The Relative Absoluteness of Truth
The first false dichotomy I would like to expose is the one between relativism and absolutism. From this viewpoint, truth is either “absolutely absolute” or “absolutely relative,” with no tertium quid. However, truth is neither of these. If we understand truth as a relationship between what are relative, human beings and human thinking, and what is absolute, being itself, we can recognize that truth is more accurately described as relatively absolute. In other words, the false dichotomy regarding truth stems from the neglect of a vital philosophical distinction between truth as it exists in itself, that is, in an objective, supra-human sense, excluding any contingent conditions and limitations; and truth as it comes to be present in and recognized by the minds of actual human beings, that is, subjectively, including all the limitations pertaining to historical, self-centered, myopic, flesh-and-blood human beings.
While it is necessarily the case that either human beings can or cannot transcend their particular history, culture, and language and attain universal and absolute truth, it is not necessarily the case that if they can ever attain absolute and universal truth, they can do so in abstraction from the relative and particular historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts in which they find themselves. Conversely, if the human attainment of absolute and universal truth is inextricably bound up with relative and particular historical, cultural, and linguistic conditions and limitations, this does not necessarily mean that absolute and universal truth cannot be attained.
Alasdair MacIntyre describes accurately the understanding of truth and its relation to human reason that the false dichotomous position misses:
Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.[i]
MacIntyre’s term for this “third-way” between absolute absolutism and absolute relativism is “tradition-constituted rationality.” According to MacIntyre, it is only through active participation in particular, historically and culturally relative traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving history and culture-transcending truth; for it is only by going down, as it were, through a particular tradition that we rise up to universal truth. As body and soul composites, we encounter reality as mediated by our bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition, even if it is a rationally incoherent and morally defective one like the tradition of secular liberalism. Without the resources that traditions provide, coherent and accurate knowledge of the truth is quite difficult, and perhaps impossible. We are, in MacIntyre’s improvement on Aristotle’s classic definition, “tradition-dependent rational animals,” or as Paul Griffiths puts it, “confessional”:
To be confessional is simply to be open about one’s historical and religious locatedness, one’s specificity, and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect.[ii]
If MacIntyre is right, the particular beliefs we hold to be true, as well as the ideas we consider indisputable, the facts we deem self-evident, the allegiances to which we are committed, the traditions we revere, the authorities we recognize, the customs we cherish, the attitudes we adopt, in short, the overall picture we embrace of God, man, and the world, although perhaps quite true in an absolute and universal objective sense, is, nevertheless, relative and particular in a subjective sense. Our beliefs, even though perhaps universally true beliefs, are still bound to a particular historical and cultural tradition in their genealogy and intelligibility. We do not discover the truth of our beliefs on our own as much as we inherit and receive them from and through others. We do not obtain knowledge autonomously, as mere individuals, and in abstraction from that which is relative and particular in our lives, but in solidarity with others, as members of a community, and in virtue of our relative and particular histories and cultures, that is, our traditions. Contra the Enlightenment, there is no “view-from-nowhere” to which we can climb, no “tradition-independent” rationality we can exercise, no “universal reason” we can access to enable us fully to escape the relative and particular character of human knowledge.
Now, the reader might be thinking that this so-called “tradition-constituted rationality” sounds a lot like the theological, philosophical, and cultural relativism most recently condemned unambiguously by none other than both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But, to reiterate, it is not that human beings cannot recognize and possess absolute and universal truth about and God, the world, and man, but only that the mode or condition of such knowledge is, to some extent, relative and particular. We are historical and social, as well as rational and spiritual, beings. We are tradition-transcending in virtue of our spirit, yet we are tradition-bound in virtue of our body.
Now, supposing that this understanding of rationality were true: How does this apply to our discussion of the problem of partial thinking? Well, if the partial-thinking Catholic could only grasp and apply the truth of the distinction we have pointed out, and recognize the falseness of the dichotomy we have described, he would be more willing to examine his own thinking with a critical eye. Although he would still be within his rights to claim absolute and universal truth for any of his particular beliefs, by recognizing the tradition-constituted and tradition-bound character of his own beliefs, he would no longer do so without some reference to the particular tradition of rationality within which these beliefs reside and are derived, a tradition inevitably relative and particular because embodied historically in a particular place and time. And as soon as this tradition is acknowledged and brought out into the open, as it were, the beliefs he considers absolutely and universally true would become, for the time being and in a subjective sense, non-absolute and non-universal. In other words, his beliefs would be rendered debatable and dubitable beliefs in virtue of fact that they would now be seen to derive from and find their intelligibility and justification in a historically particular and culturally relative tradition. Such beliefs, of course, might turn out, after extensive debate and doubt, to be justifiably judged to be absolutely and universally true, but at least they would have attained this status through a philosophically sound process and with the kind of humble epistemological attitude appropriate for tradition-bound, dependent rational animals. If there were any partial thinking in his mind, it would be exposed and, hopefully, rejected.
