Combatting the dictatorship of relativism, one soul at a time

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 25, 2017

As an intellectual exercise, anyone who can think his way out of a paper bag immediately recognizes that relativism is a hopeless tautology. It affirms without a shadow of a doubt that truth does not exist, thereby proclaiming what would be, if it were possible, a very important truth. As a cultural phenomenon, however, relativism is an extraordinarily powerful ideology.

This is so for two important reasons. First, relativism enables us to justify whatever temptations appeal to us as “true and acceptable for me”. Second, it deals mercilessly with those who have opposing moral convictions. Relativists are in a strong position to ostracize their opponents, denouncing them as cruel and judgmental bigots who have no respect for others. In many settings (consider the university, for example), the punishment for admitting to unpopular moral convictions is to be mocked, excluded and held in utter contempt.

It is immediately obvious to a clear mind that (a) Reality exists, and (b) Truth is the mind’s conformity with reality. On this basis alone, relativism is ludicrous. If we add the point mentioned above, that a relativist contradicts himself if he asserts that everything is relative, the intellectual silliness is more obvious still. And when we realize that self-proclaimed relativists constantly assert a wide range of moral principles as necessarily true (consider the rights to abortion and gay marriage, or the assertion that sexual promiscuity “doesn’t hurt anybody”), the real hallmark of relativism emerges quite clearly.

Relativism is the willingness to embrace constantly changing opinions as certain truths, based on the latest influences brought to bear by our cultural elites.

A difficult case to make

Unfortunately, these obvious conclusions are rather difficult to deploy. Astonishing as it may seem, very few people (and even fewer among those in the stage of life in which sexual self-control is most difficult) are actually well-enough educated (or possess sufficient virtue) to recognize what ought to be self-evident in the moral life. And even if they could recognize what is self-evident, the pressure to deny the obvious is so great within the culture of relativism, and the temptation to use relativism to justify one’s own immoral behavior is so strong in each of us, that it is all too rare for anyone to swim against the universal tide.

For these reasons it is extraordinarily hard to engage in any sort of reasoned discourse that can challenge the assumptions of the relativists with whom we interact. By the very nature of the case, relativists have abandoned clear thought in favor of an attitude that is not only socially but also psychologically convenient, since it dismisses any guilt that might arise from the refusal to grapple with temptation in a constructive way. Relativism, not to put too fine point upon it, is essential to the sexual revolution.

Thankfully, in the absence of argument, example can still play an important role. Insofar as we prize key values and live differently from the “crowd”, at least some others will be drawn to what they perceive as our remarkable self-possession, clear virtue, and inner peace. It must be said that this presumes we have mastered (through love) the art of sincerely caring about others, for it is all too easy to become repugnant not because of our virtue but because we never stop arguing. Though demanding, authentic virtue is a powerful witness, a witness that is most effective where there is a strong natural affection—such as friendship, or even the possibility of romance.

Tactical arguments

Virtue is indispensable, but clearly we would also benefit from a sound tactical approach in arguing against relativism. We may need this approach to understand the problem better ourselves, and we certainly need it to do our best to convince others. Happily, there is a new book jointly published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute which presents an excellent strategy for refuting relativism in the real world—in fact, it is the best I have ever seen. I am referring to Edward Sri’s Who Am I to Judge?. The entire book is just as good as its brilliantly provocative title.

Subtitled “Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love”, the book is written simply and clearly in a conversational style. It is also relatively brief, so there is no fear of struggling across an academic desert. As a professor of theology at the Augustine Institute, a cofounder of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), an experienced writer, and a presenter of a number of Catholic video series, Edward Sri is an engaging communicator.

His book, like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts:

  1. The Challenge” identifies the problem of the new kind of intolerance represented by relativism, and the difficulty posed by such a broad clash of worldviews.
  2. A New Vision” includes five chapters which highlight the “excuses” relativists make, the relationship of friendship and virtue, the meaning of freedom, and the connection between moral principles and happiness.
  3. Seven Keys for Responding to Relativism” provides the best points of contact for a fruitful discussion, such as the reality that relativism wounds people, the distinction between making judgments and judging souls, the nature of relativism as a mask, and the need for mercy, love and “taking on the Heart of Christ.”

The book’s conclusion raises a question about what Sri sees as the proverbial elephant in the room. This is our tendency to avoid engaging our relativist friends, or engaging them badly, because of our own mixed motives and even fears. The author also offers a postscript which highlights the typical relativistic attitudes toward God, and the importance of answering the one great question of life, This is the question posed by Our Lord when he asked: “Who do you say that I am?”

If you need to understand the problem of relativism more clearly or you want to learn the most effective ways of approaching the relativists in your social circle (or perhaps your classroom), look no further for the one indispensable resource. It is Edward Sri’s remarkably engaging and effective book, Who am I to Judge?.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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