Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 2

Relativism’s Flaws

It becomes very difficult to live in a completely relativistic world.…Suppose you are waiting in your car at a train crossing, and a train is coming down the tracks at 60 miles an hour. You know that if you drive your car out in front of that train, you are not going to be “relatively” dead—you are going to be “absolutely” dead. We can’t live by [a perspective that doesn’t acknowledge this and other clear realities].
—Dr. D. James Kennedy1

View summaries of all the articles in this series here.

We are discussing the importance of contending for absolute truth in a world captivated by relativism. Last week we examined why people are so taken in by this philosophy. Relativism has a great deal of emotional and social appeal, but it isn’t intellectually sound. Here are seven reasons why.

First, relativism is inconsistent.

We alluded to this in the one-minute commentary we cited at the beginning of last week’s post:

Christians believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, standards determined by the character of a holy God. Believing in absolutes necessarily means believing all opinions are not equally valid. Relativists reject this perspective outright, so they don’t really see all opinions as equal, either—but they pretend to anyway, using “tolerance” as a mantra.

An astute observer of culture as well as a skilled preacher, Dr. D. James Kennedy noted that students everywhere in America are taught that absolute truth doesn’t exist. When one teacher said to his class that no one can know anything with certainty, a student responded, “Are you sure of that?”

“Yes, absolutely certain.”2 

This defies all logic. No one can credibly assert we can know that nothing is knowable! The first law of rational thought is the law of non-contradiction, which says that a principle and its opposite can’t mutually be true. Both can be wrong, but both cannot be right.

Trying to defy the law of non-contradiction can exact a heavy price. Inevitably, relativism prompts people to assume things that are absolutely false, and sooner or later, reality hits.

One is reminded of the “unsinkable” Titanic. On her maiden voyage in April of 1912, this luxury ship hit an iceberg and plunged to a watery grave, carrying 1,500 passengers and crew with her. My point is not that the designers and builders of the Titanic believed the ship to be unsinkable because they didn’t believe in absolute truth; probably other factors were involved, including arrogance and “the best information available.” Reality doesn’t play favorites, however; it doesn’t care what elements make up the foundation underlying any false idea. Even “good intentions” won’t hold reality at bay. Foundations are vitally important because shaky ones give rise to shaky ideas and solid ones uphold reliable ideas. We need to see that because feelings are a poor foundation for living one’s life (also go here), relativism sets up one false idea after another! Relativists might “get it right” from time to time but won’t consistently. And yes, the results can be just as disastrous as the sinking of the Titanic—and even worse!

Second, absolutes do exist, and they are self-evident. They are in place and in effect every day, profoundly, yet quite often subtly, influencing the lives and behavior of everyone, everywhere, in all circumstances and situations. Every time a person looks at his watch, takes a measurement of some sort, uses a cell phone, drives a car, eats a meal or a snack, writes a check, or does any one of a countless number of other things, that person is relying on standards and principles he or she assumes to be reliably true.

Every time a person looks at his watch, takes a measurement of some sort, uses a cell phone, drives a car, eats a meal or a snack, writes a check, or does any one of a countless number of other things, that person is relying on standards and principles he or she assumes to be reliably true. 

These principles don’t always have to be extremely precise in every situation, but they are precise enough to rule out any arbitrary or random influence.

Sometimes absolutes aren’t this subtle, and in crisis situations they even can be extremely precise and demanding. Just ask the crew of Apollo 13, which lifted off at 2:13 p.m. EST on April 11, 1970, from the Kennedy Space Center. You may recall that this mission would have produced the third landing on the moon had it not been for an explosion that changed everything. When the spacecraft was 200,000 miles from the earth and 45,000 miles from the moon, tanks carrying oxygen and hydrogen exploded, causing the spacecraft to shake violently.

As soon as Mission Control [MC] realized the extent of the damage, those in charge changed the goal of the mission: Get the crew back alive! To accomplish this, MC worked feverishly around the clock to overcome obstacles. They performed endless calculations to make sure that their actions and those of the crew would enhance rather than thwart the chances of a safe return.

In other words, they grappled with absolutes! Here is a report of the drama that unfolded. Let’s examine just one episode from that report. The Command Module [CM] and the Lunar Module [LM] had to be separated before the final leg of the journey home.