To reiterate: If we could admit the tradition-constituted nature of our beliefs, our hold on our particular picture of God, the world, and man would become weaker, but in a good sense—because prompted by and indicative of intellectual humility. We would become more willing to let these beliefs go, perhaps just for a moment, in order to permit personal and public inquiry about them. We would become very interested, perhaps for the first time, in knowing whether those from whom we inherited this picture of the universe, the political order, our “enemies” were indeed trustworthy benefactors, whether the picture with which we have been interpreting reality were indeed true. We would be able to take a step back from our mind, as it were, without the fear that in doing so we would thereby be embracing absolute relativism and thus being disloyal to the Truth; and we would then be in a better position to enable grace to convert us to a fuller understanding of the Truth we genuinely love and seek.
As MacIntyre tells us: “It is only insofar as someone satisfies the conditions for rendering him or herself vulnerable to dialectical refutation that that person can come to know whether and what he or she knows.[iii] Paradoxically, then, in becoming a “temporary relativist” with respect to the genealogy of our own beliefs, we enable these beliefs to become truly absolute, with respect to their truth value. For, if we hold to the absolute absoluteness of truth, it seems sinful to do anything that might render our beliefs, whether theological, philosophical, political, moral, etc., vulnerable to refutation; thus, we avoid those grace-filled discussions and arguments that might reveal to us errors in those beliefs. And if we hold to the absolute relativity of truth, it appears pointless to even search for the truth at all. To obtain the best chances of possessing absolute truth, then, we Catholics, though subscribing to a Church possessing absolute truths in an absolute manner, must embrace the relative absoluteness of our possession and recognition of them, and especially our possession and recognition of truths outside the ambit of the Church’s purview, such as our opinions regarding contemporary politics. Partial thinking is rampant among Catholics with regard to the “war on terror,” but that is a topic for another essay!
Only someone who has broken out of the restricted horizon of ideology can see clearly what has been left behind. And only those who have fully contemplated the abyss can be sure of having attained the spiritual truth capable of overcoming it.[iv]
The final and most significant example of the problem of partial thinking involves the debate between modernists and anti-modernists (or anti-traditionalists and traditionalists) regarding the nature and value of modernity. It is the most significant example for my argument, because, in trying to understand the nature of modernity, we are all brought face-to-face with our own partial-thinking—it is inescapable, as I shall try to show. And as we suggested at the outset, modernity is both the source of and solution to the problem.
Catholic modernists and anti-modernists, and those falling somewhere in between, have offered innumerable definitions, characterizations, and genealogies of secular modernity. Though trying to write the intellectual biography of modernity is an important, even necessary task, I think, ultimately, it is impossible. There is something elusively asymptotic about it: The depth and comprehensiveness of one’s definition increase with abstractness and distance; the accuracy, nuance, and precision of characterization increase only with contemplative narrowness and obscurity. Moreover, the more one studies secular modernity, the more it becomes apparent that it is a phenomenon not easily separable from reality itself, being nearly as immune to exhaustive intellectual comprehension and description, and nearly as impossible to escape or transcend. Although we are free to, and should when spiritually and morally urgent, create what we take to be “anti-modern” theoretical and practical constructs, as well as resist and reject the pernicious constructs of others, such are ineluctably erected from within and by virtue of the pre-constructive consciousness that is secular modernity itself—we are in it.
