Relativism: Missing The Truth

| 06-07-AD2013 | [11]

Patrick Pierce - Relativism

Whether a moral, ethical or philosophical statement can be absolutely true is the central issue of our time. We live in a culture bombarded by messages from television, books, radio, magazines and social media.  The discoveries of archaeology and technology in the last 100 years have placed the entire past and a vision of the future at our doorsteps.

We each have at our fingertips an opportunity Aristotle or Voltaire would practically have given their lives for: We can wade into an almost endless supply of facts and piece together what is true or not true about life, death, the world, the soul and the progressive income tax.

Where science ends, we can rely upon the greatest philosophers and thinkers humanity has ever known to try to see over the edge. We can climb onto their shoulders and peer out further towards the truth.

The only thing holding us back is a malignant theory of our own invention: The idea that there is no truth to find. As the world has grown smaller and the perspectives of all the cultures have come into focus, some among us have decided that because there are so many belief systems, all of them must be equal.

More than just a cultural assertion, though, the core idea that everything is subjective has infested all fields from morality to literary criticism, politics to philosophy. And in the end it halts the oldest and noblest of human endeavors: the pursuit of truth. Plato, after all, was not looking for his views to be thrown lamely onto a pile with all the others. Augustine did not end his every sentence with “…but that’s only my opinion.” Indeed, Jesus Christ did not suggest that his words offered one of many truths, that his life was a suggestion as to one possible way to lead your life, that he offered one a way to eternal life but that others were just as good.

Stepping back, there has been a driving quest to discover the truths of our existence since mankind was born. Successive generations around the world have offered their greatest thinkers to ponder the greatest truths. Each then built on what had come before.

Now, with our vast technology and all of history and philosophy a few clicks away, we seem to be on overload and have declared a tie in humanity’s greatest project–what is the Truth? In doing so, we offer to those who strived before us the weak and hollow reply that there is nothing exalted to find. We sit amongst the greatest treasure trove of informational and historical resources ever and declare that every individual or civilization that came up with a theory is equally right–and equally wrong.

This relativism, this hiding in the gray, shields us from having to weigh moral issues or consider ethical implications. It is the easy way out: Societies and individuals often travel the path of least resistance unless dared or inspired to do otherwise. For each of us relativism provides a comfortable excuse. We can hide between definitions of words and between the right and wrong — we can bend the lines so we always fit between them. That is not, though, what we believe in our hearts.

When confronted with the horrors of genocide in World War II, we can all see the evils; when giving or receiving in a true moment of charity we can all feel the implicit good. Individuals can do things that cross unbending, solid lines. Everything is not relative; truth is not unattainable. We deny these absolutes at our peril.

There are principles all cultures have agreed upon. There are truths that can be said about humanity. In these facts can be found a unity which relativism can never admit. Celebration of diversity is a much-needed look at our differences, but at the end of the day it is more important to see the very strong connection that is shared by all of us–the pursuit of truth.

Still, two cultures may have different mores or ideals. Two people may have different goals. The chasm from these facts to the claim that both sides are morally right is a leap we should be wary to make.  It may make us feel better, feel intelligence, feel tolerant, but these feelings are a lie.  All of these feelings fade to nothing without truth.

Is every claim to truth equal? Is everything subjective? Is everything relative? The chorus of the greatest voices from our past offers us a ringing “no.”

Relativism must be seen as nothing more than a culture throwing its arms up in defeat. By doing so we sadly declare that the information around us is too overwhelming to ponder; that because the pursuit of truth has led many people in many directions none will ever get us there. Relativism claims that there are no great truths as its greatest truth. Choosing this idea as a belief system is lazy and transparent attempt to take the easy way out of humankind’s greatest project.

Any self-respecting Sumerian or Babylonian should slap us in the face for not having the courage to say whether his culture’s views were right or wrong. We are, after all, choosing to do far worse: We are cowardly ducking the question entirely. We are passing around a hearty “good job” to everyone and abandoning the project.

It is all about the central question of how we view the world. On one side we can embrace a sense of purpose and a future with the highest of ideals, on the other side we can accept defeat and carefully examine the many splendorous cultures of the world without for a second feeling what truly drove all of them. For what drove them is what drives each of us. What inspired them to moments of greatness can inspire you or me.

