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Private Judgment and the Rise of Relativism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 10, 2011

To round out my recent discussion of Protestantism and private judgment, I think it will be helpful to say something about the strong connection between Protestantism and the rise of relativism. There are several important historical factors which led over time to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism”, and Protestantism unfortunately has played a leading role.

Relativism has grown steadily over several centuries from the skepticism about spiritual and moral truths that emerged in the 17th century. There were two major developments in the sixteenth century which led directly to this skepticism. The first was the cataclysmic division of Christianity resulting from the Protestant Revolt. The splintering of Christianity was sufficiently acrimonious, leading even to religious wars in the 17th century, that many people naturally concluded Christianity could not be a firm basis for public life, and that it would be better if individual Christians each went their own private way, without conflict. In addition, Christian disagreement about God and His relationship with man—including the demands He makes on our moral conduct—led to a predictable reaction: If even leading Christians cannot agree about Truth, then it seems that Truth is simply unknowable.

The second development was the extensive geographical exploration, and the resulting cultural discoveries, which took place during the same period. It quickly became obvious to Europeans that there were many diverse peoples around the world and that they were capable of forming even highly developed cultures (consider China) without benefit of Christianity. Indeed, in order to foster respect for the various peoples among whom they worked, missionaries often sent back glowing reports about the qualities and accomplishments of these peoples. This sparked a sort of cultural relativism, or the idea that different arrangements and social mores are perfectly workable for different people at different times and places.

All of this was exacerbated by the fact that most people don’t make suitable distinctions among different forms of knowledge and different cultural patterns. When key elements of their basic worldview are undermined, many people begin to doubt everything in that worldview. In subsequent centuries, the rise of empirical science (which had its roots in Christian convictions about an ordered universe) created a welcome emphasis on knowledge about what we can see and touch as opposed to constant quarrels over the unseen. This emphasis bore significant tangible fruit, leading to a doctrine of human progress without spiritual absolutes.

Throughout the succeeding centuries, it was not helpful that Protestantism was so influential in the leading nations and cultures of the dominant West, for the Protestant doctrine of private judgment is in itself a precursor of full-fledged relativism. At first, of course, this doctrine that the Holy Spirit leads each Christian privately into all truth brought its proponents absolute certainty in their beliefs. But against this certainty stood the obvious fact that private judgment led different people, with equally credible claims as good Christians, to different conclusions; and also the obvious result that Protestantism spread through what is called separatism, with one congregation after another splitting off of the family tree to pursue its own distinct understanding of the Truth.

In other words the principle of private judgment is completely incompatible with the idea that truth is one. This creates an unbearable intellectual and psychological tension. The initial outcome may well be an insular conviction that everybody else is wrong, but the secondary outcome, for slightly more reflective people, is the growing suspicion that there is something terribly wrong with our method of knowing, or that spiritual principles and moral values cannot be known, or that there is simply no such thing as absolute and unitary spiritual and moral truth. The inevitable cultural outcome is a pressing need to live as if what seems true to me will work fine for me, and what seems true to you will work fine for you. This is practical relativism.

Where practical relativism leads, true relativism is almost certain to follow, characterized by a deep psychological refusal to acknowledge or consider the question of truth, along with an insistence that the values a person should hold are whatever values make him comfortable with himself. In our day, this unbridled relativism has been transformed into subservience to the reigning group values, but that is a subject for another discussion. Suffice it to say that, given the mysterious ways in which cultural trends and even mere fashions shape our lives when we have nothing else to shape them, all of this tends to degenerate into the dictatorship of relativism that Benedict has so persuasively described.

My only point here is to trace the clear connection between the Protestant principle of private judgment and the rise of relativism. Interestingly, the war between evangelicals and mainline Protestant churches demonstrates that Protestants who have not yet spun off into relativism generally abhor it. But this war is very different from that between orthodox Catholics and Modernists. In the Catholic case, the orthodox are fighting against a corruption of their faith by the relativism of the surrounding culture. In the Protestant case, the conservative Christian is attempting to stave off an inevitable development in his own fundamentally irrational intellectual and moral culture. Relativism follows from private judgment as night follows day. Private judgment allows no way of apprehending the unity of Truth; relativism simply ceases to seek what so obviously cannot be found.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Justin8110 - May. 17, 2011 7:20 PM ET USA

    I don't deny baptism of desire at all but I do not presume that it is common either. That is what I mean. I certainly do accept that God may and could save those outside the Church but do not presume to know how many are actually saved. What I mean is that all those outside the Church are in a more perilous position than those within her, not that they cannot be saved. I just think that people today presume too much regarding baptism of desire that is all.

  • Posted by: tonydecker513018861 - May. 12, 2011 10:27 AM ET USA

    It is true that the rise of relativism started long before Luther, and he just picked it up and ran with it. Justin, as far as your comment about no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, I hope you are understanding that in the way the Church teaches. The Salvation of the Church extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church, therefore it is possible for one to be Catholic without explicitly belonging to the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - May. 11, 2011 10:27 AM ET USA

    The medieval philosophical doctrine of Nominalism constitutes the principle source of modern Relativism. As Dr. Ozment of Harvard has shown, medieval Nominalists like Ockham greatly influenced Luther and other early Protestant theologians. The notion that we can only know particular realities (e.g. Jeff Mirus) but cannot speak of universal truths or realities (e.g., humanity or humankind) undercuts the status of all knowledge of any kind about anything.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - May. 11, 2011 7:19 AM ET USA

    Surprisingly, Einstein's General & Special theories of relativity contributed to a general embrace of relativism in all fields. The paradox, of course, is that one cannot establish Relativism as an absolute truth without self-contradiction. But that doesn't seem to bother many folks. Odd, that.

  • Posted by: Phil_Homer7612 - May. 10, 2011 10:05 PM ET USA

    Well Mr. Mirus, that’s your point of view...

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - May. 10, 2011 8:09 PM ET USA

    In this sense certain conservative Protestants are our allies, at least as far as some aspects of the culture war are concerned. The ones that really have good will and are intellectually honest will, I hope, be led into the Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation either for the outside culture or for individual souls.

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