At first glance, the expression "the dictatorship of relativism" sounds like a paradox, maybe even an oxymoron. After all, aren’t dictatorships a form of absolutism? And don’t relativists find it difficult, if not impossible, to make judgments about differing moral systems? So how can they "dictate" the behavior and thoughts of others if they can’t make judgments about what people should think and do?

Take the case of the adoption-agency controversy in Great Britain. Last spring, Parliament passed a law requiring Catholic adoption agencies to allow gay couples to adopt children who had been placed under the care of these agencies. Now a true relativist would treat Catholics like exotic Amazonians: Sure, they have this odd view of the family, whereby only a married husband and wife are the legitimate and appropriate couple suited for raising a child, natural or adopted. How weird , but who are we to judge?

Secularists, of course, disagree, and see no problem with "Heather having two mommies." But what does that have to do with Catholics? After all, anthropologists recognize that different societies are marked by different kinship-relations: They freely, and nonjudgmentally, discuss matriarchal societies in prehistory, polygamy in seventh-century Arabia and nineteenth-century Utah, gay "marriage" in Massachusetts and Holland, and so on, all without judgmentalism or moralism. So why not let Catholics live their odd lifestyle too?

But that’s not happening, and the question is why. Hypocrisy surely has something to do with it. I suspect, though, that the root cause comes from the odd admixture of absolutism and relativism in self-professed relativists. Probably we are all a swirling amalgamation of relativism and absolutism in our thinking: No relativist, I assume, would defend the "right" of witches to boil babies in their cauldrons, and no absolutist would insist everyone must like opera.

Maybe, in fact, there are no relativists and "we’re all absolutists now," to paraphrase a line from Nathan Glazer . Alasdair MacIntyre opened the second chapter of his famous book After Virtue with a scene we can all recognize: Debates on just war, abortion, capital punishment, and the like are echo chambers, with everyone essentially hurling absolutes at the other side of the debate. But since these absolutes are conceptually incommensurable, the shrillest debater gets the last word.

But where do these incommensurable absolutes come from? To sum up MacIntyre’s argument as briefly as possible (a longer account can be found here ), the word good when applied to moral situations has changed its meaning. In Aristotle it was simply taken for granted that the word good can, with no violence to its meaning, be equally applied to a good saddle, a good horse, a good cavalryman, a good general, and a good person: The adjective properly belongs to all these nouns if each item is doing what it is assigned, or designed, to do. But with the loss of Aristotle’s equally teleological understanding of physics and biology, the moral application of good came under heavy challenge, above all from David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche: Now man no longer seems to have a purpose or function that can be assessed by easily adjudicable standards. The result of this is that, according to MacIntyre, good becomes a mere term of approval, and all contemporary debate about morality boils down to a choice between either Aristotle or Nietzsche.

I agree with this analysis, but would only add that not even Nietzsche was a pure relativist. Odd fragments of the old way of thinking occasionally (all too occasionally, unfortunately) crop up in his work, as here in The Gay Science : "Even we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith thousands of years old, the Christian faith, which was also the faith of Plato: that God is the truth, that truth is divine."

In other words, scratch a relativist and underneath you’ll get an absolutist. I am happy to salute Nietzsche’s concession that God is truth and truth divine. But there are other absolutes lurking in the confused breasts of the relativists, as in the controversy about Muslim women wearing veils in Western societies, where two absolutes do battle inside the liberal mind: Religious freedom is inviolate, but women’s subordination is intolerable. Sometimes this internal battle can be amusing to watch, as in this scene so wittily and dryly depicted in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind :

The sexual revolution marched under the banner of freedom; feminism under that of equality. Although they went arm in arm for a while, their differences eventually put them at odds with each other, as Tocqueville said freedom and equality would always be. This is manifest in the squabble over pornography, which pits liberated sexual desire against feminist resentment about stereotyping. We are presented with the amusing spectacle of pornography clad in armor borrowed from the heroic struggles for freedom of speech, and using Miltonic rhetoric, doing battle with feminism, newly draped in the robes of community morality, using arguments associated with conservatives who defend traditional sex roles, and also defying an authoritative tradition in which it was taboo to suggest any relation between what a person reads and sees and his sexual practices. In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot.

So does all this mean that relativism is only a fata morgana , a phantom enemy against which doing battle is pointless? Did Cardinal Ratzinger make a category mistake when he spoke of the "dictatorship of relativism" on the day before his election to the papacy in April 2005? Why not keep things clear by speaking less cryptically of a "dictatorship of absolutists " who will stop at nothing until Christianity is but a distant (and bad) memory in the Western mind?

