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relativismWhen Pope Benedict warned about “the Dictatorship of Relativism,” he meant it. Literally.

This was hammered home not long ago when I was speaking to a group of students about the issue of same sex marriage. I prefaced the discussion with a description of relativism saying that this non-philosophy was now the mainstream, default setting in our society. “The way you can tell that relativism is mainstream,” I said, “is that there is no such thing as rational debate. In the absence of objective truth, there can be no debate, for a debate is dependent on the assumption that there is something to debate. A debate can only take place if there is such a thing as truth to be debated, and without that basic assumption, one person’s opinion on a matter must be as valid as the next person’s. In the absence of objective truth, the only way to make a decision is utilitarianism or sentimentality.”

So I posed a question to three of the students: “Jane, if you have an opinion, and Jerry, you have an opinion, and Jade, you have an opinion, and your opinions differ, and the only thing you agree on is that there is no such thing as truth, and the three of you completely disagree… who will prevail?”

Jane shrugged. Jade said, “Whoever is the loudest.” Jerry said, “Whoever is the strongest.” All three correctly assessed the situation. In the face of relativism the response of the society in general reflects the three answers. First, there is indifference. Second, there is emotional anger. Third, there is force. Co-incidentally, the conversation took place the same evening that the city of Baltimore was erupting into absurd and horrifying violence, and that urban violence is a reflection of the inner state of mind and heart of a society without objective truth. In Baltimore that evening those who were indifferent stood by in horror as the loudest prevailed, soon to be outgunned by those who were strongest.

The cause of this indifference, rage, and ultimate violence is the lack of any objective truth; but lest we become too intellectual in our analysis we should make it clear that by “objective truth,” we do not simply mean verbal propositions that we believe to be factual. By “objective truth” we mean more than a philosophical treatise, a theological creed, or a political constitution. Instead, by “objective truth” we mean a cohesive and integrated system of thought which makes sense of every aspect of reality. This cohesive system of thought even makes room for that which is unpredictable and inexplicable by allowing for certain uncertainties. Finally, this “objective truth” is not only a statement of truth propositions and a cohesive system of analysis and integration, but it is also a model for life, a code of behavior, a chart for relationships, and a blueprint for community co-existence. In other words, for this truth to be true it must wear working clothes. It does so not only to prove its practicality, but also to prove its durability. The truth must work and keep working. It must be alive and active and real.

This cohesive, integrated system of thought which we regard to be true is what has been destroyed by the poison of relativism, and the result of relativism can only be dictatorship. The strong must prevail. Nietzsche was right in a way he did not foresee. Nihilism will produce the übermensch not because it should, but because it must. It must because there is no other alternative to the nihilism of relativism than the triumph of the superman. If all is relative who wins the argument? The strongest.

The most terrifying aspect to this truth is that the indifferent will cry out for the domination of the superman. Most dictatorships are welcomed for what they offer. In the lack of objective truth and objective morality what the strongman says is true and what the strongman does is good. Suddenly out of the quicksand of relativism salvation comes. A light shines in the darkness. If the dictator cannot bring meaning out of the mindlessness, at least he can bring order out of the chaos. If he cannot bring beauty out of the beastliness, at least he can promise security in the midst of terror. If he cannot bring morality out of the morass at least he can impose law on the lawless.

This is why, in the end times, “the abomination of desolation will stand in the holy place.” The antichrist will stand there and he will be worshipped and adored for he will save his people from their relativism. He will promise to deliver them from their self created hell while still allowing them all their decadent pleasures. He will be someone at last to believe in and serve and they will fall at his feet like a million gibbering gollums, longing to be his devotees, his debauchees, his supplicating victims, and his willing slaves.

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21 replies to this post
  1. Of course, Relativism did not fall into the modern mind out of the clear blue. Several other “isms” preceded it, and other “isms” will necessarily follow from it. Its theological successor is atheism, and its political successor is totalitarianism (today’s smug, bleeding-heart Relativist is absolutely blind to that fact). But recognizing its philosophical predecessors is very important if there be any chance of avoiding those dire consequences.

