Thursday, April 21, 2005

Michael Novak on relativism, Benedict XVI

Michael Novak's credits are too long to summarize.
I am copying his comments here so I can find them and share them more easily.
Please note, emphasis is added...

Cardinal Ratzinger’s sermon on relativism at the Mass for the Election of a Supreme Pontiff hit the note most important both in his own life and in the coming life of the Church, in an age calling itself “post-modern” but perhaps more accurately described as the Age of Meaninglessness.

In his most formative years, Ratzinger heard Nazi propaganda shouting that there is no truth, no justice, there is only the will of the people (enunciated by its leader). As its necessary precondition, Nazism depended on the debunking of objective truth and objective morality. Truth had to be derided as irrelevant, and naked will had to be exalted.

To anybody who said: “But that’s false!” the Nazi shouted, “That’s just your opinion, and who are you, compared to Der Fuehrer?”

To anybody who said, “But what you are doing is unjust!” the Nazi shouted louder, “Says you, swine.”

Relativism means this: Power trumps.

Ratzinger experienced another set of loud shouters in the 1968 student revolution at Tubingen University, this time in the name of Marxist rather than Nazi will. Marxism as much as Nazism (though in a different way) depended on the relativization of all previous notions of ethics and morality and truth — “bourgeois” ideas, these were called. People who were called upon by the party to kill in the party’s name had to develop a relativist’s conscience.

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 imperative applies to daily life, to science, and to faith. The great Jewish and Christian name for God is connected to this imperative — one of the Creator’s names is Truth. Other related names are Light, and Way. Humans are made seekers after truth.
It is no more than a fact that ours is a pluralistic world, in which individuals have virtually an infinite variety of views. For Ratzinger, not only is this individual variety normal and to be praised; it shows the infinite number of ways humans have been made in the image of the infinite God. Each one of us, as it were, mirrors a different aspect of the infinite abundance of God.

But the fact of human “relativity” — that is, the fact that we each see things differently, or that the life-voyage of each of us is unique and inimitable — should not be transformed into an absolute moral principle. The fact of relativity does not logically lead to the principle of moral relativism.

No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless. Except for the fragments of faith (in progress, in compassion, in conscience, in hope) to which it still clings, illegitimately, such a culture teaches every one of its children that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

The culture of relativism invites its own destruction, both by its own internal incoherence and by its defenselessness against cultures of faith.

This is the bleak fate that Cardinal Ratzinger already sees looming before Europe. His fear is that this sickness of the soul will spread.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, moreover, it is not reason that offers a foundation for faith, but the opposite. Historically, it is Jewish and Christian faith in an intelligent and benevolent Creator that gave birth in the West to trust in reason, humanism, science, and progress, and carried the West far beyond the fatalistic limits of ancient Greece and Rome.

To the meaninglessness of relativism, Ratzinger counter poses respect for the distinctive, incommensurable image of God in every single human being, from the most helpless to the seemingly most powerful, together with a sense of our solidarity with one another in the bosom of our Creator. This fundamental vision of the immortal value both of the individual person and the whole human community in solidarity has been the motor-power, the spiritual dynamic overdrive, of an increasingly global (catholic) civilization.

That, at least, is the way he sees it. He is willing to argue out his case with all comers.

I can't figure out how to cut this down to a couple of paragraphs, so I took the whole thing. This guy should have been writing for Joe Carter's symposium.
Or maybe not. It wouldn't be much of a contest with this piece in the running.

It is imporant to note that this is Novack speaking for Ratzinger, not Ratzinger speaking himself. Moreover, there is a spate of commentary on the table that is enough to make even the most dedicated scholar go get a drink and think twice about wading into it.
But this will do for starters.
It's ideas we are after, anyway, not egos (I hope).

