The Temptation of Relativism

Every one at some time in his life encounters the problem of relativism. It is said that our own time is characteristically relativistic, that we do not dare to speak of absolutes. This has its good side. We recall the absolutism of certain totalitarian states, which also reminds us that not everything is relativized in our century. We live in a time when some things are illegitimately absolutized. But still the relativizing of life is a profound matter, playing a role in the reflections and the viewpoints of the Christian faith.

THE LEVELING OF CHRISTIANITY

Not everyone is sensitive enough to be greatly bothered by it, but some are almost overwhelmed when they first meet the suggestive and intoxicating idea that the Christian faith is a subjective conviction which is on the same plane with other no less earnest convictions. This is not merely a contemporary phenomenon. It elbowed its way into the environment of the Christian Church centuries ago. It was the syncretism of an early age; later it was the problem of “the absoluteness of Christianity” raised by the History of Religion school in the nineteenth century. In the latter instance, the problem arose through extensive research into other religions, which uncovered a depth and wealth of thought and conceptions of deity in pagan religions. The sharp line between Christianity and other religions was erased, even though there was still talk of the superiority of Christianity. The religions—including Christianity—were compared on the same basis. The conclusion was drawn that Christianity was not the one true religion, but an example of the many religious currents, a special form of the general essence of universal religion.
This so-called essence of religion had, through innumerable circumstances, taken various forms, including Christianity. It may have been acknowledged that Christianity was a very special form, but still only one of the many forms which arose out of the essentially religious structure of the human heart. A religious a priori was conceived, to be added to the theoretical, ethical, and aesthetic a prioris of the human mind. In the varying circumstances of life this religious a priori was actualized and specialized into this or that particular form of religion. There was no cleavage between Christianity and the other religions. Scholars pointed to the strong convictions that existed in every religion, to common forms of religious practices, such as a defined way of religious communal life, prayers, sacrifices, worship, notions of immortality, and so on. It was said that we could not conclude that a religion is unique and special because of the existence of a specially strong conviction, since strong convictions prevailed in many religions, notably in Islam. Thus, a general relativism began to prevail through the comparison of religions.

THE LOSS OF ABSOLUTENESS

A clear example of this is seen in the so-called parliament of religions which was held in Chicago in 1893. There representatives of all religions joined together in the Lord’s Prayer. All religions were joined; none was absolute. From this resulted a sharp criticism of any religion which pretended to possess a unique character. Such a pretension was considered impossible in the light of research into both the various religions and the human spirit. Religion had been discovered to be a disposition so close to the essence of the human spirit that we needed no longer to be surprised at the universality of religion.
It is evident that in this conclusion we encounter what may well be the most profound question that has faced Christian faith. It could hardly be otherwise than that many would be deeply impressed once the results of the study of comparative religions were popularized. People would say: Yes, there is a Bible, but there is also a Koran and many other holy books. There is a Redeemer, but other religions also concentrate their ideas of redemption around a specific redeemer. Does not all this come forth from a single law of the human spirit? And, hence, is the Christian faith, is the Bible, actually unique? Such questions collided head-on with the confession of the Church. The Church was consequently criticized for trying to hold to her pretensions of absoluteness, a lost cause. The Church was not challenged to give up her religion, but to sacrifice her pretensions of the absoluteness of her religion.

THE LOWERING OF MISSIONS

The proclamation of the Church was directly involved. The message with which she had gone into the world was not an appeal to the special value of the thoughts of church men, but a trumpet sound, an invitation, a calling to the one way of salvation. Now, the witness of the Church in her missions to the heathen was up for question. This facet of the problem came quickly to the attention of the advocates of comparative religion. Troeltsch wrote, in 1906, that the common conception of missions had to undergo a radical change. It would, he claimed, be thereafter impossible to understand missions as a deed of sympathetic Chrisianity going into a dark world where salvation was unknown, to free the people from corruption and doom by conversion to the living God. Troeltsch supported the idea of missions, but suspected that much missionary effort stemmed from an overestimate of the worth of Western culture, a culture which other peoples could well claim to be unnecessary for them; they could find their own ways to salvation without the unwelcome assistance of the Christian message and culture.
One may ask, then, why a Christian, church should be established in the East. Why not just as well a mosque in Paris?
The acceptance of the relativity of the Christian faith naturally produced a crisis in the missionary consciousness of the Church. Perhaps more accurately said, it brought a crippling of such consciousness. It may be possible to maintain missions on a cultural basis for a while, but in time the elan will die. This is the more evident as the cultural development of the non-Christian peoples proceeds, making it less and less possible to establish missions on the basis of one’s own cultural aristocracy.

