Relativism, Christianity and the West

12 May 2004

Relativism, Christianity and the West
Lecture delivered at the Pontifical Lateran University on the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Civil Law Faculty – Rome

1. The theme

I wish to thank you warmly for the honor you have extended to me with the invitation to the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Civil Law Faculty of this prestigious Pontifical University.

I also wish to thank you for the pleasure you have given me of being able to speak to colleagues whom I esteem and – if you will forgive me, for I would not like to begin with a sin – I also “envy” for the felicitous profession of teaching and research they carry on.
When Monsignor Fisichella invited me and left me free to address a topic of my own choosing, I leapt at the opportunity to choose a subject that had been on my mind for some time, that has stimulated me to reflect and often to write: the state of the West. So I raked over my reflections, which I decided to abridge, update and present to you. I will declare from the start why I have chosen these reflections and not others, in order to provide you with the framework within which I intend to move and to enable you to make a more satisfactory critical assessment of my opinions.
There are three “reasons why”. One is that I believe the West is suffering from a serious cultural crisis. Another is that I believe this crisis tends to touch upon, if not the doctrine, at least the preaching of the Catholic Church. And thirdly – since neither for lay people nor believers can there be any West without Christianity – I believe that Christianity can make a decisive contribution to healing the distress of the West.
The distress of which I speak has a familiar name – relativism, and I will begin from here.

2. A symptom: the self-censorship of the West

At the beginning of his well-known essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber raised the following issue: “Which chain of circumstances has resulted in the fact that on Western soil and only there cultural phenomena have been produced which, as we represent them, show signs of evolutionary advance and universal validity?” (M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
Weber was referring in particular to “the greatest force in our modern life: capitalism”, although the same question could be asked about numerous western creations and institutions. Here I will not concern myself with the historical aspects of the question. What I wish to draw attention to is a philosophical and cultural problem of a new and paradoxical nature.
This is what it is all about. While all the explanations successively put forward have retained the genuine nature of Weber’s question, today – exactly one hundred years after his book was written – it is the question itself that is being put in question. Current dominant thinking in the West concerning the universal creations of the West itself is that none of them has any universal value. Consequently recommending our institutions to the world is deemed to be an act of intellectual arrogance and trying to export these institutions towards different cultures and traditions is deemed an act of imperialism.
One may easily convince oneself of how widespread this conviction is by reflecting upon a symptom of it: that self-censorship and self-repression that lurks under the surface of what is commonly called “politically correct language”, a kind of “newspeak”, that the West uses today to talk with tongue in cheek, make allusions, to insinuate, but not to state or claim.
Consider a specific phenomenon. Everything may be compared and assessed within Western culture – even Coca Cola and Chianti -, and much can be compared between peculiar features of western culture and peculiar features of other cultures. But when we get to the cultures themselves or to higher order groupings – like the civilizations Max Weber spoke of yesterday and Samuel Huntington today – and we try to establish a hierarchy for these cultures or civilizations or even to rank them along a “better-worse” continuum, the outcome is self-censorship, prohibition and a linguistic straight jacket. As a result, whenever we come across a culture that does not possess or that even rejects our institutions, we are not allowed to say our culture is better than or even only preferable to it.
I find this form of “linguistic re-education” unacceptable. I reject it on intellectual grounds and I reject it also on ethical grounds (which is ultimately the true reason why intellectual stances are rejected). I shall start with the former, but before stating the general philosophical grounds, I shall examine a concrete case.

