television. Relativism, then, has become so internalized that it is not just something people believe, but simply the way in which they think.
Stages 2–4: analyse, affirm truth and discover error
Let’s analyse relativism according to the three tests of truth and, at each stage, see what truth we can affirm and what error we can discover.
1. Is relativism coherent?
Does relativism cohere? That is, does it make sense, or is it logically inconsistent?
I wish I could find truth to affirm here. Some of the most intelligent people I meet and debate with are relativists. It is very embarrassing if I am drawn to say that I find the whole basis of their view incoherent. But I do.
When people tell me that they believe there is no such thing as absolute truth, I have to work very hard to resist asking them if they are sure about that (which they usually are); and if they are, whether they are absolutely sure (which they often are). In effect, they are saying, ‘It is absolutely true that there is no such thing as absolute truth.’ When people state: ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth’, they are making a statement which itself is absolute. So one cannot even state relativism without denying it. The whole idea of relativism does not make sense. It disappears up its own hypothesis.
But the problem is worse than that. Relativism denies a fundamental principle of logic known as Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction. You may never have heard of this principle, or realized how important it is. But it is the foundation of the logic we use day by day, and if we get rid of it, we really are in trouble. Basically, Aristotle’s principle says that a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time. Although complementary truth claims can be true, contradictory truth claims cannot. For example, I could make two truth claims about the desk on which I am currently writing. I could say, ‘This is a piece of furniture’ and ‘This is a desk’. These truth claims are different, but they can both be true. They are complementary; they give two different bits of information which can both be true. But suppose I make two mutually exclusive truth claims: ‘This is made of wood’ and ‘This is not made of wood’. These beliefs cannot both be true. They contradict each other. If one is true, the other cannot be. This desk cannot be made of wood and not made of wood at the same time.
In order to accept relativism, one has to abandon this fundamental principle of logic and everything based upon it. One has to be prepared to say that something can be true and not true at the same time: it all depends upon who you are, where you are, when you are, and so on. Therefore, not only is relativism in itself incoherent, but also, to accept it, we have to lose the solid basis for all logic. That is the road to madness.
2. Does relativism correspond with reality?
Let’s now consider whether relativism corresponds with the real world in which we live. Is the world around us wholly relativistic, or are there clear absolutes?
Here, I find that there are some true elements I can affirm. There are certain statements that can be true for one person but not true for another. Let me give you a couple of examples, from the areas of aesthetics and ethics.
My wife Carol thinks I am gorgeous. She will tell you that she thinks I am the most lovable, kissable person in the world. Other women probably wouldn’t agree (at least I hope not). The statement ‘Nick is gorgeous’ is true for her, but not true for other people. In some ways, that’s the way the world is. There are many different opinions and preferences, from colours to football teams, which are true for one person but not true for another.
In a slightly different way, there are also some ethical decisions which can be different for different people at different times. One may believe that taking things from other people is wrong, but then realize that taking the gun from a bank robber is right. Clearly, in this case, it does depend upon the circumstances. Even those of us who believe in a prescriptive ethic, based upon God’s revelation in the Bible, also recognize the importance of context in applying God’s absolutes in this fallen world. For example, in the Old Testament we find the story of Rahab, who was apparently rewarded by God for telling a lie when she said the spies were not with her (Joshua 2). She was later praised as one of the great heroes of faith (Hebrews 11). In the New Testament, the problem of eating food sacrificed to idols depended upon what the individual believed about it (2 Corinthians 8).
We make a mistake then, if in rejecting relativism we fail to perceive and affirm the truth it contains. Doing so would simply be to push ourselves into dogmatism. It is not true to say that everything is absolute: context and individual circumstances are important.
Although there are these elements of truth to affirm and insights to value, however, it doesn’t take long to discover that the fundamental principle of relativism does not correspond to reality. The world in which we live is not without absolutes; everything is not relative. There are many things that are true for all people at all times and in all places. They are absolutely true.
Let me demonstrate this with an illustration. I often have conversations with students which go something like this:
Student: God is OK for you. He helps you because you believe in him. But he’s not for me. He doesn’t exist for me, because I don’t believe in him.
Me: Sorry, I’m not quite clear. Are you saying that God exists for me because I believe in him, but he doesn’t exist for you because you don’t believe in him?
Student: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying: God exists for you, but he doesn’t exist for me.
Me: I can see that’s a very appealing belief, but I’m not really sure if it could be possible.
Student: Why not?
Me: Well, think with me about the way the world is.
Student: What do you mean?
Me: Do you see that wall over there? Do you think that wall could exist for me but not exist for you, so that you could walk straight through it?
Student: No, of course it couldn’t.
Me: Do you see this floor here?
Me: Do you think it could exist for me, but not exist for you, so that you fall straight through it?
Student: No, of course it couldn’t.
Me: Why is it, then, that you think God could exist for me but not exist for you? Isn’t it the case that either God exists or he doesn’t? How could he exist for me but not exist for you?
