Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Root and Face of Relativism

Traces spoke with David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of Communio, and Academic Dean and Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America

Edited by Michelle Riconscente

Could you explain what relativism means?
In the etymological sense, it has to do with relation, from the Latin, “refero,” to refer or carry back to. Relativism implies reference to many, not to one: there is no universal truth, only many different truths.
It’s important to see that the origin of relativism actually lies in the sin of Adam, in his refusal to obey: his failure to accept being bound to another, which is to say, his premature assertion of his own creative capacity. In the most radical sense, relativism is a refusal of being a creature and thus making oneself the creator. Insofar as you act in the way that Adam did, you’re removing the source of truth from the Other and in that act seeking to become the source yourself. The first point, then, especially if we’re going to talk about America, is that the problem of relativism is finally the problem of God, because it’s a problem of what is ultimately the single, overarching measure of things.
In ontological terms, Adam’s sin consists in the replacement of the idea that “the true and the good and the beautiful are first given with being” with the notion that “things become true and good and beautiful insofar as they are the product of human agency.” You can see how this flows from what Adam did, because Adam refused to accept the given-ness of things, of being bound to this order. That is, according to this false understanding, truth is no longer something I first receive. The good and the beautiful are no longer in the first place things that happen to me and elicit my response, but rather things take on their value first by being projections of human freedom, products or objects of human choice. Truth becomes something we first make; and if we have that view, it’s going to be relativistic, by definition, precisely because truth then is no longer relative to the single ultimate source and measure of truth. I think that that’s the core.

Yet, it’s clear that I haven’t generated everything around me or myself.
I think we don’t allude to this enough in our culture. Ask any person, “What’s most important in your life?” Your friends, your intelligence, your car, your kids, your parents… There’s not a single thing among these that you first chose. In other words, none of these realities is a possession except as already inside a prior gift. What happens is you’re attracted and that draws you forth. In Giussani’s terms, all of this is implied in what he calls elementary experience.

If relativism was there from the very beginning, as you’re saying, how did it take on different expressions historically? How did it become an explicit stance?
This question takes us to the core of modernity. What characterizes a traditional society is a sense of meaning as given, that what’s true and good has a transcendent source. Classical civilizations–Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian–had this characteristic. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t sin in these societies, but that the public order of these societies presumed that meaning and truth are something into which I have to fit, so to speak, something that is not simply my project. What’s lost in modernity is the sense that reality as such is a gift, that the good and the true are first inherent in things by virtue of their creation by God; that meaning bears a religious sense, a movement from and toward the transcendent. The public order of modernity, seen in this context, is no longer formed in a deep enough disposition of listening and obedience. Obedience, on the contrary, is looked at by definition as moralistic.
If we jump now to where America is with respect to modernity–because there’s European modernity and there’s American modernity–we can say that in America there’s this profound moral energy that is lacking in Europe. It’s manifest for example in the evangelicals and the energy regarding questions of abortion, euthanasia, and so forth. But, at the same time, the problem in America is that we embody perhaps the purest form of the view that something is true because and insofar as it is made (“verum quia factum”: Vico). The great question, then, is whether America’s moral energy can be transformed sufficiently in and through recuperation of the religious sense in all of its ecclesiological and ontological dimensions.
Again, the problem of relativism in America is ultimately a problem of the religious sense, rightly understood. And here we need to understand further that the issue as it pertains to America is not so much the absence of religion as the absence of a religion formed in the Virgin and in sacrament.

If the relativistic position is ultimately less human, and therefore less satisfying, how do you explain the tenacity of that position?
I think we’re too distracted. In other words, if you think the truth is not relativistic, the first thing you think of is a limit, a constriction, something that is going to bind or limit your choices. The only way to break out of that, finally, is through an attraction which binds you. Through an experience of really being bound through a love, a great love, one discovers that being bound is in fact liberating. The problem is that the prevalent form of freedom lacks the patience to go to the depth of love that enables one to experience this.

In terms of development of thought, where does relativism lead?
I think we’re seeing more clearly now that intolerance is built into relativism. From the beginning, there’s been an inner contradiction in the claim of relativism, and now that Christianity has largely ceased to shape the dominant culture, the inherent intolerance of relativism is becoming more clear. What’s interesting is that early liberals like Locke understood this and even said it. When he talked about tolerance in society he made some exceptions, and the exceptions were that the only people who ought not to be tolerated are the intolerant, meaning the people who are non-relativists. So there is an inherent contradiction, because to assert that relativism is the truth is to contradict oneself. That contradiction is rarely brought into the open today, but it’s always there, which means that whenever you want to reassert relativism, you need to exclude any of those who hold the truth, or hold that there is truth.
The dominant claim today is that what really secures people’s freedom and rights is a relativistic conception of truth. The assumption is that a non-relativistic conception of truth leads to totalitarianism: you have the truth, and it’s true for everybody, and so you impose it. So we think we’re going to avoid totalitarianism by saying there is no truth. But, as Cardinal Ratzinger clearly implied in his homily to the cardinals prior to the conclave, relativism carries its own absolute claim, which essentially excludes any claim to truth other than relativism.
This takes a very concrete form. The best defenders of democracy would say, “We have nothing against the fact, for example, that you think of marriage as monogamous and between a man and a woman. Our objection is only that you want this to order society and what we want to order society is merely the freedom to choose any arrangement. So we are being liberating and you are being intolerant.” Thus, the intolerance takes the form of Christians–those who would defend a certain view of marriage and family–being increasingly marginalized. In other words, from the point of view of society, the one thing that Christians cannot do is assert that this is true from the point of view of humanity as such. For the purposes of society, they are allowed only to say, “This expresses our opinion.” The purpose of government, in the dominant view, is to keep alive all the possibilities contained in the private expression of opinions. It’s not likely that Catholics in America will ever have views opposed to theirs imposed by tanks. What’s more likely is that the area within which Catholics can express their truth will continue to shrink, perhaps until it occupies only the very small space of a closet!

So, given this context, what does it mean to propose Christianity?
In the end, the only way that one can propose Christianity is the way Jesus proposed it, through living a life, and within that being able to articulate reasons, to “give an account for the hope that is in you.” Our tendency is always to think first of a project. And that has its place, but I think none of this really is fruitful except through loving people and forming friendships because, in the final analysis, people are moved in the context of a relation. You love them, they are attracted, and that becomes an invitation to respond in a certain way. But we also need to understand that Jesus does not promise us “success,” but only Resurrection, and resurrection presupposes a death. A way of friendship that doesn’t involve in some significant sense a crucifixion is not Jesus’ way of friendship.

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