An Emerging Relativism

This entry is part 13 of 23 in the series Wolves in Wool

Religious Relativism (part 2 of Emergent Characteristics)

“Relativism” is the philosophical concept that a certain aspect of one’s experience is dependent upon another.  For example, one person may believe an individual to be beautiful while another person believes that same individual to be quite unsightly.  In such cases, the application or understanding of beauty is indeed “relative” to the person interpreting it.   In certain applications however, relativism is the philosophical enemy of the concept of “absolute truth,” (or universal truth) which essentially asserts that what is true for you is true for me, and it is true for people of all times and places.  While relativism exists in truly subjective areas of life, there are other areas which are not subjective.  While beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, arithmetic, gravity and  the mind of a sovereign God are not.  Some things are as they are regardless of the lens through which people attempt to view them.  To misunderstand, misrepresent or simply ignore that 2+2=4 changes nothing as to the finite and unchanging nature of its truth.

Religious relativism, of course, applies the same principle to matters of religious truth.  A common sentiment of the post-modern culture for example, is that religious truth is simply too big for any singular religious group to apprehend.  Christians claim that Jesus is the only way to God while Muslims claim that Muhammad is the prophet of enlightenment whose teachings one must adhere to in order to attain the knowledge of God.  Others have their own deities inserted into their equations while a growing margin are coming to maintain that there is no God at all.

The idea of no one “having it right” sounds both humble and wise on the surface.  Indeed, surely no one has everything right.  Even within the most narrow viewpoints of a singular church there arise disagreements over the nature of some doctrines.  But, to say that no one has everything right is quite a different assertion than to claim that no one can have a handle on absolute truth.  That “God exists” is an assertion of absolute truth which some choose to reject while others embrace.  One group is indeed clearly wrong.  Make no mistake about the very root of religious relativism:  it is fundamentally flawed.  We can’t all have part of the truth when we make claims which are mutually exclusive; especially at such a finite level as the very truth-claims concerning the existence of God.  Someone is plain wrong.

Religious relativism asserts quite a different spin on the legitimate issue.  Rather than attempting to promote one group’s religious views over another, the idea is that instead we blanketly endorse them all as being legitimate within the confines of those who practice it.  Islam is “truth” to those who practice it.  Christianity is “truth” to those who practice it.  All-the-while, both Jesus and Muhammad claimed to be the prophet which leads men to God.

Bringing the argument to the Emergent paradigm, I should first clarify that the assertions of most Emergent leaders is not a formally relativistic position.  Many claim to believe in absolute truth.  However, the teachings of emergent leaders seem to be at great odds with such claims, for while most assert the existence of absolute truth they contend that our ability to know absolute truth is tainted by our individual perspectives.  So, because the members of a Sunday School classroom can’t all agree on the elements of Calvinism, for example, they cannot assert to have arrived at orthodoxy.  Thus, the truth claims of all religions are marked as equally inconsistent and therefore equally failing to represent the essence of absolute truth.  As such, Emergents who are following the crumbs of this argument have almost completely capitulated to the postmodern mindset at the exclusion of the Bible’s own claims.  It is their position that even “we” in Christianity cannot claim to have arrived at orthodoxy; otherwise we would all agree.  The distinction between agreeing on everything and agreeing on anything is completely overlooked and/or ignored in this argument.

This position completely throws the baby out with the bath water.  While we do not all agree on many non-essential elements of the faith, I do not think God will be very impressed with our great advances in logic which presume that what He has given us in the revelation of the Bible is somehow lacking in its ability to point the world to himself. He has made what is necessary to know about himself self-evident.  If one believes the Bible as a trustworthy source of his revelation (as far as I know, emergents, among others, still claim the Bible as such) then one must come to terms with what he has made crystal clear.

For example, in the Bible Jesus states,

John 14:6 (NIV)
6 … “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As one who believes that we can grasp absolute truth, I see this as both a propositional and universally true statement; both of which are beyond the latitude of emergent acceptance.  This statement is exceptionally exclusive and makes no mention of Muhammad, Oprah or anyone else who is capable of establishing the path to God.  If one is to trust the Bible, one must accept this as a universally true statement; both for Christians and for anyone and everyone else.  If, however, one trusts the Koran, one will reject this statement of Jesus and instead believe that “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam,” (Surah 3:19) and that “Muhammad is God’s apostle.”  (Surah 48:29) 

Someone is wrong, and the issue isn’t a non-essential and lofty ideal which theologians ponder to one another in doctoral theses, but rather a foundational and static truth so easy to grasp that a child can see the difference.  Jesus and Muhammad cannot both be the singular mediator between man and God. 

