By W. Nicholas Knisely
Pope Benedict has just finished his first visit (as Pope) to the United States. It’s not surprising that many of his statements tended to confuse the people covering the event. The Pope, a former theology professor, shares a trait with the present Archbishop of Canterbury; he speaks in paragraphs, not in sound bites. (And he won’t simplify concepts so that they are easily digestible by the evening newsreaders.) But it wasn’t something that the Pope said, it was something that our President claimed the Pope had said that sent me off on a week’s worth of research and thinking. During a television interview on the eve of the visit, the President expressed his gratitude for the Pope’s teaching that "there's right and wrong in life, that moral relativism has a danger of un-dermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies." The President’s statement elicited a flurry of articles and online conversations about how relativism might actually achieve the destruction of society. But the problem is, near as I can tell, the President got the Pope’s thinking just about dead wrong.
I was particularly interested in the question of the proper role of relativism because of my training prior to studying for the priesthood. Part of my studies were spent in theoretical physics (in a small branch of general relativity theory actually) and I’ve been teaching a course on the philosophy of physics for the past six years or so. As part of all that I’ve been digging into the philosophical underpinnings of both classical and quantum physics and trying to see how we might connect the work being done there with the way we as a Church talk about God (literally: Theology).
One of the most important breakthroughs in classical physics in the past century came about as a result of Albert Einstein’s willingness to take the philosophical ideas of Ernst Mach seriously. Mach argued, in effect, that “reality” was ultimately determined by a person’s own observations. Einstein used the idea to construct his postulate of relativity which states that one reference frame’s observation is equally true as another’s even if they contradict, because the laws of physics must be the same for all. There are a couple of shelves worth of books involved in unpacking the statement, but the upshot is that no one observer can really claim priority over another one, even if they contradict each other. In effect, each person’s experience of the world around them is equally valid to another’s. While this was not a universally accepted idea in physics until the second half of the twentieth century (Hitler and Stalin claimed the idea that there was no absolute truth in Science to be preposterous and a result of deviant and Jewish thinking) the concept was repeatedly confirmed in experiment after experiment and is now broadly accepted in the physical sciences.
But a deeper question remains. Given that relativity is experimentally verified in the physical world, how should it be used in the realm of ideas? Do we want to argue that because relativity is a characteristic of physical reality, that it must also be a characteristic of morality? Should it be a fundamental characteristic of theology as well? (If that’s true, then much of the scholasticism of Reformation and Counterreformation theology is automatically overturned.) Benedict, back when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, tried to answer these questions. There’s a lovely summary of his thinking available online titled “Relativism, The Central Problem for Faith Today” that walks us through his objections. Apparently the President’s people based the President’s remarks on the title of the essay and not the actual text.
Pope Benedict’s critique of relativism shows that he’s not simply rejecting relativity in a sort of modern versus post-modern reactionary way as the President’s words seem to imply. What the Pope does instead is to look carefully at how various theologians have used relativistic and subjectivist philosophical systems. His critique centers on the observation that the move to reject the very existence of absolutes takes us to a place we don’t want to go. (It essentially forces us to reject any special quality to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.) But Benedict recognizes the possibility that while ultimate truth exists, it is unknowable by human beings except in approximation.
Painting with a very broad brush, in technical terms the Pope is arguing that Positivism cannot be proven and is even poisonous to theology, and he’s willing at least to enter-tain the principles of PostPositivism (and some of its specific children) as a way of continuing a conversation between science, theology and philosophy. I don’t have space in this essay to unpack fully the meaning of each of the terms above, but a little googling and an afternoon’s worth of reading and all will become moderately clear.
The Pope thus is landing in the same place where most scientists are these days, in post-positivism. Post-positivists admit the impossibility of being able to make statements of fact in an absolutely true way, but still attempt to express truth in a way that is “good enough” for a given purpose. These good-enough expressions come with the caveat that they might be different (pluriform) in different contexts. Post-positivism instead cautions that all attempts to describe truth are ultimately limited and incomplete, but that the attempt should be made. It is not the same as the idea of philosophical relativity which says that there is no unique truth at all, and all claims to truth are equally valid. It’s an important distinction because the implications of a fully relativistic world view take us down roads we know from experience we should not travel.
But keep in mind that while Benedict cautions against the implications of relativism, he doesn’t attempt to solve the problem the way the President’s quote would implies. He does not embrace absolutism as a corrective to the dangers of relativism. Here is Benedict’s key point on the subject in the essay I reference above: “I am of the opinion that neo-Scholastic rationalism failed which, with reason totally in-dependent from the faith, tried to reconstruct the pre-ambula fidei with pure rational cer-tainty.” Benedict goes on to argue that truth can only be approached by means of a path that uses faith and philosophy in a respectful dialogue and that attempting to rely on one or the other is to make a fundamental mistake.
Why does this matter? Look how badly the majority of people have understood the point that the Pope was making. In effect they are force-fitting what he did say into a structure of modernity that they want him to support even while he is explicitly rejecting it. Why do they do this? The idea that there are no fully knowable moral absolutes is not easily accepted by most people. If science and philosophy won’t give us the absolutes we desire then we turn to religion for them, as is what seems to have happened here. The problem is that the absolutes are not readily available in religion either, at least according to Benedict.
This missing of the point is just another example of how desperately people want neat and easy answers to complex and difficult questions. The President’s people got the Pope wrong. They did so because they wanted to be able to say that we are right and others are wrong. (The press got the Pope wrong because they apparently relied on the President’s writers to do their work for them.) But it’s not just the President’s speech writers who chase after the mirage of absolutes. We all want to know for certain what God wants us to do. The problem is that what we want and what the universe gives us are often different. To quote Westley in “The Princess Bride”, we must all “get used to disappointment.” Instead we need to recognize that the best we do is to muddle through, trying to do the best we can and trusting desperately in God’s mercy revealed to us in Jesus. Somehow I think free societies will manage to survive as well.
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.