3. Two instances of paralysis of the West

Twelve years ago, in 1992, a French scholar of Islamic matters, Olivier Roy, wrote a book entitled L’èchec de l’Islam politique (Editions du Seuil, Paris 1992). His argument, expressed in his own words, was that “political Islam does not stand the test of power. […] Islamism has turned into a neo-fundamentalism concerned solely with re-establishing Islamic law, the sharia, without inventing any new political forms” (p. 9).
Roy found confirmation for his thesis in a long series of absences or failed responses: Islam, in his view, has produced no political model of its own; no particular economic system different from the ones we are already familiar with; no autonomously functioning public institution; no free space between family and the state; no recognition of women’s equal rights; no supranational community other than the religious one, etc. In other words, a defeat. As Roy wrote: instead of opening up new horizons, “the Islamist parenthesis has closed a door, that of the revolution and of the Islamic state” (ibidem, page.11).
Is Olivier Roy’s thesis, and that of many other like thinkers in the West, valid? And, if so, can it be said today that the western model is better than the Islamic one, as western democracy was previously said to be better than communism?
The answer to the first question is dependent solely on research and empirical analyses. The answer to the second question does not depend solely on analyses, as it clearly expresses a value judgment (“better”). In this connection, it is essential to make a preliminary distinction.
This consists of a distinction between judgment and decision, that is, a distinction between stating a thesis and adopting an attitude. The two questions are linked although, on their own, they are not linked by deductive logic. In particular, to state the thesis that the western model of democratic institutions and rights is better than the Islamic model does not imply taking any particular course of action. It may be said that the West is better than Islam and yet tolerate Islam, respect Islam, interact with Islam, ignore Islam, or hinder Islam, conflict with Islam and so on, over the whole range of possible attitudes.
Committing a gross blunder, which nevertheless betrays its present state of mind, the dominant culture in the West is of the opposite view. It thinks that a “must” derives from an “is”, so that, if it is claimed that the West is better than Islam or, in more concrete terms, that democracy is better than theocracy, a liberal constitution better than the sharia, a parliamentary decision better than a sura, an international organization better than the humma, a sentence from an independent tribunal better than a fatwa, etc., a clash with Islam is inevitable. This is actually a logical error, which is compounded with the other, namely to believe that our institutions do not have the right to be considered better than others.
As a result of these two errors the West today is doubly paralyzed. It is paralyzed because it does not consider there are any good reasons for claiming it is better than Islam. And it is paralyzed because it believes that, if such reasons existed, it would have to fight Islam.
I personally deny these arguments. I deny that there are no good reasons for deeming that some institutions are better than others. And I deny that such a judgment must necessarily lead to a clash. I do not deny however that, if the response to an exchange of views is conflict, the conflict should not be accepted. Rather I assert the opposite. I am a convinced supporter of the principles of dialogue, tolerance, respect, but I also believe that, if someone rejects the reciprocal nature of these principles and declares hostility or jihad on us, we must acknowledge that he is an enemy and defend ourselves. In essence, I reject the self-censorship of the West. And I shall explain why.