The plain fact is that we live in a world in which there are absolute truths. Many statements are either true or not true. I may say that Southampton Football Club is the best team to support. And that might be true for me, but not true for you. But if I say that Southampton Football Club is going to win the Cup this year, that is either true or not true. Either Southampton will win the Cup or it won’t. It can’t be true for me and not true for you. That’s the way the world is. We don’t create our own reality, we respond to a real world out there.
It does not therefore correspond with reality to say that there is no such thing as absolute truth and that all truth is relative. There are absolutes. We are surrounded by them day by day, and we ignore them at our peril.
3. Does relativism work?
Finally, let’s consider whether relativism works. If people took their relativism seriously and really believed that there was no such thing as absolute truth, what kind of life would they lead?
To begin with, there are truths to affirm here. Those who take a relativistic approach to life have developed and emphasized certain insights which are obviously valuable. For instance, they have been keen to draw the distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘propositional’ truth. They argue that truth that is expressed in propositions is not as important as truth that is known and lived personally. There is much here that I would wish to affirm. Propositions on their own can be cold and hard, whereas we are real people who need not just to know but also to experience truth.
When I write the statement ‘Nick loves Carol’ in the sand at the beach, this is a truth expressed in a proposition. But it has an effect upon Carol only because she knows that I am not just saying it as a proposition; it is also personally true. She lives it and experiences it. Having said that, however, it has the capacity to be personally true only because it is also propositionally true. If my statement were a lie, no matter how much she believed it, she could never experience that personal truth. At best, she could have only an illusion. Clearly, we need propositional truth. Relativists move into an illusory world if they say we don’t. But we also need personal truth, which is that propositional truth applied in our lives. I want to affirm relativism’s insight into the importance of this.
There is, however, clear error in the relativistic position, which can be discovered by questioning whether it works. Relativists must face major problems if they seek to live out their creed. Let me give you two examples: in the areas of knowledge and ethics.
Once I spent a long time talking to the Principal of a sixthform college at which I was speaking. He told me that he didn’t accept Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction: he believed that there was no such thing as absolute truth. As I drove home, I began to wonder how on earth he could mark his students’ exam papers. How could he tell a student that her answers were wrong, since he believes that there is no absolute right or wrong? What would he say to the student who replied, ‘These answers might be wrong for you, but they are right for me’, or ‘For you the capital of France may be Paris, but for me it’s Bognor Regis’? In rejecting absolute truth, don’t relativists also reject all possibility of any absolute body of knowledge? Everything becomes relative, and they are reduced to talking about a consensus of what most people believe.
The problem becomes even greater in the field of ethics, since the stakes are much higher. Here we are talking not about exam answers but about people’s lives. If there is no absolute truth, there is also no absolute right or wrong. It all depends upon who you are, where you are, when you are. What could a relativist say to Hitler? He can’t say that killing six million Jews was wrong, but only that he believes it would be wrong for him. Who is to say whether it was right or wrong for Hitler?
Although relativism has produced some helpful insights, then, we can also see that it is actually unlivable. That is why one can never actually find a complete relativist. Even those who claim to be relativists base their lives on some absolutes. They believe that some things are absolutely true or false, and some things are absolutely right or wrong; they couldn’t live their lives any other way.
How did you get on?
If you have followed this reasoning with me, you may find that your worksheet looks something like Figure 4. Don’t worry if yours looks different; you may have thought of other truths to affirm or errors to discover. Also, don’t be concerned if you found this very difficult and could grasp only some of my points. You can still be effective in evangelism even if you don’t see the implications of all the arguments in this chapter. You don’t need to know how to subject relativism to the process of positive deconstruction totally in order to be able to help people who have adopted it as a worldview. Even if you have understood just one error of this worldview, that may be all that some people need in order to make them think again and be prepared to look at Jesus.
It is important that we don’t lose sight of the objective of positive deconstruction. It isn’t to fill in all the boxes on the worksheet with every single truth that can be affirmed and error that can be discovered. Rather, it is to understand enough about a worldview to enable us to awaken within a non-Christian a heart response that says, ‘I am not sure that what I believe is right after all. I want to find out more about Jesus.’ For some people, this may require a long, in-depth analysis, while for others it may simply take one comment. And each of us will be able to provide help at some level.
|Affirm Truth||Discover Error|
'all truth is relative' is an absolute statement
Can't state relativism without denying it
Some things true for different people
- opinions (e.g. best football team)
Some things true at different times
- take gun from bank robber
- lie to save people (e.g. Rahab)
Not true that there are no absolutes (e.g. floor/wall)
God exists for everyone or for no-one)
Personal and not just propositional truth
- need to experience and not just know truth
But what about...
- no body of knowledge (e.g. mark exam papers)
- 'wrong'/'right' for me
- nothing absolutely wrong (e.g. Hitler - right for him)
Figure 4: Positive deconstruction of relativism