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Relativism

I understand that one of the new Pope's major concerns is that there's too much relativism nowadays. My understanding based on everyone who seems to know of such things is that he's a very serious and accomplished theologian, so I'm inclined to believe that he's not just one of the rightwingers who spouts off ("relativism! yuck!") now and again on the subject without knowing what he's talking about. As someone with even just an undergraduate understanding of philosophy under my belt, I've always found these vague condemnations of "relativism" pretty frustrating. So I'd be interested to know if any readers can point me to anything where he spells out what he thinks relativism is and why it's so problematic. My take would be that while there certainly are relativist positions that are wrong and pernicious, there are a lot of views that often get called "relativism" by their opponents that are totally defensible.

April 19, 2005 | Permalink

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» Papal Reactions from Daly Thoughts
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Comments

Relativism: The Central Problem of Faith Today, address given in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1996,
http://www.acu-adsum.org/ratzrel.pdf

Posted by: JR | Apr 20, 2005 12:09:23 AM

The key quote from his most recent homily:

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Basically, he makes a connection between between epistemological relativism on the one hand and moral relativism on the other.

Posted by: JohnFH | Apr 20, 2005 12:23:22 AM

"My understanding based on everyone who seems to know of such things is that he's a very serious and accomplished theologian..."

Please don't assume that being able to come up with an intricate rationale for why birth control is the work of Satan implies the existence of a serious thinker.

But enough about the anti-sex Nazi. That Bolton hearing was craaa-aazy.

First time the Senate has rebuked this administration on foreign policy. First time State has beaten Cheney in a long time. And some interesting implications for the nuclear option debate.

And the whole thing was just so weird. After Voinovich spoke, Lugar seemed like the last person in the room to understand what had just happened. Senators from both parties had to repeatedly nudge him before he realized he could no longer call for a vote today.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 20, 2005 12:25:12 AM

I think, from my recollections of Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, that relativism is opposed to authority.

There is truth from authority (revelation) and truth from consensus based on agreed upon standards of knowledge (or science). The latter is the truth of liberalism. At best, man's truth is imperfect, and liberalism is imperfect.

My impression is that in discussing the new Pope, however, the term relativism is being used in the restricted sense to mean that different religions may be equally valid (as in "my Father has many mansions"). Relativism leads to the errors of pluralism and tolerance. End of story.

Or is it? Gershon Sholem said that revelation is the conviction every man has deep within himself that he is right, sometimes in the face of overwhelming opposition. Of course, he may be or not. It is hard to tell when revelation is valid. Some would say that that's why we have consensus. It's confusing.

The noblest truth of revelation, for those that believe in it, is not easily dismissed. It is the one that stands in opposition to the law of nature that says might makes right.


Posted by: Harold | Apr 20, 2005 12:37:36 AM

Via Kilgore, a 1988 Andrew Sullivan piece on Ratzinger's theology. While this isn't specifically about relativism, it might provide some useful background.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 20, 2005 12:46:48 AM

Via Catholic Online:

Question: What are the problems of the Church that concern you most at present?

Cardinal Ratzinger: I would say simply the present difficulty to believe. [There's] relativism, which is already spontaneous for the human being of our times.

Today it is regarded an act of pride, incompatible with tolerance, to think that we have really received the truth of the Lord. However, it seems that, to be tolerant, all religions and cultures must be considered equal. In this context, to believe is an act that becomes increasingly difficult.

In this way we witness the silent loss of faith, without great protests, in a large part of Christianity. This is the greatest concern.

So it is important to ask ourselves how we can reopen the doors to the presence of the Lord, to the revelation that the Church makes of him, in this wave of relativism. Then we will really open a door to tolerance, which is not indifference, but love and respect for the other, reciprocal help on the path of life.


I actually find it quite similar to the internal struggles played out within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, you have people who say the group has lost its way and needs to embrace orthodoxy to rediscover its soul rather than pragmaticly trying to reach out to the most people. If the new pope has been opposed to dissenters, he is is not unlike the Democratic left that calls for the head of Joe Liebermann, the DLC, and (to a lesser extent) pro-life Democrats such as Jim Langevin and Bob Casey, Jr.

Posted by: Anthony | Apr 20, 2005 1:02:44 AM

The problem is: Relativism ==> Modernity.

