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Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | by Carl E. Olson | May 22,
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."
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
The Cardinal, the Pope, and Relativism
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,
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:
This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society.
If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy,
people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone
else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. . .
. In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely
binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting
sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable,
everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental
rights, the right to life. (par 20)
The Way, the Truth, and the Cure
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"
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:
Iesus ("On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ
and the Church") from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (August
et Ratio ("On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason") by Pope
John Paul II (September 14, 1998).
Refutation of Moral Relativism
(Ignatius Press) by Peter Kreeft. A fictional conversation between an
absolutist and a relativist highlights the philosophical and moral flaws
by G.K. Chesterton. An apologetics classic that shows how secularism and
relativistic ideas cannot give a convincing or meaningful reason for reality.
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.
or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism (Ignatius Press) by
Thomas Howard. An inspiring apology for Christianity, and a stirring critique
[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
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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