Responding to the Relativism of the Street

This is the first draft of an article I’m writing for De Rebus, an intraseminary publication on culture and politics. Yes, I’m part of the editing staff. Yes, I’ll probably run it next year.

Responding to the Relativism of the Street

Joshua M. Neu

With regards to the relativism rampant in our culture, there are at root two distinct types: the relativism of the scholar and the relativism of the street. Of course, both may be divided and subdivided into their constituent doctrines and adherents, but that more or less does it. The relativism of the scholar, most prevalent in the universities, boasts a wide variety of pedants and ne’er-do-wells, from A. J. Ayer with his heady doctrine of emotivism to Friedrich Nietzsche who supposes that truth is woman whom each man must lure away, but the particularities of these views relate little to the baker, the butcher, or the newspaper delivery boy. No, the relativism of the street, that is, of the man-in-the-street, is much less thought out, and perhaps, therefore, much more honest. As it is on this man that the wheels of our day-to-day culture turn, so it is to this man that the Catholic-in-the-street must respond. With that in mind, I will tease out what it is that the man-in-the-street actually believes and offer a response, constraining myself to comment only on relativism applied to religion, rather than ethics or some other category.

The conversation between the Catholic-in-the-street and his fellow man usually runs a bit like this:

Relativist: “You cannot tell me what to believe. All truth is relative.”

Catholic: “The claim that all truth is relative is a claim about absolute truth.”

Relativist: “But some things are true for me, whereas others are true for you.”

Catholic: “Truth is not merely relative or subjective. You claim that there is a truth, namely that ‘all truth is relative,’ which is true regardless who believes it. In doing so, you both contradict your claim and show that you believe in some sort of absolute truth.”

Usually, the relativist remains unconvinced, while the Catholic walks away mumbling about the principle of non-contradiction and wondering how someone could be so obstinate. It seems that they might as well have had two different conversations. I contend that, for all practical purposes, they did.

The man-in-the-street maintains an unspoken premise, one which he may never have thought through. He believes that truths regarding religion are essentially unknowable. Since it is unknowable, religion is a way of organizing one’s experience, coping, or imparting meaning to one’s life. Therefore the man-in-the-street uses the word “truth” in two ways. The first is exactly as the Catholic means the word in the above conversation—as Aristotle says, “To say that [either] that which is is not or that which is not is, is a falsehood; and to say that that which is is and that which is not is not, is true.”[1] The second way is that a truth is a belief about that which cannot be known, for the purpose of organizing the believer’s experience, coping, or imparting meaning to the believer’s life. With this hidden distinction, the man-in-the-street can claim that truth is relative and go on unscathed by the Catholic claim that there is an absolute truth.

In a certain sense, the man-in-the-street is correct. Religious truth as such cannot be known through reason. It is known through faith, and faith is a supernatural virtue that is a gift from the personal God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. Faith is primarily the belief in a person, not in a set of propositions—crédere in Deum rather than crédere quod Deus sit. This, however, does not justify fideism. The propositions, such as that purgatory exists or that the universe is not founded on an infinite series of causes, are quite important, but they are only knowable through believing in Him who reveals. Were it not the case that God is Who He says He is, then the man-in-the-street would be correct about all religious truths. All would be of the second sort, wanderings through a dark wood while refusing to awaken to life’s essential tragedy.

Is it, then, the case that there is “[n]othing to be done,” as Estragon would like us to believe while he and the man-in-the-street await the arrival of Godot, whether that figure is a person or nothing at all?[2] Of course not, but although intellectual debate of nuanced propositions can be helpful for conversion, the Catholic tradition has always recognized that the Holy Spirit is the one who works, converting the soul to the person of Jesus Christ. In every age of the Church, the Holy Spirit commissions this work to witnesses, beginning with the primary witnesses, the martyrs. One has to wonder if Our Lord allowed Stephen to die just so that Paul could see it happen and have the passing thought that Christ might in fact be Who He says He is.

Augustine arrives only a few centuries later, and as Christ is the archetype for all the martyrs, Augustine may be an archetypical convert. Even Augustine, an intellectual next to Christians like Gulliver hovering over Lilliput, was inspired not by argument so much as by a witness, for example, the life of St. Anthony the Great. Through his well-tuned rhetoric, Augustine’s very Confessions encourage us to follow Christ with Augustine himself as witness.

The Catholic must demonstrate that the truth of the Catholic faith is a truth in the primary sense of the term, and that demonstration is one not of propositions but of martyrdom. The priest or religious primarily submits this proof because all aspects of his life flow from and lead toward the person of Jesus Christ. When truly all aspects of his life are so directed, no one can deny that the religious claim is one of absolute truth. Such an all-encompassing devotion cannot be confused with a belief for the purpose of organizing the believer’s experience, coping, or imparting meaning to the believer’s life. No man is celibate in order to cope. The response to relativism is what all Catholic responses essentially have been, martyrdom for the person of Jesus Christ, in whom the martyr believes as absolute truth.

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1011b26

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, I. 1.

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1011b26

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

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4 Responses
  1. M. Elizabeth Tetzlaff says:

    Really liked it, Josh.

  2. Micah(space)Teller says:

    Thanks, Josh.

  3. Joshua Neu says:

    I've made the edits to the first draft and added them to this post.

    You're welcome, Micah.

  4. Anonymous says:

    "Ethics has reached a point of crisis, when many of the experts admit that their judgments are no more valid than the opinions of the man on the street" -Vernon Bourke

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