the way we live now

Christopher Smith on the Pope, John Hick, the Dodo, and the dictatorship of relativism

The Olympics are over, and we have been reminded that the modern world cannot relativize everything. The competitors either won or they didn’t, although there were consolation prizes for those who came second or third. ‘All the runners at the stadium compete,’ said St Paul, ‘but only one of them receives the prize’.

The Dodo disagreed, and declared that all shall have prizes. In the ‘Caucus-race’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, they ran around in circles, beginning and ending when they liked, in a parable of the General Synod.

The way we live now, it is unfashionable to believe that something is true if it means that what someone else believes is wrong. If I say that the Christian Faith is not merely my preference, one possibility among a number of other possibilities of equal validity, that pits me against the modern liberal thinker, who will not respect me for standing up for my principles, but will assert a kind of moral superiority over me by saying that I am not sufficiently ‘tolerant’ and ‘open’.

The modern liberal, as has often been noted in these pages, has strict limits to his tolerance, which he will defend as an intolerance of intolerance, but he will be a strict relativist nonetheless. And so in schools and universities, pop culture is raised to equal standing with Shakespeare and Milton, Bach and Beethoven.

Who are we, say the relativists, to suggest that the Spice Girls are in any way inadequate next to Handel’s Messiah? They are merely different, but equally worthy of study.

One of the consequences of this is that our critical faculties are numbed. We do not want to criticize because we do not want to appear critical. Not only must all have prizes, but everybody’s work must be equally prized.

Of course, the theological consequences of what the then Cardinal Ratzinger called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ have been deeply felt. Speaking in Mexico in 1996, he called relativism ‘the central problem for the faith at the present time’. Relativism is, he said, ‘presented as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom, concepts which would be limited if the existence of one valid truth for all were affirmed.’ That may well be so in the political arena, but it is obviously problematic when applied to the sphere of religion and ethics.

In terms of Christian theology, the future Pope suggests that the rot set in with ‘the attenuation of Christology’. He illustrates his point by reference to the theologian John Hick, who died in February of this year.

Hick’s obituary in one of the national newspapers said that ‘his theological opinions [early in his career] were still fairly orthodox, but he nonetheless felt unable to affirm the Virgin Birth of Christ as an essential element in the Christian Faith.’ It’s almost comical: relativism is so much in the bloodstream that inability to affirm the Virgin Birth counts as ‘fairly orthodox’!

In 1976, Hick edited the book for which he became famous, The Myth of God Incarnate. In it, with a number of familiar old heretics including Maurice Wiles, Don Cupitt and Dennis Nineham, he attempted to demythologize our understanding of incarnation. Surely Jesus was nothing more or less than an ordinary bloke chosen by God to do a special job. It is the logical next heresy down the line from Bultmann, van Buren and Robinson, of whom I wrote in Eastertide. If you are going to demythologize Easter, why not do the same to Christmas?

And if Jesus is nothing more than an ordinary bloke chosen by God to do a job, then perhaps we can say the same of Buddha, or Guru Nanak, or Mohammed. And then we can enter into dialogue with the Buddhists, the Sikhs and the Muslims without having to say that we believe something about Jesus which means they must be wrong. We all have prizes, and so this attenuated Christology becomes central to a relativized Christianity. Indeed, as Ratzinger put it, in Hick’s view, ‘faith in the divinity of one concrete person ... leads to fanaticism and particularism’. You can see how Hick got there: in order for nobody to be entirely wrong, nobody can be entirely right.

I suspect that we shall come to see this fight against relativism as the defining characteristic of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. He preached about it as Dean of the College of Cardinals when they gathered to elect a new Pope in 2005.

He took Ephesians 4.14 as his text: remaining infants in the faith leaves us open to being ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’. As he says, we have known many ‘winds of doctrine’ in recent decades. ‘Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism, whereas relativism... seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive, and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.’

Clearly we need to recapture the sense that maturing as Christians leads us to a deeper understanding of the traditional faith of the Church. That does not make us ‘fundamentalists’ in the derogatory way in which that word is now used. That makes us orthodox Christians who have seen the ‘winds of doctrine’ of the relativists for what they are: ‘trends of fashion and the latest novelty’. And that grown-up faith is what will unite the Body of Christ, while the lovers of novelty work to divide it. But what will endure? Schubert or the Spice Girls? Ratzinger or Hick? The Dodo, of course, was the ultimate relativist, and look what happened to him! ND

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