You may wonder if you will ever change the world, but if you’re involved in a Christian group on campus, you have more influence that you think.
“Maybe Christianity is true for you, but it’s certainly not true for me.” “Aren’t all religions essentially the same? It doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” “We all make up our own rules for life; there’s no God, so why shouldn’t we do what we want?”
You’ve heard people talk like this. These responses are common in American culture today. Perhaps you’ve wanted to respond in a helpful way, to stand up for the truth about God, but were unsure what to say. I’ve been in that spot many times, and when I do respond, it often feels like the doors of conversation have slammed shut. Why?
These popular rebuffs to religious or moral claims fall into the camp of “relativism,” a way of looking at the world that biblical Christians find themselves opposed to. When we try to talk about our faith, people who hold this view often treat us as if we’re from the Dark Ages representing the Inquisition. We feel threatened and perhaps a little out of step with the culture around us. After all, this is the nineties, right? And the negative accusations and stereotypes that are laid upon us don’t help. Comments like “What about the Crusades?” and “I hate those TV preachers!” can maneuver us into defending the wrong fort.
Is there any hope for meaningful conversations with our friends? The answer is a resounding yes, since they have the same human experiences we do. But first we need to understand where these objections come from.
Meet a Relativist
The bottom line for a consistent relativist is that there can be no ultimate objective standard of truth or morals. We measure all truth and morality from within ourselves or, at best, by societal beliefs, cultural norms, pollsters and spin doctors. Because there is no God, say the relativists, humans are on their own to discern the nature of the universe and to figure out what’s right and wrong.
In stark contrast, the Christian view of God, the universe, people, ethics, and life after death is grounded in biblical revelation. An all-powerful God who is larger and greater than his creation has set standards for us and has revealed himself to us through the Bible. Christians appeal to (and must submit to) a standard of truth external to our own perceptions—the living God. When we Christians bring claims about objective truth into the relativist camp, it’s no wonder the sparks start to fly in our conversations!
While I was a college student living in the dorms, a floormate joined me one day on a street corner. I was waiting for the light to change. “I’ve been watching you,” he said, “and I think you’re very strange. No one else—and I mean no one—waits for the light to change before they walk.” Not wanting him to think that I was a goodie-two-shoes stuck in my kindergarten days, I explained that I never used to wait either, until three things happened to me. First, I had been struck by a car just a few months earlier while crossing on a “Don’t Walk” signal. Second, I was the one who got the ticket and the fine; the police officer didn’t buy my argument that everybody else crosses regardless of the light. Third, I had just run across a verse in the Bible that exhorted believers to obey the government that God has allowed to be set up over us (Titus 3:1)
Kevin was stunned. He shook his head slowly, searching for something to say, but no words came. Did he think I was nuts? The light changed, and we walked on toward our classes. Finally he spoke. “I’ve been taking dishes and silverware from the cafeteria where I work between classes. Are you saying that’s wrong? How can it be? They treat me like dirt in there sometimes, and besides, tuition is high here. If the system rips me off, why can’t I rip off the system?”
It was my turn to search for words. “Kevin, can I make two observations?”
“Well, for one thing, did I detect just a little guilt in your last question? Maybe you’re not so sure it’s okay to steal from the cafeteria. For another thing, you describe wanting back at ‘the system.’ But what about the people involved? Aren’t people—like the rest of us students who end up paying for stolen dishes and silverware—the ones who are getting ripped off?”
Kevin halted in his tracks. We stared each other in the face for a few seconds. His was growing red. I couldn’t tell if he was cut to the heart or about to tear me apart. Finally, as he turned to head for his classroom building, he muttered, “You really are strange.”
Was there any hope for connecting with Kevin? I think so. Later, as I was getting to know Kevin and others around me, I began to explore different philosophies of life (often referred to as world views) in order to understand how they compared with Christianity. While I was blundering my way through these awkward kinds of conversations, I was also developing friendships, and in the process, I gained confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the biblical world view. Now, years later and in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward Christians, I find that there are indeed several reasons for hope as we try to hold meaningful dialog with our friends.
The Flaws of Relativism
Relativism is one of those world views that, if lived out consistently, leads ultimately to isolation and despair. So most people live it out inconsistently, and much of my hope depends on helping people see this.
First, most people are confused by what Dr. James W. Sire calls the “fact-value dichotomy.” In Chris Chrisman Goes to College (InterVarsity Press®), he points out that our culture has been drawing a distinction between facts and values, a distinction that has been bequeathed to us by the enlightenment.