    Relativism is a kind of disorder, or rather a denial of order, a neutralizing of order, that stems from other disorders. The beginning of all disorder is in the denial of the moral authority of God. It happened when the first angels fell from Heaven, again in Eden, once more at the Crucifixion, and in “modern” times, at the Reformation when the legitimate moral and doctrinal authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ was deliberately rejected. Following on that great error was borne the great philosophical errors that led in stages, inevitably, to Relativism. This rejection, according to Fr. Felix Sarda Y Salvany, is the definition of Liberalism. Once the moral and doctrinal authority of the Church is rejected, that authority must fall onto something else — namely the individual, and thus the first philosophical error flowing from the Reformation, Individualism, is born. Following on that, again necessarily, comes Rationalism. Deism, the infancy of Secularism, Naturalism, Darwinism, Nihilism, Scientism, full-fledged Secularism, Feminism, Relativism, Atheism and finally Totalitarianism. That Protestantism taken to its theological conclusion ends in atheism is not simply a thoughtless attack on it, but something accepted by great thinkers, including former Protestants (like Newman and Chesterton), for centuries. Catholicism is the only thing that can sustain true faith in God. But as logically weak as Relativism is, even Catholicism has trouble combating it, because once invoked, Relativism ends all debate. It is the ultimate debate-stopper. No matter what logical arguments are made, the moral and cultural Relativist simply says, “well, that’s YOUR truth,” and then goes merrily on his way having utterly stopped any further discussion. Perhaps the only chance for a return to reasoned debate is to appeal to the very source of the Relativist’s error — his pride. If he can see that his Relativism denies human reason by eliminating logical premises, that his Relativism cannot sustain true liberty, and that that is nothing to be smug about, there is a chance that he will backtrack through all those erroneous “isms” and acknowledge the initial disorder that started the whole downward spiral. It’s a long-shot, but otherwise, apart from the intervention of God Himself, we are left to endure the ominous conclusions that follow from the denial of truth.

  2. Fr Dwight
    Thank you for your insight on an issue that I have for a long time considered to be the moral crisis of our generation. The rejection of the transcendent DivineTruth. Relativism is like the path of good intentions. We all know where that path eventually leads. Personal sentimentality and feelings subjugating or relegating Truth to an abstract construct. The more “illuminated” and ” enlightened” our society becomes the greater the declaration that God is dead and withhis death his Truth passes away with him. Science ushering in the brave new world. Before Nietzsche there was Darwin. He started the narrative of life being nothing more than the evolution of the strongest surviving. This is the lie of Satan from the beginning. You have brilliantly articulated the consequence of this lie.
    God Bless

  3. There are a couple of concerns I have about this article. First, we need to know the limits of the cohesive, integrated system of thought we can construct. One reason for that is because we have finite minds. Another reason is because such systems cause deafness. The more we depend on our systems, on our creations, the less likely we are to listen to others whose experiences and views are different. Yes, there is objective truth. But how much command we have of that truth is debatable and history shows us that again and again.

    Second, the more loyalty we have toward groups we are in, the more probable it is that we will embrace a moral relativity. The more loyal we are to our groups, the more likely we will define right and wrong by who does what to whom. This is true whether the groups we are loyal to are defined by race, religion, national identity, ideology, or other ways by which groups are defined. The only escape from relativity that comes from allegiance to groups is the ability to practice self-criticism.

  4. Amen to this article. In college, in a not so proud moment, I argued my point with, “that is YOUR truth, not mine.” I was discussing deep issues with someone and that was what I had been taught at college, to not think. I want my money back sometimes.

  5. Fr. Dwight, interesting read and insight. Thank you. It raises this question: does “objective truth” as you have defined it necessitate a belief in God? Or put another way, are you not calling for a belief in absolute right and wrong, therefore a belief in God?

    As a Catholic, I have no problem holding out for an absolute right and wrong and therefore a Reason greater than human reason. In fact, I found my way back to the faith a long time ago by working that equation. But your text and reasoning above seems to avoid directly confronting the language that admittedly has less secular appeal and choosing instead to call for a “cohesive, integrated system of thought”. Unless we are talking God, I’m not sure what we are talking about – is there a secular language that works?

