[Upon the collapse of Marxism], relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time. It by no means appears simply as resignation in the face of the unfathomable nature of truth,… rather, it defines itself positively on the basis of the concepts of tolerance, dialectic epistemology, and freedom.
Truth and Tolerance, 117
Reflection – Well, the Year of Faith is upon us, one week and one day away. Got your plans made for it yet? Here’s an idea, right from the heart of this blog: why don’t you read a book or two by Pope Benedict? The above one, Truth and Tolerance, is for example a dandy (see the link to buy it on the right hand sidebar).
Faith is about the knowledge of the Truth of things, and we would spend the year well deepening our knowledge of this Truth. Of course, this is the great contentious claim made by Christians today. We believe we know the Truth about life, that this Truth has been revealed to us by God in Jesus Christ, and that it is a Truth that is not just for us but for every human being, to make known the path to salvation and eternal life and to draw all people into the body of Christ, the Church, which is the sign and sacrament, the effective instrument of salvation.
What a claim! How arrogant! How dare we! When billions of people seem to be perfectly happy being Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews or animists, and a small but growing number choose to have no particular religion, how dare we maintain this outrageous universal claim to Truth!
Well, we do. Relativism, Ratzinger says, is increasingly aggressive in asserting itself as the path to tolerance, freedom, peace, and (in fact) truth. That’s what the reference to ‘dialectic epistemology’ means, by the way. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, what it means and how we come to know things; dialectic refers to the creative tension of opposing truth claims set side by side to yield a deeper synthesis of truth.
Of course, once we introduce the idea of dialectic epistemology into relativistic theory, the tolerance and freedom elements of relativism take quite a beating. If all our little partial truths are supposed to be juxtaposed, and some deeper truth emerges from this dialectic juxtaposition, urgent questions emerge.
Namely, who decides what this deeper truth is? And what if those of us (say, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists…) reject this new synthesis and cling (bitterly or not) to our religion? What if some new synthetic vision of reality, imposed by this mysterious nameless ‘whoever’, clashes with our conscience?
If relativism is advanced, not as a negative formulation to ensure peaceful co-existence in society, but as a positive and necessary agenda for social progress, then tolerance and freedom are quickly left in the dust. And this is hardly an abstract notion right now. In the United States Catholics are being forced to pay for birth control and abortifacient drugs for their employees; in Canada a pro-life protester was informed recently by a judge, an agent of the state, that ‘your God is wrong!’