4. The relativism of the contextualists

The notion whereby there are no good reasons for judging cultures or civilizations is known as relativism. Today this goes by several different names: ” post-Enlightenment thinking”, “post-modern thinking “, “weak thinking”, “thinking without foundations”, “thinking without truth”, “deconstructivism”, etc. The way it is marketed varies, but the target is always the same: to win over as many converts as possible to the idea that no proof or any solid arguments exist by which to establish that something is better or of greater worth than something else.
Relativism is based on an incontrovertible fact – the plurality of values – and on grounds that are also hard to challenge – the non-compossibility of all values, in the sense that a circumstance will always exist in which the pursuit of a value (say friendship) is incompatible with another value (say justice). Take the case, worthy of a seminar on moral philosophy, in which a friend has committed an offence before our eyes: must one report him or uphold one’s friendship and become an accomplice?. However, relativism derives from these premises the disastrous consequence that sets of values, like cultures and civilizations, cannot be judged side by side.
Essentially two paths lead to this consequence.
The first is the path followed by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, in which every “linguistic universe”, such as that of culture or civilization, has its own construction, meaning and decision-making rules. The grounds on which this thesis is based is that the contents cannot be separated from the criteria by which they are judged. Truth, beauty, good in a culture are such according to the criteria used to define them within that culture. The criteria are always infra-, and never inter-cultural; they are contextual.
In criticizing this thesis I shall merely point out that, in order to judge whether culture A is better than culture B, there is no need for A and B to share the same meta-criterion; it is sufficient for the members of A and B to decide to engage in a dialogue and to subject each other to mutual criticism. During or at the end of this dialogue, one of the interlocutors will be at odds with the other and at that point the other’s thesis will be the better position. And better in the only sense that common mortals can know: better because it withstands criticism.
It is possible to refute the objection “what you are proposing to us is the old technique of elenchos, or of confutation, of Gorgias, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and thus a good criterion only inside a culture, western culture”, in many different ways. Ultimately, by “casting out nines”. If the members of culture B freely show a preference for culture A and not vice versa, if, for example, migratory flows are directed from Islamic countries towards the West and not vice versa, then there is reason to believe that A is better than B. And to the further objection: “but this is false, because the conversion of B to A may be the result of indoctrination, of propaganda, of having made a mistake” it is possible to reply: “if you – a contextualist relativist belonging to culture A, speak of a mistake you are contradicting yourself as, in order to recognize a mistake committed in culture B, you would have to have a ‘mistake criterion’ that was common to A and B and allowed a distinction to be made between real and apparent in both”. But if both cultures share a common criterion, relativism no longer holds. By wanting to relativize everything, relativism becomes so greedy that it devours itself.

5. The relativism of the deconstructivists

This same self-devouring attitude undermines the other path followed by relativism, deconstruction, which has Nietzsche as the recognized precursor.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida, one of the voices with the greatest following in the West, is today its acknowledged guru. In a masterful fashion he applied deconstruction to a series of concepts of fundamental importance for the West, in order to demonstrate that they fail to stand up to the test of their alleged universality. For instance, Derrida deconstructed hospitality in order to show that it is a form of imposition; he deconstructed democracy, concluding that it is an exercise in force; he deconstructed the State, showing that, as such, it is a rogue (cf. Voyous, Galilèe 2003). Lastly, Derrida tackled the risky task of deconstructing the concept of terrorism.
The result is again contradictory, and Derrida himself has to pay the price.Faced with the terrorist acts of 11 September, he begins first by deconstructing it (“le 11 septembre, September eleventh,: in the end, we do not know exactly what we are saying or what we are naming in this way “). Then as many others do today, he appeals to the UN, demanding that it “should be given sufficient forces to intervene and no longer depend, in order to enforce its decisions, on rich and powerful nation states, that are either actually or virtually hegemonic, capable of bending the law to their advantage or to their interests” (Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, by Giovanna Borradori, University of Chicago Press, 2003). This may be a politically correct idea, but – I wonder – how is it possible to appeal to the UN, that is, to a democratic institutions, after having deconstructed law, justice and democracy?
Derrida is aware of this contradiction and responds: “I continue to believe that it is faith in the possibility of this impossible thing … that determines all our decisions” (ibidem, pp.123-124). This is exactly what he says: faith. More or less the answer that a poor, ill-treated and deconstructed enlightenment philosopher, when pressed, would have given.
I shall finish making my point. Relativism, however much may be conceded to its premises, is not tenable. It runs counter to the facts. Against contextualism, I do not deny the criteria-contents relation (a typical mutual reinforcement). I refute P. Feyerabend’s celebrated thesis: “every theory can claim a part of experience”, or that of T. Kuhn: “the supporters of opposing paradigms practise their affairs in different worlds”. Against deconstructivism I do not deny that facts do not exist without interpretation. I refute Nietzsche’s thesis that “there are no facts, only interpretations” (F. Nietzsche, Afterthoughts); or Derrida’s “there is nothing beyond the text” (J. Derrida, Of Grammatology).
You can tweak and titillate as much as you like, but the facts remain an ineluctable test bench. Against the relativism of science one may oppose experimental facts: in the end, not even the most stubborn Ptolemaic could deny that Venus has phases. Against the relativism of cultures one may oppose the facts of expectations: in the end, not even Derrida denies that, to cope with terrorism, a decision by international bodies is to be preferred. And against the relativism of civilizations, one may oppose the facts of preferences: in the end, not even the most rabid multiculturalist relativist would deny that all men, if left free, prefer to live in conditions of security, tolerance, respect, health, prosperity and peace.
This leaves faith, to which even Derrida ultimately appeals. And if even faith were relative? This brings me to the other topic of my address.

