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Monday, February 06, 2006

Romans, Reformers, and Relativists

Applejack brought to my attention this op-ed piece by Austin Dacey, who is currently writing a book on secular conscience in public life. For those without an online subscription to the New York Times’ website, Dacey critiques the Roman Catholic Pope’s warning that Western culture was sliding toward "a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Dacey goes on to make some good points about the flexibility of some moral codes, including the Roman Catholic treatment of homosexuality. He even comes close to putting his finger on the issue by observing that "what Pope Benedict calls relativism are actually the values of secular liberalism: individual autonomy, equal rights and freedom of conscience." However, Dacey falls short of understanding the Christian critique of relativism by going on to say

Indeed, it's hard to build a decent society without secular values, and "Deus Caritas Est" acknowledges this: "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," where politics is "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason."
Dacey doesn’t state it explicitly, but this places the Roman Catholic Pope’s political philosophy in the same class with other forms of relativism. His point seems to be, whether you’re religious or secular, society depends upon secularity, which at least in one sense of the word, is a form of relativism. However, by leaving the argument to hang right there, Dacey demonstrates the real problem with discussing relativism: one’s view of relativism is relative to one’s worldview.

The Pope—in saying that politics belongs to the sphere of autonomous reasoning—is a relativist. He is being half-faithful to Thomas Aquinas in this assertion. Thomas suggested that "autonomous reasoning" was good as far as it went and one could even reason himself to a general belief in the existence of God. He also argued that the Church had institutional preeminence over the State. The Roman Catholic Pope seems to deny or avoid the latter view with an affirmation of the former.

Dacey may be entirely unaware that the pontiff’s affirmation confirms the traditional Protestant’s rejection of Roman Catholicism. The Scholastics of the Middle Ages struggled with the right relation of reason to faith. Whereas the Patristics proposed that between the two existed an antithesis ("What is Jerusalem to Athens?" - Tertullian) or a synthesis ("A valuable ally." - Clement), the Scholastics, especially Thomas, drove a wedge between the two giving them separate jurisdictions over knowledge. This is regarded by many scholars as an important step toward modernism and still informs our contemporary attitudes about secularity.

It is also crucial in understanding the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes begin with this:

OUR wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.
Calvin does not allow for the separate, Scholastic jurisdictions of knowledge (not to be confused with Kuyper and Dooyeweerd's philosophy of sphere sovereignty). Calvin insists that faith and reason are inextricably connected. Calvin denies the possibility of "true and solid wisdom" issuing from an autonomous intellect. Unlike Tertullian, he affirms the legitimacy of reason, but only to the extent that reason is subordinate to God’s revelation.

With this in mind, let’s return to Dacey’s affirmation of secular, liberal relativism. The Calvinist critique of this form of relativism is not so much a matter of what the relativist doubts; it’s what he takes to be certain. Knowledge is ethical. Our knowing is either subordinate to God’s revealed will or it is not. There is no neutral territory where we can evaluate the claims of Christianity according to independent standards. Knowledge either begins with the fear of the Lord, or it doesn't. God will never be discovered at the conclusion of an argument.

The relativist, on the other hand, takes it for granted (that is, regards it as certain) that there are neutral principles of autonomous reasoning that can serve to evaluate any claim including the principles themselves. From the Calvinist perspective, this is exactly the attitude of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In its religious essence, relativists think it is their prerogative to assess the claims of God against the claims of Satan, independent of either. If they choose God's claim, they are no less fallen! Their conformity to God's will is merely formal. (This view is, of course, contrary to the Liberal interpretation, which views Genesis 3 as man's rite of passage into human maturity.)

When critics of relativism say "Relativists believe in nothing", they are either referring to a radical—and fringe—form of relativism, or, more importantly, they are indicating the futility of reason that is relative to the independent powers of the human spirit. In principle, relativism leads to nihilism, in practice, relativists claim to have all kinds of knowledge. These claims are challenged—strongly, I think—by the presuppositionalist branch of Christian apologetics (the rational defense of the faith). Presuppositionalists argue that a denial of the revealed Christian God leads, in principle, to the impossibility of knowledge. How is it, then, that atheists know anything? They have knowledge because they presuppose the existence of the Christian God, but they suppress God's truth in their unrighteousness. In other words, there are no authentic atheists. There are only self-deceived individuals whose rejection of their Creator has resulted in a culpable ignorance of the Truth.

My point is not to press the presuppositional argument here, but to make note of how it affects one's understanding of relativism. Man is either created in the image of the Christian God or he is not. If, as a significant minority in our country believe, man is created in the image of the Christian God, then "secularity" is the shibboleth of a non-Christian sect. It is not neutral territory whereupon we can all meet in peace. It is a product of the self-deceived consciousness that rejects God's truth in its unrighteousness.

Regrettably, few Christians are willing to embrace this antithetical stance toward their unbelieving neighbors for fear of appearing to lack compassion or willingness to make peace. What they don't understand is that secularity does not allow for either of these anyway. It presents only the illusion of inclusivity and ultimately will result in utter futility, a futility that has already begun to rear its ugly head and diminished the influence of progressive, secular ideas without any assistance from the vast right-wing conspiracy.

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