In the movie New Moon (a 1940 adaptation of an older stage production called The New Moon), the character Charles is a French nobleman posing as an indentured servant because he’s an enemy of the king of France. He flees France for New Orleans shortly before the French Revolution. Eventually he leads his “fellow” indentured servants to steal their own ship from its captain and seek their freedom. When inspiring his fellow men to fight back, he finds only nine of them are willing. He presses on, singing a song about how with just ten men he will prevail. The song begins:
“Give me some men who are stout hearted men, who will fight for the right they adore. Start me with ten who are stout hearted men and I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.”
And as the song progresses, more and more of the others join in.
The acting isn’t the greatest, but the singing is pretty darn good. The movie has a lot of heart.
In the real world, such things rarely happen as quickly as they do in a musical. But nonetheless, a faithful and inspiring witness will eventually move other people.
One of the great difficulties in evangelizing today is that most people have accepted, whether explicitly or implicitly, the philosophical view called relativism. That makes the more traditional evangelical efforts of the Christian faith (or any faith) of little use.
Relativism cannot be discussed without first mentioning the two concepts of the subject and the object. To an English teacher, these are familiar terms. In a sentence, the subject is the actor and the object is the center of the action. So if we look at the sentence “Fred ate a slice of chocolate pie”, Fred is the subject and a slice of chocolate pie is the object. Anything pertaining to Fred is subjective, and anything pertaining to the slice of chocolate pie is objective.
In philosophy, the terms are used in a similar manner. The subject, philosophically speaking, is a person. The object, philosophically speaking, is anything which exists outside of the subject. Often in metaphysics the way it is presented is that the subject “observes” the object. A house, the weather, a pet cat, even another person, are all objects metaphysically speaking when viewed from the perspective of a particular subject.
The breakdown that leads to relativism takes place when the independence of the object from the subject is denied. If Fred doesn’t like the taste of chocolate pie, for example, then it is natural that he will not enjoy eating a slice of it. He may express his dislike by saying something like, “Chocolate pie is disgusting”. In our culture, hardly anyone would be surprised to hear Fred express his opinion in this manner.
But to truly represent reality, a more accurate statement on Fred’s part would be, “I find the flavor of chocolate pie to be disgusting”.
It seems like such a tiny thing over which to quibble. And for the purpose of this post I deliberately chose a tiny thing to illustrate the point. But for Fred to express his dislike of the taste of chocolate pie by claiming that chocolate pie ITSELF is disgusting is an act of dictatorial decree. Since I as Fred don’t like it, no one else should like it either. My own reaction to the taste of chocolate pie is not something I will see as existing only within my own self. I will transfer my subjective relationship with chocolate pie to the pie, and insist that all others accept it whenever they interact with chocolate pie.
This is why Cardinal Ratzinger, at the conclave that elected him Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, proclaimed, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
You may say, surely Ken is overreacting. Fred is not consciously attempting to act as a dictator. It’s just a figure of speech. And that may be true. But as time has gone by and I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that more and more often people are meaning it. If you did not enjoy a movie that someone else enjoyed, they are more likely to get angry about it than in years past. If you do not enjoy the same activities as another person, they are more likely to get angry about it than in years past.
Their own subjective relationship with a particular object is not treated as something particular to them. It is transferred to the object in the same manner as Fred transferring his dislike of chocolate pie to the pie. The subjective is treated as if it is in fact objective.
Again, it seems like a minor thing. No one is up in arms about forcing others to like chocolate pie, or a particular movie, or a particular hobby. But… those are not the only objects in all of existence. Everything outside of the self, after all, is an object.
I could throw out there, if you do not agree with the political positions of another person, they are more likely to get angry about it than in years past. Not simple disagreement angry, but knock your teeth out and seek to get you fired angry.
So instead of chocolate pie, suppose we are talking about property ownership. Suppose one person believes that ownership of private property is an inherent right and the individual is responsible for its care and just use, and another person believes that all property should belong to the state and the state is the one responsible for its care and just use. Suppose they both transfer their beliefs on property ownership to that concept, and then each insists that the other accept their view of reality.
The two people in question will not see another person who has a differing subjective opinion. They will each see another person who is denying objective reality. The other person is not viewed as wrong. They are a threat. They are evil. And if evil then opposing them at all costs, by any means necessary, is not only acceptable but required.
This is the dictatorship imposed by relativism. If the truth is dependent upon one’s subjective relationship with an object, then that subjective relationship is the determinant of what is true and what is false. The truth is, therefore, relative to the individual.
This does not cause any problems when all people share the same subjective relationship with an object. But when there is disagreement, when even one person has a different subjective relationship with a particular object, there can be no compromise. There must be dictatorship to enforce the “correct” subjective relationship.
Property ownership is merely one example. Abortion, homosexual acts, care for the needy, the nature of humanity, whatever you may think of, must conform to the prevailing cultural view of the day. Non-conformity with the culture will not be tolerated by the culture.
So how, then, to evangelize the relativist? Any attempt to do so will be met with complete and utter intolerance. Preaching will fail. Logical arguments will fail. Persuasion will fail. They will not fail because preaching, logic, or persuasion are bad things. They will fail because they will be rejected out of hand due to their disagreement with the dictatorship of relativism.
Charles in New Moon started with persuasion, but that failed. He eventually just left with the nine men who would follow him, and it was their example of being willing to fight and die that led others to join.
The only thing that will work against a culture of relativism, the only thing that CAN work against a culture of relativism, is a witness. A life lived in conformity to Christ. Not something quick, but something consistent over time. Minds change only when hearts change, and hearts will only change when the desire to accept the truth is greater than the desire to conform to the relativistic culture of the day.
It will not be easy for Christians to do what is necessary. But then, it is never easy for Christians to be imitators of Christ because the world is always trying to force assimilation into the latest popular culture. If we remain faithful to the truth, however, the people at large will take notice. And then they will be forced to make the choice that all relativist dictatorships must face when confronted with opposition:
What are they going to do about it?
If Christians remain faithful, then eventually the same thing will happen today that happened 1700 years ago to Rome under Emperor Constantine. The culture will slowly start to become Christian.
I have to laugh when I think about it. At that time, maybe 10% of the people in the Roman Empire were Christians. TEN percent. If only 10% of the people of this country were faithful Christians (and by faithful I don’t mean just attending Mass or religious services once a week, but truly living out that faith in every aspect of life to the point where persecution would result in acceptance of martyrdom, the strongest possible witness to a sincere faith), within a generation we could reverse the West’s slow slide back into paganism.