In other words, I think there is something almost ontological about the nature of secular modernity. Even though what we are talking about is a cultural or historical phenomenon, and so is not equivalent to being itself (I am not a Hegelian), cultural and historical being is, at least for us culture-dependent rational animals, the inexorable mediator of any “pure” being that we can experience. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued persuasively, pace the Enlightenment’s “view from nowhere,” we never encounter reality unmediated by the cultural artifacts of language, conceptual schemes, practices, narrative, norms, etc., and though we can ultimately transcend history and culture to attain timeless truth, it is only through the cultural resources and productions that we both create and are created by, as it were, that we do so. Although I think his is an overly Hegelian interpretation of this dynamic, Louis Dupre, I think, is onto something here:
Those who in a particular epoch impose a new pattern of meaning on the life and thought of their time do more than apply a different film of thought to an indifferent reality. They transform the nature of reality itself. If the preceding carries any metaphysical weight, it would be contained in the original thesis that Being must not be conceived as a substance moved by thought. Cultural changes leave a different reality in their wake. . . Culture, then, consists not in what humans add to the real, so to speak. It is the active component of the real itself transforming the passive one.[v]
Nevertheless, in light of the notorious, anti-Christian fruits that appear to have grown solely in the soil of secular modernity, it would seem an obligation to be against it—whatever its ontological status. And it would seem quite plausible that with enough prayer, education, and effort, by apprenticing oneself to the supreme culture-transcending Teacher that is the Catholic Church, and by immersing oneself in her pristine formative hands, one could more or less escape it. Should we not create adequately anti-modern domestic, social, cultural, political, educational, and liturgical environments if the ones secular modernity has given us threaten our salvation? However, if secular modernity is more akin to an ubiquitous consciousness or pre-constructive theoretical and practical framework, that is, not a particular ideology or structure-of-sin, but something underlying these, then “anti-modernness” becomes an illusion, and escape from it a futile endeavor. We Catholics are indeed obliged to resist and ultimately “escape” from secular modernity, but it is because we are obliged ultimately to transcend all finite times and places when they become idols preventing out attainment of union with the timeless and placeless God.
The End of Naïveté
What should we say secular modernity is then? Charles Taylor, the renowned Canadian Catholic philosopher, has recently written a nine-hundred-page book, A Secular Age, which attempts to define it. Out of the many trenchant and profound descriptions he offers for it, this one is especially helpful for our purposes:
There has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naïvely’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged’ one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist…. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others…. A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of peoples.[vi]
Note here that this characterization of secular modernity (SM) is eminently non-ideological and non-judgmental; it is neither the rigid denunciation of the traditionalist, nor the insouciant glorification of the humanist. Rather, Taylor identifies SM as something more akin to a radically new paradigm or consciousness shift, neither moral nor immoral, true nor false, good nor evil, pro-Christian nor anti-Christian. It is not to be identified with exclusive humanism, managerial liberalism, and fascist fundamentalism, on the one hand, or the resurgence of public religiosity, the priority of liberal democracy and human rights, and the intolerance of religious intolerance, on the other. For these, according to Taylor, are only its diverse ideological interpretations and embodiments, the structures of thought and practice that have built upon and with secular modernity’s peculiar consciousness and potentiality.
“An age or society would then be secular or not, in virtue of the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual.”[vii] According to Taylor, SM is the ineluctable mode, background, and context for all thought and practice in the contemporary West, rather than any particular expression of it. It is, thus, a deeper reality than the merely ideological—it is existential. We encounter it deep within our lived experience of reality before we have the chance to reflect on it. It is not so much the reflective, philosophical description or account we give ourselves of a more fundamental, pre-philosophical and pre-reflective experience, but is itself this fundamental experience, embodied in the warp and woof of our lives in such a way that to attempt to disengage or extricate ourselves from it is equivalent to the attempt to escape reality itself. Because SM is so intimately bound up with our experience of reality, it serves as the ineluctable background to and structure of the very form and content of our thinking, akin to the way grammar and rhetoric is the background to and structure of the matter and expression of our words. Although we can think about, and thus gain some distance from, this background and structure in an abstract, philosophical manner, we cannot entirely escape and transcend it.
This is a radical claim. However, I think there is one short and powerful demonstration of its essential accuracy. Ask oneself this question: Do I experience Christianity in a naïve manner, that is, in the way a small child raised within a sheltered, integrally and robustly Catholic home might experience it? Is it for me simply the way things are, that is, immune to all experiences of the “other”? Can I completely avoid being disengaged from my naïve experience of what is and must be, losing all awareness of what is not and might not be? Is it even possible for a Christian child to retain this sort of naïveté nowadays? What I am describing is not the perennial and age-indifferent capacity of human reason to abstract from one’s lived experience and entertain other possible philosophical and theological accounts of reality through and in one’s imagination and intellect. If that were the case, there would be nothing new in secular modernity in this respect, for even the most sheltered and parochial medieval peasant could thereby “escape” from the Christianity he imbibed with his mother’s milk. What does seem radically unique to secular modernity, as Taylor argues, is an entirely new incapacity to experience the reality of a particular worldview in a naïve way, that is, without the consciousness of there being other viable or at least considerable options.
