Tim Keller: The Dogmatism of Religious Relativism

19 12 2011

There’s nothing here that Leslie Newbiggin didn’t say fifty years ago. But Keller has an easy manner about him that makes him compelling to his audiences. If you’ve never been introduced to the points below the the religious dogmatism of relativism, then you should slow down and take it in.

About every other week, I confront popular pluralist notions that have become a large part of the way Americans think. For example, pluralists contend that no one religion can know the fullness of spiritual truth, therefore all religions are valid. But while it is good to acknowledge our limitations, this statement is itself a strong assertion about the nature of spiritual truth. A common analogy is often cited to get the point across which I am sure you have heard — several blind men trying to describe an elephant. One feels the tail and reports that an elephant is thin like a snake. Another feels a leg and claims it is thick like a tree. Another touches its side and reports the elephant is a wall. This is supposed to represent how the various religions only understand part of God, while no one can truly see the whole picture. To claim full knowledge of God, pluralists contend, is arrogance. When I occasionally describe this parable, and I can almost see the people nodding their heads in agreement.

But then I remind the hearers that the only way this parable makes any sense, however, is if the person telling the story has seen the whole elephant. Therefore, the minute one says, ‘All religions only see part of the truth,’ you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And they are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance they so often accuse Christians of. In other words, to say all is relative, is itself a truth statement but dangerous because it uses smoke and mirrors to make itself sound more tolerant than the rest. Most folks who hold this view think they are more enlightened than those who hold to absolutes when in fact they are really just as strong in their belief system as everyone else. I do not think most of these folks are purposefully using trickery or bad motives. This is because they seem to have even convinced themselves of the “truth” of their position, even though they claim “truth” does not exist or at least can’t be known. Ironic isn’t it? The position is intellectually inconsistent.

In its pure form Pluralism is a fact. It’s not an opinion or a belief or a religion. In other words, not every one believes the same things. We live in a society that’s very diverse, not just ethnically, but also religiously. But when pluralism starts to become a philosophy, when it starts to become a religious dogma, then it becomes a different animal. And that’s what I want to call relativism — or religious relativism, philosophical pluralism. It goes by different names but that is the dogmatic religious assertion that all religions are basically the same, that no one knows the truth about God. And no one can know the ultimate truth about God in a way that invalidates other peoples’ religious opinions and the belief that it’s arrogant to say that you have the truth religiously and it is arrogant to try to persuade other people to believe what you believe religiously. That’s relativism, philosophical pluralism. And I would say that’s the default belief of most people you run into in our city.– whether they’re religious or not, most people think about religion that way.

Here is what I want to urge on you and try to unpack in several ways. And that is that relativism is itself a religious belief. It is a dogma. Relativism is. It has affirmations and denials and a missionary force. One of the affirmations of relativism is that God is ultimately unknowable. No one can know the truth about God. But how do one know that to be true? This assumes an ultimate understanding of spiritual reality. All religions are ultimately the same. All religions are following a path to God. It doesn’t matter how you believe, it matters how you live. Do you see this? Those are religious statements. Those are matters of religious beliefs, dogma. Doctrines! If people say, “No, I’m not religious. I’m saying you can’t know. I’m saying, Nobody can know the truth about God. I’m not claiming that I’ve got a corner on it.” But if you look at it closely, the statements of religious relativism are every bit as dogmatic as the statements of the Koran or the Bible. It’s a religious dogma.

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