Postmodernism, Relativism and the god of ‘self’

I’m just going to say it up front – if your god is yourself, then God help you. Many people wouldn’t go so far as to call themselves the god of their own world for fear of sounding arrogant or even crazy, but the more I observe western culture in the present day, the more I discover most non-believers (including ex-believers) live this way. They believe in a god, it’s just a self-constructed one. I would argue that right now, the twenty-first century, in 2015 – the year of hover-boards and power laces, we are living in one of the hardest time periods to navigate if you want your life and your convictions to be anything but cold porridge (more on this analogy later). The twenty-first century has great benefits thanks to technological advances that mean we are easily connected, easily informed (at least on a basic level thanks to Google/Wikipedia) and easily entertained. Fortunately in the west we don’t live under oppressive political regimes and therefore consider ourselves fairly well versed in and blessed with freedom. Unfortunately though, despite this freedom we are in many ways selfish, stunted, slaves to a cruel dictator called uncertainty. Until fairly recently, even free/western societies held to core belief systems that guided moral standards, governance, logic and order. Not so today! Instead we inhabit an age of arrogance, in which a very vocal secular segment of society has thrown off any sense of objective morality and is determined to redefine right and wrong based on personal preference, effectively generating their own brand of ‘social responsibility’.

Growing up I was mostly into fast, loud Christian music. Punk rock, pop-punk, Ska and hard rock/metal. Bands from the 1990s-2000s on labels like Tooth’N’Nail Records and BEC Recordings were the staple of my music library all throughout my high school and University years. Throughout this time there was one band in particular I considered my favourite. I still love their music, but I remember when I first discovered it back then. I loved that they sang about the same things I was going through. They struggled with the same insecurities, new responsibilities and life changes, but their music really resonated with me because we shared a common foundation of faith that helped make sense of this (at times) crazy life. Last year I discovered the lead singer of this band was hosting a weekly podcast, so in true long-term-fan style I began listening regularly. Over several weeks I noticed some things that took me by surprise, not because I’m legalistic in nature, but because it flew in the face of what I’d heard them singing about for all those years. This person I’d seen as a musical role model now swore a fair bit (which he never used to do in songs or interviews), talked and sang about drinking quite often and to excess, advocated smoking marijuana as a reasonable lifestyle choice, almost mocked the idea of God while simultaneously and ironically quoting the golden rule (do unto others what you want them to do to you (Matthew 7:12 paraphrased)) and frequently espoused the mantra ‘it doesn’t matter what anyone chooses to do as long as it makes them happy and they’re not trying to hurt people in the process.’ In other words – you have your life, I’ll have mine. You have your morals, I’ll have mine. You have your truth, I’ll have mine – and all are equally valid (as long as they bring happiness to the individual without seeking the direct harm of others – of course in saying this people seem to forget the fact that sometimes our personal choices that we think only affect us can still have dramatic impacts on others).

This got me thinking, maybe I was wrong to see him as a role model. Maybe it shouldn’t matter that he’s changed his tune because ‘that’s just where his journey has taken him’ and ‘all paths are valid’ according to twenty-first century philosophical rhetoric, but honestly – it was frustrating! It was mainly difficult to swallow because he’s not the only one! Over the years I’ve seen numerous friends much closer to home take on similar worldviews, almost as if it’s a rite of passage to getting older – to the point where it almost seems that anyone who fails to renounce their faith-based convictions in their twenties and live a life based on the flimsy uncertainty of postmodern relativism is accused of ‘doing it wrong’ or is somehow intellectually challenged. Simply put, generation Y in particular have decided that ‘we know best’ (even though ‘we’ isn’t really valid because there are so many opinions and ‘relative truths’ that it’s hard to know who thinks what and who is in the right/wrong). In doing so we have exchanged wisdom for folly. We have stuck our head and shoulders above the wisdom of generations past and decided that our current way of thinking must be right just because we said so. To be seen as current, relevant and progressive, you have to be postmodern. To be postmodern, you essentially have to say that everything is up for grabs and open to interpretation which commonly leads to the assertion that truth must be relative, if there is no objective standard. This is what I mean by cold porridge. Sure it’s porridge and therefore supposedly good for you in terms of its contents, but in reality it is muddy, bland, un-enjoyable and ultimately purposeless. It is the same with the postmodern ‘progressive’ worldview of my generation, which proposes that the only way to be right about anything is to admit you could be wrong about everything and then ease yourself into the pool of popular opinion and ultimately argue against what you once held dear. It focuses on political correctness as a badge of honour over and above the concept of an objective standard. It claims that truth is relative, while demanding that people of faith must prove the existence of (supernatural) God using the (natural) scientific method. It claims that even when science points to God, it is better to believe scientific theories that cannot fully explain various phenomena than to entertain the notion that the Bible contains absolutes and that the greatest absolute is God. In the following video clip Dr. Ravi Zacharius clearly explains some of the issues around postmodernism, relativism and Biblical absolutes.