For the Christian, then, the end of naïve religious consciousness would entail an ineluctable experience of reality as perpetually open to the possibility, or at least the awareness, of a non-Christian interpretation and experience of the world, of the possible absence of God. Might such a characterization of our epoch explain the experiences of Blessed Mother Teresa and St. Therese of Lisieux, who, as we know from their personal writings, experienced this sense of the absence of God with an intensity we cannot imagine—even in the possession of a robust supernatural Faith? Perhaps what Bl. Teresa experienced—in an extraordinary manner—was the ordinary communal consciousness of secular modern man. The most influential saints whom God has given us in our days—St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Edith Stein, Mother Teresa, and Padre Pio—are all representative of what seems to be peculiarly modern form of spiritually, what Aidan Nichols has called existential prayer: “accepting in a generous spirit our deprivation of many of the conventional props and assurances of a culturally transmitted religion…may be ushered with peculiar immediacy into the presence of the living God.”[viii] Obviously, these saints did escape secular modernity; however, it occurred precisely through a peculiarly intense experience of the existential absence of God, written into the very fabric of modern secular consciousness. It would seem that these saints escaped it by going through it.
Assuming that this characterization of secular modernity is more or less accurate, what would happen if one were to deny secular modernity, attempting to escape it by going against or around it? To answer this question we must first attempt to answer the more fundamental question of why one would desire to escape SM in the first place. One reason, perhaps, would be the conviction that SM is evil, for aversion is, as St. Thomas teaches, the passion of the soul naturally evoked by the presence of evil. However, if we are correct in our assessment of SM as being something preceding or situating morality, being virtually ontological, then this conviction and its ensuing passion would be gravely mistaken and disordered. What is evil, of course, is the predominant ideological interpretations of SM, what Taylor unites into “exclusive humanism,” with its twofold Janus-like embodiment in “conservative,” nation-worshipping, secular-messianic militarism, on the one hand, and relativistic, Protagorean, managerial totalitarianism, on the other—relativism and fundamentalism being equally narcissistic, atheistic, and nihilistic.
If we apply these interpretations and embodiments to be secular modernity itself, we would rightly respond by either attacking them or attempting to escape them, or both. However, if Taylor is correct, though we must renounce and avoid all errors and evils, we should not renounce and avoid the larger background conditions or consciousness-form that has both enabled their existence and our capacity to choose radically different theoretical and practical alternatives to them. In short, by choosing an alternative content built upon and within the background of secular modernity, we do not thereby escape the background itself—nor should we wish to. The lack of awareness of the twice-removed nature of secular modernity is, perhaps, a main reason for the disordered interpretations and embodiments of it, for fundamentalism (both Islamic and Americanist) and relativism (both liberal and conservative) are motivated by a mistaken aversion to what they consider evil—this or that particular aspect of secular modernity itself.
Becoming Children of Modernity
As the benefits of Revelation disappear even more from the coming world, man will truly learn what it means to be cut off from Revelation… The rapid advance of a non-Christian ethos, however, will be crucial for the Christian sensibility. As unbelievers deny Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become more evident what it really means to be a Christian.[ix]
So, what do we do? If we are to be neither for nor against it, what is the proper attitude one should adopt towards secular modernity, and how do we escape the partial-thinking that it seems inexorably to produce? Whatever it is in essence, it alone has produced the phenomenon of the choice-making individual. As MacIntyre has pointed out, the “individual” is not a natural type of human being, but a kind of scripted role created by modernity itself according to its own peculiar dramatic exigencies. Whatever we eventually become, whether postmodern, isolated, fragmented, secularist, therapeutic, urban connoisseurs of private self creation, or anti-modern, communitarian, traditionalist, paleo-conservative, “back to the land” aspirants of a neo-medieval Christendom, we do so by choice as individuals, before we do and are anything or anybody else. For all the alternatives that modernity offers, I do not think that modernity permits us to escape these two fundamental preconditions for the shaping of our identities. The non-chosen and communally provided identity of the choice-making individual is, like secular modernity itself, neither good nor evil itself, but it is potentially both, depending upon how we interpret and embody it. As Taylor argues in his essay “A Catholic Modernity?” the greatest mistake secular moderns have made regarding their new identity is to construe the radical responsibility and high dignity that attends it for radical autonomy and spiritual independence.[x] This, and not secular modernity per se, is arguably the main cause of the culture of death.
