April 19, 2005


Culture in Crisis: Cardinal Ratzinger has diagnosed relativism’s evils, and offers an alternative. (Michael Novak, 4/19/05, National Review)

In today’s liberal democracies, Ratzinger has observed, the move to atheism is not, as it was in the 19th century, a move toward the objective world of the scientific rationalist. That was the “modern” way, and it is now being rejected, in favor of a new “post-modern” way. The new way is not toward objectivity, but toward subjectivism; not toward truth as its criterion, but toward power. This, Ratzinger fears, is a move back toward the justification of murder in the name of “tolerance” and subjective choice.

Along with that move, he has observed (haven’t we all?), comes a dictatorial impulse, to treat anyone who has a different view as “intolerant.” For instance, those (on the “religious right”) who hold that there are truths worth dying for, and objective goods to be pursued and objective evils to be avoided, are now held to be “intolerant” fundamentalists, guilty of “discrimination.”

In other words, the new dictatorial impulse declares that the only view permissible among reasonable people is the view that all subjective choices are equally valid. It declares, further, that anyone who claims that there are objective truths and objective goods and evils is “intolerant.” Such persons are to be expelled from the community, or at a minimum re-educated. That is to say, all Catholics and others like them must be converted to relativism or else sent into cultural re-training camps.

On the basis of relativism, however, no culture can long defend itself or justify its own values. If everything is relative, even tolerance is only a subjective choice, not an objective mandatory value. Ironically, though, what post-moderns call “tolerance” is actually radically intolerant of any view contrary to its own.

Most of the commentators, however, even those who support him, are misinterpreting Ratzinger’s point. They are getting him wrong.

What Ratzinger defends is not dogmatism against relativism. What he defends is not absolutism against relativism. These are false alternatives.

What Ratzinger attacks as relativism is the regulative principle that all thought is and must remain subjective. What he defends against such relativism is the contrary regulative principle, namely, that each human subject must continue to inquire incessantly, and to bow to the evidence of fact and reason.

The fact that we each see things differently does not imply that there is no truth. It implies, rather, that each of us may have a portion of the truth, and that in this or that matter some of us may hold more (or less) truth than others. Therefore, since each of us has only part of all the truth we seek, we must work hard together to discern in all things wherein lies the truth, and wherein the error.

Ratzinger wishes to defend the imperative of seeking the truth in all things, the imperative to follow the evidence.

This is where post-modernists fail to understand the critique they borrowed from pre-modernists: hat Reason can not yield truth doesn't mean there is none.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2005 8:05 PM

I see no inherent contradiction between (a) believing that all human thought is subjective, and (b) believing in the existence of objective truth.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 19, 2005 8:34 PM

Depends on how you define objective truth, I imagine.

I think the problem with the belief in objective truth (as regarding matters of eschatalogy) is that it may automatically blind one to other ways of thinking that could also lead to truth.

(In other words, there may indeed be more than one way to skin a cat. Or, is truth a single, shining beacon? Or is it an aggregate? Or, is truth the destination, or is it the path? Or maybe, should dualistic thinking be banned entirely? E.g., why not promote a kind of religious quantum theory?)

The goal, as Abraham realized (if I may be so bold), was to believe in the one God---not just "one God". (Kindly allow for my biases.)

On the other hand, I'm all for choosing one religion, with care, and running with it, and letting it take you as far as you're willing to go. For there is value in it.

Not forgetting that so often, the questions are far more important than the answers. (Realizing, on the other hand, that we, generally speaking, are so, so hot for certainties. Hmmm.)

But then again, I may be wrong about all that.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 20, 2005 4:18 AM