The great problem I have with moral and cultural relativism is that they’re only ever wielded in one direction. When we invoke relativism, it’s to relativize and thus dismiss those who disagree with us; we never seem to use it to relativize our own assumptions. Functionally, moral and cultural relativism are a cloak of humility to disguise tyrannical moral/cultural imperialism.
Many of the assumptions contemporary Western mass culture considers self-evident and holds sacrosanct are actually far from obvious, and in fact would be seen as strange and highly implausible by most cultures in human history. Gavin Ortlund is right: “Secularizing late-modernity is a strange, new animal.”
Of course, as he goes on to say, “Identifying the historical and global isolation of our culture does not discredit it. ‘Weird’ does not always equal ‘wrong.'” However, we should always bear in mind Tim Keller’s wise observation that if the Bible is really God’s word, it will inevitably offend and infuriate every culture somewhere. There will always be assumptions in any given culture which the culture considers self-evident and sacrosanct that Scripture flatly contradicts. To that end, it’s worth looking for those aspects of our culture which are atypical or even strange in the broader context of human history, to help us see where we need to treat our own culture as relative rather than normative.
Ortlund identifies three for our consideration:
- God is in the dock.
- Morality is about self-expression.
- Life is starved of transcendence.
It’s tempting to respond to these points with complaint, castigation, and nostalgia; but such a response is not productive. As Ortlund writes,
Gospel faithfulness demands we engage our culture with both truth and love, yielding neither to compromise on the one side nor escapism on the other. This means we cannot simply bemoan the encroaching cultural darkness, swatting at the errors around us with our theological club. As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry puts it, “It is not enough that the church should counter the values of the dominant culture. We must be a counterculture for the common good.”
In responding to these metaphysical, ethical, and existential Copernican revolutions in our culture, I believe we must work hard to establish the corresponding subversive biblical doctrine in each of three areas: (1) a high view of God, (2) a thoroughgoing notion of repentance, and (3) a transcendent vision of worship.
Read the whole thing. It’s more than worth your time.
John Horsburgh, Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm from the northeast, 1824, engraving, after a drawing by J. M. W. Turner. Public domain.