Relatively Speaking

Profound truths are often to be found in paradox. This is why Pope Benedict XVI’s 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, Ratzinger’s offensive undermines the liberal religious camp’s 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 man’s 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 mankind’s 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 world’s religions can coexist by only accepting the proposition that there are no absolute truths. The idea that the world’s 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 Ratzinger’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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 mankind’s 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 world’s 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 I’m a dreamer, but I’m 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 Mohamed’s 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 world’s orthodox believers should unite in a rousing redux of Lennon’s immortal chant: “All we are saying, is Give Dogma a Chance.”

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8 Responses to Relatively Speaking

  1. crappyhappy says:

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    and enjoyed your writing.
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  2. I enjoy your writing very much. I will be following the blog.
    Rich Vecchio (Olivet Baptist)
    rv_126@yahoo.ca

  3. Seth Fisher says:

    I think you make a critical error in your reasoning. You describe those who were offended by the Pope’s claim of primacy as logical relativists, suggesting that if one cannot agree that the Pope’s word is absolute truth, one thus must not believe in absolute truth.

    There’s a big difference between the understanding that there are, in fact, things that are true and others that are false, and pointing to one set of beliefs and calling that the only path. What if we’re all wrong, and the absolute truth is somewhere else?

    A conversation between absolutists is boring, if it’s a conversation at all: I say X, you say Y, I reply with X, you reply with Y, and nobody gets anywhere. Consider the religions in this world that claim primacy, with which Catholicsm is joining: Evangelical Christians (America’s biggest douches), Cultists (nutjobs) and Radical Islam (the scourge of mankind), all people who invite no discussion. I should also add Communists and Fascists to this list, for they, like absolutist religions, care much less for proving or improving their tenets, and spend much of their time finding ways to trick or force others into believing their dogma.

    I once was at a social gathering where a communist was preaching downstairs and an evangelical Christian was preaching upstairs. The more I saw these two in action, the plainer it became that they were essentially the same creature, one interested in gathering converts to the absolute truth in which they believed more so than seeking an absolute truth.

    To claim only your religion is valid closes the door on being able to learn from other religions. I think we’re all aiming in the best direction we can, given what we’ve got to work with, but since nobody can see G-d directly, it takes an awful lot of hubris to claim “I’ve hit the mark.” It seems better to me by far that we continue trying to refine our shots and discuss strategies together, rather than holler from absolute positions about which group is perfect.

    You also used a fallacy in connecting totalitarianism, which is an absolutist school, with the idea that peace comes through understanding each other. Is it not strange to you that the Holocaust was perpetrated by practitioners of Western Society’s most dogmatic religion against Western Society’s most relativist religion? Take it from a group of people who have suffered from self-proclaimed Christian Evangelists throughout the centuries: dogmatism breeds intractability and allows faith to turn to force.

    Please note that it was not Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists or mainstream Protestants and Muslims who perpetrated the Inquisition; the Holocaust; the genocides of Cambodia, Bosnia and Armenia; the pillaging of Africa; the Great Purge; and the wiping out of the American nations. The world’s greatest atrocities were one and all committed by the world’s greatest dogmatists, whether they espoused communism, fascism or Christianity. And pitting dogmatism against dogmatism only incites violence, as we’ve seen with the fate of Christian missionaries in dogmatic nations.

    Tolerance is not something forced. We’ll argue to our dying breath with someone over their house of cards of dogmatic principles, but that doesn’t stop anyone from having the right to deceive themselves. Is it not only fair that you acknowledge that same right in others, or at least have the decency to not claim everyone but Group X is full of it?

    I have great respect for Christianity and consider it, on the whole, one of the blessings on this Earth. The evil that has been done in the name of the Church — particularly to my people — is outweighed by the good done by this ubiquitous faith that preaches tolerance and learning and goodwill. The perspective of a Jew, I believe, can show the Catholic Faith that its ecclesia has been a greater attraction than its prostletyzation, or help to find greater substance in its symbolic acts when these are questioned by Protestantism. Such realizations come through continued respect and discussion, not by restating our separate principles till we’re all blue in the face.

    • dbrett says:

      Thank you Seth for your in depth response! You clearly have thought deeply about this topic. However, I must insist that it is you who has put forward flawed logic.

      First of all, you do not appear to have actually read the article you are commenting on. You criticize me for taking a position on the Pope I never took. You say my view is that if “…one cannot agree that the Pope’s word is absolute truth, one thus must not believe in absolute truth.” If you read my article, you will find that I never even remotely suggested that the Pope’s word is absolute truth.

