Posted October 03, 2011:
Breathing the Post-Modern Air

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

"That’s true for you! That’s not true for me!"

I remember the scene vividly. My niece, eight years old, was being corrected or disciplined by her mother, my sister, over some small matter I do not remember the details of.

Standing in the full dignity and wisdom of her eight years on the planet, trembling with righteous anger and outraged sensibility, she uttered her perfect and unanswerable defence: Mom, that’s your truth, not mine!

Where did she learn that at eight years old? In her (Catholic) school? From TV, movies, music? Children’s books? Probably all of the above. Relativism—it is the air we breathe in the post-modern world.

Your truth is yours, my truth is mine, and all of it is true because none of it is true because all of it is just how we feel about things anyhow. The End.

The age old human quest for wisdom and understanding, knowledge and discernment, the quest that began among the sages of the most ancient civilizations, that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Augustine and Aquinas and a host of others dedicated their lives to, seems to have terminated in one word.

Whatever. Whatever you think, whatever you feel, whatever you want to do, "it’s all good" as another common expression today goes.

Truth as a public reality is at best a social construct, infinitely malleable by whoever controls the levers of power and language at any given moment.

If truth is anything more than that, it is merely a strongly held feeling of this or that individual. All very well and good, but keep it to yourself, OK?

All of this is as familiar to us as the morning newspaper or the evening sitcom, right? As familiar to us as the arguments of an eight year old girl, or a teen-age boy.

(A speaker was introduced at a conference I recently attended on relativism, and among his listed credentials was the fact that he was the father of three teenagers and hence an expert on relativism!)

So what are we to do about this? What is our Christian response to relativism? We are not relativists—we cannot be and profess the Christian faith.

Jesus is the Lord of all creation, God is the Father of all, the Church is the necessary sacrament of salvation for the whole human race. Not one bit of orthodox Christian doctrine is "true for me but not for you."

The deepest Christian response to relativism is not, I would argue, on the intellectual level at all. It is in the field of love, of service, of gentleness and compassion towards our neighbours.

I think one of the reasons relativism is so powerful and attractive in the world today is that truth has so often been wielded as a club to beat people with, a sword that divides people into opposing and implacably hostile camps, a sword that at times is used even to divide people’s heads from their bodies!

So for Christians who are not relativists and who make it clear that we hold our truths to be really true and universally applicable, to bend down and wash the feet of the other—the one who disagrees with us, who may be hostile or suspicious or resentful of us—this is our deepest response to the relativistic era we live in.

That being said, there is a needed place for an intellectual response. After all, the arguments for relativism are persuasive to many, and may even be persuasive to us.

Why should I impose my opinions about reality on anyone else? After all, who knows what it’s all about, really!

There can be so much anger and tension around discussions of truth and falsehood, good and evil, that we all have a strong motivation to just give in, just throw in the towel and embrace the relativistic ethos of our times. Go along to get along.

But if we do that, we betray Christ. Jesus is the Lord of all creation. He is the Saviour of every human being who is destined for eternal life with him, be they now a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or one of the New Atheists currently sneering about flying spaghetti monsters or whatever.

If we embrace relativism, we turn away from Christ, and that is to set our lives on a course of tragedy and death.

But what are we to think? And what are we to do? How are we to affirm truth without being intolerant, hateful, exclusive?

Especially in matters that are not strictly private, matters of public policy and social justice—matters like the definition of marriage, the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, and other issues of justice and peace—how are we to affirm what we believe to be true in the face of a society that seems committed to relativism?

First, we need to be clear that relativism only appears to be persuasive. It is actually a deeply incoherent theory.

"There is no truth!" it is said. But those who say that claim that this statement itself is true!

Or, "there is truth, but we cannot know it." But we do claim to know that that is the case, which commits us to a whole understanding of what our minds can and cannot do, all of which is based on elaborate philosophical and psychological claims.

But relativism tells us we cannot know anything about such deep matters. We cannot use our minds to construct logical proofs; our minds cannot prove anything.

On and on it goes. In the field of moral relativism, people often say we can do whatever we want, as long as we do not hurt anybody.

In short, there are no moral absolutes. Except the one command, "Don’t hurt anybody."

But what is the rational basis for that command? It is not as if it is a self-evident truth. Lots of people manifestly enjoy hurting other people and are very good at it, as I am sure we have all learned from bitter experience!

And what does it mean to hurt another person? It sounds simple to tell, but is it?

In the immediate event, I may not seem to hurt someone, but my actions do not only have immediate consequences.

I may tell lies all day long, and even tell most of them precisely to avoid causing pain to this or that person. But over time I have eroded trust, damaged relationships, made myself unknown and unknowable, weakened all bonds of social unity and cohesion—telling myself all the while that, "Well, I didn’t hurt anyone!"

Oh, really?

We have to start there on the intellectual front, showing the inherent incoherence of relativism as a theory. It just doesn’t hold together, and we’re allowed to point that out, I think.

But we have to go on from this merely negative critique, to communicating the true sense of the words truth and goodness, as opposed to falsehood and evil, so that the radiant beauty of these concepts and the Reality to which they lead us can be better understood. And that is what I will discuss in part 2.

To be continued


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