I spoke last week of the fictions of relativism and concluded with one of E.M. Cioran's typically laconic aphorisms about the East's greater honesty toward the absolute. Well, maybe. But maybe not.
I once read a marvelous book by Dava Sobel called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (my kind of beach reading!). Ostensibly the book was about John Harrison's attempt to build an accurate clock that could withstand the pitch and roll of life on a ship (and not get warped by all that salt water, either) so that sailors could accurately gauge along what longitude they were located. But the book's real lesson for me was how fluid and (dare I say it?) relative is our notion of East and West.
North and South are easily gauged by the stars, and thus are, so to speak, absolutes. But what we call the Far East is actually due west for Californians, and Europe is about as far east as I have ever traveled. But the North Pole is always north no matter where one stands, unless you're right on top of that desolate spot. East and West, however, are always dependent on one's location.
So is Islam an Eastern religion or a Western one? Before Edward Said made the term so unpopular among the multi-culti set, study of Islam in the "West" used to be the province of scholars called Orientalists, so I guess that makes Islam an eastern religion. Except that its origins come from a land not that far from the Sinai Desert, whence came Judaism. Nor is Jerusalem that far from Sinai, whence came Christianity, that quintessential western religion, at least in European "western" eyes. And did not St. Paul say he sojourned to Arabia (Gal. 1:17)?
I only raise these points about the relativity of East and West because of some very intriguing remarks made by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his superbly lucid book Truth and Tolerance. He has this to say of the contrast between the so-called Eastern and Western religions: "The dogmatic presupposition of the assertion that all religions are equal, with which the Western man of today has so much sympathy, is revealed here [in the Asiatic mystical element] as the claim that God and the world, the Divinity and the depths of the soul, are identical" (p. 34).
The contrast here with the monotheistic religions is obvious, whose foundation is not some impersonal disappearance into the absolute but a personal encounter with the personal God, who seeks to establish a relationship with man. For the pope, then, the key difference between the religions of the "Far East" as opposed to those of the "Near East" is that in the former the experience of the divine is seen as the loss of one's personhood in the mystical experience with the impersonal divine, whereas for the latter it consists in a unity brought about by a love between two distinct lovers, God and man. And in this contrast the Holy Father does not hesitate to speakno doubt to the horror of the dictators of relativismin these frankly non-relativistic terms: "Over against the unity of merging, with its tendency to eliminate identity, should be set personal experience: unity of love is higher than formless identity" (p. 47; emphasis added).
Provocative remarks, these. But at least they get the conversation going. And thank God the pope can address these issues without having to sprinkle incense on the altars of multicultural relativism.
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