Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Philosophy of Relativism and the Catholic Way of Looking at Things

Have you ever been in a discussion with someone about something important to you...say, politics or religion or education and you find that you and your colleague are in sharp disagreement, and you really don't want to start a row, so someone says something to the effect, "You have your way of looking at things, and I have mine and that's okay" ?

That happens a lot among polite people who don't want to lose a friendship or stop speaking to a relative because they didn't vote the same way in the last election.

You can't argue with someone else's experience. But when they start using their own experience as proof that their opinions are true in all cases, you've got a problem. The problem with relativism is that each individual gets to choose their own reality based upon their own experiences. In effect, each person becomes their own little god. And when they try to ignore the conflict that arises when different people have radically different experiences, they say, "You have your truth, and I have mine."

Taken to the extreme, this idea that opposite opinions can be equally valid is one of the aspects of relativism which has taken hold of our modern culture in our effort to promote "tolerance," "empathy," and "diversity."

On second thought, some opinions are not considered by our culture to be equally valid if they infringe upon the real or supposed rights of a protected class of people. Just try sending your child to school in a t-shirt that says something like "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Tolerance, empathy and respect for diversity are noble qualities, don't get me wrong. I want my kids to be tolerant of their annoying siblings, empathetic to the plight of the poor and respect people who don't speak English, but I don't want them to think it is good to be annoying, poor or ignorant.

Mark Shea spoke at Theology on Tap last night in Denver, and his topic was "101 Reasons NOT to be Catholic." He listed the various reasons people object to Catholic beliefs, such as: "The Catholic Church is against Choice," and "The Catholic Church says believers can lose their salvation." Or, "The Catholic Church is anti-sex," and "The Catholic Church wants people to have lots of babies." He juxtaposed these radically different claims, usually made by radically different folks, to show that perhaps the Church is really in the middle...and the observers are on the extremes.

Jesus promoted tolerance, empathy and diversity more so than any other person of his day. After all, he ate with sinners, told rich folk to give all their money to the poor and collected a motley assortment of followers to be his disciples.

The relativistic person who says, "Your beliefs are true for you and my beliefs are true for me," are really saying there can be two competing claims of "truth" that are both equally valid. They are really the ones in the extreme. But remember, no one really believes that in the important areas of life, (religion, politics and education, for example), opposing viewpoints have any merit. We're just trying to be polite.

But in those important areas of our lives, we need to assert our claim of truth. For example, those who claim that a woman has the "right to choose" abortion of her unborn child because she is the only one who really knows her situation and it is between "the woman and her god," are forgetting there is a competing "reality" in this situation, and that is the reality the unborn child experiences. If the promoters of relativism were really true to their beliefs, they would consider that others have competing claims that are equally valid and worthy of respect. The unborn child's claim to life should therefore hold equal weight to the claim of the woman for independence from the unborn child. In a span of nine months or less, the woman's claim for independence can be granted, and the child can be placed for adoption. In this incidence of competing claims for reality, it seems logical that both claims should be balanced so as to protect the rights of each to the greatest extent possible and doing the least harm to each.

The teachings of the Catholic Church, therefore, protect the rights of both parties to the greatest extent. Far from rejecting the claims of the woman for independence, the Church recognizes the reality of the unborn and fights to have the value of each person protected.

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