Unearthing Moral Relativism
About the Guest
Research shows that 70% of college students don’t believe in moral absolutes. How then do we talk to them about spiritual matters? Today on the broadcast, Tim Muehlhoff and J.P. Moreland, authors of the book The God Conversation, talk with Dennis Rainey about winsomely engaging non-believers in conversations about God.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
Research shows that 70% of college students don’t believe in moral absolutes.
Unearthing Moral Relativism
Bob: Are there some things that are always right for all time for all people in all places, and other things that are always wrong for all people at all times in all places? A lot of non-Christians would say, "No, everything is relative." Even some Christians would agree. Dr. Tim Muehlhoff says we need to think about that a little deeper.
Tim: There's a horrible website by the Ku Klux Klan. It's called "Ku Klux Klan for Kids," and it teaches young kids to be racist. Well, if you present that to most people in the United States, and you would say to them, "Is that wrong for everybody?" "Yeah." Most people would look at that and say, "That is wrong." But the million-dollar question is, why can you say that's wrong for everybody? What is the foundation that allows you to say the things on your list are wrong for everybody?
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, June 27th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There are hard questions people ask about the Christian faith. There are also reasonable and rational answers to many of those questions. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. You know, in our culture today, when you want to talk about your faith, you're probably okay talking about it unless it's Christianity. You know what I mean?
Dennis: I do.
Bob: It's, like, I can talk about my faith, whatever it is, as long as it's not faith in Jesus. That's the one that seems like it's out of bounds.
Dennis: And do you know why?
Bob: No, why?
Dennis: Because Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.
Bob: The exclusivity of it.
Dennis: He said, "No one comes to the Father but through me." And so He is making an absolute claim that it's either right or wrong. There is nothing in between. He didn't say "a way," "a life." He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." And it really flies in the face of this culture, which doesn't believe in any kind of absolutes.
We have a couple of professors here in the studio.
Bob: Two doctors with us.
Dennis: Two doctors. Both teach at Biola University. One is an associate professor of communication, that's Tim Muehlhoff. Tim, welcome back.
Tim: Thank you.
Dennis: And the other is J.P. Moreland, who is the distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. I have to ask you, J.P., what's a "distinguished" professor as compared to just a professor?
J.P.: Well, I'm not sure, but at least it's not an extinguished professor. That's the good news.
Dennis: Together they have written a book called "The God Conversation," which really equips us to use stories and illustrations to explain our faith to our neighbor, and, J.P., you've done a lot of writing in this area about this culture not having moral absolutes. It almost seems like there is a counter-culture to Christianity today. Am I wrong?
J.P.: Oh, no, you're not wrong, Dennis, you are so painfully right. We live in a logjam right now in our culture. What I mean by that is the culture, by and large, accepts the idea that we should be tolerant and not judge any lifestyle or any position to be wrong; that whatever you believe sincerely and hold for yourself is just fine, and whatever another person believes sincerely and holds is fine for him. And we need to be tolerant and not judgmental of anybody and say anybody is wrong anymore. And this kind of relativism is presenting us a situation that's very dangerous to raise children in, and I'm very, very concerned for families, for the kids that are going to be in junior high and in high school and even going on to college.
The statistics are, and I believe this comes from the campus ministry known as The Navigators. I might have the number wrong, but I think it's something like in the 70 percentile of university students don't believe that there are moral absolutes, meaning they don't believe that there are some things that are actually right or actually wrong; that any lifestyle and any person's belief is just fine if they believe it sincerely, and that's a very, very dangerous position to be in.
Bob: J.P., let me ask you about what has been a moral shift in my lifetime. You go back to the early '60s, and there was still some social taboo around the idea of sex outside of marriage. It was considered wrong. It may have happened, but we didn't endorse it. We thought of it as wrong behavior. Today, it's practiced and accepted, and there is no shame associated with having sex outside of marriage.
Why is that and how do we have a conversation around that?
J.P.: I'm glad you asked that, Bob. It's a complicated issue but, very simply, the culture has reached a point where we believe now that if you can't prove something scientifically in a laboratory where it can measured and tested in the lab, you can't know it's true. And since moral claims, like it's wrong for teenagers to have sex if they're not married, is not something that you can prove scientifically. And so the assumption is, that means that nobody can really know who is right or wrong about that. And so what we need to do is to be tolerant of all positions on this.
So what's happened is with the rise of science as our only authority, and with the idea that morality is not a scientific matter, truth has been replaced with the satisfaction of desire. And so the only absolute today is that a person should be able to satisfy their immediate gratification needs any way they want to and without being judged by other people.