Religion is thus, not relative; regardless of how charitable such a designation sounds.  Someone is right, and someone is wrong by the very merits of their mutually exclusive claims.

Brian McLaren is a popular emergent teacher and author who is on the reading list of possibly every leading emergent teacher of any self-respect.  He is for many the forward-most spokesperson for the movement.  Concerning Jesus’ statement in John 14, McLaren states,

“For too many people the name Jesus has become a symbol of exclusion, as if Jesus’ statement ‘I am the way, and of the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’ actually means, ‘I am in the way of people seeking truth and life.  I won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.'”  Brian  McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy,   Page 70.

Immediately of interest in McLaren’s quote is his attempt to undermine Jesus’ propositional “truth” statement of himself by replacing “the truth” with “of the truth” in his lax quoting of John 14:6.  We’ll examine the emergent trend of banishing declarative statements from the Bible at a later point in this study.  However, Jesus did not say “I am ‘of the’ truth,” but rather “I am … ‘the truth.'”  Jesus did not claim to be part of the whole of truth, as McLaren would love for us all to believe, nor did he claim to be “of” the essence of the truth.  He claimed to the embodiment of truth entirely; “I am ‘the way,’ ‘the truth,’ and ‘the life….'”  The Greek states ho aletheia: “the truth.” 

I normally study from numerous English translations before attempting to foray into the original Greek, of which I admittedly am weak.  No translation of the Bible in my possession adds the word “of” before “the truth” in John 14:6.    More importantly, there is no “of” in the original languages.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Jesus’ assertion used a definite article, “the” truth – ho aletheia –  rather than an indefinite article, “a” truth or “of the” truth- as if there may be others in the wing to “fill in” what Jesus lacked.

While this may seem a very small “tweak” on MacLaren’s part – indeed it’s only the addition of a two-letter word – it fundamentally changes the text to a more post-modern, consumerized use.  To say that Jesus is “of the truth” is a completely different assertion than to say that Jesus “is” the truth; that he is the totality of the embodiment of the truth, which is Jesus’ proclamation.

Continuing with a more decisive deconstruction of Jesus’ statement, McLaren asserts that Jesus does not mean that Jesus “won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.”  Did McLaren not read the rest of the text?  Is Jesus unclear when he statically states the opposite of McLaren’s postulate?  Jesus, in fact, made sure that McLaren could not rightly come about later and change his statement by clearly asserting “no one comes to the father except through me.”  Here’s an idea, Brian… the next time you want to change the message of the gospel texts (some time later today, I’m sure), try not to quote one that says exactly the opposite of what you are trying to teach, huh? 

Jesus absolutely meant that it is only through him that one can “get to God.”  He is being exclusive!  He is saying, “I won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me.”  This is the message of the whole of scripture.  Ironically, those who claim to be proponents of narrative theology are lost themselves in comprehending the very narrative they claim to be supporting.  Jesus is not “of” the truth, but he is the one who was prophesied hundreds of times in scripture to be coming to fulfill his mission of the restoration of man to God through his substitutionary atonement.  It is of Jesus alone that Peter states,

Acts 4:12 (NIV)
12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

It is he singularly – unique in all of creation – for whom it is said, “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone (Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, 1 Peter 2:7).”  He is the one who will crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15), the one who was to be called “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14), the one who will bring salvation to Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Indeed, the narrative of the whole of scripture points to one man alone as the way, the truth, and the life.  That one is Jesus. 

I understand the idea that “inclusiveness” makes people who have rejected the one to feel better about their own positions.  But, I wonder how Jesus feels that people claiming his name are referring to him as “a symbol of exclusion?”  How exactly can we relegate one who came to earth in great humility, lived among the very sin which repulsed his nature and then gave his life to offer as a substitution for whosoever would call upon him as “exclusive???”  How more inclusive can you be than to lay your life down for the world?

Clearly there is no problem with the clarity of Jesus’ (declarative) statement in John 14:6, even, and especially in light of a legitimate narrative approach to scripture.  The problem lies with the ability of post-modern thought to accept absolute truth as an acceptable end. 

