Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict and Relativism

Matt kicks off a debate about Relativism with these words:
So I'd be interested to know if any readers can point me to anything where he [the new Pope] spells out what he thinks relativism is and why it's so problematic.
Then one of his commenters posted this interesting document written by Ratzinger himself. Here, he demonstrates a grasp of the logic of the modern secular (and relativist) world which surprised me:
Anyone who resists, not only opposes democracy and tolerance-i.e., the basic imperatives of the human community-but also persists obstinately in giving priority to one’s Western culture and thus rejects the encounter of cultures, which is well known to be the imperative of the present moment. Those who want to stay with the faith of the Bible and the church see themselves pushed from the start to a no man’s land on the cultural level and must as a first measure rediscover the "madness of God" (I Cor. 1:18) in order to recognize the true wisdom in it.
It seems clear that Ratzinger is fully aware of the forces that are driving societies (notably Europe and America) towards religious relativism; the advent of Democracy, the increasing dominance of Science. He even mentions a factor I had not considered - the influence of Indian Hinduist relativist traditions on Western thought.

Ratzinger doesn't explicitly say this, but reading between the lines I get the impression that he is acutely aware of the Big Dilemma: You can't believe in both Science and God. His conclusion is (as expected) that God (via man) "wins":
Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance? I would say the following: because it is in harmony with what man is. Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede. Kant himself must have recognized this in some way with his postulates.

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.
Bottom line, as I see it, is that Ratzinger has correctly concluded that the advance of relativism is not, in the long run, compatible with a belief in God. Therefore, in order to save the Church Catholics must oppose relativism and embrace absolutism.

Which is all well and good. In and by itself this is not an extreme position; it is simply a recognition that moral relativism will (as it is) slowly render Christian practices obsolete. If you're a Christian relativist, and you've got a well-functioning brain, then sooner or later you'll sit down and think really hard about these things and you will conclude that something has to give (either God or "relativism" which is ultimately based on science and scientific/democratic processes).

The truly interesting thing about the new Pope will be whether people who are both Christian and "modern" (most Americans, for instance) will be forced to choose sides. And if so, which will they choose?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't see the connection between science and religion you are asserting. Science, for one, is not a democratic process: in the ideal case, science does not function by the casting of a ballot in favor of one truth over another. While some intersection exists between the two, science and religion/philosophy consider questions that exist on a different, let's say superordinate, plane. Also, Jaki argues that relativity in the scientific context, which has been used by some to argue relativism as a philosophy, is the most absolutist scientific theory ever developed.

A more interesting discussion would have involved Sartre's treatment of morality compared with Benedict XVI's characterizations of (modern) relativism.