Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who's That Knocking at the Door?

[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!’
Relativism works when it is simply an observation that people have different opinions about things, and that everyone should be allowed to express and hold their opinions, and act on them so long as their actions do not grievously harm the social order or the essential rights of others. When relativism becomes an ideology, when truth claims are seen a priori as a threat to the social order and the rights of others, then fascism is knocking at the door. And this, alas, is the situation we are facing in much of the world today.


  1. Father Denis,

    I have never seen you write about relativism working before...and this is what prompts my response today. I am certainly not and expert in all this relativist stuff...I just read about about it because you write about it and it concerns you so my thoughts probably don't mean a whole lot here... But...I had a few thoughts...
    Seems like the problem you are talking about here really is not is embracing an ideology and not embracing God...that whole idolatry thing...
    Also, I do not understand what you are saying about seeing truth claims a priori...Can you talk more about that?

    1. Thanks, Catherine. Well, I guess I agree with your characterization of what I write here. Relativism as an ideology (which really is a contradiction in terms...) is the harmful thing. There is a link here to Hegelian philosophy, where truth emerges from the historical clash of opposites. I try to show in this (brief) post why this is dangerous to freedom. Indeed, Marxism is an atheistic and humanistic offshoot of Hegel, where the locus of historical synthesis is found in the Vanguard, the intellectual elite who 'know' where the new synthetic truth lies and have a right, even an obligation, to impose that truth on the rest of us...
      The whole business of seeing truth claims a priori as a threat to social order is not something foreign to our current discourse. When someone simply states an opinion on a moral issue or social question, and the mere stating of their opinion brings down upon them the rage of society, and even the attention and scrutiny of the government, that is the viewing of 'truth claim' as a threat to society.
      Of course this is deeply inconsistent, as everyone is making truth claims all the time. It's generally the unpopular or incovenient or soically unfashionable truths that are decried as intolerant and hateful. i suspect we are further down this road in Canada than you are.


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