Relativism Ain’t Shit

One of the most interesting things I do is argue with teenagers. Or, better, watch them argue with each other and offer feedback from the sidelines. This weekend, the teenagers got into it about relativism.

The topic of conversation was the Confession of Faith–namely, how we feel about sin (hint: it’s bad). The Confession says, “As a result [of sin], we are not able to worship God rightly.” One of the teenagers objected: all worship is worship; there is no wrong way to worship. Which, naturally, led us to relativism. What if I wanted to worship God by sacrificing a child?, I asked the group. Well, the outspoken ones considered, if that’s how you worship God, then you call that worship. But, they nuanced–that’s not how the Christian God of the Bible would have us worship. God likes lots of kinds of worship but not child sacrifice (barring the ambivalent case of Judges 11, which we’ll have to save that for later). What about religions where child sacrifice is okay? The kids had mixed feelings, but one strong sentiment was: Do you. I can’t judge.

In fact, I’m impressed by their logic. It’s the same logic by which, the day before, they’d complained that their U.S. History was all propaganda to make them believe our country is always right. They understand, as Heidegger says, that “every historical statement and legitimization itself moves within a certain relation to history.” In short, they’re postmodern kids who understand the pluralism of human experience.

I like postmodernism as much as the next person. And my kids are brilliant. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say sacrificing your children in order gratify a deity is, in all cases, wrong. What I mean is: yes, the truth you hold all depends where you’re standing. But if your truth is to be any use at all, it must be universal. What I mean is: Relativism ain’t shit.

Morality is a system. If you’re not willing to defend the fundamental validity of your system (to make, as Kant would say, a categorical imperative), then how can your system possibly hold water, in your life or anyone else’s? Any functional morality runs on at least one universal claim, whether that is “do not murder” or “act always in love.”

The church, as an institution, still clings to the absolute more than it ought to. But as we expand, as we understand that our viewpoint is not the only or even the unquestionably most correct, as we grow our hearts bigger, we should remember: our hearts grow bigger because we make a universal claim. About love. About God. About redemption. About the way things ought to and someday will be.

Let’s encourage teenagers to question history books. Let’s also encourage them not to condone child sacrifice.

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