  6. First, if I missed this conclusion in the foregoing replies, I apologize for my redundancy and lack of careful review.
    It seems the core of Protestantism. ( though perhaps unintended by its architects) is the authority of the individual to interpret Scripture, which necessarily eliminates a basis for challenging any individual Scriptural interpretation, and establishes the right of any individual to reject truth. This authority not only permits the development of moral relevantism, but I suggest that it falsely elevates the individual to the level of a god with the attendant right to declare is no harm in any course of conduct chosen. And it eliminates the need to explain or justify logically or philosophically, in essence rex non potest peccare, the king can do no wrong.

  7. You defined truth as a “system of thought”. Without question there are different epidemiologies, or “systems of thought” which allow the mind to receive truth. But, truth itself is not thought, nor is it a “system of thought”. Actually, this is the starting point of the enlightenment that supposed “I think, therefore I am”. Isn’t this like saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave we see that the divine realities [blind the eye] after one emerges from the cave. Pope Benedict summed up the relationship between a system of thought to truth: “In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received.”(Caritas in Veritate).

    The rest of the article makes sense. Although it seems that nihilism seems to be the ‘ism’ between relativism and the Dictator, no?

    • Sorry for the typo’s below, I thought I would have a chance to edit before this post was released.

      You defined truth as a “system of thought”. Without question there are different epistemologies, or “systems of thought” which allow the mind to receive truth. But, truth itself is not thought, nor is it a “system of thought”. Actually, this is the starting point of the enlightenment that supposed “I think, therefore I am”. Isn’t this like saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave we see that the divine realities [blind the eye] after one emerges from the cave. Pope Benedict summed up the relationship between a system of thought to truth: “In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received.”(Caritas in Veritate).

      The rest of the article makes sense. Although, it seems that nihilism is the the ‘ism’ between relativism and the Dictator, no?

    • Do you include the Eastern Orthodox among the catholic? Because, although they do say that they are holy, catholic and apostolic, they reject the primacy of the Bishop of Rome — they most certainly are not Roman Catholic.

      Second, how does one attempt to order a civil society given your premise, particularly one in which there are competing claims to truth? For example, the Southern Baptist , the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox Jew, and the Muslim might each agree that there is ultimate truth, but each will disagree about the content of the truth, the nature of the truth, and the extent to which the others apprehend (or deviate from) the truth. From the Roman Catholic perspective, would Ratzinger’s book “Truth and Tolerance” (written before his elevation to the papacy), offer some insight? (It has been at least 10 years since I read it — I simply don’t remember).

  8. Fantastic Fr. Dwight! Yes indeed, Catholicism is the one “cohesive system of thought” which is not ideological. It points to ultimate reality which embodies the objective standard which is The Creator Himself- Thanks for this!

  9. Oddly, Nietzsche argued that it was Conventional Christianity that produced nihilism, and his Overman was the solution to the worship of Nothingness. I don’t think he was wrong on the former; horribly wrong on the latter. Without a consistent reference to the transcendent (God), those with the most money and guns always win. This is why political/religious progressivism can never be a viable alternative for the orthodox faith. Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

  10. This comes across as a bit self-serving. To extend the author’s metaphor, the three students involved could all agree the underlying truth in all their experiences is Scientology. If they all agree on it, then Scientology would bring comfortable certainty to all of humanity. The actual content of that “truth” would be more or less irrelevant, as long as everyone signed on. Napoleon, for example, reinstated the authority of the Church not because he believed, but because it was a useful tool. If ” indifference, rage, and ultimate(ly) violence ” are the inevitable outcomes of truth deprivation, then anything which offers meaning, quells rage, and suppresses violence looks and works like truth.

    Historically, the real tragedies have occurred not when cultures became relativistic, but when different iterations of the truth battled for supremacy. That alone suggests it might be better to struggle with relativism rather than obliterate each other out of a commitment to “truth.” Is that not the ultimate argument here? Eventually, hasn’t the result of the discussion been people reaching a conclusion that “oh yes, truth is important…and fortunately it is the religion in which I believe.”

