Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Relativism 1 ...

I've not blogged for a few days. Several reasons. One is that the weather has been wonderful I my motivation levels for sitting in the study and typing away have receded. But there's a better reason - I realise I have been doing a quasi-blog in writing in answer to thoughts and questions from some of the trainee teachers at Maryvale Institute.

I work part-time at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK, mainly on the PGCE (Teacher Training) Course. This is a ground-breaking course training teachers in RE for English, Welsh and Northern Irish Secondary (11-18) schools by distance learning. For more about the course, read here.

Now, I have entered into a correspondence with the students, who are currently studying a Unit on World Religions and Nostra Aetate. In their studies, the theme of relativism has been raised. For some, this is a very familiar theme from the teaching of the Church, especially under Pope Benedict. But clearly for others, there is much implicit relativism and little awareness of it. It seemed to me to be a good idea to edit these conversations into a series of posts. (After all, one of my maxims is that if some thing is worth using at all it is worth using more than once).

I won't identify the student who wrote the questions, for two reasons. (1) I have not asked permission, so it would be impolite to use the questionner's name, and (2) I have modified the questions a little for the purposes of this blog.

So, here goes:

Just reading about The dictatorship of Relativism by Cardinal George Pell. It is powerful stuff but I am still inclined towards thinking the author although making some very good points, is too extreme in his views. Pell thinks that true Christians and Catholics are being truly marginalised. and attacked on all sides. Well I must be a relativist. I cannot dismiss and judge other's choices in life; I feel that that is acting superior. Truth - yes, we must make a stand for truth - but, maybe it comes back to making our stand 'with gentleness' and with dialogue and communication. There is no easy answer here.

My reply
I agree to this extent. Cardinal Pell is outspoken (well he is former Australian Rules footballer after all). It is also quite right to say that we must be tolerant of others and respect their conscientiously held views. Conscience - even an incorrect conscience - is a key feature of our human dignity and it must be respected and protected.

However, there is a very subtle shift which is often made in the modern world from tolerance and respect of different views to a belief that all views are more or less equal. This is what is meant by 'relativism', - it is the idea that what is true for me may not be true for you, and what is right for me may not be right for you. And so, we move from a belief that there is a such a thing as truth, to a belief that there are only opinions.

Now I would hold that this approach, while it has some attractions (live and let live, one man's meat is another man's poison etc) especially in a multicultural society, is actually ridiculous, and although people might say they hold this view they don't in practice. For example, those who believe there is no absolute truth, only opinions, are the same people who would oppose attitudes to women in the developing world, and propose legislative equality for homosexual partnerships and so on. Many relativists would oppose the cultural imperialism which imposed Christian views on colonial societies, but the same people would find it hard to be critical of the missionaries who suppressed the common Indian practice of sutee, in which a widow was expected to die on her husbands funeral pyre. The conflicts which are taking place between the Church and legislatures in this country and throughout the developed world on issues surrounding human life and the family ironically show that this is the case. It is just those who reject dogma who trying to enforce a dogma of their own.

It seems to me that there may be a very real and lively debate about what it is good and true, but the relativist idea that there is no such thing as an absolute truth or goodness, is a wilful self-delusion.

... to be continued


Joe said...

Am I allowed to join in?

It might be just nit picking, or it might be a thought that sheds some light ...

Is the question of "respecting or tolerating other people's views" less a question about respecting and tolerating the views themselves and more significantly a question about respecting the person who has expressed the views?

After all, if I believe the other person's view is wrong, I believe it is wrong, and in some situations it may be appropriate for me to say that. However, how I say something is where the demand of respect for the other person comes in - and there might be occasions when silence is demanded by the requirement of respect and charity towards the other ...

Fr Peter said...

Joe - thanks for this. I think it makes a very important point. The principle is fundamentally the same as 'love the sinner but hate the sin'. I think it is very important that we do not remain uncritical of other ideas, faiths while according respect to those who hold them.
I don't think this is nit picking, but a very important clarification.