Maybe Relativism Isn’t That Scary

Modernism and the Enlightenment have been the favorite whipping boys in theology and philosophy for decades now. The notions of objectivity (especially in the sciences, but also in philosophy) and pure reason are rightfully derided as being fairly untenable in the post-modern age, especially after the turn in philosophy toward language.

Of course, the concern when this is granted is always that without a framework where we affirm that our language and thoughts directly link to reality (i.e., realism), “relativism” – especially moral relativism – abounds. This is essentially the fear that, if we cannot say with confidence that our language matches up to reality, the words we use to describe reality cannot be “true” or “real.” This further leads to the question of whether there even is an objective reality outside of the reality that humans make for themselves. And if so, what is to stop us from creating a reality in which pedophilia, racism, and economic exploitation are not only acceptable but good?

I think these fears tend to be overblown. We only latched onto the notion of the possibility of epistemological objectivity in the West because that’s the story that eventually won the day by the 1700s. We miss the fact that this isn’t the story the rest of the world has told about humanity and knowledge and what we can understand about reality. This Western framework might have given us industrialism and technological explosions and the age of information — but did it make us better? In the rush to be purely rational and gain all knowledge possible, we might have made ourselves more like machines, but did we make ourselves better human beings because of it?

Perhaps accepting our contingency and the fact that we are incapable of purely rational thought, perhaps affirming our social contexts and the subjectivity under which we have been placed, and perhaps understanding that our “knowledge” is bent by the lenses through which we evaluate information and rational argument will allow us to embrace humility and help us adopt a posture of openness to realities other than our own. Perhaps, by embracing “relativism,” we can become better humans and better Christians.

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