Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.

COMING UP: Bishop Barron: How the Church can defeat relativism

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Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, best known for his Word on Fire Ministry, spoke about the origins of relativism, the challenges it brings to evangelization and the different ways to engage it at the St. John Paul II Lecture Series, he Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo., Feb. 6.

Bishop Barron called all the faithful to action after explaining the genealogy and challenges of relativism that is embedded in today’s society.

“We Catholics need to be right in the center of the culture, right in the middle of the public conversation, and speaking against this flattened-out, trivializing relativism, in favor of… great objective values,” he said.

To understand the problem of relativism – the view that there is no absolute truth, only particular truths conditioned by culture, space and time – Bishop Barron spoke about its origins in voluntarism and Cartesian subjectivism.

“The coming together of the voluntarist and Cartesian strains provides the breeding ground for much contemporary relativism, namely the subject’s assertion of truth through a sovereign act of the will… In other words, ‘I decide. My freedom decides,’” he said.

Voluntarism is the idea brought about in the Middle Ages that God’s will trumps his intellect, meaning that whatever is true is so because God willed it. This philosophy would lead to see God as a threat and eventually to get rid of him, as Ludwig Feuerbach did, reducing him to a mere invention of the human mind, Bishop Barron explained.

Nietzsche and Sartre built on this idea and considered the human person beyond truth, meaning that freedom came first and the greatest threat to a person’s freedom was God. Nietzsche would then use this premise to proclaim God “dead.”

“[This] is the default position of so many of our young people today,” Bishop Barron said. “[Namely, that] God is a threat to our flourishing, a threat to our freedom, a threat to our humanity.”

Bishop Barron highlighted the role of the Church in the fight against relativism, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

Challenges

Bishop Barron mentioned some of the many dangers that this voluntarist relativism brings to those who want to announce the Gospel: A frustration of the mind’s desire for truth, its radical individualism and spiritual laziness.

“The minute you say will trumps the intellect, that means the intellect’s desire to know, which is one of the most fundamental drives we have, is… frustrated,” the bishop said. This causes “restlessness of the heart and deep frustration of the mind” in young people because they feel they cannot grasp something solid.

Relativism also produces radical individualism and hence, necessarily, divisiveness, he said. If there are only different wills and freedoms, there’s room for “toleration” but no connection to a common truth, value or purpose: “Objective truth, in fact, is one for the most powerful forces that draws us together.”

Bishop Barron recalled Cardinal John Henry Newman’s metaphor of the river to illustrate how voluntarist relativism produces spiritual laziness. “It is the objectivity of the good and the true that give drive and energy to the human project,” he said. Like a river, if the banks are taken away in the name of freedom, it will turn into a lazy lake.

“[Because of relativism], many young people are floating in a lazy lake without purpose or drive,” he added.

Bishop Barron exhorted the Church to boldly proclaim objective values, which bring about authentic freedom. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

The Church responds

To conclude, Bishop Barron mentioned two key ways to address contemporary relativism, namely the defense of objective values and the proclamation of true freedom.

Drawing on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s distinction between the subjectively satisfying and the objectively valuable, he said that the Church should continue to be the one to unleash the power of objective values that transform the human person.

That which is subjectively satisfying is something that not everyone has to like, such as pizza, he explained. Nonetheless, there are real objective values that in their goodness, truth or beauty, transform the human person and rearrange his subjectivity, such as seeing the Sistine Chapel or listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

“Relativism flattens out life,” he said. “We take the best things and we trivialize them to the level of pizza.”

Finally, he distinguished between freedom of indifference, which reduces to the freedom to personally decide something, and freedom for excellence, which he defined as “the disciplining of the desire to make the achievement of the good, first possible, then effortless.”

The main difference is that freedom of indifference makes an enemy out of law, while freedom for excellence internalizes the law to make it part of who he is, Bishop Barron explained. Internalizing the law helps the person become what he is meant to be, in congruence with God and the deepest purposes of his being.

“It’s the Church above all that speaks these abiding, objective truths that ground true and authentic freedom,” Bishop Barron concluded. “That is the best way to engage relativism… We acknowledge it and then we… redirect it.”