Jesus the Relativist

Jesus laid the foundation for Western moral relativism. His daring, prophetic vision of moral conduct is so fundamental to modern moral reasoning that it’s taken for granted. Ironically, today it’s his nominal followers who resist moral relativism.


Jesus preached to a people devoted to objectivist morals in the form of religious law (sort of, see below). Jesus’ recurrent message was to impugn those that the objective laws lionized (Pharisees, those who prayed in public, etc.) and to support those that the objective law condemned (adulterers, Samaritans, etc.). His key teaching was the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want them to treat you.” This teaching is relativist rather than objectivist. It says that what is morally right is something you judge for yourself by sympathizing with others. One sees what is right by opening one’s heart to another human being, not by consulting a religious expert to interpret a legal code for you.


Jesus was heir to the Jewish prophetic tradition, which had been setting itself against the religious establishment for centuries. For instance, Ezekiel contradicted the doctrine that YHWH punished people for the sins of their forefathers. To this day, liberal Christians are more likely to quote prophets such as Amos (“Let justice roll down like waters”) while conservative Christians are more likely to quote lawgivers (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”).


Since Jesus’ ethical approach is relativist, it’s been able to adapt and stay current as society has progressed. Christian moral standards now go far beyond those taught in the Bible. For example, Christians renounce slavery (the Southern Baptists having lost that debate) and endorse universal suffrage even though the Bible allows slavery and never proclaims a right to vote. The Golden Rule can be understood relative to changing times and cultures. As our culture’s sense of justice has matured, so has our ability to apply the Golden Rule. Jesus’ relativism allows his modern-day followers to champion values that are not supported objectively in the Bible.


Saying that Jesus’ moral approach is relativist doesn’t mean that it’s amoral. The caricature of moral relativism as implying that “anything goes” is a depiction of relativism taken to an extreme. Jesus’ relativism is the ordinary sort of everyday relativism, in which laws and codes are judged relative to their effects and to the needs of real people.


It only took a few hundred years for Jesus’ follower to create a religion devoted to him, replacing the religion that Jesus himself preached. Like any other major religion, Christianity has had its up sides and down sides. These days, the liberal Christians that take Jesus’ message to heart hardly stand out from the crowd. Why? Because the crowd has been so profoundly influenced by Jesus’ message. “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” isn’t a question that Christian parents put to their children. It’s a question that modern parents put to modern children. The Christians that stand out from the background culture are the conservatives that reject the relativism of the background culture, and of their purported founder.


December 2004, Apr 2005


Addendum: The idea that the Jewish leaders were legalistic and that Jesus wasn't is a simplification. It probably derives largely from Paul, who needed to downplay the law in favor of faith in Jesus in order to get the first Christians (basically all Jewish) to accept Paul's gentile converts, who were not excited about getting their foreskins sliced off. (JoT, Sep 2007)


This rant informed by A Guide to Understanding the Bible by Harry Emerson Fosdick



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