“Facts, as we understand them,” says Dr. Sire, “are certain, scientific, and public. In the natural sciences, there is great optimism about the possibility of finding out how the universe is put together. We hope for technical solutions to human problems, perhaps all human problems.”
Values, on the other hand, are viewed much differently in our culture. Dr. Sire goes on to say that “Values—beliefs about what is worthy and unworthy, good and evil—reside, unlike facts, in the radical subjectivity of a believer. They are not determined by reason but by choice, and since we live in a world where ‘God is dead,’ there is no limit on our choice… . If values do not come from outside the human frame, where do they come from? Since Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer has been that they come from the individual self. There is no external repository of value from which the self draws. The chief reason the self is seen as a repository of value is simple. Either God does not exist or his existence makes no practical difference.”
Dr. Sire observes that while a majority of Americans say they believe in God, their actions and their words on other matters betray them. The idea of God is indeed dying in our culture. So is careful reasoning.
One example of the sloppy thinking of our culture is the popular notion that all religions are basically the same. You hear this constantly, often from people who should know better.
One cardinal premise of rational thought is the law of non-contradiction, which, simply put, means that out of two or more opposing facts or systems, only one can ultimately be true. Every major world religion makes truth claims about the nature of reality, the nature of God, the value of people, the source of ethics and what happens when we die. Are all religions essentially the same? Hardly. The Islamic view of the person of Jesus flatly contradicts that of Christianity, and the impersonal, pantheistic “Brahman is Atman” god of the Hindu stands squarely against the personal, transcendent “I Am” God of the Bible. To say that all religions are alike is to violate the law of non-contradiction—and to anger billions of devotees of all faiths in the process! All religions are not the same, a fact obvious to anyone who has studied them. Most of the people I talk to haven’t done their homework.
An increasingly popular response to get around this law of non-contradiction is to say that the purpose of all religions is the same, that is, we gain a sense of meaning and worth by believing something—anything will do. But if you look behind this notion, you’ll see that we’re back to the fact-value dichotomy: religion is merely a value we choose, with no basis in fact. Who would want to hang their eternal destiny on a vague, self-chosen value?
How can we respond to people who want to boil down the world’s religions to mush? The starting point is to help them see that world religions are radically contradictory. Next, we can point out that the possibility of God’s existence also means that there is a source of goodness and a standard of righteousness beyond themselves. If God exists, then his truths and claims can be as certain and public as “facts.”
Second, we can have hope because most of our friends are “naive relativists.” They’ve picked up the glib language of relativism as a convenient excuse to live without thinking. At first glance, such language promises moral freedom—license to do whatever we want. But it can’t satisfy.
Consider our American culture, at once a beautiful blend of diversity and a horrific hodgepodge of confusion. At our roots is a heritage of belief in ultimate truth, but our books, magazines, radio talk shows and televisions pour out a “lite” blend of soothing subjectivism, just enough to keep us bland and guilt free. “Why ask why?” says Nike, and “You are the universe,” assures a public service campaign aimed at young people. These are just two recent examples of such a brew. But this lite assurance isn’t satisfying, especially to the youth culture. Suicide, murder, racial tension and the wars erupting around us belie the fact that deep down inside, people are lost and lonely. Only the gospel of a God who is absolute and good can bring good news to them.
A few years ago, I had a fun conversation about this with Storm Bailey, a philosophy professor at Luther College in Iowa. He said, “Very few people are consistent relativists. I try to show them that they do the very thing they deny: they depend on absolute truth. Underneath almost every relativist mask is an absolutist. If you were to slap them hard across the face, you’d knock the relativism right off of them: ‘Hey, you shouldn’t have done that!’ they’d shout. In saying that, they would have just acknowledged an outside standard of what should and should not be done. And that’s not consistent.”
In most cases, Bailey said, moral relativism—the assertion that there is no real right or wrong behavior—is merely a smoke screen set up to justify an immoral lifestyle. He doesn’t recommend slapping people as a way to engage in evangelistic conversation, but he does try to help people see that it’s almost impossible to live and communicate without constantly appealing to a higher authority of moral truth. “Even when people say to me, ‘You Christians are wrong to say your view is the only right one. You can’t judge people,’ I say, ‘Isn’t what you just said a judgment in itself?’ I want to help people see that their relativism is just skin deep. They’re constantly appealing to objective truth.”
