Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | by Carl E. Olson | May 22, 2005
It is, according to Pope Benedict XVI, "the most profound difficulty of our time." Pope John Paul II said it is a leading cause for lack of evangelistic and missionary zeal. And the late Allan Bloom, author of the controversial bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, said it is the only thing that many university students believe in.
All three are referring to relativism, the belief that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Relativism insists that morality, cultures, and beliefs are all of equal value, meaning, and worth. It asserts that what is true for one person might not be true for another, and each person can decide for himself what is true, good, and right. Popular expressions of relativism include comments such as, "This is true for meand so I believe it" and "What's right for you might not be right for me."
In his homily at the Mass preceding the conclave that quickly elected him Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said that "relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to todays standards." He warned: "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal ones own ego and ones own desires."
Relativism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. For example, cultural relativism holds that "truth" is merely the creation of a particular culture and what is "true" for for one culture is not necessarily "true" for other cultures. There is moral relativism, the belief that morality is a subjective social creation of a particular people in a certain time and placeand that morality can be changed as desired or needed.
Situational relativism asserts that what is "right" and "wrong" depends on the specifics of each situationnot upon objective, transcendent morality. And cognitive relativism is the philosophical belief that truth, rationality, and knowledge are relativethere is not such thing as objective, definitive truth.
The Roots of Relativism
Bloom, who taught at the University of Chicago for many years, wrote, "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative." He explained that for such students this relativity of truth is "not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society." For many people today, this belief in the relative nature of truth is a primary virtueperhaps the only virtue.
Although there is evidence of relativism among the ancient Greek sophists, fully developed relativism appeared much later in Western thought. Some scholars have located its modern beginnings in nominalism, a philosophical position claiming that reality cannot be comprehended through the use of universal and abstract concepts, but only through the study of specific, individual objects. It was William of Ockham (1298-1347), a Catholic philosopher, who set forth nominalistic thought in its most comprehensive form over against the realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. This move towards a subjective and intuitive knowledge, opposed to abstract and universal knowledge, led to later, more radical propositions in the realms of theology and morality.
Although Hegel, Kant, Marx, and others played significant roles in the development of relativistic thought, special mention goes to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Niezsche wrote that "the value of truth must for once be experimentally called into question." He insisted, "There are no facts, only interpretations"a pithy summary of the relativistic mentality, echoed by the common refrain heard in many corners of contemporary culture, "There is no truth, only opinions."
Cultural critic Roger Kimball, in Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, states, "Nietzche's influence on contemporary intellectual life can hardly be overstated." Those influenced include Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault, two intellectuals whose subversive, relativistic thought has itself had an enormous impact on academic thought and popular culture for over three decades.
Derrida's work in deconstructionwhich claims that truth cannot be known and that words have no real meaningwas a type of hyper-nominalism As Kimball notes, Derrida's famous statement that "there is nothing outside the text" is "short hand for denying that words can refer to a reality beyond words, for denying that truth has its measure in something beyond the web of our language games." Or, put in more popular terms: "Words don't mean anything."
The Cardinal, the Pope, and Relativism
In Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, then-Cardinal Ratzinger addresses relativistic assaults on truth and meaning. He is especially critical of the commonly held belief that truth cannot be knownor, if it can, it can only be "true" for certain people, not for everyone. He writes that "to lay claim to truth for one religion's particular expressions of faith appears today, not merely presumptuous, but an indication of insufficient enlightenment." And he adds that this relativism "is the most profound difficulty of our age."
In a fitting turn of phrase, he describes this as "the dogma of relativism"a dogma that despises the Judeo-Christian tradition. A dogmatic dislike of orthodox Christianity is, of course, prevalent in Western culture. As Benedict XVI points out at length, it poses many challenges, especially when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel. It's one thing to argue that Christianity it true when the culture accepts that truth can be known; it's another matter altogether when many people believe (often absolutely) that absolute truth is about as real as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
Increasingly, those who proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ and His Church are fitted with tidy labels in an attempt to dismiss them from the public square. The Holy Father observes that "the belief that there is indeed truth, valid and binding truth, within history itself, in the person of Jesus Christ and in the faith of the Church, is referred to as fundamentalism." He states, "The Christian has to resist this ideology" of false equality, relativism, and bigotry.
Moral relativism is certainly not limited to the non-Catholic realm. Many within the Catholic Church have fallen prey to the seductive call of relativism. This has led to a serious crisis among certain moral theologians who have embraced the separation between will and act, resulting in a morality essentially free of the reality of sin, shot through with "sincerity" and coated in talk of "complexity."
In turn, some Catholics have concluded that "freedom" involves choosing for oneself what is true or false. Pope John Paul II addressed this misreading of truth and morality in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), where he stated:
In Dominus Iesus ("On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church"), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made special mention of the challenge of relativism. It did not provide easy answers, but instead insisted that the only real cure was the clear and unwavering proclamation of the Gospel: "As a remedy for this relativistic mentality, which is becoming ever more common, it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ" (par 5).
In a world filled with doubt about the existence of truth, the Church and her members must continually introduce the seeking and the lost to the One who is "the Way, and the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14:6). And Pope Benedict XVI will undoubtedly be leading the way in confronting the dictatorship of relativism with the freedom of Truth.
Catholic documents and books addressing relativism and related beliefs:
Dominus Iesus ("On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church") from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (August 6, 2000)
Fides et Ratio ("On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason") by Pope John Paul II (September 14, 1998).
A Refutation of Moral Relativism (Ignatius Press) by Peter Kreeft. A fictional conversation between an absolutist and a relativist highlights the philosophical and moral flaws of relativism.
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. An apologetics classic that shows how secularism and relativistic ideas cannot give a convincing or meaningful reason for reality.
Faith and Certitude (Ignatius Press) by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. In this thorough and concise analysis of the critical questions and issues concerning faith and certitude, Fr. Dubay cuts through the relativism and skepticism of our time and exposes the deepest roots of error.
Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism (Ignatius Press) by Thomas Howard. An inspiring apology for Christianity, and a stirring critique of secularism.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the May 15, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.]
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com .
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