In short, postmodern, relativist constructions of reality make the people (collectively) into their own self-appointed god while demanding that the true God be put on trial at the hands of a judge called ‘twenty-first century society’. God will not be judged in this way, nor should logical people expect him to be, whether they are people of faith or not. The first rung of true tolerance for the non-believer is admitting that it is possible there may be a God even if they don’t yet believe it, but that’s another matter. John Piper, in his book Think: the life of the mind and the love of God puts it this way;

“Relativism poses as humble by saying: “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like a servant saying: I am not smart enough to know which person here is my master—or if I even have a master. The result is that I don’t have a master and I can be my own master. That is in reality what happens to relativists: In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, they exalt themselves as supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility. This is the essence of pride.”

Someone who says they can’t be sure of anything and seeks to primarily follow current (changing) social norms as their source of truth is seen as wise and well adjusted in our backwards society. The trouble is that when you apply this weak epistemology to concrete examples in life the wheels quickly fall off as Dr. Zacharias mentioned in the video above in relation to the aeroplane pilot. No one wants a relativist pilot, doctor or bank manager!

Of course many of my postmodern friends are intelligent people and would claim that they think through the big issues and come to ‘rational conclusions’ based on so-called ‘evidence’ (which itself is constantly changing). I have to say though, this begs the question, what claim can you make to your ability to reason rationally if you hold to a worldview that claims there is no objectivity? If uniformity (induction) and logic are not objective then the postmodern, relativist, self-worshiper can make no claim to them in their reasoning. If they are objective, then the postmodernist is faced with a dilemma in having to use something they don’t agree should exist to argue their case. Again, the wheels quickly fall off as even the most intelligent postmodern progressive attempts to use immaterial, absolute laws of reason/logic and nature to construct evidence-based arguments in time and space, while claiming that nothing is absolute, leading to the only explanation for their validity being a very circular ‘because they’ve worked in the past’. They admit that immaterial laws of logic and nature are required for life and meaning making, yet they claim that immaterial things don’t exist because they can’t be scientifically proven. This is truly a nonsensical cycle in which knowledge claims are made by people who ultimately assert that knowledge is just a result of chemical processes in various individual brains, yet society paints this folly as logical, well reasoned thought – as long as you can find enough web links that seem to agree with your position!

Timothy Keller, in a blog post entitled The faith to doubt Christianity writes this;

…the person who says, “I can only believe in something if it can be rationally or empirically proven” must realize that this itself is a statement of faith. This “verification principle” cannot actually be proven rationally or empirically, making it an assertion or a claim, not an argument. Furthermore, there are all sorts of things you can’t prove rationally or empirically. You can’t prove to me that you’re not really a butterfly dreaming you’re a person. (Haven’t you seen The Matrix?) You can’t prove most of the things you believe, so at least recognize that you have faith.

You see, part of what bothers me about the current understanding of ‘wisdom’ as essentially being ‘political correctness based on popular opinion and/or scientific theory’ is this contradiction in logical thought, wherein the non-believer has to make faith statements in order to make truth claims while basing their morality and theology (or atheism) in a world committed to uncertainty and the never ending loop of ‘questioning everything’. The more pressing issue though is the sheer arrogance that is intrinsically present in a postmodern relativist pointing the finger at a Christian and saying ‘how dare you advocate for your belief system, how dare you ask society to uphold the moral absolutes outlined in the Bible, and how dare you claim the existence of a God when you can’t prove to me He exists using a hypothesis, a method, a control group, an experimental group, a discussion of results and a conclusion? Whether you are a relativist, an atheist or a pluralist (who believes there are many religions and each has some aspect of the truth, therefore they are all equally valid because none can have the whole truth) your claims are often either misguided or arrogant because you are making truth claims that you cannot support, aside from relying on scientific theories as fact and using science to make the incredible leap towards “if science exists then God can’t”.

Again, Timothy Keller has nothing but gold on this subject. In his article with Charles Garland entitled Pluralism as Religious Philosophy they write;

A common analogy is often cited to get the point across which I am sure you have heard — several blind men trying to describe an elephant. One feels the tail and reports that an elephant is thin like a snake. Another feels a leg and claims it is thick like a tree. Another touches its side and reports the elephant is a wall. This is supposed to represent how the various religions only understand part of God, while no one can truly see the whole picture. To claim full knowledge of God, pluralists contend, is arrogance. When I occasionally describe this parable, and I can almost see the people nodding their heads in agreement.