      Perhaps you have erroneously assumed that since I have written a more or less positive piece on the Pope that I must be Catholic. I am not Catholic. I am Protestant. (Since you indicate you are a Jew, I would suggest you read my other article on this blog entitled “Christians, Jews and The Passion,” wherein I chronicle, in some detail, anti-Semitism as manifested in “Christendom,” in particular, the Catholic Church. This article is highly critical of the Catholic Church, and other Christians throughout the ages, and is partly in response to the film The Passion directed by suspected ant-Semite Mel Gibson.)

      Your interest in logic is laudable, so it is indeed ironic that most of your arguments are mainly ad hominem. You resort to name calling, which is not the mark of someone dedicated to the logic of things. Rather, it is the mark of someone who is angry and seeking to lash out. Like the communist and the evangelical at your social gathering, you have climbed onto a soap box to deliver a tirade of your own. You sanctimoniously encourage dialogue between faiths, but how much dialogue are you going to inspire by calling the other party a “douche”?

      Like all relativists, you piously cloak yourself in the robes of “tolerance” and pretend that you have no unshakable core beliefs. But my point is that you do have immutable core beliefs, and you should not be ashamed of having them. As an ardent relativist, you are really a closet absolutist.

      You also incorrectly assume that arguments between absolutists are interminable and futile. On the contrary, a frequent outcome of a discussion between absolutists is the conversion of one or the other. Conversion is anything but boring! Conversion from one world view to another is variously described as “enlightenment,” “re-birth,” “salvation,” and other words describing a great catharsis and awakening.

      The emotional power of conversion is what fuels all religions. Relativists, on the other hand, merely respond to religions and their passion. Now that’s boring.

      Everyone holds to at least some absolute truths. It’s time to come out of the closet and be proud of those beliefs and be prepared to take fire for having them. Don’t chicken out!

  4. Terry Harris says:

    My point of view is that the elaboration of dogma/creeds etc. is a man made process, driven by logic and rationality being wrongly applied to essentially an experiential and acceptance/surrender based process of conversion/belief. We believe in God not because it makes logical sense, but because of how believing makes us feel and how it leads us to reorganize our lives for the better. When we apply logic at all to the faith based process we fall into division and opposition with all the attendant negative effects and yes, some positive effects. How many paths are there to God? Probably N+1, where N is the number of believers. What is the basic creed/faith? Probably that there is one God who appears in many forms over time and that his message is love. Why is that all there is? Probably because God has organized the principles/laws of this universe in such a way that it is good/adaptive for us to think this way. Beyond that, elaborations of the right way, creeds etc. are all just man made customs with various levels of logical flaws. They are not that important. By all means share them, as they may enrich another’s path. However when you use them group peoples, draw lines of right and wrong, or to say who is in and out, you are falling into logical reasoning, which will always end up being inconsistent or flawed by the logical standards themselves.

    No doubt you or others will want to label this point of view with some ism. No doubt some (or many) ascetics somewhere, sometime have labeled this point of view and shown it to be logically flawed. Their error is to have engaged in that analysis at all, making their label and view not all that important.

    So the way forward is to keep to you individual experience with God, honour forms of worship/creeds etc. as you would important customs and just benignly smile at all forms of religious analysis. We all leapt to faith. Trying to now to build a staircase over that chasm is helpful for some others and nice, but not important.

    • dbrett says:

      Terry,

      Great post! Thanks! But of course I have a few responses :-).

      I agree that faith cannot be proved or disproved by logic, but once having taken the “leap of faith,” we begin to see the cosmos unfolding according to the set of beliefs we have leaped to. If we do not hold to those beliefs absolutely, have we indeed made any leap at all?

      Logic and faith are not mutually exclusive, but rather interdependent. Let’s say, for example, we have taken a leap of faith and decided that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We cannot simultaneously hold the belief that Jesus is not the Son of God.

      Faith is by definition holding that something is true in absence of proof. Once we believe something is true, we can no longer hold that it is not true. That duality of mind cannot be defined as faith.

      Terry, by adopting the creed that there is only one God, are you not excluding countless millions of polytheists who reject monotheism? You have drawn a line. Why?

      Buddhism does not posit a God. Where do they fit in your world view as you have articulated it? You expound a theistic perspective, which may exclude many.

      Liberal theologians fill volumes attempting to reconcile incompatible world views, trying to make them all fit into a system that is accepting of everything.

      This is the danger of relativism. There is no belief whatsoever that is not subject to modification. We end up with a world that is lost, unable to find real truth, embracing nihilism, and eventually finding despair. Holding to truths absolutely gives us something we must admit we need, a solid rock, to hold onto.

