This is the second blog in this series on how our culture impacts our faith. Read the first post here. We hear a lot about how we need to bring the faith to the culture, and that’s good. What we hear a lot less about is how things go the other direction, how the culture can and does shape our personal faith lives, for good or ill (yes, there’s both!). This series will examine how the culture in America is impacting faith and some of the virtues that we can focus on to strengthen us against negative influence and to take the positive influences to the next level.
It’s no secret that relativism has been increasingly dominating our society for the last hundred or more years and has been on an especially fast track for the last 20-30 years. Relativism simply means that reality is all relative to the person experiencing it. As with most things, relativism exists in degrees. Some things are in fact purely relative. Is pizza tasty? The answer depends entirely on whose experience of pizza we’re talking about. It’s entirely relative. Take it a bit further and you get things like moral relativism, in which a person assumes complete authority to determine the moral value of any particular action. On the most extreme end, you get people who won’t acknowledge reality at all. Hold up a red apple and ask someone if it’s red, and they’ll tell you it’s red if you experience it that way, but it might not be for them.
Along with the saturation and growing intensity of relativistic beliefs, we have in our culture an increasing fear of making objective statements. It’s almost unconscious to hide plain statements behind phrases like “It seems to me,” “I feel like,” and the ever present “maybe.” As in, maybe you’re reading a blog post right now, but if that’s not your experience, then it’s not my place to contradict you.
It can easily seem that relativism, or at least the less extreme versions, are harmless and even sometimes helpful. After all, everyone’s experience is unique. Don’t they deserve to be respected within their own autonomy and life? Isn’t it harmful to deny or reject someone’s experience? Despite the word salad that often grows around these issues to confuse them, the answers are pretty simple. Yes, everyone deserves respect.
The second question needs a bit more nuance, but is still pretty straightforward. When someone’s experience or personal judgement isn’t in alignment with reality, they are at best in danger and at worst already being harmed. Becoming aligned with reality is almost inevitably painful, sometimes extremely so, but it is never harmful. Imagine an addict who finally comes to realize the harm of the addiction. It’s extremely painful to square with that. It’s painful healing. However, affirming an addict’s behavior or even just letting it be isn’t doing them any favors. That’s comfortable harm. What leads to potential confusion is that pain and harm have become synonymous. They’re not. The truth might hurt, but when delivered with charity (and that’s a REALLY important piece of this), it is never harmful.
On a spiritual level, relativism is a form of pride. When we assume authority over all reality we are essentially taking the place of God. We are creating the world in our image, according to our values and perceptions. We are not however, God. Reality works in certain ways that are not subject to our judgement. If we aren’t aware of how reality works, we are in danger. I can tell myself all day that ice cream is good for me, but if I eat too much it’s going to lead to health problems.
Not only is pride in the form of relativism dangerous on a material level, it also leads to ruptured relationships. In some ways, this is even more dangerous. We are made for communion, but relativism drives a wedge between people. When a person insists that their reality is theirs alone, and no one else can influence or determine it, they have isolated themselves. They deny the common human experiences which are the basis of community, love, and compassion. If we really believe a relativist, we wouldn’t know what kindness or cruelty really were to them. After all, who would I be to assume that anyone I meet would rather receive a smile than an insult from me if there is no common reality, no objective truth? I couldn’t assume that because I enjoy a smile, or even that everyone I knew appreciated a smile, that the next person I meet wouldn’t understand that as a deadly insult according to their reality. I’d be paralyzed.
This is the greatest spiritual danger of relativism as well. There’s a ton out there already on
the danger of moral relativism, but not enough about the paralysis and isolation that relativism cause. Spiritual relativism isn’t just picking and choosing what we believe. It’s not just about deciding that we don’t want to follow or don’t believe the Church’s teaching authority. Those are problems, but the heart of our faith isn’t the things that we do. It’s the relationship that we have with Christ. And relativism and pride tell us that if Christ has something to say that we don’t want to hear, we can just write him off. We can separate him from our reality and deny him. Relativism says that he has no authority to call us to loving relationship with him because it denies that Christ can even reveal what love is to us. We decide that for ourselves. When we live in this spiritual isolation, is it any wonder that our morals are in shambles?
That’s a dark picture, but as always, there is light. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God gives us the gift of the virtue of humility to combat pride and relativism. When it comes to relativism, humility allows us to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. We are not the authors of reality. That we need help. Rather than pridefully insisting that the world conform to what I think it should be, humility turns it around and allows me to seek true understanding of the world as it is, so that my thoughts instead conform to reality. Humility allows Christ to enter into our lives in a concrete and real way, and gives us an opportunity to respond to him with confidence. To know what is good and to live and rejoice in it. To experience the benefits of loving relationship with him.
Humility is the grace to truly accept another person as they are, without forcing them to conform to us. It allows us to be in communion. Most especially, it allows us to put ourselves in right relationship with God. When God speaks to us, he does not speak as a dictator. He speaks as a loving Father who knows what is best. How cruel if he withheld that from us, and yet that is what pride demands! Ignorance of the Father. When relativism creeps in, we begin to doubt God, to doubt his authority, and to doubt that what he asks is in indeed best for us.
The fundamental question when it comes to relativism is this, “Is what you (God) are telling me really the best thing?” Pride says no, I know better. I can take care of myself better. It’s very understandable. God’s ways are not easy. St. Paul straight up tells us through his first letter to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” (1 Cor 1:23). Do I really live in a world where taking up my cross, being crucified with Christ, is the best thing? Pride cannot bear that, and we decide that we can surely do better. I have a truth that is superior, and if you leave mine alone I’ll leave yours alone.
Love is sacrifice. Always. Spiritual relativism looks like the corners of our lives that we are unwilling to give up. To let Christ into. To allow him to define. Most often those corners are built up around a wound, and we know that healing will be painful. So we deny God’s authority as creator. Where do you struggle with Church teaching? When is it hard to trust? These are areas where we often seek to define reality ourselves and pride creeps in. When do you recoil from a homily and reassure yourself that it’s just the priest’s opinion? These moments are moments of pride.
I don’t know your wounds, the reasons for your pride. I don’t even know all of mine. There are dark placed hidden even from myself. But even acknowledging them, admitting there’s a wound, is a step in humility and a step towards healing. Pray that God gives you the grace of humility to see yourself as you are, to see him as he is, and to love and be loved truly and deeply.