Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The tyranny of absolutism


Walking home this evening I felt like Douglas Hofstadter may have felt when coming up with the central idea of his spectacular Gödel, Escher, Bach book. Unlike his realization about a “golden braid” linking the thoughts of Kurt Gödel, M. C. Escher and Johann Sebastian Bach, which all shed light on infinity, I felt like I saw a way to connect the seemingly opposed words of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis with regard to relativism.

Benedict XVI famously attacked relativism in his sermon during the opening mass of the conclave that elected him, saying:
“To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of “doctrine,” seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the “I” and its whims as the ultimate measure.”
The message here is very clear - the arbiter of truth and falsehood as well as good and evil has become the individual, with no intrinsic meaning left for these concepts beyond what each person chooses to invest them with for themselves. It is not only a relativity of meaning but also a solitude - I have my truth and you yours and that is the end of the story. In his book-length interview with Benedict XVI (“Light Of The World”), Peter Seewald, gets Benedict to elaborate on the above idea, when he says:
“It is obvious that the concept of truth has become suspect. Of course it is correct that it has been much abused. Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, “This is the truth”, or even “I have the truth.” We never have it; at best it has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.

A large proportion of contemporary philosophies, in fact, consist of saying that man is not capable of truth. But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself, and then at any rate the opinion of the majority would be the only criterion that counted. History, however, has sufficiently demonstrated how destructive majorities can be, for instance, in systems such as Nazism and Marxism, all of which also stood against truth in particular.

[…] That is why we must have the courage to dare to say: Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. It goes without saying that truth requires criteria for verification and falsification. It must always be accompanied by tolerance, also. But then truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.”
Essentially, Benedict says that just because we cannot possess the truth, it does not mean that “the” truth does not exist. Our access to it is imperfect and tolerance and caution are called for, but denying its existence (just because of our epistemological constraints) is a dangerous path to follow. The picture from the above is very clear - relativism (making one’s “I” the ultimate arbiter of truth) is a tyranny and a reliance of one’s self is dangerous.

Fast-forward to this morning’s interview1 with Pope Francis talking to Eugenio Scalfari and take a look at what he has to say on the subject:
“Scalfari: Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who determines it?

Francis: Each of us has their own vision of Good and also of Evil. We have to encourage him to proceed towards that which he thinks is Good.

Scalfari: Your Holiness, you have already written it in the letter you addressed to me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey their own conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous passages spoken by a Pope.

Francis: And I repeat it here. Each one has their own idea of Good and of Evil and must choose to follow Good and fight Evil as they understand them. This would suffice to make the world a better place.”
“Each one has their own idea of Good and Evil […] as they understand them.” But, this sounds precisely like the relativism (the “I” being arbiter of truth) that Benedict denounced and declared a destructive danger. Are Francis and Benedict disagreeing here? Is Francis changing Church teaching?

I don’t think so. Instead, I believe, that their apparent opposition flows from the different perspectives from which they speak about truth and good and evil. Benedict describes what you’d see from God’s perspective: truth is absolute and denying its existence and substituting one’s whims for it, just because humans can’t access it, is a mistake. Francis, instead looks at the picture from the perspective of the individual: trust your conscience’s discernment between good and evil and choose good. Each human has a conscience by means of which they can discern (to varying degrees of faithfulness - “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror” as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12) a reflection of the absolute truth. It is the same landscape, but Benedict looks down from the mountaintop while Francis looks up from the valley.

Applying this to myself, I can simultaneously believe in absolute truth and goodness, while being aware of my own inability to grasp them fully (or even with a known level of (in)accuracy). This epistemic constraint in no way undoes the meaningfulness of pursuing goodness and truth and instead makes tolerance and dialogue necessary. It also means that - as Francis said in the same interview - “Proselytism is pompous foolishness that has no sense. We must get to know each other and listen to each other and grow our understanding of the world around us.” I believe we are all accessing fragments of the one Truth,2 which makes me want to know what you have understood as much as deepening my understanding of my own faith.

1 The English translation sadly has some serious issues at the time of this post’s writing (the tile itself being seriously mistranslated), as a result of which I started from it but made adjustments based on reading the Italian original.
2 This is consonant with Francis saying, still in this same interview that “I believe in God. Not a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God.”