6. The relativism of the Christian faith

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recently wrote that “relativism has to a certain extent become the true religion of modern man” (Truth and Tolerance, Ignatius Press, 2004), and that it is “the greatest problem of our era”. Then he asks a series of questions: “the force that turned Christianity into a world religion consisted in its synthesis of reason, faith and life … why is this synthesis no longer convincing today? Why, on the contrary, are rationality and Christianity today considered to be contradictory and even mutually exclusive? What has changed in the former and what in the latter?” (ibidem, p.184).
In the first case – rationality -, I think it is possible to respond – what has changed is faith in the foundations, the proofs, sound reasons. In the second, Christianity – I venture that it is faith in the Revelation that has changed.
For some time now relativism has penetrated also Christian theology, winning over a part of it. From there, slowly, surreptitiously, it has spread among believers, particularly among the clergy where, unless I am mistaken, it has acted not so much on faith as on the defence of faith.
In the beginning, there is pluralism. The theologian Paul Knitter raised the issue in these terms: The fundamental assumption of uniting pluralism is that all religions are or may be equally valid. This means that their founders, the religious figures behind them, are or may be equally valid. But this could open up the possibility that Jesus Christ is ‘one among many’ in the world of saviours and liberators. And a Christian cannot simply acknowledge something like this, or can he? (P. Knitter, No other name? Orbis Books, c1985).
However astonishing this may seem, Knitter says he can. And so for him, as for John Hick and other theologians, it is necessary to rethink traditional Christology. “Ego sum via, veritas et vita”; “extra Verbum nulla salus”, “Jesus is the only begotten Son of God”: these and other claims in the Gospel, according to these relativist theologians, would have to be revised or interpreted differently.
How? Here is an example drawn from Knitter himself. When the Christian says “Jesus is my only love”, this must be interpreted – he writes – in the same way that a husband uses it when referring to his wife (or vice versa): “you are the most beautiful woman in the world, you are the only woman for me” (op. cit. pp.155-56). In other words, saying “Jesus, I love you” simply amounts to saying “Darling, I love you”.
But why should the poor Christian have to convert to this politically, or theologically, correct “newspeak”? The reason, as Cardinal Ratzinger again writes, lies in the fact that “believing there really is a truth, a binding and valid truth in the very story, in the figure of Jesus Christ and in the Church’s faith, is defined as fundamentalism” (op. cit., p.124). And since today fundamentalism is a new capital sin, it is preferable to subscribe to relativism, particularly because, as Cardinal Ratzinger further writes, “relativism appears as the foundation of democracy” (p.121).
Cardinal Ratzinger refutes the validity of this thesis and I too find it contradictory, false and counterproductive for the Christian. Contradictory if, by relativism, it is claimed that no foundations exist, then not even relativism can be a foundation of democracy. False: democracy is based on the values of the person, dignity, equality, respect; if you detract from these values you remove democracy. And counterproductive if, relativistically speaking, one truth is worth another, why bother discussing? And if in faith there is no truth, how can we be saved?
My answer is: if truth does not exist, the believer cannot be saved. For the believer, Christ is Revelation, he is the Word become man. And this God-man is a fact (the “Christian fact”, as Monsignor Angelo Scola called it; cf. ” Cristianesimo e religioni nel futuro dell’Europa”, in L’identità dell’Europa e le sue radici, Edizioni del Senato, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli 2002, p.39). Either you deny this Christian fact, and thus affirm religious relativism, or you accept it and then face the consequences.

