I just finished reading Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam by Marcello Pera and Pope Benedict XVI. The book includes a speech given by Marcello Pera, then a speech by Pope Benedict, followed by a letter from Pera to Benedict and a letter from Benedict to Pera.
Coming from somewhat different viewpoints (Pera considers himself a secularist), they both acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe & the West as well as the good effects this has had on the moral grounding, understanding of human dignity, etc. In their respective speeches, they diagnose the problems in Europe as they stem from the idea of Relativism. They both feel that the dogma of tolerance and political correctness has actually created less tolerance.
In the words of Pera:
“…in the age of triumphant relativism and “silent apostasy,” belief in the true no longer exists: the mission of the true is considered fundamentalism, and the very affirmation of the true creates or raises fears.” (pg. 37)
Pera laments repeatedly that (at least) suggested within the mission of relativism, there is implied a mutual respect for the ideas and beliefs of others. And that respectful dialogue could then take place. But the opposite is actually true.
Pope Benedict affirms this when he says, “Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage” (pg. 79). “Multiculturalism” suggests a respect for many cultures, but in practice it often means less dialogue, less respect for our own culture because we are taught not to express our beliefs in case they may offend the beliefs of another. We are encouraged, as a “multicultural poplulation” to be homogenized, rather than to see, acknowledge, and have dialogue concerning our differences. So, in effect, we are no longer multicultural, but have created a dogmatic single culture where any differences are lived out in secret.
Pope Benedict says:
I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In our contemporary society, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, instead, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good. The argument has been made that restricting freedom of speech would jeopardize or even abolish tolerance and freedom overall. There is one major restriction on freedom of speech, however: it cannot destroy the honor and the dignity of another person (pg. 78, emphasis mine).
He goes on:
Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can only do this if we ourselves, are not estranged from the sacred, from God (pg. 79).
Benedict claims that in order to be a truly multicultural society with a true tolerance for our fellow man, it requires more, not less, commitment to our own understanding of the sacred, and a commitment to our own faith. If we try to diminish our own beliefs in favor of a “greater ideal” of tolerance, we have become intolerant first of ourselves. And this intolerance will only overflow into our treatment of the others’ sacred.
So what is the solution to this problem of a growing intolerance in the name of tolerance?
Pera suggests that the pacifism/tolerance of Europe is actually a sort of cowardice. He suggests that while the West is open to dialogue with Islam, it must be recognized that this is not necessarily reciprocated and that there is indeed a war that has been declared on “the West.” He says, “I am asking for people to realize that dialogue will be a waste of time if one of the two partners to the dialogue states beforehand that one idea is as good as the other” (pg. 45). Relativism renders dialogue useless.
I’m going to be honest and confess that I was a little confused by exactly what Pera thinks the solution to the problem of relativism is. In his letter to Pope Benedict, he criticizes the Catholic Church and Europe for pacifism, supposing that the Pope would condemn the actions of President Bush in response to 9/11. He then suggests that a possible solution is to have a Christian, non-denominational civil religion that would supposedly revive the moral resolve and identity of Europe. I’m not really familiar with the concept of “civil religion” or how one would go about creating one.
Concluding his own speech on the shift of Europe’s identity, Pope Benedict says, “Here we must agree with Toynbee that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of all humankind” (80).
And later in his response letter to Pera, Pope Benedict addresses the concept of a Civil Religion:
Something living cannot be born except from another living thing. Here is where I see the importance of creative minorities…it is so important to have convinced minorities in the church, for the Church, and above all beyond the Church and for society: human beings who in their encounters with Christ have discovered the precious pearl that gives value to all life (Matthew 13:45 ff), assuring that the Christian imperatives are no longer ballast that immobilizes humanity, but rather wings that carry it upward…Through their persuasive capacity and their joy, they reach other people and offer them a different way of seeing things.
Therefore my first thesis is that a civil religion that truly has the moral force to sustain all people presupposes the existence of convinced minorities that have “discovered the pearl” and live it in a manner that is also convincing to others. Without such motivating forces, nothing can be built. (pages 120-121, emphasis mine).
Reading these words, I cannot help but see the mission laid out before us. As I read this book and the diagnoses, I kept wondering what could be done on my part. And here it is! Living out our faith with joy. This applies to us in the Christian family, to religious brothers and sisters, and to our priests!
And as I look around me, I think I see this compelling witness that can revive the culture. I see so many Christian families living out this mission in their daily lives, in the simplicity of their faith. I see it in our own priest whose commitment to truth and to the beauty of the gospel is so apparent in his every word. I see it in our dear Jesuit friend who came to visit for a few days last week. Hearing his account of how he has grown, learned, and been absorbed in awe of the depths of God’s mercy, in the joy of the Gospel, I think that all hope is not lost.
As Christians, we must embrace our mission of living out the joy and truth of the gospel. My mission is our children first, and this will ripple out to the rest of society. And this is how we will save the world from relativism.