Mark Chan

Sowing Subversion in the Field of Relativism

Mark L. Y. Chan 01 Feb 2010

Mark ChanGlobalization and migration have brought religious pluralism—something that Asians have lived with for millennia—to the West. Singaporean theologian Mark Chan mines his experience as an Asian believer to help Christians everywhere evangelize those who have been blinded by the fallacies of relativism.  

The world has always been home to many religious faiths and ideologies. This religious pluralism has become more pronounced for people in the West, due to globalization and migration between countries. A shrinking world brings adherents of different religions closer to each other. We meet people of other races and learn of their cultures and beliefs through television and the Internet. Mosques, temples and non-Western restaurants reflect the increasingly diverse nature of many Western societies.

This is recent in the West, but in Asia pluralism has always been the order of the day; virtually all major world religions started, and have continued, in the Asian continent. In Africa the Church has grown up alongside traditional religions, as well as Islam. So the vast majority of Christians today live alongside people of other faiths. In this we are not unlike the early Christians, who proclaimed Jesus as Saviour and Lord in the face of the many gods and lords of the Greco-Roman world.

Like the early Church, we are called to embrace, embody, and declare the truth that God has revealed himself definitively and finally in Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection sinners can find forgiveness and be reconciled to God. So how do we proclaim the finality of Christ, given religious pluralism and the relativizing of truth claims that often comes with it?

Christians must learn to work with adherents of different religions for the common good, without compromising their faith. Some argue that social harmony can be achieved only if religionists stop making exclusive truth claims. The challenge to the Church is to demonstrate this isn’t the case.

Pluralism and the Relativization of Truth

Some former Christian thinkers have stopped proclaiming the uniqueness of Christ and instead have embraced pluralism. Whereas no one can deny social pluralism and the co-existence of religions in a descriptive sense, these thinkers have moved to embrace a metaphysical pluralism, with an acceptance that all religions are equally valid paths to God (or ultimate divine reality), and that no one single religion has the final word on the truth. In this, they unwittingly speak for Vedanta Hinduism. ‘Jesus is but one among many ways to ultimate divine reality, one avatar among many possible manifestations of the divine.’

This separation of ‘spirituality’ from any given religion sits well with our postmodern culture. The major concern it raises for Christians is found in its deconstructive aspect: its incredulity toward absolute truth, its rejection of overarching stories that give meaning to life; its relativization of truth. These have huge implications for the whole Church in her efforts to embody the whole gospel and bring it to the whole world.

The postmodernist says we do not have access to the absolute overarching truth; all we have are truths, stories constructed from within our communities with no external truth-validity. Truth is therefore tribalized. Since there is no neutral platform from which to judge between competing stories, we must put up with many viewpoints all jostling for supremacy and acceptance. Truth is whatever emerges from this contest. Thus truth is defined by power, and those claiming absolute truth are perceived as simply trying to impose their will on others.

Postmodern pluralists are thus suspicious of religious authorities and pronouncements. To them, the announcement that Jesus is Truth incarnate may well be a front for colonial imperialism, cultural chauvinism or religious intolerance.

The same suspicion applies to morality – categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are attempts to impose one’s view on others. Why should we accept other people’s definitions of right and wrong? Right and wrong become a matter of private interpretation. Whether people are experimenting with embryos, making money under corrupt regimes, or providing financial shelter for crooked business corporations, postmoderns have no basis for saying they are wrong. Expediency and economic pragmatism are given the last say: what is useful? What best meets a person’s needs? What best fulfils his or her aspirations?

Such individualism is ironic given the postmodern emphasis on community. Suspicious of authority and without any transcendent standard to guide, the individual falls back on his own authority. Truth is not only tribalized; it is privatized.

All this has impacted how spirituality is often understood. Those with a pluralist view of spiritual reality can feel spiritual without institutional religion. They are free to pick and choose religious ideas, to fashion a spirituality after their own image. This freedom is attractive. The alternative, it is said, is to be naïve, arrogant, disrespectful of other cultures and intolerant of other faiths. We are told that absolutist views only heighten inter-religious tension, exacerbate inter-communal conflict, and in some cases, even incite violence. To avoid further polarizing our fragmented world, it is argued, we must adopt a pluralist approach to religions and a relativistic stance towards truth.

What do we make of these criticisms and claims? How then shall we commend the truth of the Gospel today?

Commending the Truth

Knowing the truth does not mean arrogant intolerance. That is to confuse conviction with condescension, or rational disagreement with disagreeable behaviour.

When relativists insist there is no such thing as universal truth, they are holding to this as a universal truth! Thus relativism is as absolutist as the claim that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and subject to the same charges of intolerance.  The Christian faith condemns arrogance and does not condone an attitude of superiority towards people of other beliefs. To be sure, there have been bigoted Christians and insensitive practices in missions in the long history of the Church. But these are the Church’s shameful failures rather than what the Christian faith is about. Christians must be people of forbearance and humility as we ‘hold out the Word of Life’.

Christians are called to love rather than to tolerance, so to mirror God’s love for all people, including ardent relativists, sanguine pluralists and pugnacious atheists. In commending truth in the face of relativism, we are dealing with people, not just cold ideas. The relativist is a flesh and blood person with all the needs and longings of a human made in God’s image. More important than winning the argument against relativism is winning the relativist for Christ.

A global economic downturn or a natural disaster does not discriminate between a relativist and an exclusivist. When relativists suffer, it is rarely the soundness of arguments for truth that will draw them. More likely it is the practical care and concern shown by loving Christians. We cannot provide warmth to a cold relativism, but we can wrap a blanket round a shivering relativist.

Our common humanity is a good starting place to share the truth of Christ. It is in the safety of genuine friendship, where trust is earned and respected, that we may honestly question assumptions. Christians can learn to sow seeds of subversion in the field of relativism by raising questions about the adequacy of moral relativism as a guide for life. Can one really live without reference to absolute truth? How many really need to be persuaded of the difference between Mother Teresa and Pol Pot? Even when people deny God’s truth, it will prevail because it is coherent and persuasive: it rings true to life. This recognition is part of God’s common grace.

In our relativistic climate, it is easy for the Church to lose confidence in the Gospel as ‘the power of God to salvation’ and to back off from proclaiming Christ as the only way to God. To guard against this loss of nerve, Christians need to be seriously grounded in the truth of Scripture and the knowledge of Christ. So the work of commending truth in our world must begin at home – in the life, worship, and disciple-making catechism of our evangelical churches.

To believe in absolute truth is to run counter to the spirit of our age. We can expect to be ridiculed, ostracised and opposed. In this regard, we need to be reminded that the one who was Truth-Incarnate, whom John describes as ‘full of grace and truth’, became Truth-Crucified at the hands of those bent on snuffing out the light of truth. Yet darkness did not have the last word. Light pierced the tomb of Jesus and in the resurrection of Christ we have Truth-Vindicated!

Mark Chan teaches at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. He is a member of the Lausanne Theology Working Group.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)