A response to Mark Chan’s ‘Sowing Subversion in the Field of Relativism’
I am grateful for Mark Chan’s article, which aptly describes our global realities. Working with an apologetics ministry both internationally and in the U.S., I resonate with much that Chan writes. In the U.S., broadly speaking, there seems to be disenchantment with Christian claims, and a somewhat hostile response to Christianity, fueled in part by the contribution of the New Atheism. It seems both right and necessary to mock religion and withhold any approval of it, as it might encourage believers to keep on deluding themselves, or worse, others.
Like Chan, I’ve also seen a moving away from commitment to the uniqueness of Christ. The American tendency to domesticate and popularize trends has led to a street version of postmodernism that is highly infectious and resistant to traditional apologetic methods. I am often surprised by what people mean when they say ‘truth’; it is often nothing more than their own subjective experience. An assumed relativism neutralizes most convictions, relegating them to personal-preference status.
What I believe contributes to this undermining is the value placed on ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ over earlier notions of biblical literacy or faithfulness. The issue for many is not, ‘Is it true?’ but, ‘Is it practical?’ Does it work? What is the cash value? On difficult moral issues the response is most often one of vague empathy, qualified by all the nonjudgmental considerations, leading to ‘It’s all so complex” (meaning no decision is possible).
However, the very protests against all judging are raised by those who themselves judge earlier, unfashionable, and, to them, implausible standards. What Chan describes, and my own observations affirm, is the permanent restlessness, suspicion, and dissatisfaction that marks so much of our current culture. So much makes us unhappy, so much makes us angry, so many things are wrong, and in the end our analytical powers seem to vastly outweigh our redemptive responses.
In other words, we seem better at fostering cynicism than cultivating hope.
I meet and converse with many who are alienated from evangelicalism; who are tentative about the Bible; who look on much of history with deep distrust. Their only remedy is the ‘conversation cure’ whereby (just as in our television talk shows) they invest vast amounts of time and energy in ‘sharing’ and seeking ‘resolution,’ only to end up deepening feelings of alienation, disagreement and confusion. We seem to experience a deficit of wisdom – the skill to discern worthy things and to act accordingly.
What suffers in all this, as Lesslie Newbigin pointed out many years ago, is our confidence in ‘public truth.’ As we reject any shared standards of evaluating truth claims, we are left at the mercy of multiple opinions waging war in blogs, chat rooms, and popular discussion forums. It leads many to seek solace in withdrawal and perhaps to look at it all with an exasperated ‘Whatever!’
Chan correctly highlights the outcome: a kind of isolated individualism that opts for a ‘spirituality-lite’ of do-it-yourself religion. If all authorities are suspect, then of course they are no longer authorities in any meaningful sense, and we have to internalize and personalize everything. All views, beliefs, and values are tentative and subject to tribal or limited loyalties, depending on the emotional benefits we get from investing in them. Truth becomes a mere metaphor, to be molded, adjusted, or adapted as society, culture, the latest study, or trendy preacher/personality teaches. We live in what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity,’ where everything has a short shelf life and tentativeness that resists any sense of permanence or assurance.
Rather than a clear philosophical shift as a result of well considered ideas, I think this relativism is a result of the triumph of the therapeutic and the convergence of market and media influences. Looking good and feeling good are the central driving concerns. These replace being good and doing good.
So what does that mean for commending the truth? We hear some speak of the end of apologetics. I beg to differ. As our team engages internationally we constantly meet with people with questions. When they are listened to, and when issues are explored in the light of biblical insights, they seem relieved that answers are both possible and real.
The great danger we must wrestle with in the West is our own loss of confidence, our deepening self-loathing, and our tendency to embrace a shame-oriented posture to everything in our past.
I believe in a gospel that is the ‘power of God unto salvation.’ I believe that despite many past mistakes, reforms are possible. The great God of the Scriptures, the God who revealed himself in Jesus the Christ, is at work globally and locally by his Spirit in ways that surprise and delight. I think it is time to stop deconstructing everything. We should put a moratorium on multiplying debates and instead invest our prayers, efforts and energy in new and imaginative ways of engaging people, of proclaiming Christ and the cross (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), and of being agents of hope.
Stuart McAllister is Vice-president for training and special projects in Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and a former general secretary of the European Evangelical Alliance.
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)