While claiming that absolute truth exists, many emergents continue to teach that it cannot be fully understood with certainty.  In all fairness, they do present a legitimate concern, which is that there are so many who “claim” to have the truth, yet there remain so many differing opinions on what that “truth” is.  I have no issue with the sentiment that all truth cannot be fully known, or that “we cannot be certain about all truth,” but have great issues with the assertion that no truth can be known with certainty.  I do understand and appreciate the sentiment of emergent leaders in stressing human fallacy in the interpretive process.  Indeed, we do not all agree on certain elements of the faith.  However, the fact that we do not all agree does not maintain that we all must therefore be equally right or equally wrong, nor does it necessitate that the truth is incomprehensible.  Within the context of faith, I am certain there is a God and he sent his son (named Jesus, by the way) to die a penal substitution for the restoration of the world.  I am not certain about eschatology, the exact definition of “predestined” or to what extent my prayer may alter God’s course.  But I am certain that certainty exists in those areas of necessary substance.

However, the emergent mindset has joined that of its culture: no one can be certain of the truth- even the most elemental facets of the truth- sufficiently.  In a Christianity Today article, McLaren poses that orthodoxy is a historically unrealized possession.

“I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.”

While I’m not sure who “we” are from McLaren’s viewpoint (especially where “they” are “the liberals!”) it is clear that in his view “orthodoxy” is out of reach for us all.  He further states his position in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy.

Ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet.  Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture…I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimagined.  But at least our eyes are open!  To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.[13]  (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p.293

So McLaren finds himself not only attempting to reach post-moderns, but being fully immersed in their natures: attributing variance of opinions as evidence of a relativistic essence of truth.  In short, the truth cannot be known, otherwise surely we would have all agreed to it by now.  In two thousand years of history since the completion of the scriptural canon he has us relegated to having “a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong.”  Once again, I’m not sure who “we” are in his quote.  If he refers to emergents, I have to agree with him:  they have a couple of things right and a lot of things wrong.  Yet, from his answer it is clear that he refers to the whole of humanity; anyone’s “version” of truth is insufficient.

For all of humanity, demonstrable, tangible and even calculable truths have been “missed” or even flat out rejected by portions of humanity.  Yet, the assumption that because some people are incapable of seeing or understanding truth, then all people are incapable of grasping the truth is simply illogical and juvenile.  If this understanding is true, then does God exist at all??  For there are many who claim he does not; while others claim he does.  Is there any such thing as a legitimate “right” and “wrong?”  Some think such paradigms exist while others do not.  Or, more scientifically, does 12X12 actually equal 144?  Surely there are some who do not possess the intellectual capacity to know the answer.  Does this mean the answer is “uncertain” to the rest of us?  To be sure, I am oversimplifying their position, but certainly far less than they are oversimplifying their legitimate issues with human inconsistency regarding the truth.

While it is true that not all truth can be known finitely, some truth, indeed much truth can be known from the scriptures by those who put their trust in them.  The basic gospel message, while some will always disagree with it (indeed some will disagree with the very existence of the God who bestows it), is simple enough that a seven year old can receive it; just as I did at that age.  Within the confines of faith, which this entire debate is encapsulated, I can have certainty that God exists, that evil exists, that Christ came to be a substitutionary sacrifice and that I have peace with God through Christ.  Yes, we will always disagree on certain matters of the faith, but such disagreement does not negate orthodoxy to a mere dream in the many essential teachings of scripture concerning God, man, sin and salvation.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for those of the emergent mindset.  In the same Christianity Today article noted earlier, Kristen Bell seems almost prideful about her particular lack of certainty.

“I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,” Kristen says, “that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”

Kristen, I have no idea what some of it means, either.  But, please do not think that means that the entirety of the message is somehow lost in the more difficult parts, or that that which you do understand loses integrity because of your lack of understanding of the whole.

I fear that this movement is enticing our culture to a suspicion of the whole of the Bible from such statements as these of the Bells and McLaren.  If Christian leaders inspire the world to believe that the Bible cannot be understood sufficiently enough to establish an orthodox foundation in one’s belief, then the cycle of religious relativism will thrive among their very congregations.  Truth will be rejected in light of the more inclusive “wonder” of not being sure.  And God will not be impressed.   For,

Romans 1:18-21 (NIV)
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Scripture (which I believe to be comprehensible in essential matters especially) teaches that the necessities of the knowledge of God are “clearly seen” and that men who reject it do so for lack of willingness to accept it.  In the end, they will be “without excuse” as they stand before the God of truth, who made truth to be seen.

How sad judgment will be for people, some perhaps students of this “generous” movement, who will stand before God and claim “I don’t think you made the Bible clear enough to be trusted entirely.”  He has stated beforehand that he will not recant, repent and come to see things our way.  May we instead have an exclusive faith which will inspire us to see things his way; for clearly those things of which “God has made it plain to them” will be sufficient.

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