Profound truths are often to be found in paradox. This is why Pope Benedict XVIs attack on the dictatorship of relativism is a stoke of brilliance that will simultaneously strengthen Christianity and ease religious strife worldwide. Called fighting words by the New York Times, Ratzingers offensive undermines the liberal religious camps gambit to build unity through weakening exclusive claims to truth. The suggestion that an insistence on absolute truths will bring unity to the Christian world and ameliorate religious conflict is certainly counter intuitive.
The expression relativism in the religious context for me brings to mind two popular schools of thought that I believe are completely absurd: 1) social evolution, i.e., the proposition that human societies are evolving into progressively better states and 2) the Multifaith movement, i.e., the belief that religions are not mutually exclusive, but rather expressing equally valid and worthy paths to God, or as the so called pluralists might say, the Divine. Both these idealistic notions seem to ignore history and the daily news of the world.
Insisting that humanity is evolving towards an ever-improving condition is merely a sophisticated form of wishful thinking. The horrors of our previous century make it hard to argue that the world is getting better and fairly easy to argue we are in fact going backwards. The atrocities of WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, and mass exterminations under communism, are clear proof that the onset of modernity, the enlightenment of reason, and the progress of scientific enquiry, have done nothing to restrain mans inhumanity to man. Medical breakthroughs like penicillin and new inventions such as electricity have indeed provided massive improvements to our quality of life, but unfortunately science and technology have provided us with ever more powerful ways to destroy that quality of life, and to extinguish life itself. The shear number of deaths, and the appalling manner and reasons for the slaughter, has perhaps caused us to lapse into a state of denial regarding the stunning failure of mankind in the 20th century. The atomic bomb is perhaps the most powerful reminder that mankinds centuries on this earth do not illustrate a steady path toward an ever more peaceful and happy existence. Even if we assume that scientific knowledge is merely neutral to justice and goodness, we must conclude that humanity is actually getting worse, since we are harming each other simply out of greater malice and not solely because of the manner in which technology makes it easier for us to kill each other.
Take the recent case of Rwanda, for example, where very crude weapons were used to affect a horrible genocide. It could be argued that communications technologies such as radio and television helped spread and coordinate the violence; by contrast, the same communication tools were totally ineffectual in stopping the destruction. Through technology, we could see and hear what was going on, but our flawed humanity prevented us from doing anything about it. It seems we have not progressed as a society and are as pathetic as ever.
An example of social evolution theory in practice is religious ecumenicism, the growing philosophy proposing that the worlds religions can coexist by only accepting the proposition that there are no absolute truths. The idea that the worlds religions are gradually learning to coexist with each other is built on the spurious notion that evolved cultures are by definition more tolerant of each other. Unfortunately, recent world events do not exactly evidence a blossoming of global togetherness and reconciliation. On the contrary, world religions are becoming progressively more divergent and exclusive in their claims and practices. For proof of this, look no further than the doctrines of the new Pope, the rise of Islamic states, and the re-election of George W. Bush. Religious people having a huge impact on world affairs are not the ones with a relativistic bent; they are absolutist. And herein lies the genius of Joseph Cardinal Ratzingers assault on relativism.
The common enemy of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Budhism, Hinduism, Sikism, and all other faiths more than mildly dedicated to their various creeds, is the global movement to undermine those very creeds, abandon orthodoxy, and neutralize proponents of adherence to religious tenets. Creeds, designed to enshrine orthodoxy and exclude heresy, are antithetical to the concept of truth as existing only as a relative position based on ones subjective perspective. Creeds would never have arisen if truth were deemed relative, as they would be deemed to introduce unnecessary exclusivity. In a pluralist, multifaith world, faith statements should multiply infinitely, as we are encouraged to see the unity in the diversity and seek heterodoxy as opposed to orthodoxy. In the relativistic world of Multifaith, dogma is anathema and orthodoxy becomes orthopraxis. Praxis, the putting into practice of ones beliefs, under a pluralist outlook, becomes the ultimate standard of faith, as opposed to the traditional view that in order to be saved one must believe the right beliefs. But, as Ratzinger points out in Relativism: The Central Problem For Faith Today (1996), in the context of analyzing failure of praxis in communist regimes they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. Ratzinger paints relativism as the bringer of a great darkness, where we follow practices that we are asked to admit have no proof of efficacy for anything, save perhaps the pleasing of a consensus of our peers. Is this a philosophy that will unite the world?
There is a long standing and notion in the populace that religious intolerance is the prime impediment to world peace. John Lennon perhaps best expressed this sentiment in the song Imagine, his utopian vision of a world living in peace. Imagine no Religion Lennon wrote, adding that the concepts of heaven and hell prevent us from dealing with the very real problems of this present world. Imagine all the people, living for today In sharp contrast, all major world religions pin mankinds tragic downfall on the transient, corruptible, self-absorbed nature of temporal reality, with all its puerile appetites and lust for power. Religions encourage us to seek eternal truths emanating from divine sources beyond ourselves. To the vast majority of the worlds populace, a world without religion would be one devoid of all hope, where evil and violence would run rampant. As Lennon humbly admitted, you may say Im a dreamer, but Im not the only one. There is a certain nobility in holding to beliefs that swim against the tide, which, ironically, is the essence of dogma, asserting that specific truths are absolute. Relativists are in essence unwitting absolutists, positing that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Therein lies the fatal flaw, and Pope Benedict is going after it, to expose it as a week and bankrupt philosophy. Good for him.
So how is an attack on relativism going to reduce religious strife? Ratzinger has seen that the bridge between religions is to affirm the right of each worldview to claim primacy over the other. By affirming the philosophical validity of proposing absolute and exclusive truths (that Mohameds revelations supercede those of Christ, or visa versa, for example), religious zealots are encouraged to proselytize, winning over converts to their world view. In a world where evangelism is tolerated, and even encouraged, religious strife does not increase; rather, I would suggest, strife decreases. Currently, global religious persecution takes the form of discouraging or forbidding proselytizing. In the Muslim world, it is widely forbidden to preach the Christian Gospel. In the Western World, we have so negatively stereotyped Islam, that the minds of the populace are closed to it. Meanwhile, we fail to see that the Dhali Lama is an evangelist.
In conclusion, we see that revivalism has failed to inspire unity, and absolutism should be given a chance to reduce geopolitical tensions. It is hardly peace inspiring to say to a person of faith that their position is no longer valid. Perhaps the worlds orthodox believers should unite in a rousing redux of Lennons immortal chant: All we are saying, is Give Dogma a Chance.