Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
Benedict XVI is a gem of a pope, a diamond who has been treated roughly by the liberal press as if he were a mere growling guard dog of benighted and ossified orthodoxy. But he is a man deeply read in history, philosophy and theology, and the Church has not had nearly enough time, in his short pontificate, to explore the many facets of his profound learning.
In great part, his courageous defense of orthodoxy comes from his profound grasp of the roots of relativism, his defense of the truth from a deep understanding of the worldview that would destroy it (along with our humanity).
In the last blog post, I discussed Pope Benedict’s warning that we are, more and more, the unhappy subjects of a dictatorship — a “dictatorship of relativism” that seeks to impose the poisonous notion that human beings cannot know the truth.
This poison attacks the very core of our humanity. Made in the image of God, we are rational animals whose greatest perfection is to know and love the truth. And the greatest truth is Jesus Christ himself, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
But dictatorial relativism commands us to submit to the malignant mantra, “But this is only my truth, a mere subjective description of my prejudices, my historical situation, my subjective needs and desires.” The faith is thereby bent down to become my faith, my own personal swirl of irrational predilections that happen to give me comfort.
The dictatorship of relativism demands the same humbling of all claims of moral truth as well. “Abortion is wrong” must become “I don’t happen to like abortion.” “Heterosexual monogamous marriage is right” must become “I prefer traditional marriage.”
Such are the dictates of the dictatorship of relativism. But what are its historical and philosophical roots?
As Benedict maintains, the roots of our relativism lie in the modern attempt to constrict reason, to reduce its domain, while at the same time making it absolute ruler in that dwarfed domain. The dream — it began, largely, as the dream of the philosopher Rene Descartes — was to make human reason infallible, absolutely certain, by restricting reason to the material aspects of reality that could be measured by mathematics. Anything beyond what was physical and precisely measurable was not real or at least not rationally knowable — or, as it came to be called, merely “subjective.”
Faith? Can it be weighed and measured? No. Then it’s merely subjective.
God? Put on the scale? Sorry. He’s not real — he’s just a subjective projection of our desire for a father.
Morality? Can we weigh different arguments about good and evil? No. Then they’re merely subjective descriptions of our particular desires, our “values.”
The soul? Can’t put it under the microscope; can’t see it — must be a subjective fiction.
This reductionist view of rationality came to define science, and, as a result of its successes, reductionist science came to define all of reality.
As Pope Benedict noted, this view has dubbed “positivism” an “anti-metaphysical” philosophy that has “no place for God.” It is, Benedict rightly sees, “a self-limitation of … reason that is adequate in the technological sphere but entails a mutilation of man if it is generalized. … This philosophy expresses, not the complete reason of man, but only one part of it. And this mutilation of reason means that we cannot consider it to be rational at all” (Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures).
This mutilated view of reason, resulting in a mutilated view of man, became the foundation of modern secularism. Secularism is both dictatorial and relativist. It claims to define reason and reality and desires to impose its secular view upon everyone else. What it imposes is relativism: the belief that all truth claims are merely projections of each individual’s desires, which are themselves reducible to measurable, material and ultimately irrational causes.
This is especially true — so asserts secular reason — in regard to morality. Moral disagreements cannot be reconciled because there is no moral standard against which they can be measured. We must, therefore, accept relativism. We can count up the number of people who think abortion is wrong and the number who think it is right (in the same way we can count up the number of people who really like chocolate ice cream best vs. those who love vanilla). But that is the limit of reason.
In merely counting up different views, but not deciding between them, it would seem that secular reason is being quite humble and tolerant and welcoming to anyone and everyone. Such is not the case, however. Instead, as Benedict rightly points out, secularism wants to impose secularism. Its alleged tolerance is actually the greatest intolerance.
As Benedict argues in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, secularism “is the expression of a consciousness that would like to see God eradicated once and for all from the public life of humanity and shut up in the subjective sphere of cultural residues from the past. In this way, relativism, which is the starting point of the whole process, becomes a dogmatism that believes itself in possession of the definitive knowledge of human reason, with the right to consider everything else merely as a stage in human history that is basically obsolete and deserves to be relativized.”
The dictatorial aspirations of secular relativism arise from hubris not humility, from the desire to eliminate God and our spiritual nature, so that we can live a comfortable this-worldly life, unburdened from Divine commands or even the call to greatness of soul. The mutilation of man — the reduction of him to a mere material animal with no goal other than comfortable self-preservation and the satisfaction of his physical desires — is the price secularism asks us to pay.