Bob: My pursuit of happiness is sacrosanct.
J.P.: Well, and for you to come along and get in the way of, say, two junior high kids who are wanting to have sex …
Bob: Pursue their own happiness.
J.P.: Yeah, who are you to judge? I mean, so it's this rampant notion of tolerance, and I think what we're seeing is that this permissiveness about sex before marriage is really just an outworking of the loss of moral absolutes, and this embracing of relativism. And what that tells me is that we've got to find ways to get on the table all over again the idea that there really is a right and wrong, and that's what we've tried to do in "The God Conversation."
In fact, Tim, you have a great illustration of this, if you could share it.
Tim: What we want to do is to find a way with your friends, neighbors, co-workers, to show them that they already believe in moral absolutes. They already believe that there are some things that are just flat-out wrong, and is wrong for everybody. What we have to do is to get them to actually articulate that kind of list. We call it the "not to be tolerated" list. All of us have them. We could talk about things like torturing babies, and things like that. People believe that's wrong for everybody.
But here are a couple we mention in the book. There is a horrible website by the Ku Klux Klan. It's called "Ku Klux Klan for Kids," and it teaches young kids to be racist. It does it through interactive cartoons, games. Well, if you present that to most people in the United States, they would look at that and say, "That's just sick." And you would say to them, "Is that wrong for everybody?" "Yeah, it's wrong."
There is another story about a mother in South Carolina who has two children, but her boyfriend doesn't want to have kids, so she takes her two kids, straps them in the back seat of the car and drives them into a lake because she wants to date this guy. Well, most people would look at that and say, "That is wrong."
Now, we would agree with that, as Christians. We would say a racist website is wrong, but the million-dollar question is, why can you say that's wrong for everybody? What is the foundation that allows you to say the things on your list are wrong for everybody?
Bob: What's your standard?
Tim: What's your standard.
J.P.: And so the important thing, from a communication standpoint, is kind of a two-step conversation with people where you begin by trying to get on the table that everybody does know that there are absolutes, and the second question is, if there are such things, where do they come from?
Let me illustrate this idea of a do-not-tolerate list that I think Tim has done such a good job of presenting. Years ago, I was talking to a fellow that I had just met, and it turned out that he was a relativist – everything is right if you believe it sincerely, there is no right and wrong. And I found out he loved the environment. He just loved the environment and was very concerned about it.
So I told him, I said, "You know, I don't know what you're going to think of this, but I've got four friends, and once a month we each kick $50 into a kitty, and the kitty's got $250 in it. We go to a store and buy a 100-gallon vat of sulphuric acid, and we drive out to Lake Paris out here in Southern California, and we go out, and we dump the acid in the lake, and we've taken bets on how many fish are going to belly up to the surface, and whoever gets closest to the number of fish we kill gets the whole $250 pot.
Dennis: You're kind of mischievous, you know that?
J.P.: I'm a wild and crazy guy. Well, after I shared this, you could see the blood vessels on this guy's neck beginning to swell, and I said, "You know, I could be wrong about this, but from looking at your body language, I get the sneaking impression that you think that what my friends and I are doing is wrong." It was a conversation that was actually fun, I didn't do it in a hostile way; he got the point. But he had a do-not-tolerate list that was an absolute for everybody, and that is caring for the environment.
Dennis: So after you've made the point that they do have a standard of morality, how, then, do you bridge the gap from the person who is coming out of this culture of everything is right in your own eyes, to now a person being accountable to God for their lives and whether or not they are going to put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior for the forgiveness of their sins.
Tim: Great question. Once the list is created and, again, I would look at that person's list, where you can agree with that person's not-to-be-tolerate list, I would. I agree, torturing babies is wrong. I don't care who does it.
Bob: Sulphuric acid in the lake is wrong, right?
Bob: Yeah, okay.
Tim: Absolutely. So then the question becomes what allows you to say that? Now, there are only three options, there really are. One, your community says it's wrong. When we moved into our neighborhood in Southern California, we had to sign a neighborhood covenant, which basically said you can't paint your house purple.
Bob: Can't put an RV in your driveway, right?
Tim: No, actually, people do that all the time, all the time. But you sign this covenant, and it's not that these rules are handed down from God. These rules we came up with as a neighborhood. Okay? We don't like purple, we don't like neon colors.
