Relativism and the Central Role of Emotion

This is Andrew’s dad writing.  Andrew is on vacation, but he will be back next week.

In Responding to God’s Grace, Andrew wrote about his cousin’s children and a boy he called Sean.  Reflecting on Andrew’s sober meditation on the advantages of a nurturing family, I remember how having children of my own made me look at adults differently.  Before my wife and I had children, I unreflectively looked at children as small adults; my own children flipped that around.  Now I look at adults as grown up children.

A months-old child sorts through a rush of sensory information and begins to grasp concepts like existence and control.  It becomes capable of distinguishing between human faces, as most of us do, to millimeters of accuracy, learning how to distinguish very similar faces.

Around two years of age, a normal child begins to develop a sense of identity.  Suddenly, in a burst of self-centered joy, she or he begins to realize that what mom and dad want might be different than what she wants.  That’s when the cries of “no” begin—often to a comical degree—as this independence asserts itself.

Around the age of four, the question “why” becomes suddenly important.

These stages of development fascinate me, though I have not studied them extensively.  Surely, though, one of these occurs in adolescence, around the time of junior high school, when a human becomes aware of other cultures, just as one’s own identity became apparent around age two.  This realization can be glorious, but also has a dark side, as many victims of Junior-High cruelty can attest.

For most adolescents in the history of the planet, “more cultures” maybe meant two major groups, with maybe a few exotic individuals thrown in at the margins.  An adolescent today is instead confronted by a dizzying mosaic of identity, culture, dress, appearance, and language.

I believe it is against this intimidating backdrop that the idea of relativism originates.  “Everything is relative,” might just be the sophisticated Junior High schooler’s most common motto.  It is also a lifeline developmentally, where one struggles for identity in an overwhelming world that is suddenly much larger than family.  It is a way that all of the complexity can be managed relationally.

Relativism actually makes no sense intellectually.  “Everything is relative” is itself an absolute statement, and so it is a contradiction in terms, like the assertion, “this statement is false.”  Many thinking people outgrow adolescent relativism, but it has developed more staying power in recent years. 

The tenacity of relativism can best be explained because it is so emotionally satisfying and safe.  There need be no argument about which culture is superior – everything is relative.  We need not deal substantively with the bigot – only an idiot would fail to understand that everything is relative.  No need to take religious differences so seriously – everything is relative.

I am not arguing that we ought to banish emotion from our decision making.  It is probably impossible to do so anyway, and since many of the most important truths of life take a lifetime to discover, or are completely beyond us, instinct or feelings may well be a good guide.  So I have always been amazed at how many Christians try to deny that there is a strong emotional component to faith.  We should, in fact, embrace it.

We are all just grown up children.  Jesus tells us to accept the Kingdom of God as little children (literally, “infants” in the original language).  So, it’s back to looking for patterns and figuring out basic rules:  but in a larger, more terrifying, but incomparably more beautiful existence.

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