Saturday, March 23, 2013

who rules the "dictatorship of relativism"?

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the "tyranny of relativism," which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.
Kyle Cupp objects:
Maybe a lot of people outside my small circles admit to thinking of themselves as their own criterion or would do so if pressed, but this would surprise me. I observe the occasional relativistic argument, but these almost always presuppose an objective principle. When some of my friends defend an "anything goes" approach to national security, they're being relativistic, but within defined objective limits. They hold national security as an absolute good.
Cupp makes the mistake of assuming that man qua individual is capable of exercising what Benedict and Francis call the tyranny or dictatorship of relativism. He reads the "dictatorship or relativism" as a description of an actual philosophical method that is consciously practiced and, therefore, reads the homily and address as critiques of individuals qua choosers and arguers. If that were the case, you would only need to kick out at a few seemingly relativistic arguments or choices to eventually stub your toe on something "objective" and "thus" refute the popes.

But for the Benedict and Francis it is in the building of the dictatorship, not its exercise, that man participates as he attempts, in Ratzinger's words, to "cope with modern times." The Christian in the modern age, for example, is "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine." He is subject to this dictatorship almost by the very fact that he lives in modern times. His non-experience of a stable criterion outside of himself is, writ large and across generations, the building up of the dictatorship. Benedict XVI emphasized this basic passivity a month after the original homily:
Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own "ego."
Francis clearly echoes this language when he says that the tyranny "makes everyone his own criterion." Something else, not in each case a man, is doing the making. The historical transition from what Ratzinger calls man's "clear faith" to his subjection to the "dictatorship of relativism" is something like the transition from Charles Taylor's "porous self" to the "buffered self":
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an "enchanted" world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less "enchanted" world. We might think of this as our having "lost" a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are "buffered" selves. We have changed.
So what does it "look like" when we, like Cupp, look around at our friends and at what their arguments actually do? I suggested to Cupp elsewhere that it is possible to take Sen. Rob Portman's "conversion to the cause of gay marriage" (and the GOP's deafening silence thereon) as a vivid example of the dictatorship in action. That may not be the best example because it sounds like an accusation of "bad faith" against either Portman or advocates of same-sex "marriage." But, again, I've been trying to emphasize the passive aspect of the idea. The rise of (certain kinds of) empathy as morally authoritative in the American public square and the constant recourse to "right side of history" rhetoric are perhaps more manageable examples. But in the end they're all bad examples because the point is that the "dictatorship or relativism" is more like an event or a doom than a choice.

The idea did not come to Ratzinger in 2005 and he did not first describe it as a "dictatorship of relativism." Look at this excerpt from his Introduction to Christianity.

For more examples, see Benedict on Europe's neglect of its spiritual heritage:
Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves.
Or Stanley Hauerwas on America's faith:
America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. 
The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be "free", which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their "freedom." 
A people so constituted will ask questions such as "Why does a good god let bad things happen to good people?" It is as if the Psalms never existed. The story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story produces a people who say: "I believe that Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion."


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