German philosophy has played a crucial role in shaping the thinking of Western man–not only on the continent of Europe but also in the United States. Hegel, Marx, Engels and Nietzsche were all Germans, as were many of the existential thinkers that followed them, including Heideger. So also in the field of theology: Strauss, Wellhausen and Harnack were German, as was Freud in the field of psychology and Max Weber, the famous sociologist.
One doesn’t have to be acquainted with these men to be Influenced by them. Each in his own way contributed to the acceptance of relativism which has so profoundly affected our culture. A partial tracing of these men and their thinking may be helpful in getting a feel for where we are today. With this in mind, I have sought in the first two issues on relativism to trace in a limited way their contribution to where we are today. It may be helpful if we briefly look at one more man–Friedrich Nietzsche.
Possibly more than any other philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) forced people to face the implications of relativism. He didn’t write from the perspective that there were absolutes and that relativism takes man into an abyss of darkness. Rather, he laid out in stark terms the conclusions of relativism with a resigned, fatalistic acceptance. Nietzsche was a nihilist.
For example, Strauss in his Life of Jesus (mentioned in the September issue) sought to abandon absolutes without at the same time abandoning morals. Strauss exhorted his generation never to forget ‘that you are a human being and not merely something natural.” Commenting on Strauss’ desire to embrace relativism without abandoning morals, Nietzsche said, “Strauss fails to recognize that preaching morals is as easy as giving reasons for morals is difficult.”
In his third meditation Nietzsche reasoned that man is commanded to realize his true self. In a later writing he argued that ‘the striving for excellence is to overwhelm one’s neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one’s own feelings.” He didn’t propose violence, but rather that one’s true self could only be realized by comparing favorably with others. Having surrendered a norm outside of man, man became the measure of all thing.
Nihilism was a word coined in the 1860’s that carried with it two meanings: (1) “norms or standards cannot be justified by rational argument”; and (2) “a mood of despair over the emptiness or triviality of human existence.” The combination of these two meanings was used to describe the atheist. Nihilism is at the heart of relativism–from Nietzsche’s day until the present.
Originally the term “nihilism” was used to describe an anarchist. For example, one Russian nihilist of the mid-nineteenth century is quoted as saying,
“Here is the ultimatum of our camp: what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left–there will and can be no harm from it.”
Later the term was enlarged to include a disbelief in the possibility of justifying moral judgments in a rational way. Moral values were seen as the product of individual free choice, the product, of social conditioning or brute feelings.
Many saw the renouncing of an absolute moral system as a quick road to ruin. For example, in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov Ivan is quoted as saying, “If God does not everything is permitted.” Man will always consider law negotiable without accountability. Without God there is no ultimate accountability, and thus “everything is permitted.”
Today nihilism isn’t linked as closely with anarchy and atheism as it is with the individual who is victimized by industrialization and social pressures-—the robot-like conformist who is indifferent, detached and baffled by life. When one doesn’t know from whence he came, it is impossible to determine where he is going. People who embrace such a world view find little incentive to embrace an absolute moral law. For the nihilist, law is a political/social phenomenon that is both pragmatic and relative.
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), a French economist, statesman and author, wrote a small book entitled The Law. In it he argued that the purpose of law is to protect lire, liberty and property. This is a view commonly help by people before and since Bastiat. What he did in his little treatise, however, was to spell out the implications of this. He pointed out that as long as law stays within the parameters of protecting individual life, liberty and property, who makes the law is relatively unimportant. But when law is used to redistribute wealth and enforce a social agenda, then who makes the law becomes all important.
The battle that raged over the confirmation of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court is a case in point. The issue was never his qualification as a judge, but rather how special interest groups (either from the right or left) profit from the law. Never mind that Bork had the reputation of being a strict constitutionalist (i.e. he is reportedly prone to limit the use of law to the protection of individual life, liberty and property).
As a matter of fact, this is what bothered these groups. He was not perceived to be a socially active judge, that is, one who will promote the cause of the special interest groups.
When the purpose of law goes beyond the bounds of protecting life, liberty and property,or when the law abuses one of these three, then everyone wants a say in who makes the law. This is motivated by either a desire to correct perceived injustices in the existing law or to use the law for personal gain.
The U.S. Income tax, made law with the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution on February, 23, 1913, has been used through the years to redistribute wealth. Rather than protect individual property, the law “plunders” the individual’s property (to use Bastlat’s word). Furthermore, if the collecting of revenue was all Congress wanted from taxes, the tax forms could be reduced to a single page. Through the tax system Congress seeks to manipulate people to accomplish predetermined goals; thus, the constant shifting of the tax laws in regards to real estate, agriculture, etc.
Under the guise of justice, injustice is done. Wealth is stripped from some and given to others because it is more “just.” Justice shifts from being a morel issue to one of economics and social needs. Forgotten is the fact that the fundamental purpose of the law has been set aside and that people’s life, liberty and property are now abused. Wrong and right are measured by egalitarianism and economics.
In a later issue we will explore more fully how the state uses law when it has abandoned a transcendent truth system upon which law should be based. Here, however, let us note that the Bible admonishes the believer to be generous and sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, but makes no provision in either Testament to see that it is done through legislation. Theocratic Israel had no income tax. The people were commanded to give a tithe to the priests, not the poor, and even this was enforced by moral rather than legal constraint.
In Genesis 3 man declared his independence from God. The Cross is man’s return path to God, but it is a path of dependence. Faith is an expression of dependence. Thus “without faith you cannot please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
It is obvious to the casual observer that God has created the world and the people that are in it in an unequal way. Nations are not equal in regards to size, natural resources and circumstances. Individuals are not equal in regards to gifts, abilities and circumstances. This is providential with the purpose of forcing man to see his dependence upon his Creator.
Thus man Is forced with the choice of either addressing the inequalities of life by the rulership of God in his heart, resulting in a voluntary giving of his abundance to those in need, or by legislated redistribution, resulting in the immoral act of plunder. In the former man is dependent upon God; in the latter he is independent and ostensibly in control of his own destiny. Man would rather have the latter than the former, and God has created inequality for the very reason of forcing man to choose.
But he pays a terrible price in so choosing. It can only be had at the price of relativism, the use of law for the purpose of manipulation, and ultimately greed and envy where everyone interprets law in terms of what is best for himself. In such a system absolutes give way to relativism and Biblical hope gives way to nihilism.