Absolute Truth or Relative Truth?

Author and university professor Allan Bloom published a landmark book way back in 1987 called The Closing of the American Mind. In it, he claims that the modern view of education has in fact closed people’s minds, and this all in the name of freedom and tolerance. In his opening pages, he starts with the idea that today’s students know only relativism:

“There is one thing that a professor can be absolutely sure of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2-4. These things you don’t think about.”

“The students, of course, cannot defend their position. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them tand make them think, such as, ‘If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,’ they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place.”

“That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged–a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are you an absolutist?.” the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as “Are you a monarchist?” or “Do you really believe in witches?”

Now Bloom’s book created a bit of a stir back when it was first published. My personal opinion is that it was because Bloom was from within their own ranks. He was a tenured professor at a liberal university, and never claimed to have any religious affiliation. He brought his arguments from common sense and from a background in classical education. How dare he question relativism, or that we should teach that values are absolute?

Relativism, of course, is self-refuting. I’m reminded of the statement in the book Situation Ethics where the author says that we should avoid absolutes like the plague. Which of course he holds as absolutely true. Relativists tell us that we should be relative all the time, and only a position that teaches that truth is relative is a correct position. They are telling us with a straight face that ‘all truth is relative’ which is really saying ‘it is absolutely true that all truth is relative.’ Of course, what they mean is that all of the other person’s truth is relative, but their own position should be held by all people everywhere. They hold truth as relative, except for their own values about truth, which cannot be challenged. If we say to them that we believe the opposite of what they believe, they respond the same way as Bloom describes: a combination of indignation and disbelief.

In reality, all truth, if it is true, is absolute, and true for all people everywhere. If you challenge this, I ask you this: Is the opposite of your position false, or is it true also?


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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