I'm thinking you'll do well to look at some of the Pius's of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That's where you'll find your locus classicus for this stuff. I'd start with Pius IX, especially his encyclical the "Syllabus of Errors," and Pius X, in particular the encyclical Pascendi. Always remember that these types want to drag us all back to the day when their boots were planted firmly on our necks.

Posted by: Barry Freed | Apr 20, 2005 1:13:29 AM

I find it curious that a man who decries relativism and demands acquiesence in the universal and timeless Truth has just assumed the very position that defines exactly what timeless Truth is for a billion people. It seems his opposition to "relativism" isn't really about solipsism or moral equivication in the face of evil but the assertion of his own dogmatic power. This Pope is an authoritarian and to dispute his word is, according to him, to dispute God's word and to yield to the "ego-driven" world. The problem is, the ego driving the Catholic world is the ego of Cardinal Ratzinger. Thankfully, as a Jew, I'm under no obligation to yield to this tyrant.

Posted by: Elrod | Apr 20, 2005 1:20:50 AM

It is rather deep, but for those that are interested:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/


I consider myself a liberal agnostic, but I tend to sympathize with the idea that morality is basically absolute, i.e., there cannot be one morality or truth for the governed and another for the leaders as the neo-cons appear to believe.

Also, you can tolerate another person's ideas (i.e., refrain from burning them at the stake or sending them to the Gulag) and still believe that their ideas are erroneous. This is how I understand toleration and liberalism -- not as advocating that all ideas are equally true.

Posted by: harold | Apr 20, 2005 1:23:14 AM

I think the view goes something like this: moral "relativism"/liberalism of values leads to hedonism, as moral decisions are no longer carefully made in the light of tradition, spiritual advisors (priests) and revealed truth. This relativism has undermined the belief in truth of the revelation of God (incarnation in Jesus.) Instead, people ought to derive moral values & criteria from the theology of the RC Church.

Its in some ways a technocratic approach.

Fuller quote: "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and "swept along by every wind of teaching," looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism."

http://www.insidethevatican.com/latest-newsflash.htm

Posted by: yoyo | Apr 20, 2005 1:28:46 AM

Ratzinger has been a big opponent of the Church's efforts toward interfaith dialogue, so I expect it has to do with that.

Posted by: Toadmonster | Apr 20, 2005 1:50:40 AM

I don't know philosophy, but I think the marginalization of the "reality based" community suggests that relativism is out of control, just not on the left.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Apr 20, 2005 2:22:48 AM

Relativism = what Aristotle called prudence.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Apr 20, 2005 3:35:56 AM

My impression is that in discussing the new Pope, however, the term relativism is being used in the restricted sense to mean that different religions may be equally valid (as in "my Father has many mansions").

I think you're right. In "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today" he rejects the "blind men and the elephant" view of religion, averring that Christ is the One True God and Christianity is the One True Religion. Further, if I'm understanding him right, he rejects any middle ground with the "elephant" model, so, in his view, all non-Christian religions are completely invalid.

The "relativist" in me wants to be tolerant and respectful of his view, but I'm finding it difficult. People who believe they have a monopoly on absolute truth tend not to be very nice. They generally have no respect for other beliefs and opinions, and no compunction about imposing their own beliefs on others by any means necessary. In fact it's their 'Christian duty' to do just that. I don't think Pope Benedict will become a new Torquemada, but I'm worried about what his election will mean.

Elrod wrote, "Thankfully, as a Jew, I'm under no obligation to yield to this tyrant." Maybe not, but that doesn't mean his tyranny won't affect your life. Under John Paul, Catholicism was already finding common ground with fundamentalist Protestantism and showing greater willingness to flex its political muscles, e.g., by refusing communion to pro-life politicians. I'm afraid that Pope Benedict will do everything in his power to expand on that. That's bad news for all non-fundamentalists, Catholic or not.

Posted by: Beth | Apr 20, 2005 4:18:23 AM

My problem with relativism as usually construed is that it doesn't make a lot of sense. To argue that morality is "local" seems to change the meaning of what we mean by morality too much. To say morality doesn't exist and that we are engaged in an error when we use moral language, seems a lot more plausible than to suggest there are moral facts but they're different facts for different people at different times in different places.

Of course this is a metaethical point and most people who rail against relativism in public discourse aren't making the same point. They're simply saying (or perhaps evincing) that things like female circumcision are just wrong full stop.

