A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Holy Spirit, the Anchoress, Benedict, and Relativism

The Anchoress has a recent post up about what she sees as a resurgence of the power of the Holy Spirit with the death of John Paul II and the ascension of Benedict XVI. I put some remarks there about the bee in Benedict’s bonnet: “relativism". Benedict has changed his bonnet recently. It is no longer a red biretta, and that means, among other things, that he must make many more pragmatic decisions on a far wider stage. I doubt the bee escaped, but more political and less theological considerations are likely to crowd into his days from now on.

If, as the Anchoress suggests, we are looking at a much broader revival of Christian faith, and particularly the politically conservative brand of Christian faith, as a result of recent events, then "relativism" can remain a mere label, at least for the conservative faithful, of everything about the contemporary world which they deplore: abortion, contraception, human stem cell research, gay marriage, gay pride, feminism, divorce, Christian sensibilites routinely "mocked and ridiculed" by seculars and the press, diffusion of the emotional potency of the Catholic litugry, libertarian theology, pressure to ordain women, and so on.

But it seems to me that the theological topic could use further commentary from a Buddhist perspective. Benedict has been very clear about what he means: “relativism” is the belief, implicit or explicit, that no such thing as a common universal truth exists, or, if one exists, we cannot know it with certainty.

As I said in my comment to the Anchoress:

It is actually merely a question, the final question of Pontius Pilate to Christ, “What is Truth?” Pilate didn’t take it seriously. But there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then and his question has been reframed by some intelligent men who did take it seriously, and it is these men that really worry Benedict, who takes it very seriously himself.

Much of the froth about Benedict, both the feelgood froth and the handwringing froth, is about either political issues—such as the pressure to ordain women—or aesthetic issues—the dignity, in the broad sense, of the Catholic Church, its sacraments, and its public and private worship. But these really are tangential to Benedict’s theological struggle with relativism.

One thing that is very important about that struggle is that the outcome is by no means obvious or certain. Benedict does not generally oppose relativism to faith, for such opposition would simply be a special case of faith vs. knowledge and thus, by implication, a reply that relativism is not necessarily wrong, but that it is irrelevant to Christian faith or worship. On, admittedly, small reading, it seems to me that the serious theologians--such as American Presbyterian John Hick, Paul Knitter, and, to some degree, Karl Barth-- and the philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, whom Benedict opposes take exactly this view of relativism.

Benedict takes the position, I think, that we can know Revealed Truth with certainty and we cannot only assert that truth dogmatically, we can also assert our certain knowledge of it dogmatically. In other words, a Christian does not need to rely solely on faith in Revealed Truth, they can actually know it directly in the same sense which they know the location of their own parish church. This is why, I think, that there is less reference to faith in Benedict’s writings on relativism than one would expect. For the polar opposite of faith is doubt, but the polar opposite of knowledge is ignorance.

This is a very extreme position, if Benedict truly holds it, and by no means a secure one. Consider the example of Saints Peter and Paul. Peter knew Christ personally and was present at the events surrounding the Crucifixion. Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus. Unquestionably, they had knowledge of these things, but can we have knowledge of them in the same sense that they did? Benedict appears to assert this, for he wishes not only to pragmatically combat relativism in the name of Christian faith, which the theologians he opposes do as well, but also to intellectually refute both it and them.

It is by no means an arid and arcane issue. It seems to me that the pedophile priest scandal in America is the direct result of relativism, though not in the way that someone like my friend the Anchoress might think. Priests have kept their vows purely, and in large numbers, before this. But opposing relativism with faith alone puts the intellect under tremendous strain, and sows vigorous seeds of intellectual doubt.

We should remember that priests as a class are more intelligent and intellectual than the laity as a whole, so where the pious on one side of the altar rail may not find this intellectual problem all that important, for a priest such doubt can be inherently corrosive both to faith and to pure moral conduct. I suspect this very process has been at work in America for some time.

As I remarked to the Anchoress about this intellectual doubt:

Benedict is your champion in a matter which is far beyond insence, liturgy, ritual, and the emotions they stir in support of true faith. It is the deadliest enemy anyone of faith can meet, in fact.

So what point of view can a Buddhist like me bring to this? Far more than some of my Christian friends, and particularly some who comment on the Anchoress’ posts, might think. One of them recently said this in reply to me on one of his own comment pages:

We live in what is essentially a Judeo-Christian culture. That is reality. As we said, the objective isn't to raise Buddhist monks, engaged in 'higher thoughts.' The objective is to raise moral kids.

Buddhism is far more than this, as the Anchoress knows well. For we have sustained a marvelous dialog about it both in and beyond our blogs.

The view on this matter that my teachers have preserved is known as The Two Truths. The Relative Truth is that we all live in a body, in a world of space and objects, and in a continuum of time. The Absolute Truth is that none of these things are real, permanent, or substantial—including the “self” of the observer. As one of the Zen koans says, “Not mind, not Buddha, not things.”

This distinction between appearance and reality (to give them their Western names) cuts to the quick--far before the insertion of the conflict of relativism vs. Revealed Truth--of the central problem of religion and philosophy. The problem is decptively simple: the way the ordinary world appears to us is clearly incomplete and definitely not self-explanatory. It is a puzzle whose answer must lie beyond the direct experience of our senses.

The struggle, in the West, to explain why the world appears to us as it does, and whether there is any reality behind it, is the path to the finality of the relativist viewpoint--a place where every rational attempt to establish absolute certainty about reality fails, leaving only the probabilistic and provisional explanations of physical, natural, and social science.

The Buddhist point of view diverges radically from this from the very beginning. By starting with looking directly at the nature of the thoughts that appear while in concentrated meditation, we discern that our thoughts actually emerge from nowhere and vanish back into nowhere.

What is the color of your automobile?

This thought was not present when you started reading this essay. Four paragraphs down you are not likely to be thinking it still. So where did it come from? And where will it go?

When we look at thoughts like this carefully and directly, we can see that the conclusion of Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am,” simply flies in the face of the facts. Did you really choose to think of the color of your car? Will you really choose to cease to think of it? It is Descartes' method of systematic doubt, and this incorrect final conclusion that Descartes comes to, that leads to the relativist pseudo-problem: How does the "self" know things and what are the limits to its knowledge?

Sometime when you have five extra minutes and an egg timer, try to hold the thought of the color of your car continuously, and without interruption, for that full five minutes. Doing this will very clearly reveal to you how little control you actually have over your thoughts. This is something worth thinking very hard about well before you tackle the problems of truth and knowledge.

It is exactly this stream of thoughts and feeling, coming from nowhere in particular and vanishing without a trace, that we habitually assume is our “self”, and we label with our name. But when you look for anything solid to it, any location for it, any boundary where the self ends and the world begins, you can’t find it. Is your body the same thing as your self, or is it an object which your self percieves?

The Buddhist argues that the reason you can’t find the self, is that it isn’t there. If you simply stop assuming that there is an observer there, and really look for it, the philosophical problem of relativism simply vanishes. Once you look for a self and can’t find it, the whole question of what it can or cannot know becomes a question which is ridiculous to ask. To quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The solution to the problem consists of the disappearance of the problem.”

Of course, the problem is not likely to vanish for Benedict, since Buddhism is a point of view that comes from completely outside the circle of his confrontation with the problem. What Benedict would make of this I don’t yet know, so I can’t reply to it. I think I will begin to have a handle on it when I finally get hold of Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, and really get to see what he thinks about me and my religion.

I have a reserve in for it at my Public Library. Last I looked, I was sixth on the list.

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