7. Christianity, dialogue and Islam

But what are the consequences of the Christian fact? Here I switch from a theoretical critique of relativism to a moral critique.
It is an accepted fact, in theology, that exclusivism has today fallen into disuse and the inclusivism that followed it is associated with dialogue, which was greatly emphasized by the Vatican Council II. However, some questions must be raised concerning this dialogue. Two in particular: dialogue for what? dialogue on what?
Let us begin with the first question. One first response is: dialogue for the mutual comprehension of believers in the various different faiths. This answer, which reveals the Church’s desire to address modern people, is not controversial, but this is not sufficient. If we wish to avoid renouncing the Church’s mission, we must add: dialogue for evangelization. But what is the relationship that exists between the two purposes, between comprehension and evangelization?
To be honest, in answering these two questions I am aware of an uncomfortable ambiguity. In Redemptoris missio (no. 55) we read that “interreligious dialogue is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission”, but that it “does not dispense one from evangelization”. But if “it is part” and “does not dispense from”, that is, if it is an indispensable part, dialogue is thus not an element, but an instrument of evangelization. So why is there so much reluctance to use the word “instrument”?
I am inclined to think that the answer lies in fear: the fear “nourished by relativism” that also for the Church, dialogue as an instrument of evangelization may be perceived as a form of imperialism.
I perceive the same ambiguity also in the answer to the second question: interreligious dialogue on what? Of course, not on the Revelation, as the Revelation is Truth. One might say: on values such as the community, fraternity, tolerance, or else peace, dignity, promotion of the individual, which are common to many religions. But these are secular values; Christian evangelization does not preach secularity, it preaches transcendence, its unique transcendence. But if this transcendence is unique, how can we then speak of “elements of truth and grace” (Ad gentes, no. 9) also in the other religions?
Father Piero Gheddo recently responded to a provocation from an American sociologist (R. Scott Appleby, “The Pope between Three Fires”, in Global Foreign Policy, March-April 2004, pages 28-34), who had actually proposed an alliance between Christianity and Islam against the West. Father Gheddo pointed out: “in no Islamic country are Christians entirely free, as Muslims are in the West. Muslims should do some deep soul-searching regarding their collective behaviour: the systematic violation of human rights, terrorism, oppressive practices against women and children, lack of democracy, religious and social formalism which oppresses the individual” (ibidem, pp. 38 and 40).
That’s how things stand, at least as far as we can see. While we allow mosques to spring up beside our parish churches, in the vast majority of Muslim countries no churches can be built. Even worse. While Muslims do not allow reciprocity with regard to our principles and values, we allow ourselves the luxury of the relativistic deconstruction of these same principles and values and theorize about dialogue, even when, as Father Gheddo again writes, “it must be acknowledged that dialogue as the fathers of the Council conceived of it has borne little fruit”.I may be wrong or unduly apprehensive. But I see a risk: that the fear of making choices will lead Christians to think that, if Christianity involves heavy obligations, it is better to dilute the faith, indulge in dialogue at all costs and lower one’s voice rather than risk a clash. But the weak Christian, like the weak thinker, ultimately becomes an acquiescent Christian. One example of this weakness seems to be apparent in the way in which the question of the reference to Christian roots in the preamble to the Constitution of the European Union was approached and negatively resolved. Why did this happen?
Not because it is untrue that Europe has Christian roots. Quite the contrary. It is true that the majority of our successes are positively or critically due to this, to the message of the God that became man. It is true that, without this message, which transformed individuals into persons, the latter would have had no dignity. It is true that our values, rights and duties of equality, tolerance, respect, solidarity, compassion stem from that sacrifice by God. It is true that our attitude towards the others, whatever their condition, class, appearance or culture, depends on the Christian revolution. It is true that our very democracies are informed by it, including the precious lay nature of the institutions which distinguishes between what is God’s from what is Caesar’s, that is, what belongs to the State and what belongs to the individual. And so on.
Then why did things go this way? Why did the insistent plea of the Pope himself go unanswered? Why did the Christian peoples of Europe not mobilize to raise their banner, while millions marched for peace and for dialogue also with those who explicitly attack the founding values of the West?
My answer is: because – in the era of relativism triumphant – truth no longer exists, the mission of truth is seen as fundamentalism, and the very affirmation of truth raises fears or causes apprehension. Perhaps the negative prophecy of Veritatis splendor (no.101) is coming true, the “alliance between democracy and ethical relativism”.
Relativism – and this is the true ethical reason for my critique of it – weakens our cultural defences and prepares us for and makes us liable to surrender. Because it leads us to believe that there is nothing that is worth fighting or running risks for. Because it gives us no further arguments or gives us false arguments even when others want to remove the crucifix from our schools. Or because, while making out that it forms the basis of the lay, liberal and democratic state, it ultimately, when backed into a corner, is converted into that secularist State dogmatism that bans girls of Islamic faith from wearing the hijab at school.

