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The Dictatorship of Relativism Comes to Campus

We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

—Pope Benedict XVI

I first encountered relativism when I went to college at Yale. Before that I had lived in a working-class world where truth was a real concept. In my parents’ world, truth was something noble and beautiful; it was something that people lived and died for, like freedom. To be an enemy of the truth was to be about the worst thing there was. Since Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas—Latin for “Light and Truth”—I was eager to get there so that I could begin learning what truth really was. I was genuinely excited about the idea of searching for it.

But by the time I got there—in the 1980s—Yale had abandoned the outdated notion that truth was something real, something to be sought after and discovered and treasured. That onetime seminary had instead espoused a winking, postmodern attitude, in which the notion of a singular truth had been replaced by the relativistic theory that there are many “truths” . . . which is to say no truths at all. 

I began in my sophomore year to hang out with a group of friends who were politically and theologically liberal. They tended toward a relativistic view of the world, and I began to see things as they did. (Incidentally, this happens a lot in college.) Radical subjectivity was our guiding light. There simply was no right answer. Everyone was equally correct. We all had our own “truths” and that was that.

This was the very essence of freedom from constraints and rules—and it was completely undemanding. 

A Confused Idea of Truth

But I began to see that relativism really isn’t anti-truth. Rather, relativism is a confused idea of what truth actually is.

Relativists pretend that the only alternative to relativism is authoritarianism and fundamentalism. If you want to talk about truth—or God forbid, about Truth—they immediately attack you as patriarchal, like those Dead White Males who dared declare anything to be concrete and specific and historical. They will probably suggest that you have violent and oppressive tendencies. They’re sincerely threatened by the idea of truth. 

The quintessential illustration of the authoritarian and fundamentalist idea of truth came from a Wallace Stevens poem we read in class called “Dance of the Macabre Mice.” Stevens writes sarcastically about an equestrian statue of some military hero holding an outstretched sword. He depicts the equestrian statue not as heroic and glorious but as militaristic and oppressive. Mice crawl all over the statue and then dance “out to the tip of Monsieur’s sword.” They are light-footed and victorious in their battle with the dead equestrian hero. “What a beautiful tableau,” the poem declares with archness and irony, “The arm of bronze outstretched against all evil!” It mocks not just the idea of heroism but the very idea of goodness and evil. 

To the relativist, all truths are as outdated as Stevens’s statue. The beautiful idea that we are created in the image of God is also unacceptable. The relativist prefers to think of us as just part of a broad evolutionary continuum, not much different from apes or stoats or cockroaches. The child in the womb is somehow infinitely less valuable than the child outside the womb, and the person in a coma is far less valuable than the person who is healthy. The idea that human life is inherently sacred, at every stage, they find simply incomprehensible. 

As those examples suggest, relativists find the idea of moral truths especially problematic. To them, moral truths have no validity independent of the “values” treasured by the person or society that asserts them.

But as a Christian, I cannot dismiss the idea of truth as relativists do. Christians believe in moral laws and in doctrine. We believe in a moral order and in rules about how we are to conduct ourselves, physically and other­wise. For example, we believe that marriage is sacred and that adultery is wrong. We’re crazy like that. 

Of course, Christians do not believe only in moral laws and in doctrine. To treat truth as authoritarianism and fundamentalism is to set up a straw man. The Bible itself strongly condemns the Pharisees, who were full of moral rules and judgment but had no love and grace for those who struggled morally. People who try to turn the God of the Bible into an authoritarian figure who merely thunders judgment may rather quickly flip their wigs and worldviews when they encounter the figure of Jesus. He famously showed grace to the woman taken in adultery and did not condemn her as the Pharisees did. So Jesus was no authoritarian or fundamentalist. But neither was he a relativist. He said to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t wink at sin; he acknowledged it as sin and then he forgave it.To have only half the truth is to have none.

“One Word of Truth”

In his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted a famous Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Truth is the thing that makes evil dictators tremble; it is the thing that can never lose, that cannot long be suppressed, that according to Shakespeare “will out,” sooner or later. Eventually it must arise from the darkness and be victorious. Truth always wins out. Always. Lest we forget.


Eric Metaxas is the New York Times bestselling author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. His newest book is If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. He can be found online at www.ericmetaxas.com


Complement with Andreas Kinneging on how we define moral values, Dan Mahoney on the specter of "soft" totalitarianism, and Alec Dent on ideology over truth

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