You can also say that about your not-to-be-tolerated list. You can say, "Hey, in our community we believe torturing babies is wrong. We believe a racist website is wrong," okay? But here's the problem, what do you do with another community? The Ku Klux Klan are a community, and they say, "No, racism is actually right, and I'm just being a good parent. I'm teaching my kids my values, and my value is that white people are superior to everybody else."
So what do you do when two communities just disagree with each other? In the book we used the Holocaust, which is a great example because exterminating the Jews was not against any German law; Hitler was very careful to enact laws that supported what he was doing. So how can one country say to another country, "You are wrong?" The answer to that is "My army is bigger than your army." That's how you get to dictate what another country does.
So if a community determines what's right and wrong, then you can't just another community.
Bob: And might makes right.
Tim: Might makes right.
Tim: Second, individuals determine what's right and wrong. I just determine my own set of values, so this is wrong for you to go into a lake and kill all these fish but, for me, it might be okay and even enjoyable.
Well, as Christians, we just reject that. We say that what is right and wrong is what a good, holy, and just God determines what is right and wrong – his good character determines that it's wrong to kill anybody made in the image of God. It's wrong to be racist because everyone has God's image and is to be respected.
Now the million-dollar question becomes, "Okay, there is a god that determines right and wrong. How do I get to know that god? Which god are you even talking about? The god of Islam, the god of Hinduism. We want to say that Christianity, that Jesus is God, and Christianity is the only religion that offers one huge test to see if Christianity is true, and we already talked about that, that's the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
J.P.: And, Bob, one of the things we do in the book is illustrate this whole point about God being the author of the law through the Nuremberg Trials. Those were the trials that tried the Nazi war criminals and, as Tim pointed out, they defend themselves for what they were doing to the Jews on the basis of the fact that they weren't violating any of their own standards in Germany.
And one of the judges in the Nuremberg Trial said, "Yes, but there has to be a law above the law." And he meant by that, there must be a law that transcends culture and human law, and you're wrong on the basis of that ultimate law, even if you weren't wrong on the basis of German law.
Then the question then becomes, where does that law above the law come from? And the answer is a law-giver.
Bob: Let me ask both of you – does this work? I mean, this whole idea of sitting down with somebody who doesn't embrace moral absolutes, and going through the no-tolerance list and getting them to see, okay, there are some things that I am intolerant of, like torturing babies or the racist website. We're still living in a culture that's screaming at us that we need to be tolerant of anything and everything. You're creating some kind of conflict, but can you really outshout the culture on this one?
Tim: Well, the goal isn't, I think, to outshout the culture. The goal is with that one person you get into a conversation with at Starbucks' or Dennis on the airplane, I mean, all we can do is be a faithful witness to the people that we really cross paths with.
J.P. has access to the scholars of the world, and he's trying to influence them, but for most of us, we're talking about the people at Starbuck's, we're talking about other parents in Little League, and I'm amazed how many conversations have come up during Little League, when you watch this game that never ends, ever – you can get into a ton of conversations, and I have never had a person who has not been able to create a not-to-be-tolerated list. Every person I have ever talked to has said …
Dennis: They have their limits.
Tim: Yeah, they do. And I like to play devil's advocate. I like to say to them, "Well, how can you say that racist website is wrong?" That's a pretty powerful place to be, and then, again, the name of the book really should be the "The God Conversations." Because we're not saying in one huge conversation you're going to do this. This is probably conversations that happen over the course of a Little League season or – you know what I mean? Continual conversations where you're just placing a nugget, giving an illustration, and praying that the Holy Spirit would take everything you just said and really hook it into that person's memory and that the Spirit will convict them.
Dennis: Yeah, Tim, and as you have those conversations, the easiest thing to do when you begin to talk about issues of personal faith with someone who is coming at it from a different angle than you are, is to get off on the island where you disagree. And I heard you say "Leave those islands alone. Find the island you can get on where you have some beliefs in common, something to agree on, and find a way from that island to build a bridge back to the truth of who Christ is."
Tim: Galatians, chapter 6 says even if you find somebody who is in a trespass, they're wrong. It's not a question it's wrong; it's a trespass. Paul says, "I want you to do it with gentleness." And I think the tone of our communication is just as important as what you say.
So if we come across accusatory and attacking another person, guess what? You're going to get attacked back. And I would add one last thing. A favorite writer of mine said this – "What has happened to our sense of humor? As Christians are we so deathly serious about everything that we can no longer sit back and just kind of laugh?" So during a conversation, a person makes a good point, and you just kind of laugh, and you go, "Okay, well, you know what? That's a pretty good point. Uh, yeah, is it time to go already?"
