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  • Epistemic GraceAntirelativism as Theology in Disguise
  • David Bloor (bio)

In recent years, academic philosophers have been greatly exercised by a topic called "relativism." Relativism—I shall explain the term in a moment—is widely seen as a serious, philosophical error. But it is seen as more than an error: it is treated as a social problem. Why is there so much sneering about science? ask the philosophers, and they point to relativism as the cause. Why is there so little confidence about moral values? The blame is put on relativism. Why is there such a lack of critical rigor in the social sciences and the humanities? The answer, say the philosophers, is because university departments have been taken over by relativists.1 Philosophers are not alone in their diagnosis. Relativism has been [End Page 250] denounced by no less an authority than the Vatican. In April 2005, shortly before he was made Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a homily identifying the evils of relativism. He spoke of the "dictatorship of relativism" which he identified as one of the dangers of our age and the result of moral confusion and loss of faith.2

Despite this growing consensus, I do not believe that relativism constitutes a danger. On the contrary, I think a properly formulated relativism should be warmly welcomed. It is a valuable basis for thinking about the problems confronting society. There are many such problems and they are real and urgent, but relativism is not one of them. I shall argue that, while a certain respect must be shown for the theological rejection of relativism, no such respect should be accorded to the philosophical critics. The theologians know what they are about; the academic philosophers who generate the increasingly strident, antirelativist literature do not. In what follows, I shall present my reasons for this conclusion. My overall position might be described by means of an analogy. Relativism is a bit like democracy. There is much about it that may seem off-putting—until you take a serious look at the alternatives. That is what I propose to do. I shall subject some examples of the antirelativist polemic to a critical scrutiny, and I shall do so by comparing and contrasting them with the theological argument. But first I need to give some content to the word relativism. I need to explain what the argument is all about; or what it should be all about.

Relativism versus Absolutism

To be a relativist involves holding certain beliefs about the limits of human knowledge. Relativists say that humans do not, and never can, possess absolute knowledge. There is no knowledge about the natural world that qualifies for the status of "absolute" on any plausible definition of "absolute." Likewise, there are no moral convictions that can claim any absolute ground or sanction. This does not mean that we have no knowledge of any kind or no morality of any kind. The claim is that we have no absolute knowledge and no absolute morality. For the relativist, all our beliefs are the product of, and are relative to, the limits of human nature and our status as human, social animals. Knowledge and morality are grounded in the human predicament. They cannot transcend the machinery of our brains and the deliverances of our sense organs, the culture we occupy and the traditions on which we depend. Of course, we can augment our senses with telescopes and microscopes and speed up our thinking with computers, but in the [End Page 251] end we must take responsibility for the understanding and interpretation of their deliverances. This takes us back to a shared culture which is the basis on which we engage with the world. There is much that has been achieved with our finite and contingent resources. They are neither negligible nor contemptible, but their products (our knowledge and our morality) will never qualify as absolute.

Notice three things about relativism. First, if you are a relativist you cannot be an absolutist, and if you are not a relativist you must be an absolutist. Relativism and absolutism are mutually exclusive positions. They are also the only positions. If questions about the status and limits...


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