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I am looking at Jim's elaboration on Biblical laws in response to Dave Goodman's essay through the prism of Novack's remarks.
Try to follow that. The common denominator is stated in the very theme of the symposium: Judeo-Christian morality in an ethically pluralistic society.
Ours is by definition an ethically pluralistic society.
And thanks to the Old Testament, ours is also a Christian faith built on a Jewish foundation. It is more than a timely accident that we are having this conversation as Christian observances of seder meals (how about that for capturing and reworking an old idea?) are being planned for Easter/Passover.
I very much like the parts of Novak's remarks that I have emphasized.
It is important not to confuse "objectivity" and "subjectivism." (Notice the words are syntactically different from "objectivism" and "subjectivity." These clinical distinctions are central to the discussion, not nit-picking.)
Note, also, the diabolical manner that "tolerance" and "intolerance" get woven into the flow of ideas, along with the notion of "power," which I take to mean more than just leverage. Power, in this case, has to do with moral suasion, in the end a far more effective implement than any gun or law. I don't use the word diabolical against Novak, but against the dynamic of the discussion. I make the observation in the same way that anyone would point to any other kind of deception in order to reduce its potential impact.
The leap from subjectivity to intolerance is as real as a thunderstorm, as natural as water quenching thirst, as tempting as a seductive lady of the night to a young man's hormones.
What more evidence do we need of the reality of Satan?
It is a great comfort for me to have Novak move so clearly past this deception and into the ecuminical conclusion 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."
Like it or not, we are all in this thing together.
As Ben Franklin observed, "Gentlemen, we will all hang together, or we will all hang...separately."
For me, this easy to grasp idea (not always easy to swallow, though) is all the inspiration I need to keep me tolerant in the cleanest sense of that word, as well as ready to oppose ideas I feel are wrong.
Having said all that, it seems to me that even though faith has a vital place in the public square, its ultimate power lies not with coercion but inspiration. But here is where the notion of morality splits away from the notion of legality. I have said it so often I feel like a broken record: That which is legal and that which is moral are not congruent.
Legality does not imply goodness. Plenty of examples of legal behaviors that are wrong.
Nor does goodness suggest "there oughta be a law."
Some place in this discussion some mention needs to be made of the different ways that evil is regarded by different traditions.
I read somewhere that the notion of forgiveness as understood by Christians is not the same as it is for traditional Jews. Forgiveness is for Christians the central pillar of the faith, deriving from God's ultimate sacrifice of Jesus and bestowing upon all mankind the power to be forgiven and so to be able to forgive others.
The Old Testament notion of forgiveness is that forgiveness is a Divine prerogative, but not a mortal option. The mortal response to evil in most traditions is to distance one's self from it, to defend against it, to destroy it if possible...but not to work toward forgiveness.
Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are central to our faith.
Those are the principles that set us apart as a peculiar people.
It's late, and I have to go to bed.
I will have to continue this train of thought later.
In the meantime, I commend it to Jim Gilbert and Dave Goodwin for their/your considerations.
And I take smug satisfaction at having been an interlocutor for the two of them/you.


Jim said...

Hoots, you said, "it seems to me that even though faith has a vital place in the public square, its ultimate power lies not with coercion but inspiration." And that is exactly the point of agreement amongst Dave, you, and me. Thanks for the brilliant Novak (Novack?) piece.

Now if you can only get, the Pope, into this discussion, I'll really be impressed with your skills as an interlocutor!


Hoots said...

Thanks. I don't feel so all alone.

I'm joking, of course, because I was able to pick up the same theme in many, if not most, of the symposium essays I scanned.
If my observation is accurrate it says two things:
First, at bottom most of the writers really are tolerant, not in that poisonous, "post-modern" way but in what I call the clean sense of the word.
Second, too many people calling themselves leaders are skating very close to danger in their rhetoric. In an attempt to be bold, highly placed people often tend to speak a language of "tolerance" so infected by invective that the scar tissue they leave on those with whom they disagree is worse than the substance of any putative disagreement.

If we say nothing else for the new Pope and his predecessor we can say with certainty that neither of them can be accused of that kind of linguistic excess. Let's face it. The Roman Catholic Church, no matter how dogmatic we outside the tent want to cast it, has a wider array of "all sorts and conditions of men" than any other institution that Jesus left to follow the great commission.

I hope someone other than the three of us catches the meme. After all, it's not like we are sitting around in someone's den having a private chat. Benedict XVI would be welcome, of course, but he has a lot on his plate just now. Others, though, are welcome to join.

Dave said...

Hi Guys,

Thanks very much for your kind words and for linking to me, Hoots. As I have said before, it is extremely encouraging to know that someone is reading what I write and I appreciate your kindeness a great deal.

Nice to meet you, Jim, and I will be responding to your excellent post as soon as I can. If you check my blog you will see that things have been a bit interesting for me at the moment!

Anyway, I look forward to catching up with you both soon.

God Bless,