    • To the extent objective truth exists, the knowledge of it is a good in itself regardless of the fruits of that knowledge, since it is reality, to wit the actual conditions of being. To the extent objective truth exists and one is either ignorant of it or indifferent to it, still subject to the conditions of it (since it is reality), one is injured by his attempt to live an unreal existence. Clearly to live the heart must beat, an objective truth. If I run counter to the beating heart whether by ignorance or rebellion, I will suffer. So the mere knowledge the heart must beat is an objective good, regardless the condition of the heart. This truth is objective in as much as it has nothing to do with my feeling about it or my agreement with it (subjectivity).

      The question is not really whether objective truth exists, then, or whether we should know the truth, but what if anything, beyond the physically observable, is true. Specifically, are there objective spiritual or moral truths? Obviously, I must do things that promote the beating heart, but are there rational reasons to do things that detract from my beating heart to exclusively advance your beating heart? If so, then those reasons must not be mine alone but must exist common to both you and I. This of course leads to a much larger discussion than this space allows. For now, we can say if such reasons exist, we ought to know them and comply with them so that we can both be fully alive, fully what we are.

      In this article, Father Z does not argue all discord originates in relativity (subjectivity, if I may). In fact, he predicts a condition of agreement on error produced by relativity but achieved through force and he sees that force as inevitable. Fair enough. I have my own problems with the article, in as much as I eschew attempts to discuss objective truth without reference to good, evil and God. The real question is does God exist, because if he does his Reason alone is the source of truth.

      Your argument, however, is circular. You begin with the premise truth is determined by its material fruits, (therefore inherently relative to material results or subjective). Your proposed proof is the observation the pursuit of truth produces discord. Finally you conclude truth is relative. Therefore your argument is in effect relative truth is relative. Your underlying doubt (or denial) is in the existence of objective moral truth. You imply the pursuit of it is futile. The question begged is if there is objective moral truth, would all do well to live in subjective agreement contrary to it?

      We can say, beyond a doubt, if objective moral truth exists, all would only do well to live according to it because it alone would provide the fullness of reality.

    • Mr. LaVoy, your post reads like the COEXIST bumper sticker, and ironically it is merely self-serving. It is a straw man to suggest that competing truth claims obliterate one another. Aristotle’s first principle of non-contradiction holds for men of reason and it is appropriate that truth claims be tested as authentically as is possible. Still, though evil is manifold, goodness is one. There is only one truth, there is only one true Faith, there is only one Christ and He is the way the truth and the life. Your discussion of “truth” is utilitarian and reductive to the point of absurdity. The real tragedy (whether or not it is the real tragedy requires no consensus) is actually relativism, as C.S. Lewis said “it will end our civilization.”

        • “But how much of that truth should all in society be required to hold to?”

          “Required” isn’t the issue. No one is required to believe 2 + 2 = 4, but don’t expect to get a job in accounting or engineering if that’s what you choose not to believe. Try fortune telling instead.

          • Eric,
            Required is the issue for certain truths. Should we require people to believe in God? Should we require them to believe the Christian faith? Should we require them to follow Biblical sexual morals?

            See, when we get to that last question, we find that it is partially based on the first two questions.

  11. Mr. LaVoy argues :”Historically, the real tragedies have occurred not when cultures became relativistic, but when different iterations of the truth battled for supremacy” What is this history you reference? Relativism as it now exists in the West is unprecedented–a lineal culmination of centuries of history. There is no comparable society for sociologists to do an empirical comparison study with.

  12. I think the seven trumpets are these:

    1. Attack Trinity and Incarnation in Part: 300 – 600 heresies
    2. Attack Trinity and Incarnation in Full: Islam
    3. Attack Supreme Apostolic Successor in Full: Great Schism
    4. Attack General Apostolic Succession and Tradition in Part: moral fall of clergy
    5. Attack General Apostolic Succession and Tradition in Full: First Great Woe: Protestantism
    6. Attack Scripture and All Divine Revelation in Full: Second Great Woe: Age of Reason Alone: Enlightenment….
    7. Attack Reason in Full: Third Great Woe: Modern Secular Apostasy

    In all these ages, faithful Catholics have the seal of infallible teaching on their forehead if they but listen to their Earthly Mother, and so are not harmed as the Church trumpet blasts her teachings. But those who listen not are spiritually harmed by their very errors. For spiritual scorpions and serpents bite, they harm, they kill.

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