René Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book Violence and the Sacred, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Recently NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Girard at his home near the campus.
NPQ: When Pope Benedict XVI recently denounced what he saw as the "dictatorship of relativism," especially in European culture, it caused great controversy. Is the Pope right that we live in such a dictatorship?
René Girard: Yes, he is right. This formula--the dictatorship of relativism--is excellent. It is going to establish a new discourse in the same way that John Paul II's idea of recovering "a culture of life" from the "culture of death" has framed a whole set of issues, from abortion to stem cell research, capital punishment and war.
It makes sense that this formula comes from a man--(the former) Cardinal Ratzinger--whose specialty is dogma and theory.
This reign of relativism which is so striking today is due, in part, to the necessities of our time. Societies are so mixed, with such plurality of peoples. You have to keep a balance between various creeds. You must not take sides. Every belief is supposed to be accorded equal value. Inevitably, even if you are not a relativist, you must sound like one if not act like one.
As a result, we have more and more relativism. And we have more and more people who hate any kind of faith. This is especially the case in the university. And it hurts intellectual life. Because all truths are treated as equal, since there is said to be no objective Truth, you are forced to be banal and superficial. You cannot be truly committed to anything, to be "for" something--even if only for the time being.
Like Ratzinger, however, I believe in commitment. After all, we are both convinced by the idea that responsibility demands we must be committed to one position and follow it through.
NPQ: For all the controversy Pope Benedict's comment caused, it was really in the stead of the late John Paul II's encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," which criticized "postmodern" society as becoming indifferent to values--disbelief--in the name of tolerance. His fear was a new nihilism that could plunge the world into dehumanizing will-to-power episodes akin to the fascist and communist disasters of the 20th century.
Girard: Postmodernism is dramatic in saying there are no absolute values, that there is no Truth, that language can't reach the truth. Like Pope John Paul in the encyclical you mention, Pope Benedict is engaging this battle head-on by attacking this vogue of disbelief in the world today, especially in Europe. Like John Paul II, he knows from personal experience that, without religion, societies go to the dogs. And he doesn't hesitate to say it.
I hope his message resonates. His challenge to relativism is important not only for the Church and for Europe, but for the whole world.
NPQ: Even Jean Baudrillard once agreed that "the whole world, including China and Japan, is implicated in the postmodern fragmentation and uprootedness that leaves values behind. There is one exception: Islam. It stands as a challenge to the radical indifference sweeping the world."
Isn't it true that Islam remains the only civilization fully based in faith, and thus is in conflict with our secular postmodern culture the same way Ratzinger is? After all, despite Pope John Paul II's determined efforts, the drafters of the EU Constitution rejected any mention of the Christian heritage of the West. Every state in the Islamic world mentions Islam as its cultural foundation.
Girard: Western civilization is, no doubt, predominantly on the side of secular relativism. That is not true in the Islamic world, where faith dominates. This victory of relativism is precisely why Pope Benedict has made defending the Christian Truth his central mission.
Having said this, I should also say that American secularism--which arose in defense of freedom of religion--and French laicite--which arose from the Jacobin opposition to the Church--are more similar than most people recognize because they are experienced in the same way at the personal level.
I feared that, after 9/11, the project of integrating Muslim youth into French society would break apart. Many predicted that banning the head scarf for girls in French public schools would cause endless turmoil. It hasn't. Young girls have adapted, carrying on their religious belief in a way that doesn't conflict with the state. They are really at the nexus of integration, finding ways to live in both worlds. In France, and I think in Muslim societies generally, women are more on the side of the West.
Read the entire article on the NPQ website (new window will open).