What's so scary about relativism?

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger nailed the papacy, it appears, with a rant against relativism just before the conclave doors were locked. “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism,” he preached, “which does not recognize anything as for certain.”

The ploy is not isolated. George W. Bush won his presidency by assuring the Christian right that he was no moral relativist and stood for absolute values such as Life. Up here, the National Post often attacks relativism, cultural and moral — sometimes in the form of identity politics or multiculturalism — because these things undermine Western values, Western civilization or just “our side.” This week, the Post ran a long defence of the new Pope's anti-relativism.

But really, what's so scary about relativism? After all, it isn't even all that relative. As Bertrand Russell once explained in his posh British way, “If everything were relative, there would be nothing for it to be relative to.” The point of “relativists” is not that everything thought by anybody is true, but that any view might hold some truth and no one vision can contain it all.

There now, that wasn't so upsetting, was it?

This is sometimes called perspectivism, the notion that every view of reality emerges from a particular standpoint, so each of us has only a partial grasp of “the” truth. It doesn't mean there is no truth, just that anyone can grasp only a limited piece, if that. So truth arises in a cumulative, ongoing, tentative way. This harks back to ancient Greece and what scholars call, in the Pope's native tongue, the homomensurasatz, which, I hasten to add, has nothing to do with gay rights or same-sex marriage. It is the claim that man, i.e. human individuals, is the measure of all things, since there is no platform for thought above or outside us.

It's clear the new Pope finds this kind of thing upsetting; he used the term “agitated,” as he described the mood of questioning in the late 1960s. He sees it, citing St. Paul, as “letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching.” He wants people to be “true adults” who don't follow “waves of fashion” — though some might say it's childish to see the world in stark alternatives: rock-solid absolutes versus windblown relativities.

In this way, too, the Pope's tone is typical. Much of today's world is “agitated” by challenges to authority, as it was in the 1960s. The last U.S. election was a virtual rerun of those conflicts. For some reason I don't grasp, the species seems to divide between those who need to know with certainty, and those who don't, or even prefer challenge and uncertainty.

It's a shame. I mean, and I know this sounds a bit stupid, why should truth matter so much? Especially since, as Nietzsche said, “Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for knowledge.” He meant our minds. What are they designed for? Wondering. Pondering. Asking. There are times when it's nice to know, and times that it's necessary. But those tend to be specific moral or practical moments. On broad metaphysical or theological questions, what is the urgency, really? Hannah Arendt wrote that we expect truth to come from thinking because we mistake the urge to think with the urge to know. Where knowing works best, in science, it is always tentative, gradual and rejoices in overturning what it once knew.

At Brandeis University, where I did my undergrad, there was a sort of plaza of chapels — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish — where, it was said, “three faiths go their separate ways . . . together.” At the time, I thought it was pathetically corny. Now I think it was just hopelessly parochial. What about Islam? What about the East? Aboriginal religion? But this Pope has declared even other Christian churches “deficient,” and anyone who objects as “absurd.”

I don't think it's easy for Catholics or anyone else to retool their thought processes away from a focus on absolute truth. It means radically rethinking thought itself, from a quest to know, into a process less about truth than about exploring the world and the human condition thoughtfully and, to some extent, for its own sake. You can decide for yourself which you think is the more adult approach.

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