Friday, November 6, 2009

Why I Am Not A Relativist

That is the title of a chapter I wrote for the book edited by my friends Norman L. Geisler and Paul K, Hoffman, Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2006). Here's an excerpt:

In his influential work, The Closing of the American Mind, the late philosopher Allan Bloom made the observation that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. . . . The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.” Bloom was talking about both moral relativism and epistemological relativism. The latter is the view that there is no such thing as objective truth, that knowledge is relative to one’s self, culture, and/or point of view. This type of relativism will be addressed in the next chapter. In this chapter, however, I will focus on moral relativism, a view that is not limited to indoctrinated college freshmen but is dominant in North American culture.

Moral relativism is the view that when it comes to questions of morality, there are no absolutes and no objective right or wrong; moral rules are merely personal preferences and/or the result of one’s cultural, sexual, or ethnic orientation. The fact that one believes there are exceptions or, to be more precise, exemptions to moral rules does not make one a moral relativist. For example, many people who believe lying is wrong nonetheless believe it is not wrong to lie in order to protect someone’s life. These people are not moral relativists, for to permit certain exemptions to a rule one must first acknowledge the general validity of the rule. The moral relativist rejects the idea that any such moral rules exist at all.

Many people see relativism as necessary for promoting tolerance, nonjudgmentalism, and inclusiveness, for they think if one believes one’s moral position is correct and others’ incorrect, one is closed-minded and intolerant. They typically consider moral relativism the indispensable cornerstone of our pluralistic and modern democratic society. Unless we all embrace relativism, they fear we will likely revert to a moralistically medieval culture.

You can purchase the book here. You can download my chapter here.


lojahw said...

Dear Frank,
I applaud your denial of moral relativism; however, there is another kind of relativism which relates to your return to Rome. Specifically, Rome seems to exemplify relativism in the dogmas which divide it from the rest of the Body of Christ. On one hand, Rome claims that the Church determines truth through ecumenical councils and papal teaching; on the other hand, Rome has not always adhered to the truth taught by those sources.

For example, Jesus entrusted the Church to His apostles (plural), and Church practice and teaching were consistent with Jesus’ wishes for many centuries. The first four early Ecumenical Councils explicitly and emphatically defined regional jurisdictions of the Apostolic Sees (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople). However, the Apostolic See at Rome later usurped the jurisdiction of the Church in other regions of the world. This communicates the message that what was true for the Apostles and the early church was only true for a certain period of history (relativism).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church further declares that the faithful must adhere “with religious assent” to all the teachings of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him (CCC 892). Yet, compliance with this directive entails relativism. Pope John XXIII, following Pope Boniface VIII’s teaching, directly contradicted our Lord: “Into this fold of Jesus Christ no man may enter unless he be led by the Sovereign Pontiff, and only if they be united to him can men be saved.” In John 10, Jesus said that He Himself was the only legitimate “door” of the sheepfold.

There is no question also that some popes have contradicted other popes. Pope Leo I taught that Jesus was the only human without original sin (cf. Sermons 24, 26, 28), but Pope Pius IX proclaimed that Mary also was untouched by original sin (Ineffibilis Deus). A faithful Catholic Christian in Pope Leo I’s time would be a considered a heretic by Rome today. This is only the tip of the iceberg: one cannot be consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church without being a relativist regarding the historical teachings of the Church.

The spirit of relativism is also present in the interpretation of the sovereign rule of the papacy, as demonstrated by the article you recommended by Mark Shea on Unam Sanctam. Specifically, Mark reinterpreted the words, “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” to mean “be in communion with the Roman Pontiff.” Although this sounds less offensive, one cannot escape the Catechism’s definition of that communion: adhering with “religious assent to” all that the Pope teaches, including the dogma that the Church “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter . . .” (CCC 816).

The above examples indicate that relativism is endemic within the Church governed by the successor of Peter.

May the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life teach us all.

Anonymous said...

The Closing of the American Mind is a classic work of brilliance and insight. IMO, Dr. Bloom's book should be required reading for every American student.

Good post