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Fighting the Currents of Relativism Part One

October 11, 2015 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Riding The Rapids

Topic: Culture Passage: Proverbs 9:10, John 14:6

Riding the Rapids: Navigating the Whitewater of Today's Culture

Allen Snapp

Grace Community Church

Oct. 11, 2015


Riding the Rapids: Fighting the Currents of Relativism Part One

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Prov. 9:10

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 ESV)

Last week we began a series called Riding the Rapids: Navigating the Whitewater of Today's Culture. Yesterday our family drove to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and as always I was fascinated by the grandeur, power, and danger of the Falls. On both the American and Canadian sides there are signs that warn boaters not to go any further. One sign that sits on the edge of the river ominously says: Dangerous Waters Ahead. But what's interesting is that these signs are posted at a point where the water isn't rushing and raging - they’re posted back further, at a point where the river looks quite calm and peaceful. It wouldn't make sense to put the warnings after the point of no return, when it's obvious to the boater that there's danger, but too late to do anything about it. The signs are posted at a point where there doesn't seem to be any danger, warning that the currents are flowing in a very dangerous direction, in essence saying, if you continue going with the currents, you will probably die!

Last week we started a series I'm calling Riding the Rapids: Navigating the Whitewater of Today's Culture. Culture has been described as "the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts." Culture is the air we breathe, it affects our values, our traditions, what we consider acceptable and unacceptable, it affects the way we think, and how we view and interpret life. All that didn't just pop up out of thin air. It flowed to us from somewhere. We may think that we think the way we think because it's the normal way to think. That any intelligent, well-adjusted human being would think the way we think and see the world the way we see the world. But so much of it is a product of our culture and there are billions of people who think very differently, have very different values, and see the world very differently than we do.

The currents of our culture flowed to us from thoughts, ideas, and philosophies that started upriver a long time ago. Much of it has been very good, as this nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and those principles help establish the great nation we are. It was the Judeo-Christian influence that caused the American Revolution to look very different, and produce a very different government, than the French Revolution.

But there are other strong currents - currents that run in a very different direction than Judeo-Christian principles - that are having a major impact on today's popular culture. Most people, especially young people, have no idea why they think the way they do or view the world the way they do, they just think it's normal, but it flowed to them from the works of philosophers, teachers, and artists over the centuries.

Over the next two weeks I want us to consider one major current of thought that has had a major impact on our culture and our perspective. That current of thought is called relativism. Relativism probably isn't a word you use a lot, but you probably are well-acquainted with the thought process because it's all around us, it's woven deeply into our fiber of thought. Relativism is the belief that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, a person's perspective and beliefs are formed by the culture they grow up in and the value those perspectives have are only imparted by that particular culture. For example, lying might be considered wrong in one culture, but a good thing to do in another culture. There is no absolute or inherent good or bad value to lying, such a value is only assigned to it by one's culture.

Your truth might be different than my truth, but there's no such thing as absolute truth. Your morals might be different than my morals, but there's no such thing as an absolute moral standard. It's all relative. There is no absolute right or wrong, and anyone who says there is is arrogant, narrow-minded, and judgmental.

This philosophy can seem pretty humble and fair-minded. Who are you to judge? Every view is equally valid. Like Niagara River, if you go upriver, where relativism is just an idea articulated in a book or a classroom, it can seem harmless and peaceful. But its currents are flowing in a dangerous direction, one that has destroyed many lives and whole societies, and I believe is putting our nation's future at risk as it gains speed in popular thinking.

I realized I couldn't get it all in one message so this is part one of two messages and even so there's no way for this to be extensive so if you would like to read and study this further I want to recommend three books to you. Culture Shock, by Chip Ingram. Can Man Live Without God by Ravi Zacharias. And The Reason for God by Tim Keller. At points it might get a little heavy so I need you to try and track with me. I want to share a brief overview of thinkers that started this current of thought, and then consider some fatal flaws in relativism, and close by considering the destruction it leads to.

  1. Relativism began with the breaking away from God

If you want to cut yourself loose from absolutes, obviously you need to begin with the absolute Absolute: God. The whitewater of a culture cut loose from God gathered great speed in the 1800's.

Charles Darwin - his book Origin of Species, when it first came out in 1859, didn't make much scientific impact or get much support. It's paradigm of evolution actually had more effect on the political, economic, and historical world than the scientific world at first, setting in motion some massive shifts in how people viewed the world. It made a Creator unnecessary and it led to a popular view of everything evolving. It was a step away from God and absolutes and towards relativism.

Frederick Nietzsche - Nietzsche was a German philosopher who lived from 1844-1900 and he had an incalculable affect on the 20th century was 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who popularized the concept that God is dead. In a parable Nietzsche wrote a madman goes through the countryside mourning the death of God. "God is dead, and we have killed him". Nietzsche believed that by cutting humanity free from the limiting concept of God, society would accelerate its evolution from an animal to a Superhuman - the Ubermensch. It was Nietzsche's teaching in the 1800's that flowed into the devastating rapids of Hitler's Nazi Germany's pursuit of the Aryan super-race, resulting in the holocaust where 11 million people were killed, including 6 million Jews. Nietzsche's ideas also had a profound influence on Stalin, who exterminated between 15 and 30 million of his own people. Ideas always flow somewhere, and when they are cut loose from God, no matter how gloriously they might sound, they inevitably result in great human tragedy and end up on the junk pile of history.