That terminological suggestion might sound initially plausible, but it doesn’t really get at Pope Benedict’s point. To understand his meaning, I think it best to switch the topic from morality to Christology (always of greater concern to the pope than morality, who sees the real threat to the Church, or at least a good part of it, in those Catholics who think it necessary to relativize Christ in order to dialogue with people of other religions). To get at Benedict’s point, I wish to draw attention to the theologian who perhaps best articulated the case for a relativized Christology, Ernst Troeltsch (1865¯1923). He spent his career arguing against (as he called one of his books) The Absoluteness of Christianity . For him an "absolute" Christology would be the theological equivalent of geocentrism in astronomy or anthropocentrism in evolutionary biology (two telling analogies).

I cannot dissect here Troeltsch’s argument, except to say that it is trenchant enough to merit a full-bore response from the orthodox. As Sarah Coakley rightly remarks in her aptly titled book Christ Without Absolutes , Troeltsch "was a polymathic figure: philosopher, historian, sociologist, politician, and theologian."

Given those achievements and the depths of his arguments, I cannot refute his views here. The reason I mention his name at this point, though, is because the English translation of The Absoluteness of Christianity comes with a foreword by James Luther Adams, which, while largely sympathetic, lobs a bombshell right at the heart of the whole Troeltschian project. The opening paragraph of the foreword begins with this astonishing anecdote:

Sometime during the course of World War II the United States War Department brought together a selected group of cultural anthropologists in order to secure their counsel regarding the management of psychological warfare in [the] face of German National Socialism. After the group had assembled in Washington one of their number asked what the War Department really expected of these men. He explained that in his work the cultural anthropologist for the sake of scientific objectivity presupposes the point of view of cultural relativism, and that therefore he entertains no biases or ethical preferences, in short, that he is not accustomed to making value judgments regarding the various cultures he studies. He went on to say that if the Germans preferred Nazism, they were entitled to that preference, just as democratic Americans are entitled to their own different preference. In either case, he said, the preference is simply an expression of a cultural milieu.

Allan Bloom, phone home! What the bureaucrats in the War Department thought of this flabbergasting manifesto can only be imagined; but whatever else it says, this anecdote shows how deeply rooted relativism has become in our culture. Of course, if the government had turned around and said to these panjandrums of cultural anthropology that the federal government was going to demand a loyalty oath to the President Roosevelt, just as the Germans were then all swearing fealty toward their Führer, these academic relativists would no doubt have screamed to the skies. But just because they kept to at least this one absolute (at least for themselves) does not mean they were not relativists in most other areas.

I wonder if Troeltsch, too, had some such unexamined absolute lurking in his breast. Luther Adams thinks not and links his anecdote to the Troeltschian project in this way:

Troeltsch would have seen in the colloquy in Washington a sign of a major modern revolution that has affected all spheres of life¯the arts, law, and religion as well as the sciences. In his view this revolution has come about as a consequence of the appearance of a new historical consciousness that recognizes the contingent and singular character of the events of history. Out of this new historical consciousness has developed the modern historical method.

Well, that’s a relief: Christians have to abandon their faith in the truth-claims Christ made about himself because this vague demiurge "historical consciousness" makes all things relative, even though that principle leaves us defenseless against Nazism!

Amid these random observations, I’m sure I must have an argument buried here somewhere, although given the confused way absolutes and relativities rattle around inside our minds and in contemporary debate, I’m not exactly sure what that argument is or how to conclude. But I think I can at least say this: (1) everyone is an absolutist about something; (2) relativism, both in the moral and theological sense, represents the single greatest challenge to the Christian religion in our contemporary setting; (3) relativists usually have arguments, but that doesn’t mean they are not arguing for relativism, even if, like the rest of us, they are absolutist about something.

As to the issue of the "dictators" among the relativists who so concern the pope, I think behind that unique aggression against Christian values we may at least detect a backhanded compliment to Christianity. In Leviathan , Thomas Hobbes observed that anytime a believer says "God came to me in a dream," the philosopher can reply, "The dreamer had a dream about God." OK, but then why aren’t Christians treated like aborigines from Borneo? Because Christianity really is unique. Personally, I have always felt that Blaise Pascal came closest to giving us the answer to this conundrum when he said:

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer.

I think Pascal also gave us the best recommendation for dealing with the challenge of relativism: admit the hatred Christianity inspires and then meet that hatred with reason, love, and, above all, confidence in the "absolutely" beneficial implications of Christianity. His advice could not be simpler:

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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