The frequent and sloppy use of the qualifier “absolute” leads to a common confusion of “relativism” with sheer arbitrariness. So when someone encounters the claim that truth “is relative,” this is what they hear: truth is arbitrary—anything goes. In response, Christians then invoke “absolute” truth as an insulator and buffer against such arbitrariness—without ever really explaining what the adjective “absolute” does when appended to “truth.”

What exactly does the qualifier “absolute” add to the word “truth”? And if something’s being absolute means that it is absolved of relation (the technical sense of the word), then what could that mean for contingent, social creatures like us?

This Christian reaction to relativism, with its therapeutic deployment of “absolute” truth, is a symptom of a deeper theological problem: an inability to honor the contingency and dependence of our creaturehood. There might even be something rather gnostic (and heretical) in this failure to own up to contingency; indeed, one could argue that the claim to such “absoluteness” is at the heart of the first sin in the garden.