Why try to get people to admit that they merely wear the label of relativism? Bailey told me he wants to dismantle the stereotypes people have of both Christianity and relativism. “When I’m talking with someone about these things, I want both of us to admit that we can’t help but appeal to ultimate, objective truth. I want the other person to see that they frequently operate as if there were objective truth and that I do, too. As Christians we need to make it clear that we believe in ultimate truth, not that we know everything about that truth. That’s one reason so many people despise Christianity—we sometimes come off like we know all the truth and leave no room for discussion. We have to start off gently. All we need to agree on at the beginning is that there is truth and that it’s worth searching for. People are really surprised when they realize I’m not about to stuff the gospel down their throats.”
A third reason for hope is that people have an innate spiritual hunger, and they often want to talk about it. In my work among students, in my life with neighbors and in the encounters I’ve had on airplanes and in waiting rooms across the nation, I’ve discovered that the best way to keep a meaningful conversation going with a person is to ask questions. Gone are the days when Christians can assume that people know much at all about the Bible, the gospel message or other religions. But there is an increasing spiritual hunger among people. I try to ask questions that will help me to assess where a person’s spiritual experience has led them.
When objections to Christianity arise, I often say, “That’s a very interesting point of view. How did you arrive at that conclusion?” and on we go from there. At some point, I usually ask, “Would you tell me something of your spiritual history?” and “Suppose for a moment that God is real. If you had the chance to ask him a direct question, what would you ask?” If someone seems to be using the idea of moral relativism to justify sinful behavior, I’ll ask “Have you ever wondered how God—supposing just for a moment that he exists—views your present lifestyle?” or (less threatening) “Where do you see your life headed in the next ten years?”
God At Work
A fourth reason I have hope for relativists is that I see God at work in the lives of people. One opportune moment came when I was riding home from the airport in a taxi. One of the other riders was still shaking from a harrowing flight. His plane had run into awful turbulence, and he had been sure he was going to die. Our discussion ended up on the topic of eternal life. We didn’t get very far in our conversation before we arrived at his destination and he got out. But the driver had been listening quietly. He was very open, and commented, “I haven’t met very many Christians who are good listeners and seem to care for people.”
God was also at work in my floormate, Kevin, whom I had left in utter confusion that day on campus. Kevin didn’t let our brief conversation about cafeteria theft die. It turned out that he had felt tremendously guilty underneath his tough exterior—not just for stealing from the cafeteria, but also for other deep personal sin. He had never really wanted to face it all, and had figured that his childhood experiences of faith in Catholic schools had no relevance for his adult life.
I asked Kevin if he would like to meet the historical Jesus rather than to reject Christianity on the basis of vague or bad memories. The other Christians on my floor started to pray for us as we began to study the Gospel of John together. Kevin was ready to wrestle hard with biblical Christianity, but it was slow going.
What I saw happening in Kevin reveals an ironic truth about coming to faith in Jesus: very few people come into the kingdom through rational arguments. Certainly, Christianity is a reasonable, defensible faith. And if the God of the Bible is real (and if he is who he says he is), he has a claim on our lives. But there’s the rub. Once God gets past our arm’s-length scrutiny, things can get scary. The smoke screen of relativism is gone, and now we’re faced with a choice: we can either embrace him or else turn and keep running.
Kevin felt like doing both. He wanted to run into the open arms of Jesus and receive grace, but he also knew he would be coming under the Lordship of the One who created him. So he stalled, holding off his decision with endless, picky questions. One evening, I asked Kevin if he was ready to trust Jesus for the unanswered questions. With a thoughtful smile, he admitted that he’d been evading the inevitable. Now, he said, he was finally ready, and he knelt to pray a simple prayer of repentance, asking God to take him into his kingdom, just as he was, questions and all.
Don’t Give Up
In his book Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? Dr. Sire summarizes well what I’ve experienced with Kevin and others: “Put simply, the best reason for believing that the Christian religion is true is Jesus, and the best reason for believing in Jesus is Jesus himself… . Christianity proclaims that God has made himself known in many ways—through the Hebrews, through the events of history, through the shape and form of the universe itself, through visions and personal encounters with God. But he has most supremely made himself known in and through Jesus Christ… . Anyone who knows Jesus knows that Christianity is true.”
Don’t give up on your friends! It will take time and patience, reason and persuasion, prayer and tears. But take heart: the Holy Spirit is at work, and your fumbling conversations may be the very seeds of the gospel he plants in their hearts.—Jeff Yourison