THE LESSENING OF MAN

This process of relativizing does not involve only the theology of the philosophy of religion. It involves man, who sees no way to avoid the vacuum of relativity. He begins to make comparisons of his own. An attitude like that of Pharaoh’s magicians begins to prevail in his heart. We recall how Jehovah said to Moses and Aaron: “When Pharaoh asks for a sign, take your staff and throw it on the ground before Pharaoh. It shall become a snake.” But when the sign was given, Pharaoh was not convinced. He called his wise men and magicians, but “the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents.” And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He did not see in the signs a unique evidence of Israel’s God. They were relativized by what Egypt’s prophets could also do. The special character of a sign was removed from what Moses and Aaron did. The sign was not absolute, but relative. The same relativizing occurs later when Moses and Aaron threw a staff over the Nile and the Egyptians did the same. But finally the imitation of the Egyptians failed to work. Then Pharaoh’s magicians said to Pharoah: “This is the finger of God.”
This throws light on the process of relativizing. The absoluteness of God’s revelatory action for Israel in Egypt became irrefutably clear. Subsequently God led Israel out of the house of bondage by His mighty acts. Israel was under the impression of this; they were not long under the impression of the temporary parallel between Moses and Aaron and the magicians. But this is explained by the fact that the parallel was suddenly and demonstrably broken. Perhaps there are those who say that it would be convincing if, in the midst of the relativizing of Christianity, there were suddenly a special revelation that the Christian faith is after all something unique and absolute. But as long as this absoluteness is not clearly demonstrated, they will remain impressed with the certainties, convictions, intimations of immortality, and reverence within other religions, which make them parallel with Christianity. Thus they are tempted to go along with the current of relativity, a current which erases all exclamation marks and replaces them with question marks. This is hard; for it is frightful to live while questioning the ultimate.
The question marks are not taken away with a new voluntary decision to attribute absoluteness to Christianity. It would be a stout-hearted decision to regain a sure foundation in this world. But it does not work this way with the Christian faith; Christ will not thus be served. We do not find our way out by desperately writing exclamation marks over the question marks. The New Testament is clear that faith in the absoluteness of Christianity is not a decision of flesh and blood, not even when it is a stout-hearted decision. It also tells us that the apostles went forth into a syncretistic world possessed of many gods, without question marks after their witness to the one Redeemer. But their exclamation marks were pure gifts. They knew that they did not have them because they could prove precisely and convincingly for themselves the absoluteness of their faith. Neither were they the results of raw courage, but of human decision. Nor did they go with a kind of conviction that Jesus Christ was a superior Redeemer, but one among the many redeemers who were preached in the world. It did not work that way. It cannot work that way today.

THE LIGHT OF LIGHT

It is, as it was for Paul, a struggle against flesh and blood, a struggle that only Jesus Christ can win for us through the Holy Spirit. There will be temptations to object to the idea that our faith in Christ does not arise from flesh and blood. It is not self-evident that we should seek our certainty in him alone, in the most exclusive way. Yet, it is in that way alone that we can overcome the temptation to relativize our faith. It is profoundly remarkable that a man may know and maintain this as a treasure, that Jesus Christ is not preached by us as one way, but as the way, and that we can find in him everything needful. Yet, this is the way that he walked among his own people. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He said this after Thomas complained that he did not know the way. Thomas looked for a humanly possible way. But Jesus turned his eyes suddenly in another direction: I am the Way.
The disciples had enough difficulty along that Way, and they soon had no more reserves within themselves to draw from. They left it all to him. But when the Spirit of Christ was poured out, everything was changed. “Now must everything, everything change.” And it was changed. There was a trumpet sounded over the world. And the hearing of the sound was saturated with blessing. From our human sentiments, we would rather first be convinced with rational certainty. We would rather first make certain that the sound of the trumpet is clear, and whether there may not also be other compelling trumpet sounds in the world. We would rather be certain of ourselves. But the amazing thing is that the further we go along this way, the further away the mystery of Christ fades from sight.
No one ever came to faith this way. The closer he may seem to have come in his search for proof, the further away he actually walked. He may hear the message of Christ, but he wishes first to examine it. He hears that Christ first asks his question, but he demands that his own questions be answered first. But as he puts his questions to the fore, Christ’s question is tabled. Christ’s Word and Christ’s question are not enough. He hesitates uncertainly, as did Phillip, who heard Jesus and was impressed, but still reserved a feeling of unrest and uncertainty: “Show us the Father and it is enough.” Christ answered: “Have I been so long with you and have you not known me? He who hath seen me hath seen the Father.”
Only presumption would lead us to say that we understand fully what Christ meant. There are many thick volumes about it; the Church has stuttered when it has spoken about the Son and the Father. It has spoken of “Light of Light.” And he who can comprehend it, let him comprehend it. But if we cannot comprehend it with our rational understanding, the absolute answer of Christ to Phillip still stands. “You have seen the Father,” Jesus said. The answer sets everything in a wonderful light. When John the Baptist, imprisoned, had doubts, he did not ask questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He sent his disciples to Jesus. And he received his answer: “Blessed is the man who is not offended in me.” A new benediction! Who seeks more than this, seeks something less. It is on this way alone that the problem of the way on which men need never wander is solved.

G. C. Berkouwer

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: