When we speak about the “eclipse of God” in modern Western societies – as I have been doing recently – we cannot avoid talking about relativism. The loss of a sense of God, and the loss of a sense of truth, are related phenomena; and both have been highlighted by Church leaders as urgent problems of our time.
The future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger, linked the “eclipse of God” to the eclipse of truth in a 1996 address, “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today.” Fundamentally, I agree with this diagnosis: the possibility of faith is radically threatened by challenges to the concept of truth.
That said, my impression – from experience in journalism, mainstream Catholic education, and the secular culture – is that Christians have not been very effective, in our efforts to engage and change the constellation of beliefs and attitudes that we call “relativism.”
Religious believers often treat relativism as a kind of abstract intellectual specter: a singular demon that we can drive out, if we simply persist in demonstrating its philosophical incoherence and its bad cultural consequences.
Relativism is illogical, to be sure: the denial of truth itself is either false or meaningless. And its bad effects are legion: a purely pragmatic concept of morality can, and will, be invoked to justify nearly anything. (The twentieth century proves as much.)
But we have been stressing these points for decades, while making rather limited headway against “the central problem for faith today.” Good arguments notwithstanding, something seems lacking in our approach to the problem of relativism.
Problems go unsolved when they are misunderstood. I suspect that many Catholics, and other Christians, have somewhat misunderstood the phenomenon of relativism – not so much from a philosophical standpoint, but on the human level. I call these misunderstandings “myths about relativism.”
The first major myth about relativism, is that it is mainly a self-conscious ideological conviction: a philosophical stance that can be defeated by a philosophical refutation.
While this may be true in some circles, it does not seem typical on the ground level. Among non-scholars, relativism is more often a loosely-defined attitude than a rigorous intellectual posture. It is the attitude one contracts, as it were, by breathing the atmosphere of a skeptical, hyper-pluralistic age.
The second major myth about relativism, is that it is primarily a way of rationalizing forbidden behaviors. On this account, the denial of truth is a bad-faith justification for acts that would otherwise trouble the conscience.
Again, this account has some validity. But in general, I am reluctant to see relativism merely as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths. Even if this motive is present, I suspect relativism often also involves genuine intellectual puzzlement, a mentality more in need of assistance than rebuke.
Turning, then, to “myth #1”: the myth of relativism as a rigorous philosophical ideology:
If relativism were mainly a philosophical conviction, we would expect it to be applied more strictly by those who profess some form of it. Instead, we find it is more like a mood or attitude: adopted and applied in a piecemeal fashion, to some issues but not others, inconsistently and by degrees.
It is still worthwhile to define relativism philosophically, however. Cardinal Ratzinger described it as a denial of “the existence of one valid truth for all.” I have defined it as “the insistence that we can have no knowledge of non-material truths,” leaving only various opinions of supposedly equal validity.
Logically, this is untenable. The assertion that there is no “valid truth for all,” claims universal validity for itself. Likewise, if every assertion that goes beyond natural science is only a subjective opinion, then that very statement – which cannot be a finding of natural science – has no claim to objective validity.
Most people, however, do not hold strictly to this kind of philosophical position. It is a tendency applied here and there, more than a comprehensive “worldview.” And this tendency has probably not been acquired principally through study and persuasion, but in a less conscious and deliberate way.
Why do some people incline toward relativism, if not through rational persuasion? I think it is often a misguided response to two modern realities: the experience of increased social pluralism; and the dominance of natural science as the supposedly supreme way of “knowing.”
Modern life confronts us with the immense multiplicity of religions, cultures, and beliefs. We encounter people of all kinds, who reflect a real measure of goodness – sometimes quite profound – while holding various beliefs. It is easy to rush to the mistaken conclusion that all such beliefs must be equally valid.
At the same time, we have seen the explanatory and technical power of a scientific approach which claims (albeit, dubiously) to base itself only on doubt, empirical observation, and verification. Alongside the persistent disagreement of religions and philosophies, there is the evident progress of natural science.
The social reality of hyper-pluralism makes it easy to assume that there is not “one valid truth for all.” Likewise, the contrast between many irreconcilable beliefs and traditions, and the seeming consensus and power of science, tempts some people to place all non-material claims in the realm of subjective opinion.
In a cultural climate of this kind, one easily adopts some degree of relativism – not so much as a self-conscious ideology, but as an attitude or a habit of mind that makes it easier to live in complex, confusing times. This is not to say that relativism is ever right; but it is often quite humanly understandable.
We should keep arguing philosophically against relativism. But our arguments are not silver bullets: there is no easy way to change longstanding habits of mind, powerfully inculcated by the surrounding culture. Logic has limited effectiveness against a philosophy whose adherents do not regard it as a philosophy.
Relativism must be addressed as a human and social phenomenon, not merely as bad philosophy. Relationships must be built; discussion must be fostered; new ways of seeing the world must be taught. The vision of truth as one, universal, and knowable, must be conveyed in these powerful indirect ways.
This brings us to the other myth about relativism: that it is merely a “fig leaf” placed over modern man’s guilty conscience.
This view is not wholly false. There is biblical support for the notion that some people, in some cases, culpably suppress their knowledge of the truth – rebelling against the precepts inscribed by God within the human person, then denying the existence of those precepts.
Some instances of relativism, especially moral or religious relativism, may very well spring from this motive. But we are on dangerous ground when we speak and act as though most or all denials of objective truth were borne of bad motives.
Often enough, for instance, one hears it said that the Church’s critics are mainly driven by resentment of her moral teachings; or that modern apprehension toward religion, and universal truth-claims in general, stems mostly from a desire for self-indulgence. The embrace of relativism is seen as a rationalization.
This may be true in some cases. But I do not see the causality as running only one way. There is a darkening of the intellect which results from willful transgression; but there are also cases where transgression is more an effect, than a cause, of confusion.
The denial of truth may be embraced as a justification for sin. But this can also work in reverse – with wrongs of a greater or lesser degree being committed by truly confused people, especially those who experience a crisis of meaning and purpose in the metaphysically-disoriented modern world.
Such people are not innocent of wrongdoing. But their denial of truth should not be seen merely as a way to excuse their misdeeds. Sin darkens the intellect; but intellectual confusion can also precede sin. Some moral wrongs may even stem from a badly misguided search for truth, especially the truth about oneself.
Only God can judge the motives and culpability of those who deny the existence of particular truths, or truth itself. Are they mainly rationalizing their self-willed, rebellious choices? Or are those very choices more like effects of real confusion? There is probably no simple answer. We should not assume the worst.
The denial of truth threatens faith, and the common good of society. But we cannot address this threat with simplistic misunderstandings. Relativism is not just bad philosophy, or the function of a guilty conscience. It is a complex human and social phenomenon.
How should we address it? That question is beyond my present scope; but I believe our efforts should be rooted in the principles of charity outlined by St. Ignatius Loyola:
“Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”