In the July issue we explored the beginning of modern relativism by looking at the thinking of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel (1770-1831). Following Hegel on the stage of history was Charles Darwin (1808—1882). In his Origin of the Species (1859) and later in Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) he proposed what has cane to be known as the theory of evolution. Hegels philosophy argued for the evolution of the material world, and thus history. It seemed logical to conclude that Darwin’s work was merely a confirmation of Hegel’s thesis.
Paul Johnson, in Modern Times, considers Einstein’s theory of relativity a major contribution to the further slide towards relativism. Albert Einstein (1879—1955) developed the general theory of relativity (1914—16), arguing that the time elapsed between two events and the length of an extended solid body are relative to the choice of a coordinate system in time and space, and thus relative to the observer. To put it another way, he said that there is no absolute motion.
Johnson is worth quoting on this important development:
For most people, to whom Newtonian physics, with their straight lines and right angles, were perfectly comprehensible, relativity never became more than a vague source of unease. It was grasped that absolute time and absolute length had been dethroned; that motion was curvilinear. All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres. “The world is out of joint,” as Hamlet sadly observed, It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards of measurement. At the beginning of the l920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. (p. 4)
Marx, Freud, Einstein all conveyed the same message to the l920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man’s behaviour in society, were not to be trusted. Moreover, Marxist and Freudian analysis combined to undermine, in their different ways, the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code, which was at the centre of nineteenth-century European civilization. The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision – which both dismayed and exhilarated – of moral anarchy.” (p. 11)
Paralleling the field of science, theology developed along the same lines. The study of Scripture from the standpoint of literature dealing with such things as authorship, date and literary sources and types is, as you know, called higher criticism. It is a valid process used by scholars in varying degrees through the centuries.
After Hegel, however, higher criticism took a turn in the direction of what many today call liberalism. D. F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1836) applied the Hegelian method to theology denying supernatural acts and the deity of Jesus. Julius Wellhausen (1844—1918) was a German Old Testament professor whose work on the first five books of the Bible (History of Israel published in 1878) viewed the Old Testament as a composite document that evolved into its present form.
Aldolf Harnack (1851—1930), another German scholar, applied the Hegelian method to the historicity of the Bible. These influences are felt in most theological seminaries in the world today. Under the guise of scholarship it introduced relativism to the standard which for centuries has been considered absolute.
When you embrace the premise of Hegel, you lose all sense of moral direction. If there is no such thing as wrong, then why criticize “unethical” behavior? If there is such a thing as “wrong,” who decides what it is? If at is the state, then “wrong” is like breaking the speed limit on the highway. If you travel 65 mph in a 55 mph zone, you are wrong in the sense that you are liable for a fine, but not in the sense of being evil or sinful. For all know that the speed limit is a relative decision based on a set of data which is constantly changing. The state says the speed limit is 70 mph yesterday, 55 mph today, and 65 mph tomorrow.
Should the nation then be shocked over the conduct of Ivan Boesky and others involved in insider trading on Wallstreet? How does their action differ from that of the treachery of Walker, Pollard or Lonetree? The perceived consequences are different, but in none of these examples has an immoral act been committed, simply because relativism makes no allowance for morality in the absolute sense. All of these men had in common that they acted according to what they perceived best — with no reference to an absolute standard to which they would someday have to give account.
A current illustration of our society’s disregard for law based on its commitment to relativism is seen in the Iran/Contra hearings before Congress. Magazines and newspapers have been filled with editorials expressing amazement at the public’s sympathy towards Oliver North and its antipathy towards the U. S. Congress.
To explain how this came about, let’s use as an illustration Bill, who is a financial planner. Steve comes to Bill with some money, asking Bill to invest and manage it for him. Bill informs Steve that his money is invested in an instrument we will call “X,” but instead Bill takes Steve’s money aid invests it in “Y” because he is convinced that he can make more money for himself in “Y” while at the same time returning a profit for Steve commensurate with what “X” would produce. What Bill did with Steve’s money finally canes to light. Bill is indicted, prosecuted and incarcerated. Bill broke the law.
The U.S. Congress adopts the Gramm-Rudman Deficit Reduction law requiring the government to live within its means and begin reducing the deficit. Each year it “modifies” its own law refusing to live up to its commitments.
The U.S. Congress enacts a law which establishes an eight per cent airline ticket tax as well as a general aviation fuel tax for the purpose of collecting money for the upgrading of airports and air traffic control systems. Currently this trust fund has a surplus of some five billion dollars. The media is filled with illustrations of the need to upgrade both our airports and air traffic control systems, citing delays and near air disasters as examples of that need, but to “fight the budget deficit” Congress refuses to spend the money, having already used it for other programs. Finally the situation becomes so acute that Congress is prodded into action, borrowing from other programs what, had been spent earlier. Congress, however, will never be indicted because Congress makes the law and ostensibly is not obligated to live within the parameters of its own commitments.
Most perceive that there is not that great a difference between what Bill did with Steve’s money and what Congress has done with the money allocated to its own stewardship. Bill is wrong, and Congress is right. Thus there is a perceived hypocrisy on the part of Congress.
A poll taken by Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman and reported in the July 20, 1987, Time magazine noted that of those surveyed only 22% felt that Col. Oliver North’s actions in diverting Iran arms profits to the Contras was legal, and yet 69% answered “No” when asked if North should be sent to jail for his role in the matter. In other words, they perceived that he broke the law but felt he should not be punished for it.
When those on the Congressional panel inquired from North as to why he lied to Congress regarding the diversion of funds, North said it was because he could not trust Congress, and the people’s general response was not only to agree with North’s assessment, but to cheer him on in his stand against Congress, even though they felt that he broke the law. Furthermore, the survey went on to note that 50% of the people said they felt the proceedings were motivated more by politics than by evidence.
The disturbing thing about all of this is not whether aid should or should not be given to the Contras, nor whether arms should or should not have been sold to the Iranians. Rather, it is in the wholesale disregard for law. One of the reasons why people consider law negotiable is they hold in contempt those who make the law.
This contempt in part is based on their perception that Congress doesn’t keep its own rules and therefore tees no reason why the citizens should keep the law either.
The citizens, however, are not motivated to replace their congressmen with those who will live up to their commitments simply because, having embraced relativism, commitments are negotiable.
“Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (The last words in the book of Judges.)
Rejoicing in God’s Sovereignty,