I think most people recognize the relativism which is so prevalent in society today, but the roots of that stretch back much further, and its roots are much deeper than usually appears.
Have you ever found it interesting that only certain things are considered relative? Every time you try and bring up God or what is right or wrong, or if a certain piece of music/art is good or not, then suddenly everything becomes relative or subjective. Those things are all relegated to personal opinion, but you will never see people clamoring for architecture built by a relativist who doesn’t necessarily believe in the holding power of welding or in the effects of gravity. We see parents committed to raise their children in a “gender-neutral” environment, but you don’t see people tell their children things like “it’s time for you to go to bed, but that’s just my idea of bed-time; whatever time works for you is good too.” In order to understand why only some things seem to be relative while others don’t, we’ll have to take a quick look back at history.
Way back in the day, life used to be thought of as a coherent whole. Francis Schaeffer uses an illustration to explain this by drawing a circle in the sand. One guy would draw a circle and say “There. You can explain everything in life if you just use my circle.” Then the next guy would say “No no no, that circle doesn’t work, you need this circle to explain everything.” and that’s how things progressed for some time. Eventually, people realized that after decades of circle making, clearly nothing worked the way those old people thought they did. And if the old ways didn’t work, then we needed to come up with another system for figuring life out.
Beginning in the 1540s or so, we had the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Science and math were joining forces and making discoveries and improvements every other day (or so it seemed), and people were rightly impressed. Certain philosophers started thinking that in order to solve the old circles problem, all they had to do is observe the methods the scientists were using (since they had so much success) and apply them to philosophy and all the old problems would disappear.
The methods they observed were basically these: scientists found things via their senses and their experiments. So philosophers started what became known as Empiricism. The idea there is that the only things that are true (or, at the very least, the things we know to be true) are those things that science and math can find. So things that we find out through our senses, and that can be tested in scientific experiments or calculated with mathematics.
David Hume was the big dog in this fight, and he took empiricism and applied it to morality. If sense data (things we learn from our senses) was what was true, then morality must fight this model. What we find to be moral must be things that bring us pleasure, and things we find immoral must be things that bring us pain. This was a huge step, if you think about the old way of thinking. Philosophy, and therefore truth, was a coherent whole where you had to figure out something that made sense of all of life. Hume started the divide that would come to dominate philosophy, and sooner or later, all of thinking.
Immanuel Kant took things much further than Hume did, and he really laid the groundwork for the way we see things today. The general worldview that most people have, whether they are secular or even Christian to an extent, more or less came from Kant. What came out of the dust clouds of Hume and Kant became known as the fact/value split. Basically, anything we could know for sure via math and the scientific method were deemed “facts” and everything else was under the “value” umbrella. Francis Schaeffer described this with the analogy of a building with two stories. It looks like this:
Values (Upper Story)
Facts (Lower Story)
The implications of this were huge then, and are still today, though most people function on this view without realizing it. This was the step that started the perceived conflict between religion and science. For if things like the existence of God can’t be tested or perceived through the senses, then clearly it can’t be a fact. It is thrown into the upper story; into the realm of subjective things and mere preference or feelings.
However, it wasn’t just religion that was in danger of this mind-splitting philosophy. All sorts of things were relegated to the upstairs. This didn’t happen all at once, but over the centuries, everything from the concept of truth at all, to religion, metaphysics, ethics, morals, love, beauty, aesthetics, opinions, values, and even philosophy itself got thrown upstairs. And if those things weren’t “facts” then they must actually be illusions.
In order to save space, I’ve flown over a lot, but this happened in very subtle ways (though there were certainly some overt things going on too), and became very common. So much so that you could have people like Martin Luther King Jr. say “Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.” and similarly, Einstein echoes “Science yields facts but not ‘value judgments’; religion expresses values but cannot ‘speak of facts’.
This had ripple effects (or perhaps tsunami effects) throughout the various disciplines of art, music, philosophy, ethics etc. and you can see this around you every day. This is why only some things in our society are deemed relative, while others are objective facts. Science still reigns supreme in our day, but the results of this split in thinking have been many and they have been quite disastrous.
You can be on the lookout for this as you go about your day. The next time you hear someone say “well, that’s just your opinion” or “it’s not right to push your views on others” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or “you shouldn’t judge people” etc. you can recognize that as an effect of this fact/value split. As you start to realize this, you can start navigating the worldview waters of our current culture. You can start knowing how to point people back to the holistic Biblical worldview, where everything is a coherent whole.
Next time we’ll take a look at how this divided view of truth lead to a divided view of the human body.