But then I remind the hearers that the only way this parable makes any sense, however, is if the person telling the story has seen the whole elephant. Therefore, the minute one says, ‘All religions only see part of the truth,’ you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And they are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance they so often accuse Christians of. In other words, to say all is relative, is itself a truth statement but dangerous because it uses smoke and mirrors to make itself sound more tolerant than the rest. Most folks who hold this view think they are more enlightened than those who hold to absolutes when in fact they are really just as strong in their belief system as everyone else. I do not think most of these folks are purposefully using trickery or bad motives. This is because they seem to have even convinced themselves of the “truth” of their position, even though they claim “truth” does not exist or at least can’t be known. Ironic isn’t it? The position is intellectually inconsistent.

I believe it’s the same for the atheist. They often claim they can see the whole elephant. Some atheists are willing to stretch so far as to say that they are one of the blind men too, but this is coupled with the inherent assertion that they have experienced more of the elephant (or have understood it more accurately) than the blind man who believes in God, the Bible and moral absolutes, and that unless the blind believer can restore the sight of all the blind men and then explain to them the inner workings of the whole elephant then the unbelieving blind man must be right. It’s a stretch. It’s a faith statement. It’s also arrogant.

Now there is much to discuss regarding where our ‘progressive’ society is ‘progressing’ to, or if it is progressing at all and whether or not the things the secular world is advocating for are actually morally, spiritually and intellectually sound, but that may have to wait until later posts. At this point though it is sufficient to say that living this way, either by saying “I don’t believe in God therefore his standards don’t exist” or “I don’t know whether or not God exists, but I don’t really care – I’m happy following my gut (and those around me)” is fraught with peril. The claim that all truths are relative (and therefore we should go along with whatever is the trend of the day) is itself fallacious, based on the law of non-contradiction. For that statement to be true, it would have to be only relatively true not absolutely true. 

So what? On a number of occasions recently I have heard well known atheists like Dan Barker and Matt Dillahunty concede their inability to know absolute truth (or even know if it exists) based on their worldview. Where does this lead? Absurdity. What you are then saying is that anything goes, it’s all valid, but no one can live like this. Granted, our society is trying pretty hard to live this way, but it seems clear to me that in doing so they are proving God’s word to be true, as it says in Romans 1

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Romans 1:18-32 ESV

I do not quote this passage to bash any one group of people who are lost in this sinful world. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV). That includes me. The beauty of the Christian faith and of the message of hope presented in the Bible is that God offers us forgiveness and grace if we turn to him in repentance and in doing so restores us to true life in himself.

But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
Nehemiah 9:17 ESV

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Psalm 103:8 ESV

Of course, God can forgive the relativist who realises the error of his thinking and turns repentantly to God as his source of truth, hope, life and peace just like he can forgive the murderer, the adulterer, the liar and the thief. He can also can guard the hearts and minds of believers who struggle to stay strong in a world of wishy-washy standards, a world that actively seeks to make society its own god and commands believers to compromise their convictions and capitulate to the culture. As Paul says in his letter to Timothy

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:7-10 ESV

We live in a world where unfortunately depraved and relativist thinking is commonplace, but I pray that as society walks itself further down its current path to uncertainty, more people will see the total lack of foundational truth and turn from their trust in themselves to put their faith instead in a God who makes sense of the world – a God who is the very source of wisdom, logic, truth and peace in this life and the life to come.

10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:10 ESV

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:1-3 ESV

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32 ESV

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV

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2 thoughts on “Postmodernism, Relativism and the god of ‘self’

  1. Hi Craig, your thoughts are thoughtful and eloquent.
    I enjoyed reading it, and you certainly have given me food for thought.
    I admire anyone who has the discipline to explore faith, God and our existence.
    A few questions.
    You often reference how our society is backwards and we have moved away for Christian moral standards,away from God and put ourselves in place of God.
    I would like to ask you in what period of time and in which country has there been a higher level moral standard. I look back through history and i see no golden age for Christian morals, if you look at our history, we have always been rather pathetic at keeping up. How can we have moved away from moral standards if we never had them to begin with.
    I think humans have always found different things to make our God.
    If it hasn’t been a brand of shoes or computer, throughout history we have put country, nature, statues, celebrities as our idols since the beginning of time. I don’t think there has been a period in history where we have got it right, certainly in the bible the Israelites are always getting it wrong.
    I hear you talk about Gen Y, and i wonder if my grandfather would have said the same things you are saying, about my dads generation.

