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Ethics and Religion Talk: Does Tolerance Demand Moral Relativism?

Sandra asks, “In an age when everything is relative and tolerance is becoming a demand, isn't it true that our own sense of right and wrong is being slaughtered and our true self is being manipulated?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“I believe the questioner is referring to what we call ‘moral relativity.’ If that is the case, I see both a positive and negative side to that issue. The Hindu tradition has always claimed that beyond the black and white of any ethical question there were many shades of grey. I have no problem with a robust debate on what is right and wrong. And I will be happy to admit that after reexamining stances I took or actions in which I engaged, I may now hold different views as to their appropriateness.

“A good example might be how we viewed race not long ago. As a society, it was considered right and biblically appropriate and​ noble to segregate Blacks from Whites. And it was also a crime for Blacks and Whites to intermarry, depending upon the state of residence. Also, back in the day it was considered a terrible crime to be gay, while many gave a sort of wink and nod to those who perpetrated violence on anyone suspected of homosexuality. The list of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ should be analyzed periodically by clergy and other thought leaders.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I disagree. As a Unitarian Universalist, I welcome people being more accepting or tolerant of each other and less judgmental of people who are unlike ourselves. Most UUs find it to be a very healthy process to question our beliefs from time to time. I certainly do not think most UUs believe our own sense of right and wrong is being slaughtered. In fact, we are grateful when others are being called out and held accountable for their racist, misogynistic, and homophobic/transphobic beliefs. Core to our faith is our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Human beings have free will. Adults have a responsibility to confront the attack on the human intellect. We all make choices. One of my choices is to remain faithful to my belief in God and the goodness of creation.

“No one may slaughter my true self and manipulate me unless I allow it to happen. I confront the attack on my intellect by limiting my access to the manufactured news of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. When the ‘talking heads’ go on tangents, I turn the channel. Be true to yourself and prevent others from harming the person God created you to be.”

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“The age we live in is no different than any other age. Tolerance is a virtue of faith communities who profess love of God. As a Christian I must respect opinions and beliefs of others with whom I disagree. I am responsible to follow and obey my savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. This means I pursue, to the best of my ability, holiness of heart and life. I strive to imitate Christ by loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I love God by loving my neighbor as myself through acts of compassion and justice.

“I think Bob Dylan addressed this question well in his song, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’

‘But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.’

“Joshua answers Dylan when he said:

‘Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15).

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“The balance between tolerance and the right of the individual to maintain a vocal and unwavering commitment to their own value system is definitely a challenge for a pluralistic society. This challenge is especially felt by religious people who believe that the sources of morality are absolute and unchanging. This is a very different view than that of many in our society who hold the view that understandings of morality are constantly evolving and progressing. For those of us who hold the view that morality is absolute and unchanging we have to find a way to be consistent and true to our values in a changing world, unafraid to stand by them even when they may be unpopular. This is the way of the prophets after all, speaking the truth even when it is controversial. At the same time we cannot forget that compassion and using wisdom when confronting what we identify as societal problems are also essential parts of the prophetic way. So, even when we may differ sometimes with the direction society is moving and feel strongly about those differences, we cannot allow that conflict to blind us to the other important parts of our value systems that include kindness, compassion, and respect for shared humanity.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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