Optimism is obligatory, but it's cheap. In the current situation, there is a heavy price to pay. Relativism has wreaked havoc, and it continues to act as a mirror and an echo chamber for the dark mood that has fallen over the West. It has paralyzed the West, when it is already disoriented and at a standstill, rendered it defenseless when it is already acquiescent, and confused it when it is already reluctant to rise to the challenge.
One should not think of philosophy as a luxury for initiates, to be consumed only within the walls of the university. It is instead a powerful tool for the promotion and spread of ideas and energy, and a vehicle of influential opinions. It always has been. It would thus be mistaken to think that relativism has never hurt anyone, or that it has never steered anyone down the wrong path, or even that it represents the height of theoretical tolerance, political elegance, and philosophical reflection. The opposite instead is true.
Plato's Republic supports a strong, shrewd state. Descartes's cogito ergo sum leads to his provisional moral code. Marx's surplus-value is grounded in the class struggle. Hume's "association of ideas" is connected with the morality of sympathy and the liberal ethic. Croce's "dialectic of the distinct" is based on absolute freedom. Gentile's "pure act" leads to totalitarianism or permanent revolution. Popper's "conjectures and refutations" are linked to the open society, Nozick's "minimum state" leads to anarchy, and Rawls's "theory of justice" to liberal democracy. The list goes on. In the same way, the relativism that preaches the equivalence of values or cultures is grounded not so much in tolerance as in acquiescence, more inclined toward capitulation than awareness, more focused on decline than on the force of conviction, progress, and mission (which were once typical of Christianity, Europe, and the West).
Allow me to cite another example, which refers back to my discussion of theological relativism: the question of the Christian roots of Europe. When the proposal was made to insert a reference to the Christian roots of Europe into the preamble to the European Constitutional Treaty, it was rejected, for reasons that should give us food for thought.
Pope John Paul II's personal commitment to this cause is well known. In 2004 he delivered a series of statements on the subject: "The identity of Europe would be incomprehensible without Christianity" (May 2); "You don't cut off the roots from which you were born" (June 20); and "May Europe be itself and come to terms with its Christian roots" (August 4). So important did he consider it that he devoted a long, detailed Apostolic Exhortation to the topic. The essence of his argument could be summed up in a single quotation:
The Christian faith has shaped the culture of the continent and is inextricably bound up with its history, to the extent that Europe's history would be incomprehensible without reference to the events which marked first the great period of evangelization and then the long centuries in which Christianity, despite the painful division between East and West, came to be the religion of the European peoples.
Unfortunately, these words went unheeded, like a vox clamantis in deserto, a voice crying out in the wilderness. The proposal was rejected and the defeat was round. What is most disturbing is that it was accompanied not by a bang but by a whimper. Not even the church, in my opinion, rose to the challenge.
The reason for this half-heartedness is not because there is some truth to the proposition that Europe does not have Christian roots (or, to be more precise, Judeo-Christian roots). Or because our freedoms and our liberalism do not depend on the Christianity from which they are derived and to which they are bound. On the contrary, it is true that almost all of the achievements that we consider most laudable are derived from Christianity or were influenced by Christianity, by the message of God become Man.
In truth, without this message, which has transformed all human beings into persons in the image of God, individuals would have no dignity.
In truth, our values, rights, and duties of equality, tolerance, respect, solidarity, and compassion are born from God's sacrifice.
In truth, our attitude toward others, toward all others, whatever their condition, class, appearance, or culture, is shaped by the Christian revolution.
In truth, even our institutions are inspired by Christianity, including the secular institutions of government that render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. And this list goes on.
So why then did this proposal fail and why were its proponents so feeble? Why was the pope's insistent appeal ignored? My own explanation is that 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.
If these opinions and sentiments have infiltrated Christian theology, if from the philosophy departments they have trickled down into the clergy and spread to the parishes and families in the apartment buildings next door, how can we hope that Christians will obtain for their faith the recognition it deserves? How can we hope that the clergy and the Christian masses of Europe will mobilize on behalf of a faith that reminds them of their grave responsibilities, at the same time as they are being mobilized in favor of a peace that must be made and a dialogue that must be entertained with the very people who openly attack the fundamental values of the West and desire neither peace nor dialogue?
The fight to obtain recognition for the Christian roots of today's Europe has proved to be in vain. To give you one example, the theologian Gösta Hallonsten asked,
In this process of unification, what role could be played by Christianity which, while inextricably linked with the historical identity of the European peoples, is nevertheless seen today more as old merchandise meant for exportation rather than as a specific product of the European market?
The role it plays is, alas, a weak one.
Relativism has debilitated our Christian defenses and prepared or inclined us for surrender. It has convinced us that there is nothing worth fighting for or risking. It does not even object when others attempt to remove the crucifix from our schools (this happened in Italy). It presumes to see itself at the foundations of the secular state while it actually changes (or deconstructs) into a secular state religion of the state that prohibits Muslim girls in a European country from wearing the hijab to school (this happened in France). It shirks the educational burden of true integration, and one fine day it decides to separate these same boys and girls of Islamic faith from other boys and girls in a scholastic ghetto (this also happened in Italy).
Perhaps the West today no longer understands what is right. It only knows what is wrong, and it readjusts its notions of right and wrong every time someone complains about one of its errors. Or maybe it is simply exhausted. As [Mario] Vargas Llosa has said, "Democracy is an event that provokes yawns in the countries in which rule of law exists."
I hope that he's wrong, and that the lethargy he describes does not exist. But if, unfortunately, he is right, then we need to start rubbing our eyes and wake up.
Marcello Pera is a philosopher and the former president of the Italian Senate.
Read the entire article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.