Thursday, January 19, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 8)

[Series explanation and index here.]


The Challenge of Relativism
a talk by John Piper


"[H]ow is the bad thing called 'relativism' different from good ways of thinking relatively?"

Piper opens with the example of saying that someone is tall. He points out that such a statement is true or false relative to some standard of measurement. So perhaps a man is tall compared to the average man, but not compared to the average giraffe. Tallness is therefore a relative truth.

Piper emphasizes that this is "a good and indispensable way of thinking. If you're not able to process statements that way, you will probably wind up accusing many people of mistakes they are not making because you haven't tuned in to their standard of measurement, their context." He says that it's important to ask "Relative to what?" to find out what a person means in unclear cases. Two people can even superficially disagree about whether — for example — someone is tall and both be correct, if each one's judgment is true relative to the standard they have in mind.

"Relativism" is a term Piper reserves to indicate a bad way of thinking that is marked by one of these characteristics:
  • There is no standard for measuring the truth of a statement.
  • There may be such a standard, but it's unknowable.
  • There is such a standard, but it's unintelligible.
  • There is such a standard, but I don't care.
Tallness isn't very controversial, so Piper moves on to the claim: "Sexual relations between two males is wrong." Two people can disagree about this claim without being relativists, he says, because they might agree on the standard "God's will expressed in an inerrant Bible" yet disagree on whether the Bible condemns sexual relations between two males.

At this point, I expected Piper to explain the second way one person can say gay sex is wrong and another person can say gay sex is not wrong without involving relativism: they could have different standards in mind. One might be thinking of the standard "God's will" while the other might be thinking of the standard "not causing harm." If gay sex is against God's will, but does not cause harm, then both claims can be true (just as one person can be tall by one standard and be short by another).

But Piper fails to apply his own earlier example of good relative thinking. He is accusing "many people of mistakes they are not making because [he hasn't] tuned in to their standard of measurement, their context."

That's all that really needs to be said about this talk.

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