What, then, is the alternative to such a construal? Josef Pieper provides a clue:
I refer of course to the life of our fellowmen under the conditions of tyranny. As we all know, under such conditions no one dares trust anyone else. Candid communication dries up; and there arises that special kind of unhealthy wordlessness which is not silence so much as muteness. Under conditions of freedom, however, human beings speak uninhibitedly to one another. How illuminating this contrast is! For in the face of it, we suddenly become aware of the degree of human closeness, mutual affirmation, communion, that resides in the simple fact that people listen to each other and are disposed from the start to trust and ‘believe’ each other.[xi]
“Unless you become as little children…” Knowing in the center of his being, before the onset of any rational reflection or self-consciousness, that he is utterly incapable of independent existence, the child naïvely, immediately, and joyfully opens himself up to the existence, influence, and guidance of what is other. Childlike, trustful openness is the indispensable requirement for divine Faith, and Faith requires the capacity and willingness to give assent to the authority of someone other than ourselves. For this assent to be given, freely and with love, we must possess a certain attitude of soul, one receptive to the influence of others, and willing to be continually transformed by that influence. Dietrich von Hildebrand describes it as
The inner willingness which is not closed against even the most unpleasant truth, which is really free from bias, ready to make friends with things, open to the proof of all objective existence, not looking at things through a colored lens that allows only such things to pass into the understanding as do not offend our pride and self-complacency.[xii]
I think the proper response to the inescapable existential milieu that secular modernity is, and the distinct identity of the “choice-making individual” that it imposes on us, is a radical, questioning openness to what is, for us, the divine and human other. The existence of even one person with a genuine spirit of erotic, Socratic questioning is the most effective antidote to the suffocating, anti-questioning culture we live in, in both its “traditionalist” and “modernist” varieties, as MacIntyre perceptively notes:
We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained…. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.[xiii]
If MacIntyre is correct that our so-called enlightened, free-thinking age is, ironically, a culture of suffocating dogmatism, then it becomes vitally important for us to use the great gift we have been given in these times, a heightened capacity for “feeling the pull” of the other—for others. But to give to others the gift of ourselves, we must first have an intimate experience of what is not ourselves, for, as Edith Stein has taught us, we can only know ourselves adequately through the eyes of others. All of this requires a willingness to expose ourselves to the other in the most vulnerable way, to ask, to seek, to venture out existentially in humble questioning of ourselves and all that is around us—even when we already know the answers given to us by Faith. Do we truly experience these answers as answers to questions? Those who do not, who believe themselves to have obtained the answers without having first endured the existential agony of searching in the darkness, whether because one has judged that there are no answers, or because they are believed to be already quite securely “possessed,” should recognize in such an attitude neither a humble plea of ignorance nor a simple and pious submission to God’s word—but a type of idolatry, the idolatry of partial-thinking. Paul Evdokimov, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, writes:
The outdated religious person and the modern sophisticated irreligious individual meet back to back in an immanence imprisoned within itself…. The denial of God has thus permitted the affirmation of man. Once this affirmation is effected, there is no longer anything to be denied or subordinated… On this level total man will not be able to ask any questions concerning his own reality, just as God does not put a question to himself.[xiv]
Perhaps what secular modernity provides us—especially in its now “postmodern” form—and perhaps more than at any other epoch in history, is a greater existential awareness of the primacy of questioning, as well as the heightened urgency for discovering and asking the right questions so as to avoid falling into the trap of partial thinking. If so, what secular modernity is, in essence, is a second Axial Age. This time around, however, we are all called to play the role of Socrates, both with ourselves and others.
What really is important in life is not so much to provide answers, as to discern true questions. When true questions are found, they themselves open the heart to the mystery. Origen used to say: “Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth.”[xv]
[i]Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 59.
[ii]Paul J. Griffiths, “The Uniqueness of Christian Doctrine Defended” in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 169.
[iii] Ibid., 200.
[iv] David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), p. xii.
[vii] Ibid., 3.
[x] Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[xii] Dietrich Von Hildebrand, “Catholicism and Unprejudiced Knowledge,” in The New Tower of Babel: Modern Man’s Flight from God (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1994), 141.
[xiii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Philosophy Recalled to its Tasks,” in The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 182.
[xv] Archbishop Bruno Forte, “Religion and Freedom: Searching For the Infinitely Loving Father-Mother,” a lecture given at a meeting of the bishops of England and Wales, Nov. 12, 2007.