8. The yawn of the West

This brings me to my conclusion: why fight and run risks? Is there a war going on?
My answer is: in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere, in much of the Islamic and Arab world groups of fundamentalists, radicals, extremists – Taliban, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Armed Islamic Group, and many others – have declared war – or jihad – on the West. The have stated it in so many words, in writing and have disseminated it in clear letters. Why not acknowledge it?
One may object: these are acts of terrorism by groups of fanatics. I answer: I am afraid not; terrorism is a tool used in a cultural and armed war. One may object further: we ourselves cannot fight with weapons. I answer: I sincerely hope we do not have to, but if, as is already happening, the West is obliged to use force, why rule it out a priori? If force is just and used in defence, does not Christianity itself perhaps allow the use of just force for reasons of defence?
Do not get me wrong, out of inattention or perhaps deliberately. Do not speculate underneath or behind my words. I am not pleading the cause of a declaration of war by the West. I am pleading another cause – that of the awareness of a cultural and armed conflict that some – many, too many – have declared on the West. I am not calling for a rejection of dialogue. I am calling for something more fundamental: I am calling for the awareness that dialogue is pointless if, in advance, one of the parties in the dialogue declares that one thesis is worth the other.
I do not see much of this two-fold awareness in the West, particularly in Europe. And it does not seem to be widespread in European Christianity itself, which seems to me today to be timid, disconcerted and anguished.
There is one profound reason for this lack of awareness, which I understand and respect. The very idea of a war of civilizations or religions is a cause of fear. Side by side with this reason that I understand is one that I do not understand: the idea of the “fault of the West”.
The West has inflicted on the world colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, nazism, fascism, communism. Having eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, it is no longer paradise on Earth. However, we must not stop short at the errors and even the horrors of the West. If stock is to be taken properly, it is necessary to weigh the merits against the wrongs, and if a fair trial is to be ensured, defence must be matched by prosecution.
“Western civilization”, one discerning writer, Pietro Citati, wrote, “has very serious faults, like any human civilization. It has violated and destroyed continents and religions. However, it has a gift that no other civilization possesses: that of accepting … all traditions, all myths, all religions, all or nearly all human beings” (P. Citati, “L’Occidente senza forza e l’esercito del terrore”, Repubblica, 31 March 2004). And another great writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, said, when writing about western civilization: “its most significant merit is perhaps that of representing something unique in the broad range of world cultures … the capacity for self-criticism (M. Vargas Llosa, “Occidente. L’agonia del paradiso”, La Stampa, 18 April 2004).Performing self-criticism, admitting errors, correcting them, punishing those who do wrong, is secular language and duty. Admitting sins and atoning for them is a Christian expression and experience. We may follow either path, but we must not forget who we are, who we want to be, who we must be. “Democracy”, Vargas Llosa has further written, “is an event that brings on yawning in countries enjoying the rule of law”. I hope this is not true. But if it were, I think the time has come to rub our eyes and wake up.


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