by Richard Mouw
ecently I read yet another commentary by a cultural conservative complaining about the widespread relativism of our day. As a cultural conservative of sorts myself, I had some sympathy for that kind of lament. But I have to confess that I get a little nervous when people who oppose relativism start talking about the need to recognize “absolutes.” Not that I simply deny the existence of absolute truth and absolute goodness. But I do think we need to be careful about how we present the alternative to relativism.
I was helped on this subject by the well-known “postmodern” thinker, Stanley Fish. He was disturbed by the way so many people were insisting in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy that the horrible destruction caused by terrorists had finally exposed the superficiality of the widespread relativism in contemporary intellectual circles. After all, the argument went, the so-called “postmodernists” had been telling us that truth and goodness are relative matters; different cultural perspectives see things in very different ways, and there is no “metanarrative” that allows us to decide among conflicting claims to truth and goodness. But, the argument continued, it is clear that the folks who perpetrated the horrors of the attack on New York City were operating with a view of reality that is simply false. It is not enough to say that they see things from different religious and cultural perspective. That perspective is the wrong perspective—and the fact that it is such a bad way of viewing reality exposes the lie of multiculturalism.
In the July 2002 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Fish responded to the critics by insisting that he does indeed believe in an objective truth. “The problem is not that there is no universal,” he says; “the universal, the absolutely true, exists, and I know what it is. The problem is that you know it, too, and that we know different things.” It is important to recognize, Fish argued, that we are “finite situated human beings. This means, he said, that our only real alternative is to “just get on with it, acting in accordance with our true beliefs (what else could we do!) without expecting that some God will descend, like the duck in the old Groucho Marx TV show, and tell us that we have uttered the true and secret word.”
I liked Professor Fish’s case when I read it, and I was especially interested in what was for him a mere throwaway reference to God. We may believe we are right about things, he said, but since we have no hope that some deity will appear to tell us whose perspective is the right one, we simply have to muddle along in the hope that we are not too far off the mark.
Well, we Christians believe that there really is a God, and that this God does have access to all that is necessary to decide between competing interpretations of reality. And since we believe that this God has revealed some very important things to us about issues of truth and goodness, it would seem that we are in a much better position than the relativists in getting a reliable “take” on the big issues of life. This is a point, however, on which we have to move cautiously. It is also a basic Christian belief that we human beings are not God. Indeed, that is a very fundamental Christian conviction—one that lies at the heart of the biblical warnings against idolatry. This means, then, that we can agree with an important element in Stanley Fish’s assessment of the human condition: we are, all of us, finite, culturally-situated human beings. And so, like Professor Fish, we too are faced with the question of how we are going to “just get on with it.” We know that the God whom we worship stands above all cultural principalities and powers, and all truth is known to him. But the fact is that we finite creatures see things, as the Apostle reminds us, “in a mirror, dimly”; some day we hope to “see face to face” (I Cor. 13: 12), but that day has not yet arrived.
Furthermore, we are not only finite human beings — worse, we are also fallen creatures, a sinful condition that often distorts the ways in which we interpret reality. We certainly have good reasons then to be cautious about what we can claim to know with certainty. God alone knows all things; but we his human creatures are limited, both individually and collectively, to the cultural locations that we occupy in the larger scheme of things.
Once again, this year at Fuller we have had a marvelous opportunity to study in a community in which many different cultural perspectives are present. I hope we have learned from each other in our common quest to discern God’s will for our lives and for the whole creation. Fuller Seminary is a “dialogic community,” an arena for challenging each other to think more reflectively on what God’s Word teaches us. We have not yet arrived at the point where we are beyond the “mirror dimly.” But we are on the way together!