The legs of Western relativism have been wobbly for a while. And now Vladimir Putin’s war may deliver a knock-out blow. While some Western intellectuals cling to a “your truth and my truth” philosophy, the invasion of Ukraine is revealing the absurdity of such thought. Evil has a way of waking us up to reality, and this may prove to be good news for the Christian message.
Western intellectuals have long celebrated the benefits of relative truth. Secular philosophers and pop psychology argued that ethical relativism would do away with the unpleasant feelings of guilt and shame. Thus, relativism would open wide the doors of sexual freedom and self-actualization.
Moreover, political philosophers argued that relativism would pave the way for world peace. After all, if there are no moral absolutes, then no one nation can enforce its values on another. Secular philosophers were elated about the possibility of a pain-free and peaceful world.
Nevertheless, the secular mind has sensed the cracks in its philosophical foundation for some time. Americans first experienced the shallowness of postmodern thought on Sept 11, 2001. After the planes smashed into the Twin Towers, even the most committed relativists were forced to acknowledge the presence of absolute evil.
However, Western intellectuals scrambled to revise their theory not long after the debris was cleared. Christian scholar, Gene Edward Veith, notes that postmodern thought hardened after 9/11 as secular intellectuals blamed religious intolerance for the attacks. Hence, any thought that claimed absolute truth was subsequently demonized. Consequently, in the years following Sept 11th, 2001, relativists crusaded to eliminate any form of exclusive truth in the name of “tolerance.”
Now consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. American citizens are once again shocked by the degree of evil and injustice unfolding. There is a universal outcry over the bombing of maternity hospitals, the targeting of civilians, and the displacement of the elderly. Western citizens are universally bonding as they empathize with the people of Ukraine.
Moreover, Western nations are galvanizing in ways not seen since World War II. A few months before Putin’s attack, NATO was distracted and aimless. But now, there is universal agreement that Putin’s actions are evil and must be stopped. And President Biden seems increasingly frustrated that China’s Xi will not join with Western nations and condemn Putin. Thus, it seems relativism simply does not hold up very well in the real world of international law.
Furthermore, few Western thinkers are willing to chastise President Zelenskyy for forbidding men ages 18-60 from leaving the country. And there are no reports of men trying to identify as women to receive an exemption. The war in Ukraine seems to be affirming what we have always known – there are differences between men and women.
Some relativists may argue that Western philosophy is not entirely subjective. Modern relativists contend that intersectionality provides universal points of agreement. Some claim that people can find overlapping consensus on certain moral principles. For instance, people universally agree that injustice is evil, and most people agree that love is good. Therefore, relativism is not utterly devoid of universal truths.
However, these points of intersectionality only expose our need for a source of moral knowledge outside ourselves. Why do we feel outraged over Putin’s invasion? And what animates the groundswell of benevolence pouring in for the people of Ukraine? Why are so many progressive corporations flying the Ukrainian flag and pulling business out of Russia?
The relativist can admit that humans share a common sense of love, and this animates our feelings of empathy. And the relativist can acknowledge a common intuition trending toward justice. But what the secular mind can’t explain is what differentiates our impulses from Putin’s. Western intellectuals can only assume that Putin is going insane.
The Western secular mind is disoriented over Ukraine because we sense this war is wrong. But the secular moral framework can’t rationally explain what makes it wrong without drawing upon the Christian principles they fought to discard.
Christianity gave the West a framework to balance justice and love. The cross of Jesus Christ is where our two primal instincts for justice and love conjoin. The Gospel message makes sense of our empathy – we are creatures made to give and receive love. And the Gospel message explains our moral outrage – we are creatures that demand justice and long for mercy. In the message of Christ, our longing for love, justice, and mercy are made plain.
The Western mind can no longer rationally explain why it responds to evil as it does. And secular thought cannot offer a critique of this war without betraying its own inconsistencies. Thus, one is left to wonder if we are watching the destruction of post-modern secular thought even as we watch the destruction of a nation. If so, the soil may be ripe for Christian thought to flourish in the West once again. Consequently, would it not be just like our subversive Savior to take what was intended for evil and use it for good?
 Gene Edward Veith Jr, Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 15.