There are many other philosophers who added and built on this idea, but few have been as honest about their motivations as Aldous Huxley, who admitted that being liberated from God and absolutes freed them to do what they wanted to, particularly sexual freedom. If there's no one to answer to, then nothing is off-limits.

So cut loose from God and absolutes, relativism has gotten a stronger and stronger grip on our Western culture. It's not just atheists that have absorbed this dangerous philosophy. In their book Boiling Point, George Barna and Mark Hatch reported that of those who said that of those who claim to believe in God, only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 of young people believed that anything was absolutely true. Our young people, in particular, are vulnerable to this dangerous current grabbing a hold of their lives while it still looks peaceful and harmless, while its just thoughts and concepts in a classroom or in an intellectual debate, all the while pulling them to a world view that holds great destruction for real life lived out in the real world.

  1. Two major problems with relativism

  1. It's completely unworkable

No matter what we want to believe or how we think, we live in a universe that keeps slamming us with absolutes. If you jump off a cliff, it really doesn't matter what you believe about gravity. There was a French tailor who in 1911 invented a combination overcoat/parachute (basically a coat with wings and a hood) and he decided to test it by jumping off the Eiffel Tower. I watched a video taken of him standing on the edge of the railing working up the courage to jump for about a minute. Finally he jumped off the railing. And fell like a rock to the ground and died. No one knows what he was thinking or believing as he stood uncertain on that railing. But it really didn't matter. When he jumped, gravity took over and his beliefs slammed into a reality that was absolutely true whether he believed it or not.

Relativistic ideas sound good when you're standing on the railing thinking about jumping. Once you jump, they can't hold you up…because they are suspended on nothing. Let me give you some examples of things relativism teaches:

There are no absolutes.

All truth is relative.

There’s no such thing as the truth.

Truth cannot be known.


If you're standing on the railing and saying these things they sound pretty good. But if you try to build your life on these statements, you're going to fall hard, because they are built on nothing. Here's what I mean: each one of these statements can't be true…if they're true. Which means they are just nonsense.


There are no absolutes…is an absolute. All truth is relative…except for that statement I guess, because it is an absolute truth claim. There's no such thing as the truth. Well, if that statement is true, then that statement is false, because it means that there is such a thing as the truth. Truth cannot be known. Okay, if truth cannot be known, how do you know that the statement truth cannot be known is true?


They are self-defeating statements, like saying “I can’t speak a word of English”. The statement proves itself false. Truth cannot be contradictory and what contradicts truth is false. So again, on the railing of a university class they sound wise and broad-minded, but when you jump off the railing, they can't hold you up. But there's another, less obvious, reality to relativism that devastates it.


  1. Relativism is arrogant superiority and hypocrisy dressed up to look humble and fair-minded


Let's take one example: All religions are the same. Or All religions see a part of the truth but none can see the whole truth. Sometimes this point is illustrated with the story of three blind men who come upon an elephant. One blind man touched it's trunk and said, "this creature is long and flexible like a snake." The second man said, "no, it's like a tree trunk" as he wrapped his arms around its leg. "No, you're both wrong," said the third man, "it's large and flat like a wall", feeling the side of the elephant. It sounds reasonable: every religion has a part of the truth but no one sees all the truth. At first glance it sounds reasonable, humble and fair-minded. But it's the opposite of humble and fair-minded. Consider it again:

Every religion has a part of the truth, but no one sees all the truth. We are all grappling to find truth - God - and each of us only gets a part of the story…

…except the one telling the story. He is not a blind man who gets part but not all the truth. He (or she) has a panoramic view of it all. From a superior vantage point they see what no one else sees: the whole truth. They exempt themselves from their own truth claims. No one can see the whole truth except them.

More than that, they destroy the very perspectives they claim to be accepting and demand everyone see things exactly as they do. The Christian who believes in a personal God is told that their God is the same in all important ways as the Buddhist who doesn't believe in a personal God. Both Christian and Buddhist are commanded to believe in this "superior view" of God and join the enlightened ranks of the relativist.

  1. Tethered to absolute Truth

I opened up this message by reading two scriptures. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Prov. 9:10

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 ESV)

These are absolute statements. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. That doesn't leave room for other paths to wisdom and knowledge. It's absolute and exclusive. Without the fear of the Lord you haven't even started down the path of wisdom and knowledge? Jesus actually ramps it up even more: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me. Not a way to truth or life, the way. No one comes to the Father except by me - that's offensively exclusive. Nobody comes to God except through me. Any other way, any other teacher, any other philosophy, any other anything won't get you to God the Father. You can only get to Him through me. Truth is absolute, and Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ.

I admit that that is completely arrogant and intolerant…unless it's true. Wisdom isn't about what sounds intellectual or good in a classroom. Wisdom is about living well. What happens when you jump off the railing of ideas, will they hold you up?

Nietzsche's life became a sad parable of his beliefs. Unmoored from a belief in God or life after death, believing that the Superman we are all waiting for is inside of us, he went insane. He lived his last years in an asylum. Not in spite of his beliefs, but because of his beliefs. Ideas all flow somewhere and wisdom is seeing where they are going before you reach the point of no return.

Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord because we need to be anchored to absolute truth. The fear of the Lord postures us in reverence towards Almighty God and thereby produces humility in our hearts. We aren't great, but God is. We need a Savior, and no Ubermensch is going to come along to save us. That teaching produced Hitler. We don't need a Superman, we need a Savior, and that, the Bible claims, is Jesus and Jesus alone. He is our Rock, our unshakable foundation, our ark of safety in the storm. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.