    In the end i believe Christians bring what they want to what they read in the bible.
    If you are a person who wants acceptance, you will go to the Bible and see a God that loves you.
    If you are a person who feels unbearable guilt, you will find a God that is forgiving.
    If you want money, you will find a God that entitles you to riches.
    If you are a person who is angry and wants vengeance you will find a God that punishes.
    If are a person who wants answers for some big questions, you will go to the bible and you will see a God who gives answers.
    We see what we want. I admit that even i do. I look for fulfillment.
    Everyone does.
    Even you do.
    But that doesn’t mean its wrong.
    That doesn’t mean what we get from the bible isn’t truthful.
    And it doesn’t mean that there is more then one truth.
    I think its just one part of the truth.
    You see a side to the truth, that i might never see, and vise versa.
    I believe God is big enough to speak to each person individually and too big to completely understand. So each person only gets fragments of truth.
    For example, if you give the bible to a bunch of different communities around the world, they would all interpret passages differently, this experiment has been done.
    Who is to say that this timeless sacred document; the Bible, is not speaking into each persons situation uniquely. If we believe in a God that lives and breathes and is with us, maybe God is able to reach across oceans, cultural barriers to uniquely speak to each persons situation.
    That makes the idea of an absolute truth complicated, but in actuality, quite simple at same time.

    .

    • Hi 100percentlols and thanks for commenting, I’ll try to answer as best I can below:

      1. In response to your question ‘hasn’t society always failed at putting God first, allowing their lifestyles to be guided by worldly trends and passions, while ignoring Christian morals and ethics?’ I would say on a big picture scale yes. No society has been perfect. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None of us can be made righteous by works of law anyway, even if we do try to live to the Christian moral code and you are right, the Israelites constantly failed to follow God faithfully in the Old Testament. Let me be clear – the Christian God extended grace to us while we were still sinners, and I believe the lives we lead as Christians are only possible due to the work of the Holy Spirit regenerating our hearts and sanctifying us to make us more like Christ by the power of the Spirit. My references to people turning ‘further away’ from God is an observance of a relatively short time period. Throughout history the Church has been extremely influential in society and in western nations like the United States, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and so on the influence of Christian morals on social values has been fairly consistent. Over the last hundred years though I believe there has been a societal shift away/distancing from the moral codes outlined in the bible, even moreso than in the years before that. This means issues that are now seen as ‘progressive’ (such as same-sex marriage, women’s ‘rights’ to abortion (to name a couple of the current hot topics) and so on) were not heralded by the bulk of society 100 years ago, but now they’re being trumpeted as the only way forward by many in our increasingly secularized societies. I honestly don’t know what your grandfather would have said, but I think the ‘baby boomer’ generation (despite some of the wild behaviour of the 60s and 70s) has generally been more morally conservative than generation Y. A look at church statistics over the last 20 years will show that baby boomer numbers have remained fairly prominent while younger people are more often reporting ‘no religion’ on relevant surveys. For some more information using Australia as an example, see this link: Who Goes to Church? – National Christian Life Survey

      2. In response to ‘Christians bring what they want to what they read in the Bible’ – I’m sure you’re right for many Christians, but that doesn’t mean that is the most effective way of engaging with scripture. Paul was a missionary, he wrote letters to churches in different places and he and the other apostles and disciples were instructed to spread the gospel ‘to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the Earth’ (Acts 1:8). When Jesus said this he didn’t say ‘and when you do, let them believe whatever they want – as long as they get the gist I’m sure they’ll figure it out somehow… maybe’ – I believe God has revealed himself and made himself known to us so that no matter what language we speak or what culture we come from we can agree that God is truth and that His truth is unchanging. I agree with your point that people in different countries will interpret some aspects of the text differently (granted, many of us in western nations may have trouble at times interpreting the Jewish ceremonial laws etc.) however I also believe that the core aspects of who God is, how we come to know Him and how we live in response to His love for us are universal truths that can be known and treasured. Ultimately God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9), so in our current state we see as in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see face to face – now we know in part, then we shall know fully (1 Corinthians 13:9-13). I agree with you also that God does speak to each person where they are at – I believe this strongly and agree this adds some complexity to the idea of absolute truth but also offers us peace in the knowledge that in all things God is in control (Romans 8:28-29). Anyway thanks again for commenting – you raised some really great points! I hope my reply has been helpful. If you’ve got any other questions, let me know.

      Blessings, Craig.

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