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Combating Relativism With Mercy: A Battle Plan

by Matt Nelson

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Cardinal Ratzinger called relativism the greatest problem of our time. It is true that much good has been done to combat this philosophy, and much good is still left to be done. Matt Nelson explains what relativism is and suggests a battle plan against relativism and its effects on our culture.

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Reasonable Catholic

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Matt Nelson, November 23, 2015

Cardinal Ratzinger called relativism the greatest problem of our time.

It is true that much good has been done to combat this philosophy; and much good is still left to be done.

Relativism seeps forth from a lack of reverence for truth. It is the absolute rejection of objective truth. Objective means “outside the mind”. Truth is “what is”. Relativism, thus, denies the existence of truth outside of our minds. It turns all truths into preferences like flavors of ice cream. If you told me your favorite ice cream was chocolate it would be silly for me to say “No, its not”. Chocolate is your preference; nothing outside of yourself can decide that.

Relativism, however, rejects the existence of all objective truths, and turns every statement about reality into an opinion or preference. On absolute relativism, I can really be a man today and a really a woman tomorrow, and no one ought to tell me otherwise. My opinion is my truth (and yours is yours even if it is an absolute contradiction of mine). I decide reality—but so do you.

The problem with relativism, however, is that it is self-refuting. You can speak it but you can’t do it.

Relativism says “It is absolutely true that there are no absolute truths”.

Self-refuting propositions like this are absurd. Imagine a man saying “I am a married bachelor”; or a child saying “I love to draw square circles”. Both statements say nothing at all about reality. They say nothing at all. They are too open-minded. “Merely having an open mind is nothing”, wrote G.K. Chesterton. “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Other forms of modern thinking (often laced in skepticism or subjectivism) share a similar fate of self-refutation. “It is known that nothing can be known”. “I am certain that nothing is certain”. “It is my judgement that you should not be judgemental…”

Relativism is a general term and cannot be lived in practice. Its practicality dissolves the second the philosopher’s pen or tongue rests. Absolute relativism in theory denies the truth of one’s own existence, one’s own memories, the timetable they learned in elementary school, and itself. But no one really lives this way. Nonetheless, this idea of denying objective truths has found its way into different avenues of thought and is not without its severe modern consequences.

Relativism, in its various forms, is everywhere. Consider the following four cultural manifestations:

1. Popular Morality. Moral relativism is today the moral philosophy-of-choice for many. Moral relativism says, “What’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me”. Have you heard that phrase, or something like it, before? It’s everywhere. And it rejects any common standard of truth for all people. But, as C.S. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, we all act as if there is a common moral standard for all people. A random punch in the face from a stranger does not result in a reactive, “Oh well, that must be OK according to his moral standards even though it’s not OK according to mine. I’ll let it slide even though I don’t prefer it”.

And what about tolerance? Tolerance means to love someone despite disagreeing with them. And disagreement implies that you believe someone is wrong; that they are mistaken by some truth binding them. Tolerance, properly understood, is not compatible with relativism. As philosopher, Francis Beckwith, writes (and demonstrates), “moral relativism is inconsistent with tolerance, closed off to the possibility of moral truth, and an intellectual failure”.

Jesus is the archetype of tolerance. He loved unconditionally everyone He disagreed with; but He did not love their discordant actions and counselled them to a better way of living: “Go and sin no more”.

2. Absolute Religious Indifference. This means the rejection of all religions because there are no good reasons to believe God exists. But from this atheistic stance comes necessarily the denial of an objective standard of goodness. A stick can only be “straighter” than another because the absolute standard of straightness exists. A person – let’s say Abraham Lincoln – can only be morally “better” than – let’s say Adolf Hitler – if an absolute standard of goodness exists. But on atheism: No God, therefore no objective moral truths. No moral Lawgiver, therefore no moral laws given; only moral laws chosen.

Relativism flows from atheism. If God does not exist then our absolute authority can only be ourselves. “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”, concluded Fyodor Dostoevsky. Objective moral laws cannot flow from natural selection or any other natural process: from nature and science we can only determine what is; not what ought to be.

3. Restricted Religious Indifference. This means all Gods (and gods) are equal. “Your God is Jesus, and mine is Vishnu. Her goddess is Athena, and his God is Satan. But they’re all the same in the end. Everyone has their own path to ‘God'”. But Jesus called Himself the way, truth and life, and said that no one who can come to the Father (whom He is one with) except through Him (Jn 14:6). He did not leave the door open for other gods.

Cardinal Ratzinger was once asked how many ways there are to God. He replied: “As many ways as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one.” Of course, the pope-to-be was not endorsing the view that “all religions are equal” but rather that there always seems to be a unique combination of factors—or steps—that move each convert towards belief in God.

