Thinking Broadly:
Notes of a Public Intellectual

Commentaries on the human condition
by Paul Grobstein

Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction

Paul Grobstein
Co-Founder, Serendip website
Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology
Director, Center for Science in Society
Bryn Mawr College
20 April 2005


On-line forum for continuing discussion

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Bendict XVI, was quoted in a New York Times article on Monday, 20 April 2005, as saying in a homily prior to his election as Pope that "A dictatorship of relativism is being built that recognizes nothing as definite and which leaves as the ultimate measure only one's ego and desires ... Having a clear faith, according to the credo of the church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. Yet relativism, that is letting oneself by carried here and there by winds of doctrine, appears as the sole attitude good enough for modern times." In a Tuesday article, the New York Times quoted a commentator, George Weigel, as saying of the election " I think this represents a recognition on the part of the cardinals that the great battle in the world remains inside the heads of human beings - that it's a battle of ideas."

Both remarks warrant a little parsing. It is appropriate and useful to characterize what is going on here as going on "inside the heads of human beings". I'm less inclined though to regard Weigel's military metaphor as an appropriate or productive one (cf. War Is a Bad Metaphor). I'd like to think of the Pope as someone I'm having a worthwhile conversation with rather than someone I need to defeat, and I hope he would feel similarly about me.

Along those lines, I'd like to suggest to the Pope (and others having similar perspectives) that the idea that one should uncritically accept a particular doctrine in order to avoid being blown around "by the winds of doctrine" is not a very compelling argument. Perhaps more importantly, the idea reflects a very old and, in the long run, demonstrably not very successful strategy that creates serious conflicts among humans, and produces in consequence substantial suffering, arguably greater than the ills it is aimed at correcting. That there is a continuing need to remind others as well as ourselves about this enhances rather than detracts from its significance:

"The frightening irony [of the fall 2004 US presidential elections] is that in response to a perceived threat from one sort of fundamentalism half of our fellow citizens have expressed a different form of fundamentalism. And they have done so despite an historical record which shows, beyond question, that clashes between different forms of fundamentalism are a recurrent pattern in human history and have invariably been associated with the most painful and sickening tragedies we as humans are capable of inflicting on ourselves ... It would be an equally serious mistake for those of us who espouse the liberal democratic perspective to respond to fundamentalism in our midst with our own version of fundamentalism, one that demonizes our fellow citizens who don't share the liberal democratic perspective." ... Place of the US in the World Community - November 04 Forum Do we really have to choose between one or another brand of fundamentalism and the alternative of "letting onself be carried here and there by the winds of doctrine"? I'd prefer to think there are additional and more promising alternatives, among them being to give up doctrine altogether: Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point ... and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them ... can be taken as a given not subject to further skepticism and exploration. Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed.

Thinking may not be a solid starting point that one need not be skeptical about, but it IS, on the other hand, demonstrably useful at times. So too is being, without thinking. And so too, for that matter, are feeling, and logic, and sense data, and even the stories of other people (which is what "authority" and the "revealed word" are if you recognize their fallibility). Maybe then the starting point one is looking for ... is wherever one is at any given time based on all of these ... Writing Descartes
Among the interesting features of this alternative is that it puts confidence in, rather than fears, having "nothing as definite" (see also "The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt"). It puts confidence as well in individual judgements ("egos and desires") informed by, among other things, each individual's interconnections with other human beings. It says also that there is no "ultimate measure," but there is, in its place, the best one can do at any given time. Moreover, it treats "relativism" not as a "dictatorship" but rather as an invitation to individuals to be individuals, to discover and value both their commonalities and their differences. Finally, it offers a new sort of direction for humanity, one in which individuals themselves become for themselves (and each other) the active agents responsible for not being "carried here and there by the winds of doctrine", and one where everyone benefits from their own distinctive explorations and the ongoing and different explorations of others.

The challenge, along these lines, is to make a new and as yet untried kind of culture, so it is perhaps not surprising that representatives of older ones are not inclined to lead us in such directions. The openings to move in those directions are no less there for each of us as individuals, and as groups of individuals who find them appealing. Perhaps the time has come to collectively put faith in our own stories and story-sharing, and so see what we can do in the way of making a future informed by our understandings of what hasn't worked well in the past.


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