You know, it's like – so we've become so serious …
Dennis: Where everything has just got to be right. You know, it's either right or wrong, and we've got to prove everything, and I've got to be right, and, you know, some of us are wired that way. You know what I mean? And I've had to learn to keep my mouth shut.
Tim: Boy, that's a – yeah, you bet, you bet.
Dennis: And just rather than club them with the truth, kill them with kindness.
Bob: Yeah, the advice of a senior pastor to a younger pastor, Paul's advice to Timothy in 2 Timothy was, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone; able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare" – so it goes on. But your attitude must be kind, patient, not quarrelsome, and correcting with gentleness. That's a great passage for us to bear in mind as we have these conversations.
Tim: And from a communications standpoint, we actually have a term for that. It's called the principle of reciprocity. In other words, generally speaking, how you treat a person is how you'll be treated. There is a very famous study in communication studies. A professor of communication sent out 500 Christmas cards to complete strangers just to see how many he would get back.
So in these Christmas cards, he would just say, "Hey, thinking of you this season, love, the Muehlhoffs."
Dennis: To a total stranger.
Tim: A total stranger. Well, the person would receive and say, "Oh, the Muehlhoffs, well, thinking of you, too. Have a great" – of 500 cards that he sent out, he received over 70 percent of them back, the principle being if you are kind to a person and gentle with a person, generally speaking, they'll be kind and gentle back to you. Raise your voice to a person or be sarcastic, you will get that. And Paul said you reap what you sow, you really do.
Dennis: Yeah. I was seated next to this young man on an airplane a couple of weeks ago, and he was a Ph.D. student at a well-known Midwestern university, was one of eight students that had been selected out of 300 for this program, and we struck up a little conversation about what he was studying and where he was taking that, and I just asked him a question. I said, "In all your studies, undoubtedly you're reflecting upon your own journey of faith and about God and the existence of how He's made things to work."
Because he was saying how people are supposed to work interpersonally, and he goes, "Boy, I sure have. I am really aware of it." And I said, "How satisfied are you with your journey." He said, "You know, it's interesting you mention that. Just in the past few months, I've been talking to my girlfriend about how we need to come back to our faith and how, as we look to the future of building our relationship together and getting married, how we need to have a mutual faith together."
Well, hey, he mentioned God and marriage.
Bob: And he's sitting next to Dennis Rainey.
Dennis: Oh, my goodness. And I didn't have your book, I didn't have your book, but I had a delightful conversation with this young man. Before it was over, I was able to recommend a church near him, and began to connect him in his journey to be able to pursue God, and I think that's the goal. You know, it's not to win the argument. I've shared my faith now who knows how many times with people in either one-to-one or one-to-many, and I have no interest anymore of winning the argument because you know what? You can win the argument, and you lose the relationship, and I think you lose all ability to talk about the redemptive work of Christ.
And I just want to thank both of you guys for your work. Tim, you and Noreen, for speaking at the Weekend to Remember. You guys are great comrades as we seek to build marriages and families across the nation. And J.P., you and Hope go all the way back to the late '60s when Barbara and were just friends, and did you start dating Hope back then?
J.P.: I sure did.
Dennis: Yeah, you snagged her quicker than I got Barbara. You're a great friend, too, and a great mind for the Christian faith. Thank you for your ministry as well.
J.P.: You're welcome, thank you.
Bob: And any of our listeners who are interested in tapping into both of these minds can do that by getting a copy of the book that they've written called "The God Conversation," and, of course, we have copies of it in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If you go to our website, FamilyLife.com, on the right-hand side of the screen you will see a button that says "Today's Broadcast," "Learn More," click that button, it will take you to an area of the site where there is more information not only about the book that J.P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff have written but also information about C.S. Lewis's classic book, "Mere Christianity," about Jerry Bridges' new book, "The Gospel for Real Life."
I mean, the point is you need to understand what it is you believe and how to defend what you believe and then how to share what you believe with others, and we want to equip you to do that, and there are resources on our site designed to do just that. Again, our website is FamilyLife.com, and if you want to get to where the resources are, click on the right side of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," or simply call us at 1-800-FLTODAY. 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we'll get the resources you need sent out to you.
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Well, I hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can be back with us on Monday when we're going to talk with Charlie Boyd about how we shared the message of the Gospel, the same thing we've been talking about today – how we share that with our children in a way that they can understand it. That's coming up Monday, and I hope you can be here.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend, we'll see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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