How could the two sections be separated in a way that would place the LM far enough away from CM before re-entry occurred? Normal separation procedures were not possible because of a lack of power and the lack of the service module, which by then had been jettisoned. The SM had been badly damaged anyway. MC had anticipated this issue and had contacted Grumman Aerospace Corporation, the manufacturer of the LM, to help resolve it:

Grumman called on the engineering expertise of the University of Toronto. A team of six UT engineers was formed, led by senior scientist Bernard Etkin, to solve the problem in one day. The team concluded that pressurizing the tunnel connecting the Lunar Module to the Command Module just before separation would provide the force necessary to push the two modules a safe distance away from each other just prior to re-entry. The team had 6 hours to compute the pressure required, using slide rules. They needed an accurate calculation, as too high a pressure might damage the hatch and its seal, causing the astronauts to burn up; too low a pressure would fail to provide sufficient separation of the LM. Grumman relayed their calculation to NASA, and from there in turn to the astronauts, who used it successfully.

Again, MC and the crew of Apollo 13 had to overcome obstacles by wrestling with absolutes. Even so, the unyielding realities they discovered—and with which they essentially cooperated—became their allies in the effort to bring the crew safely back to earth.

Third, people everywhere benefit from absolutes in the physical world, whether they realize it or not. For example, gravity makes ordered life on the earth possible.

Here is what we said in part 5 of “Misinformed and Misled: How a Distorted Perspective on Rights is Leading America into Tyranny.”

With very few exceptions, it isn’t desirable for people to live in a world of fantasy and illusion. Mature people must grapple with reality. People need to eat! The bills have to be paid! The real world is messy, but it is the one we live in—yet it’s also the one in which we can find fulfillment and satisfaction, if we adjust to life’s demands and cooperate with its realities.

The law of gravity provides a great example. No one can step out of a 10th story window and expect to go anywhere but down, and fast! Gravity prevents us from safely doing a great number of things. Yet when we cooperate with it, we benefit immensely. Why? In a great many ways, gravity, which is part of “the natural order of things,” makes ordered life on earth possible.

Marriage, as humanity has understood it for centuries, is very much like gravity in this regard. When a society respects marriage as an institution uniting one man and one woman in a committed, lifelong relationship, it’s clear that it limits that society in certain ways. Perhaps it’s not as clear that it liberates it in many more! Clear or not, this is the truth!

This affirmation about marriage reflects our fourth principle: Absolutes exist in the moral realm, just as they do in the physical realm. Proof of their existence may not be as convincing initially as proof of absolutes in the physical realm, but evidence still abounds.

Charles Colson, who converted to Christianity in the throes of Watergate, became an articulate defender of the Christian faith and of absolute truth. Once a TV host who had completed an interview with him told him how frustrated he was with Christians. “You’re absolutists,” he said. “You’re trying to impose your views on others.”

Colson tried to explain that believing in absolutes doesn’t make an individual an absolutist, and that a great many benefits come from a belief in absolute truth—but he was getting nowhere. Then he recalled that the man loved sailing. “Have you ever been out in your boat at night, under a cloudless sky, and used the stars to determine your direction?” The man answered that he had. Colson added, “Suppose for just a moment the stars had no reliable order, that one night they were positioned in one pattern across the night sky and the next night they were totally rearranged. Could you navigate then?”

“No,” said the TV host, “of course I couldn’t.” The tone of his voice let Colson know he just might have gotten through. Just as the set and unyielding pattern of the stars can prevent an experienced sailor from getting lost at sea, the moral map made up of absolute, unyielding principles can keep a person from making a great many perilous turns in life. 

Just as the set and unyielding pattern of the stars can prevent an experienced sailor from getting lost at sea, the moral map made up of absolute, unyielding principles can keep a person from making a great many perilous turns in life. 

Now, imagine now that you are a “fly on the wall” in the office of Pastor Matt Thomas as he talks to Alan Wilson, a college freshman in his church. You can read Alan’s story and an account of the conversation between Alan and his pastor here. This account sheds even more light on the nature of absolute truth. Here is the concluding paragraph.

Matt went on to point out that those who say they don’t believe in right and wrong actually don’t live that way. They may say absolute truth doesn’t exist, but if someone steals from them, they will be the first ones to appeal to a standard, and on the basis of that standard, object. “All people,” said Matt, “appeal to various values and standards, even if they never realize they are doing so. Innately, each person has a standard of fairness he or she is quick to advocate.”

