Thursday, September 17, 2009

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger / Benedict XVI and Marcello Pera, 159 pages, Basic Books, trasnlated by Michael F. Moore.

“The world is filled with concern but also with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy on the part of people who see no evil and speak no evil to avoid becoming involved; who see no evil and speak no evil to avoid appearing rude; who proclaim half-truths and imply the rest, to avoid assuming responsibility. These are the paralyzing consequences of the 'political' correctness ... that I reject.”

Italian philosopher and secularist Marcello Pera spoke the above words at a speech in 2004 at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University. The next day then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed the Italian Senate over similar issues. The coincidence led to an exchange of letters and the publication of Without Roots, originally in Italian.

Both men directly confront the origins of Western civilization's present spiritual crisis. Though they come from different angles, secular and Catholic, they arrive at strikingly similar diagnoses and answers.

Ratzinger takes a historical-centred approach, while Pera offers a brilliant analysis of the philosophical basis of Europe's (and to a lesser extent America's) rejection of its Judeo-Christian beginnings. Pera sees this religious genealogy as the core to Europe's culture, past and present, and worries about a civilization that has turned away from itself.

Specifically, he worries about Islam, and the fact that in the face of a repeated call to jihad against the West, Europe impotently stands still, frozen in fear much as it did at Munich against Hitler. “I affirm the principles of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and respect that are characteristic of the West today,” he writes. “However, if someone refuses to reciprocate these principles and declares hostility or a jihad against us, I believe that we must acknowledge that this person is our adversary. In short, I reject the self-censorship of the West.”

Pera investigates the logic to this self-censorship. He analyzes “relativism,” a syndrome of intellectual and academic dispositions that includes “postmodernism,” “deconstruction,” “post-enlightenment,” and “weak thought.”

Relativism asserts the equality of the world's cultures but, in the great tradition of Orwell, claims that some cultures are more equal than others. European elites scorn their own heritage, especially as it pertains to Christianity, and reverence anything from other cultures. This has led to the impotence described above concerning Islamic threats of violence. It has also resulted in the lack of Europe's demographic vitality.

Pera admits to the logic of relativism's beginnings -- “the existence of a plurality of values” in a globalized, multicultural world – and then carefully lays out subsequent errors committed by relativism's practitioners, “in particular, the conclusion that sets of values, such as cultures and civilizations, cannot be judged by comparison to one another.”

Such comparisons are healthy, Pera states, since they only need dialogue and the willingness to listen to another's criticism. Contrary to relativism's claims, such comparisons do not require a “meta-criteria” to which both cultures adhere (a meta-criteria is an overarching criteria or set of values to which everyone can agree).

Pera's sense of urgency makes his short analysis all the more penetrating and relevant to the current cultural standoff among Western feminists, Western conservatives, and Muslims. He believes that the roots to this relativism-inspired standoff “is grounded not so much in tolerance as in acquiescence, more focused on decline than on the force of conviction, progress, and mission,” which were, he continues, “once typical of Christianity, Europe, and the West.”

Pera suggests a “non-denominational Christian religion,” for Europe, justified by Europe's Christian heritage. It “would have more monasteries than central churches, more monks that articulate and communicate than church officials, more practitioners than preachers.”

Ratzinger for his part suggests that the success or even existence of this civil religion “presupposes the existence of convinced minorities that have 'discovered the pearl' and live it in a manner that is also convincing to others.”

He offers us hope with this idea of “creative minorities” living in a sea of secularism. He avoids divisive language and denies that the gulf between the two groups is impossibly wide. “Secular people are not a rigid block,” he claims.

With the following words, we get a sense of Ratzinger's belief in the human dignity of such secularists, who themselves are worth the effort of evangelization and witness to the truth by Christians: “Very often they are people who passionately seek the truth, who are pained by the lack of truth in humankind.”

Pera and Ratzinger in Without Roots make a good pair when analyzing relativism and the spiritual decline of the West, because their words not only analyze the causes of the current malaise, but offer hope and vigor for present and future action. Commitment to Christianity is dignified and can make a difference.

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