If there was ever a time when relativism could be treated as a reductio ad absurdum, a self-defeating principle, that time has long since passed. In fact, the post-modern age could be considered as the very opposite of such a time. The very essence, it seems to me, of the prevalent (philosophical) attitude of today is a revulsion from, or perhaps even a total ignorance of the objectivity of truth. I will try to describe what this means in a moment. Relativism can only be a reductio ad absurdum if two things are believed to be true: first, that truth is knowable; second, that truth ought to be the principle of action. Neither of these things are felt by the world, nor does their loss seem to summon up much guilt, though perhaps it is fair to say that there is no end to the angst that the world is capable of feeling.

What is relativism? What is it opposed to? If it must be opposed to a concept, another -ism, we can say it is opposed to fundamentalism, or the belief that one or more creeds contain certain undeniable truths which must form the foundation of any human life which hopes to be free and good and happy. At the root of fundamentalism as a philosophy (putting aside for the sake of simplicity specific religious movements that may be characterized as fundamental or fundamentalist) is a kind of trust in authority. I mean this word in its fullest and original sense. A fundamentalist believes that things are authored and that they are therefore governed; that the freedoms of things are defined by their natures; that there is a governing principle of some kind (viz., God); and that therefore there is a kind of law which has an essentially moral character. To put this in another way: the fundamentalist means by truth a standard of comparison between ways of living whereby we are empowered to call one better than another. That our world is fundamentally opposed to this idea may be seen at once in the fact that this statement is “politically incorrect.” It was politically correct for a brief time when America was faced with the brutal consequences of the ideology of terror on September 11th. This feeling, however, did not outlast the ideology.

Relativism refuses the basic principles of fundamentalism. Truth is not a standard, they say: it is a feeling. It is not a value judgment (good, evil, better, worse); in fact, it can never be allowed to be a value judgment, since this will lead to conflicts for the sake of truth; and such conflicts are no longer palatable. Put in its best light, relativism is the philosophy of coexistence. It is an attempt to facilitate peace by celebrating differences. This, moreover, is its attitude precisely since fundamentalism seems ever prepared to draw a line in the sand after which it will prefer conflict to the violation of its principles. As a reaction to this, relativism is not only the philosophy of coexistence: it is the philosophy of coexistence at any cost. Whereas fundamentalism will sacrifice peace for the sake of principles, relativism will sacrifice principles for the sake of peace.

Is relativism compatible with Christianity? Let us, in the spirit of fairness, suppose for a moment that it is. This experiment by no means requires a stretch of the imagination, since the relativization of Christianity has been the very project of modernity. I will, for the moment, not even appeal to Scripture, since to allow it any kind of authority is to give up the game already. However, for the same reason, I will not take up relativism’s reduction of truth to a certain value-less relation of things.

If Christianity is relativistic, we cannot call it “better” than another religion. It can have no claims to “authenticity” or even “accuracy,” although it can be allowed a certain regional nostalgia whereby it can justify its peculiar practices and beliefs. Whatever rules or laws are acknowledged by Christianity must not be understood as normative, but as the methods of self-creation preferred by those who adhere to them. They are only as valid as they are made to be by a person’s identification with them. So, for example, if someone should choose to abstain from meat on a certain day for a certain reason, let him or her do so, since this is an expression of their self-identification.

Next, whatever practices or beliefs are to be considered paradigmatically Christian, these can only be defined insofar as they are distinct from the practices and beliefs of other equally “valid” religions. So Christianity must be set off by Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. The reason for this is, I think, because relativists always consider the entire world dynamic. If every system of life or belief represents a cultural answer to perennial human questions, then no religion should be allowed to compete with another, just as no culture should be allowed to compete with another.

Finally, therefore, Christianity may be allowed dogmatism for its adherents, but it may make no claims about humans in general, or existence, or life, or God. It must reserve itself so that it allows every other religion as much leeway for “correctness” as it has. It must categorically be the case, therefore, that every claim made by Christianity which essentially invalidates another religion must be false.

Here appears the contradiction at the heart of relativism. Because it is prepared to agree with everything in general but nothing in particular, it is prepared to disagree with every ostentatiously normative principle. The question, then, is not “Is relativism compatible with Christianity?” but rather, “Can Christianity do without universally normative principles?” In other words, can Christianity retain its identity without universal value judgments (e.g. moral prohibitions) or claims to universal truth?

It certainly cannot. Christianity is fundamentally incompatible with relativism and all its attitudes because at the heart of Christianity is the belief in the possibility of revelation, which would constitute certain and authoritative knowledge. When I say that I believe in one God and in Jesus Christ his only Son, that Jesus lived on earth as a true man although he was also God, that he died on the cross and rose from the dead, and that through him we can come to true life and knowledge of the Father, I make these claims universally and normatively. Because they proceed from the authority of God and his Church, my belief in them is not compatible with any feeling that direct disagreement with them could represent an equally “valid” interpretation of human existence. But these beliefs define Christianity: this is the creed! There is no “Christian” without Christ, and ignoring what Christ said about himself is really to ignore Christ entirely.

I do not have space here to argue that relativism is as prevalent and powerful today as I think it is. But I hope that this brief argument is enough to show that relativism is truly incompatible, even unavoidably hostile, to authentic Christianity.