Friday, May 04, 2007

Being a 2-Year-Old Again: Thoughts on the Dictatorship of Relativism

I have not had the joy of raising children yet, but I understand there is typically some trouble during the child’s second year. As during the teenage years, the child will begin to assert their independence from his parents, and engage a troublesome process that forces the child to struggle with how much he is his own person, and how much he is part of a larger group. Some have called into question this period of the “Terrible Twos,” saying the period varies from child to child in terms of severity and length. But whatever one wants to call these stages of rebellion, they usually have something in common: the child insists on doing things their own way, and placing their worldview over and above others in the group. This can be a wonderfully painful process by which we grow and mature, provided we do not stay in such a phase for very long.

Those who remember these rebellious phases, then, may understand the way in which it is a dictatorship – you really can’t win either way. If you tow the party line, you lose your individuality. But rebelling against authority isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. It’s isolating, self-centered, and a generally unhappy experience, even if it is necessary on occasion. These periods of growth are often times of great confusion, because there is no universal truth for the truth-seeking 2-year-old or teenager. By definition, they are going through periods where their growth depends on their distrust of given truth, so they become perfect models for the study of relativism. 2-year-olds don’t know why they’re rebelling, and can’t give any good reasons to oppose their parents. But they do, and they seem miserable while doing it. They are living in the dictatorship of relativism.

Of course it was Pope Benedict XVI who so brilliantly and concisely defined the true damage of relativism; it replaces one dictatorship for another. (For more on his early legacy, I strongly encourage this podcast). The failure of centralized truth claims in Soviet Communism and National Socialism called for a radical de-centralization of truth claims, which both lead to a certain type of prison. If what is True is only true for one person, then that person will soon find themselves in solitary confinement. Perhaps a healthier alternative is to grow into maturity where we are unafraid to latch onto some truth claims, but not all. Isn’t this what the 2-year-old must eventually learn how to do?

Ironically, in a faith where Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, theological relativism is all the rage on the campus’ of America’s mainline seminaries. Theological relativism/liberalism is the theology of a 2-year-old. And that’s why it stinks. While there are tomes of theological works that have stood the test of time waiting to be devoured by seminarians, the majority of my theological education has revolved around Queer, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Womanist, Feminist, and Korean theologies. In an effort to pay special attention to the individual theological truths for each person, we’ve neglected to hold to what is True for all people. And now that we’ve gone down this road, how do we possibly turn around without appearing unsympathetic, or even cruel. How can we now say, “You know, I really think each person theologizing for themselves alone is bad.” It’s sort of like saying to you spouse, “I used to love you, but now I’ve changed my mind.”

What I’m trying to get at is that for us to be truly free, we must place our stakes somewhere. Eventually children understand this, from the ages of 4-12, and probably after college. Somewhere along the way, we learn that it’s better to hold fast to our family, and learn how to disagree, rather than cut ourselves off for the sake of our rebellion. To equate all truth as equal is to state there is no truth at all. And to live in a land where there is no truth is to live under the dictatorship of relativism. Bravo to the pope for giving us this phrase; if this is not a prophetic call to change, I don’t know what is.

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