Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints: Is relativism a fiction worth maintaining?

It used to be quite a brave thing not to baptise your children. You'd incur the wrath of many a maiden aunt. But now, almost the opposite is true. The respectable position is that children should be free to make their own minds up about these things in their own time and develop their own sets of values. To force your views on your children, to make promises for them, is borderline barbaric. I recently found out that a priest who baptises a baby without the consent of both parents could find himself in the dock for common assault. Maybe one day infant baptism will be an infringement of a child's human rights. Watch this space.

It's easy to see where we get this wariness of imparting our beliefs. We have seen the violence that comes when totalising ideologies brainwash people into belief in absolute truths. We've seen the results of twentieth century imperialism, colonialism, Fascism, Communism, and we have become allergic to 'isms' as a result, so much so that to add an -ism to something is perhaps the worst insult of the postmodern age: think capital vs. capitalism, community vs. communism, Islam vs. Islamism. We are sceptical of systematic approaches to truth. So we come to the relativism that is the default position of today's postmodern West. Scared of the old modernist certainties, we conclude that there is no ultimate truth, only equally valid, rival truth-claims, none inherently any better than another.

Take modern R.E. lessons. This sort of thing is quite common: the children are taught the Ten Commandments or the Buddha's Four Noble Truths or the Pillars of Islam, and then, to conclude the lesson, they make up their own version. Sounds quite creative - but think for a moment about what it implies. First, that actual religious codes are inadequate; second, that the children have some privileged vantage point outside the values of any given community from which they can make balanced, unbiased judgments; and third, that what you believe as an individual is the most important thing and trumps what any community believes, even if that community's beliefs have been formed, debated and tested for thousands of years, while you've just thought about yours in the last ten minutes before playtime.

The results of these exercises are interesting. Once the children have been left 'to make up their own minds,' they surprisingly seem to focus on - guess what? Gender, sexual and racial equality, diversity and the environment. In other words, our little freethinkers reel off what the school and the modern zeitgeist has been spoonfeeding them. What they are being spoonfed may be all well and good, and thank God we live in a country where, unlike Egypt last week, you won't be imprisoned for 'corrupting public morality' by attending a same-sex wedding. That's not the problem. The problem is with the assumption that a religious upbringing imparted by one's parents constrains thought, i.e. is 'brainwashing,' and if you take this away, people will be unfettered into vistas of free thinking. But the reality, as you can see from the R.E. lesson, is that if you take away one influence on how people look at the world, another fills the vacuum. What currently fills the vacuum, then, is relativism: the claim that there is no universal truth. But this is inconsistent, because it claims status for itself as universal truth. So, it becomes just another truth-claim in competition with others, setting up tolerance as the cardinal virtue and diversity as the indisputable good; yet no tolerance is given to those who diverge from this orthodoxy: people who want to baptise their children, for example. Its claim fails on its own grounds.

Still, if the only fruits of relativism were tolerance and kindness to those different from ourselves, it might not matter that it was inconsistent: it might be a fiction worth maintaining. But I don't think that's the case. In practice, the doctrine that everyone 'should be left free to make up their own minds' really just leaves the majority ignorant of the long-tested beliefs that have sustained our communities for centuries and leaves the weakest vulnerable to whatever influence happens to be strongest. It becomes little more than a mask for social Darwinism, a free market of ideas, where it is not the truth of competing ideas that matters, but their brute power. And so it is that our people end up not free but thralls to consumerism, to the lie that autonomy can be earnt by getting of the right products, the right opinions, the right body shape, sold by the self-interested cartels of slave-drivers, drug-pushers and pornographers who wield economic power. And they've got us right where they want us, because as soon as you voice any alternative view to this cult of the individual, as soon as you dare to say that what someone else is doing or saying or buying or selling is wrong, you're a bigot, you're intolerant, you're a fanatic, you're the brainwashed adherent of a primitive and outmoded cult - whereas they, in a diabolical inversion, are enlightened and tolerant and free-thinking.

In the end, though, this cuckoo ideology cannot push the Christian faith completely out of the nest: the truth we hold is more consistent and more compelling. It is a truth for which many of the saints have borne witness with their lives, their robes 'washed in the blood of the Lamb.' It is a truth grounded not in an ideology, but in a person, a man crucified who reveals God as one and three, true diversity that does not preclude unity but embraces it. It is a truth grounded in the vulnerability and self-sacrifice of the Cross, orientation not towards self but to others. It is a truth therefore that cannot mean empire and domination, though God knows the Church has used His name to justify bloodshed and God knows we owe Him and His world an apology. It is a truth, therefore, that we should hold in confidence but never in arrogance.

If we are worried that this truth excludes diversity, we should be encouraged by the saints John sees in his Revelation: the 'men and women from every nation,' for in Christ 'there is no slave or free, no man or woman, no Jew or Greek;' not a privileged minority, but 'a multitude that no one could count,' since Christ died for the sins of all. This motley band of individuals is how John pictures the Kingdom, united in the worship of the Triune God for which every single one of us was made, in all our diversity. For it is by worshipping Him, by entering into union – communion – with Him, that for all our variety and difference we find our common source, the truth of self-giving love that underpins reality, and in it the promise of joyous eternity with all God's saints.

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