Life is a shallow thing without the glory of, and chase after, meaningful truth. When we deny that we set about extinguishing the spark that motivates us toward greatness. We abandon the essential connection that makes us participants in a civilization. Abandoning the pursuit of truth does not set someone above their own culture or the back-and-forth of history but rather signals a giving up on the central passion of humanity. It is not tolerance. It is not pluralism. It is not even relativism. It is cowardice. And that is the truth.

© 2013. Patrick Pierce. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

John "Patrick" Pierce (Patrick being his confirmation name) runs the website Traditium and maintains a website for those interested in Ecclesiastical Latin at Ecclesiae Latina. His legal background as an attorney in the State of Florida, and his passion for research, bring to his faith a particular fascination with Magisterium and history and a desire to reconnect the great traditions to modern life. He converted to Catholicism twenty years ago, during college, and Catholicism had traditionally been the faith of the Pierces of America and Ireland before that. He makes no bold claims to be an expert, but rather is looking to share his journey deep into history and faith, and welcomes anyone who wishes to tag along.
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  • bill bannon

    Patrick,
    We (I do monthly) should oppose abortion e.g. with crystal clear clarity ( which I think is part of your subtext ) but the Church should work way harder scientifically when her spokespeople extend surgical abortion to include contraceptives that impede implantation. Being obese in a woman’s lifestyle impedes implantation according to recent studies out of England. Are Catholic women who are getting a Boston Creme before work at Dunkin Donuts committing surgical abortion in the longer view of their life? We can’t tell the world one thing about the pill and then run to the casuistry of the gray when it impinges on our women’s freedom to have creme brulee at the mall.
    Gray in natural law exists as St. Alphonsus di Ligouri pointed out in his “Theologia Moralis” where he joked about whether saints who opposed each other on moral questions were half numerically in hell.
    Dominicans denounced Franciscans on whether the latter’s pawn shops were using usury and an Ecumenical Council had to settle it as a side note prior to St. Alphonsus writing. We (not just secular princes) burned heretics from 1253 ( when Pope Innocent IV made it incumbent on secular princes…see ” Inquisition” older Catholic encyclopedia at newadvent) til 1830. Now we condemn same in section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth”. The educated world knows that we were certain about morals but with a spotted record historically despite having byzantine casuistry often at hand to say change was no change. But if you burn Anabaptists to death in the 16th century and then buy potato salad they make in Walmart’s in the 21st, that’s a change outside the ingenious world of Catholic apologetics. If you forbid all interest in 1829 on a personal loan but permit moderate interest in 1830,
    you’ve changed even though a school of writers will appear to say no you haven’t because the nature of money has changed. Errr….the nature of money did not change between 1829 and 1830 when the Vatican sent out word that those taking moderate interest ” were not to be disturbed”.
    Crystal clear morals exists…in some areas only. On abortion, the Church should have a think tank at Castel Gandolfo that does nothing but work on the problem of ensoulment and conception. Trent’s catechism said it was delayed in the section on the Incarnation. Some embryologists are saying that very thing in that up til day 14 the cell mass is totipotential to becoming multiple persons so could not have been one person prior to that. We need a science group at Rome specializing in only that topic because the higher iq world is not buying…because we said so. The lower iq world sometimes buys it but not always. When clear infallibility is used, I buy it. But when the indefinite world of the ordinary magisterium is used as universal in contentious matters, then the claimed universality might vanish with time. It happened on Exsurge Domine’s affirmation on burning heretics…hell…28 years later Ignatius was telling us in the spiritual exercises that the Church was pan infallible…if she says white is black, it is. But Vatican II and Splendor of the Truth said Exsurge Domine was wrong on burning people who now do our heart transplants.

    • Traditium

      My point is not that all the doings and conclusions of man are true. Nor am I trying to imply specifics. My point is that the culture has abandoned the search for truth and it has convinced itself that this is an elite position. Instead it is a rather sad, dull and curious position that does not survive even a little light being thrown on it.

  • ColdStanding

    Is the Christian project to seek truth or to seek goodness? A good God made a good creation, so says Genesis. Indeed we are to seek goodness first, for goodness in reasoning is truth. Seek the good and you obtain the true, but if you seek first truth, what you find might not be good.

    • Traditium

      Just be a good person is the mantra of the current time, and folks appear quite lost with that as the rather malleable project of our age. Just a thought :).

    • ColdStanding

      I do support your position. I just think your defense isn’t deep enough. If truth is to be the standard by which we call men to order, it will only become so when it is recognized that it is goodness that holds the standard aloft in the first place.

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