The last point pastor Matt made in the report is our fifth. People—even those who claim to be relativists—appeal to absolutes in the moral realm, especially when they feel their own rights have been violated.

If relativism were true, then the Watergate scandal wouldn’t have mattered, would it? Yet even today, nearly 45 years later, almost no one would suggest that the lawbreakers shouldn’t have been prosecuted. Dr. Mark Corts, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at the time, wrote about the scandal in the May 2, 1973 edition of the church’s weekly newsletter. Even though Dr. Corts understandably used “Christian terms” like commandments and sin, his point about the importance of a moral foundation should demonstrate even to relativists that their prize philosophy robs everyone—not just Christians—of benefits only moral absolutes can offer.

The President [Nixon] is trying to clean house. Yesterday four staff resignations were accepted and the President has pledged that the guilty parties will be brought to justice. Sin does have a way of finding us out and this has been demonstrated in no more vivid way than the Watergate affair.…

In the end, greed or covetousness is the king of sins. The last of the commandments was intended to summarize all the rest which Moses gave. But in the final analysis, greed, bald covetousness is at the bottom of all sin. It is an expression of man challenging God, to get what he wants instead of what God wants for him, and to get it at any cost. It was totally unnecessary for the masterminds behind the President’s re-election campaign to bug the Democratic headquarters, for right near the whole country knew the outcome of the election already, including probably McGovern. Why then did those political dock workers do what they did? I believe they did it because of greed, covetousness. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Feeling the end justifies the means, they felt “the other side” were enemies of the republic. And in their misguided zeal, they became what they were fighting, enemies of the republic. For if we cannot have some moral base in our political system, [no foundation will exist] for the American people to express their feelings, exercise their rights, and share in the selection of their leaders. Everyone [sic] of us has something to learn from this experience. The moral lessons for us seem to be abounding everywhere in public life. But then what else can we expect in a world that had become morally schizophrenic, with no absolute standards, and each man “doing what is right in his own sight”?

Also, consider this. Who, even today, would oppose Dr. Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader whom we honor this coming Monday and every year on or near his birthday? King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail about how an otherwise law-abiding citizen could legitimately advocate breaking some laws, even as he or she obeyed others. King explained that “there are two kinds of laws: just laws…and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Here Dr. King not only acknowledged the existence of absolute truth; he also affirmed its authority.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. affirmed both the existence and authority of absolute truth.

On a personal level as well, people, even those who claim they don’t believe in God, inevitably will appeal to a standard of right and wrong whenever they feel their own personal rights have been violated. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis astutely observed,

Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong—in other words, if there is no Law of Nature—what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

Sixth, it’s clear, therefore, that people know innately that absolute truth exists.

If relativism were true and absolute truth were not real, people would not even need to be told absolutes don’t exist! Something deep inside the human spirit, however, says they do, and people listen to these inside voices. Individuals reveal this on a daily basis with both their words and actions, as we have seen. Scripture says the law is “written in their hearts.”

We began by saying that relativism is inconsistent. To this principle we now add elements that make up our seventh point. We have seen the evidence for these elements throughout this post. Relativism is inconsistent—so much so that it collapses under its own weight. It does not work in the real world.

Unfortunately, the elements that entice people to affirm relativism also act to blind them to its inconsistencies and failures. On this point, advocates of absolute truth must be relentless in helping people see what really is happening.

We summarize our post today with these statements from a previous article.

The natural world gives us a window into the unchanging nature of God and therefore the unchanging nature of morality—right and wrong. Truth is like the law of gravity. It is not something that is negotiable, nor is it something that can be invented by each person. Instead, it is observable. It also is discovered, and it applies to everyone at all times and in all places. Adjusting ourselves to accept and conform to the realities we discover paves the way for fulfillment and happiness in life.

Next week, we’ll examine some of the destruction and devastation relativism and its philosophical ancestor, evolution, have caused.

Stay tuned!

Part 3 is available here.

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.


1Jerry Newcombe, compiler, The Wit and Wisdom of D. James Kennedy, (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Truth in Action Ministries, 2013), 1-2.

2Ibid., 1.

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