An editorial's reaction to the news that our nation's youth have at best a casual attitude toward truth is interesting. The column begins by citing a news report that "76 percent of the nation's brainy 16-, 17- and 18-year olds admit to cheating," that is "88 percent of those listed in Who's Who Among American High School students also admit to the sin," and that 60 percent of those explain their response by saying that "It didn't seem like a big deal."
Now for the interesting part. The editors begin their next paragraph by observing that, "This spells out a frightening message: Today's teenagers apparently have not been brought up with a sense of values about right and wrong" ("Students don't get it: Cheating is wrong," Atlanta Journal, November 17, 1997, A10).
To borrow a popular response from the teen culture, "Well, duh!" While I appreciate the call the editors make for character education, and specifically for teaching that "cheating is spelled W-R-O-N-G," I am more than a little puzzled at their apparent surprise in learning that "today's teenagers apparently have not been brought up with a sense of values about right and wrong."
We have long lived in a culture where it is not only taught that truth is relative, but where that notion has been absorbed. Once we accept relativism, it is a small step to the conclusion that whether or not we are truthful is no big deal.
It's not as if we've not been warned. In the mid-80's, Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind, observed that two things you could count on from our youth was that the average freshman entering college was convinced that there is no absolute truth, and that if you challenged that notion, the student would look at you as if you had lost your mind.
A more recent writing confirms that little has changed in the decade and a half since Bloom wrote. Jim Leffel recounts a "series of more than twenty interviews conducted at random at a large university in which people were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth -- truth that is true across all times and cultures for all people." All but one responded with words similar to these: "Truth is whatever you believe." "There is no absolute truth." "If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?" "People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous."
Leffel summarizes the climate of our times:
Truth, declares a growing collective consciousness, is relative: what is true, right, or beautiful for one person isn't necessarily true, right, or beautiful for another. Relativism says that truth isn't fixed by outside reality, but is decided by a group or individual for themselves. Truth isn't discovered, but manufactured. Truth is ever-changing not only in insignificant matters of taste or fashion, but in crucial matters of spirituality, morality, and reality itself. This is the postmodern consensus -- that truth is a slippery thing. (In Dennis McCallum, ed., The Death of Truth: What's Wrong with Multiculturalism, The Rejection of Reason and the New Postmodern Diversity, 31.)
The inherent flaw in this view is seen in the dogmatic statements which close the paragraph before last. To those who would say, "there is no absolute truth" and "people who believe in absolute truth are dangerous," we would simply ask whether those statements are absolutely true. If they are, then there must be some absolute truth, namely, that there is no absolute truth. If they are not, then we must ask why we should give them any attention. The claim of relativism falls under the weight of this internal contradiction.
But, knowing that relativism is so fatally flawed is not enough. Those of us who know its flaw and the reason for it must remain vigilant and vocal. Truth can be known (Luke 1:4; John 8:32; 1 Timothy 4:3; 2 Peter 1:12; 1 John 2:21; 4:6; 2 John 1:1), believed, loved (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12) and obeyed (Romans 2:8), and is what sets us free (John 8:32). Let us continue to declare the truth about truth.