      All I am saying is, give dogma a chance…;-)

      Dave

  5. Terry Harris says:

    I hope other readers will excuse or find interest in a further response to Dave’s post.

    As Dave has commented from many different directions, I’ll have to use quotes.

    “…once having taken the “leap of faith,” we begin to see the cosmos unfolding according to the set of beliefs we have leaped to. If we do not hold to those beliefs absolutely, have we indeed made any leap at all?”

    Yes, we see things unfolding in accordance with our leap and our logical mind automatically starts generating cause and effect relationships. It’s a short walk then to then feeling right and that others are wrong. That’s a negative effect. Instead one can hold beliefs and offer them to others, but remain mindful that they really are just useful (and leapt to) assumptions.

    “Logic and faith are not mutually exclusive, but rather interdependent. Let’s say, for example, we have taken a leap of faith and decided that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We cannot simultaneously hold the belief that Jesus is not the Son of God.”

    Logic and faith are neither mutually exclusive nor interdependent (except when they are). Rather, both are meaning making engines/software in our brains that generate (usually) different possible answers for us. To take your example, both can be comfortable allowing for the possibility that Jesus is not the Son of God, while still holding onto the belief/assumption that he is. Rather than “duality” the descriptor is openness. The example is an “unimportant detail” however (see below).

    “Terry, by adopting the creed that there is only one God, are you not excluding countless million of polytheists who reject monotheism? You have drawn a line. Why?”

    What I said was “Probably that there is one God who appears in many forms over time…” Whatever form people have seen God (winged horse, mountain, guy in the desert) the logical meaning generator gets working and crystallizes that form and the negative effects set in. Over time, societies want to decrease these divisions among peoples (and reduce the cost of multiple temple building?) so we get pantheons of gods. Eventually those start to look logically inconsistent, so “one” gets primacy or exclusivity depending on the cultural history of the population. The point is that the form is not important and the need for it, the logic engine running amuck. What is important is that people experience divine connection, reorganize their lives for the better because of it and build connections to others outside their genetic clan, all from the basic message of love.

    “You expound a theistic perspective, which may exclude many…Liberal theologians fill volumes attempting to reconcile incompatible world views, trying to make it all fit into a system that accepting of everything…This is the danger of relativism…[Instead] holding to truths absolutely gives us something we must admit we need, a solid rock, to hold onto.”

    No doubt many are excluded (e.g. atheists, followers of gods of vengeance, people who think their religion has to be logically consistent, etc.). My intent is not to be accepting of everything. Rather it is to point out that:
    1. There are common themes/dogmas which we can all rise to and hold onto (your rock). All “Religions” will need to let some things fall away to something akin to customs;
    2. That a central part of “Religious” conflicts is a misunderstanding our nature. Your mind is not you, but rather a set of tools/engines/software where you have a choice among the different answers generated;
    3. Where faith choices/assumptions/leaps are made, later logical backfilling on the unimportant details only creates the illusion of certainty, because the divisions and conflicts among peoples necessarily engendered by that logic, eventually undermines the certainty. Instead, holding onto a core, allowing for ambiguity on the details, and building bridges/understanding of our common nature is the way forward.

    In short, be parsimonious about your dogmas and don’t be a slave to your logic generator.

    Terry

  6. dbrett says:

    Terry,

    You have obviously put a of of thought into this topic. It is a good one. But a few more questions.

    1. Jesus famously said “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In context, Jesus was not referring to praxis, i.e. not “something akin to customs,” but rather some transcendent knowledge that is transformational. If, as you say, certainty is an illusion, do you believe we can say anything is true? (If you answer yes, you are positing a dogma;-).

    2. Ratzinger, partly the subject of my original post said in an interview that relativism is the new face of intolerance. “It seems that whoever is not a relativist is someone who is intolerant” he said. If we dismiss those who hold to dogmas as merely caught up in frail human logic and dedicating themselves to matters that are “not important,” are we not again dividing people into right and wrong camps, just with different criteria?

    3. Faith calls us to accept and proclaim as true certain facts. For example, we may say “I believe in God the Father.” Are we not engaging in “logical backfilling” if we qualify such statements to accommodate non-theistic religions or pan-theists or poly-theists? Why not just accept it as true, on the face of it?

    4. It is laudable to seek “understanding of our true nature,” but, given the “illusion of certainty,” is this not a futile pursuit? Any conclusion you come to as to human nature can be dismissed as relying on frail logic.

    5. I agree that truth is attained through experience. Jesus famously said “You must be born again.”

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