Posted by: jdsm | Apr 20, 2005 4:33:34 AM

So I'd be interested to know if any readers can point me to anything where he spells out what he thinks relativism is and why it's so problematic.

He's just mad because the clocks in the Vatican are always off.

ash
['I just had to.']

Posted by: ash | Apr 20, 2005 7:29:19 AM

"Under John Paul, Catholicism was already finding common ground with fundamentalist Protestantism"

Well, if he's really serious about opposing "relativism", he won't have any truck with unrepentant heretics. I suspect, however, that given an opportunity to make common cause with them against the left, his opposition to the protestant fundamentalists will suddenly become relative . . .

Posted by: rea | Apr 20, 2005 7:47:38 AM

I heard Stephen Toulmin give a talk once in which he seemed to me to be coming close to implying that Descartes' desire for certain truth was partly a psychological need, based on the turmoil of the times in which he lived and the particularly painful circumstances of his youth (his mother died when he was young).

I asked him if this is what he indeed meant.

His response: "There's a mood in which I would welcome your depiction. But, no."

I think the ferocious need for absolute truth is indeed a borderline pathology. And as has been pointed out many times, people who believe they are in possession of this truth feel justified in doing terrible things.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Apr 20, 2005 7:55:53 AM

To say morality doesn't exist and that we are engaged in an error when we use moral language, seems a lot more plausible than to suggest there are moral facts but they're different facts for different people at different times in different places.

A very easy example involving purely factual statements can show that relativism makes sense in some contexts.
It is a true statement for me to say “Atlanta is north of me” (note: I live in St Pete FL). Three years ago however (I lived in Akron OH then) I would said, just as truthfully, “Atlanta is south of me.” Atlanta certainly has not changed its location,but I have.
There are situations where relativism is logical and works without undermining absolute truths like the location of Atlanta in my example.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 20, 2005 8:32:33 AM

How ironic. We're trying to discern the individual views of a man who believes that individual views are wicked.

Posted by: Grumpy | Apr 20, 2005 8:35:37 AM

I simply think it's an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that absolutist positions were logically blown to bits by existentialist and postmodern analyses, which really go way, way, back to Nagarjuna.

But that's just me.

But from a Christian perspective, it all reeks of what Dostoyevsky decried in "The Grand Inquisitor."

Posted by: Mumon | Apr 20, 2005 8:39:44 AM

A clock going nearly the speed of light appears to a stationary observer to be running slowly.

Posted by: A different Matt | Apr 20, 2005 8:56:36 AM

I doubt even this pope will recomend burning his opponents and their books at the stake, at least not publicly. Covert assassination of ones enemies, I think anyone who repudiates moral relativism ought to agree, is simply absolutely wrong, as are secret tribunals, stealing or selling drugs to fund covert operations, and boy buggering, whether done in the name of the Cold War or anything else.

On the other hand, I do think it was a mistake to totally abandon Latin. I wonder if they will be able to reverse that!

The paradox for me it that the Roman Catholic church arrived at its absolute truths through consensus, namely at the councils of Nicea and Trent -- although the people whose point of view lost out at those councils might say that consensus was reached through riding roughshod over the opposition.

I prefer what I was once told was the Talmudic position that the truth is a diamond with many facets (I think the real and less attractive saying is that God is a diamond with many facets). In other words there is a real truth out there, but our various and imperfect perceptions give us different versions of it.

Posted by: harold | Apr 20, 2005 9:18:41 AM

A rational AIDS policy is the devil.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 20, 2005 9:29:13 AM

"My impression is that in discussing the new Pope, however, the term relativism is being used in the restricted sense to mean that different religions may be equally valid (as in "my Father has many mansions"). Relativism leads to the errors of pluralism and tolerance. End of story."

Er... "My father has many mansions" was not an endorsement of other religions. I think it just means that there will be a lot of people in God's kingdom and that they will all have a good "afterlife," although strictly speaking in Christian terms, it's a new life, not an afterlife.

I don't see why people see Ratzinger's position as so terrible. I mean, he's a Catholic. What do you expect? Catholicism teaches that hte Church is the way to God. Biblical Christianity teaches that Christ is the one and only way to God. For him to say that there are many different ways to God would be heretical.

Stop insisting that Catholics be agnostics.

Posted by: Glaivester | Apr 20, 2005 9:33:45 AM

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