4. Liberal Christian Indifferentism. All Christian denominations are not equal, as liberal Christian indifferentism asserts (“It doesn’t matter what church you go to. As long as you ‘believe in Jesus’ you’re good to go!”).

This view is closely related to the Protestant acceptance of sola scriptura which advocates for the interpretation of the Scriptures without a central teaching authority like the Church and her apostolic designates. It might, in fact, be the case that “Bible-alone” Christianity was not originally meant to become “choose your own doctrine” Christianity; but I fear that perhaps it has for many in the end.

For the Christian, doctrine matters. St. Paul affirmed that believing and acting according to true doctrine can be a matter of salvation (1 Tim 4:16). He also spoke of the Church founded by Christ as a pillar and bulwark of truth (1 Tim 3:15). A pillar and foundation of truth, however, does not contradict itself. Therefore all Christian denominations cannot altogether form theone Church—the one“pillar and foundation of truth”—founded by Christ. And we will not realize the unity Jesus prayed for (see John 17) as long as we are content to see all Christian denominations as one giant “invisible” Church founded by Christ.

No other Christian body fits the mold shaped by the Scriptures and Church history better than the Catholic Church. The one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church built upon Peter is the one Church that both preaches and teaches a Eucharistic Gospel, and has evidently done so since the first century and foundation of Christianity. Non-Catholics can be Christians, yes. But fully united to the ‘whole Christ’, they cannot be (see CCC 795)

Moreover, if we want to build a culture of life we need to aim for Christian unity. Why? Because without a common Holy-Spirit guided central authority (a magisterium) that cannot fail in its teachings of faith and morals, Christians will continue to take opposing sides on life issues like (but not limited to) contraception, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and abortion. All Christians who reject an infallible magisterium are left to their fallible selves (or their fallible pastors). To see the Christian disunity that can result from the rejection of a common, central authority click here.

Bottom line: until Christians are united by one common teaching authority on morality, the Christian effort to defeat the Culture of Death will not be what it ought to be. We can keep fighting the good fight (and we must!) but as long as there is a weakened, disharmonious Christendom, we will not be able to fight our best fight.

Final Thoughts

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2447), the spiritual works of mercy are:

To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offences willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and the dead.

With these in mind, here’s a battle plan against relativism and its effects on our culture:

1. Become vessels of grace. Receive the sacraments regularly and pray as if the whole world depended on you. Pray for others and yourself, for the living and the dead. In the Christian life and the spiritual battle we are baptized into, only one thing is necessary and from it all other good things flow. Remember: first things first. The process of evangelization is a series of causes that (hopefully) will lead to sanctity in the end. But there can be no second cause or final result without a first cause. All our good works are grounded in grace.

2. Get instructed. We are all ignorant at a point. We all have more to learn. The quality of instruction we provide to others depends largely on how well we ourselves are instructed. Read good books. Learn from smart people; and especially smart, saintly people. The more we learn about God and His Church

3. Pray for patience. It’s easy to attack a bad philosophy. It’s easier to attack a person who has a bad philosophy. For most of us it is easier to talk than to listen. Pray for an increase in patience, and your ability to listen well will increase. Listening well will set the stage for comforting the afflicted, admonishing, forgiving, counseling and instructing.

4. Learn the arguments. You can only fix a problem once you’ve identified where it is. Relativism leads to a host of logical problems—but you’ve got to be able to spot’em. Read, listen and watch the instruction of good Catholic philosophers and apologists like Peter Kreeft, Trent Horn, Ed Feser, Karlo Broussard, Stephanie Gray, Jimmy Akin, Tim Staples, Michael Augros, Steve Ray and Patrick Coffin. These guys are smart, charitable and exemplify the point of apologetics: to plant seeds of truth for the greater glory of God (not win arguments – and admirers – at the expense of a soul).

5. Remember that final results are not ultimately up to you. The goal is to speak/write the truth in love but without compromise. Be assured: if you are preaching the Gospel with boldness (a Christian duty according to St. Paul), you willoffend. Even Jesus, the most tolerant person in history – and infinite Mercy Himself – offended people: unto death, in fact.

Without God we can do nothing; and without a true desire (and effort) to be like God we can do very little worth doing. Just remember the words of G.K. Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly”. Remember you are an imperfect means – and one of many – to a perfect End.

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Recommended Reading:

Absolute Relativism by Chris Stefanick

Faith And Certitude by Fr. Thomas Dubay

50 Questions On The Natural Law by Charles Rice

A Refutation Of Moral Relativism by Peter Kreeft

Theology And Sanity by Frank Sheed

Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II

Matt Nelson is a writer and speaker specializing in Catholic apologetics and evangelization. He also contributes at WordOnFire.org, Catholic.com & StrangeNotions.com.

© Reasonable Catholic

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