Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dictatorship of Relativism

Benedict XVI, on the morning of his election as pope, remarked: “How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St. Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph. 4, 14) comes true.

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be `tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires”
[1](emphasis mine).

Possible State of Affairs with Obama: Two Explicit Epistemological Levels are at Work

Benedict XVI is trying to bring about a “broadening of reason.” By that he means the cognizance and exercise of a “theological epistemology.” By theological epistemology he means the entrance of the whole self into prayer, which in turn is the exercise of the “I” as gift. Self-gift is not only an ontological exercise but a noetic one which is not “intentional” as reflective but reflexive as “mirroring.” The big point is that reflective intentional knowing – let’s call it “First Order Knowing” - forms concepts and renders what is known an object. The reflexive mirroring – which we could call “Second Order Knowing” - permits the intelligence to know the self as subject. Importantly, the latter is an immediate contact with the existential self and is not distorting, while the former is a mediate contact that is abstractive, non-existential and distorting. The difference, say, is to know “about” another as an individual substance and to know the person experientially (intimately). This means basically, having the same experience in oneself as the person has in himself and transferring to the other what you experience and know about yourself.

In a word, this is the Ratzinger “theological epistemology” of “knowing” Jesus Christ experientially by becoming yourself “another Christ” (ref. Gal. 2, 20; 3, 16; 3, 28) – such that one is able to say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” cognizant that “no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt. 11, 27). This is the great proclamation of the living faith that the Church proclaims through the person of Peter and all successive popes who confirm all of us in that faith. The proclamation is a reflective “First Order Knowing” that is done on “Second Order Knowing.”

I burden you with this epistemological complication because I suspect that this is exactly what has been taking place in the public discourse of President Obama. He may be working on the level of “second order knowing” which is the “I,” but not turned outside of self as in faith and prayer, but inside as in control through organization of people to achieve power as a pure methodology for “the general welfare.” The “general welfare” embodies no truth except what is pragmatically expedient, that is historically perceived or concocted at a particular moment. There is no absolute except that which we want to work at a given moment for us.

What is frightening to me is that on the level of “first order knowing,” any concept can be lofted which can appease some of the people all of the time. Obama can have Rick Warren who is a conservative opponent of gay marriage give the invocation in Washington and Gene Robinson who is a gay bishop do it in some high profile setting. Obama will and does offer both.

On the life issue, Robert George, professor at Princeton, wrote on Oct. 14, 2008: “Barack Obama is the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of President of the United States. He is the most extreme pro-abortion member of the United States Senate. Indeed, he is the most extreme pro-abortion legislator ever to serve in either house of the United States Congress. Yet - and here is the point - there are Catholics and Evangelicals - even self-identified pro-life Catholics and Evangelicals - who aggressively promote Obama's candidacy and even declare him the preferred candidate from the pro-life point of view. What is going on here?”

George staggers to explain taking the fetal stem cell issue as an example:

“Decent people of every persuasion hold out the increasingly realistic hope of resolving the moral issue surrounding embryonic stem-cell research by developing methods to produce the exact equivalent of embryonic stem cells without using (or producing) embryos. But when a bill was introduced in the United States Senate to put a modest amount of federal money into research to develop these methods, Barack Obama was one of the few senators
who opposed it. From any rational vantage point, this is unconscionable. Why would someone not wish to find a method of producing the pluripotent cells scientists want that all Americans could enthusiastically endorse? Why create and kill human embryos when there are alternatives that do not require the taking of nascent human lives? It is as if Obama is opposed to stem-cell research unless it involves killing human embryos. This ultimate manifestation of Obama's extremism brings us back to the puzzle of his pro-life Catholic and Evangelical apologists. They typically do not deny the facts I have reported. They could not; each one is a matter of public record. But despite Obama's injustices against the most vulnerable human beings, and despite the extraordinary support he receives from the industry that profits from killing the unborn (which should be a good indicator of where he stands), some Obama supporters insist that he is the better candidate from the pro-life point of view. They say that his economic and social policies would so diminish the demand for abortion that the overall number would actually go down-despite the federal subsidizing of abortion and the elimination of hundreds of pro-life laws. The way to save lots of unborn babies, they say, is to vote for the pro-abortion-oops! "pro-choice"-candidate. They tell us not to worry that Obama opposes the Hyde Amendment, the Mexico City Policy (against funding abortion abroad), parental consent and notification laws, conscience protections, and the funding of alternatives to embryo-destructive research. They ask us to look past his support for Roe v. Wade, the Freedom of Choice Act, partial-birth abortion, and human cloning and embryo-killing. An Obama presidency, they insist, means less killing of the unborn. This is delusional.”

My point is that Robert George - and the rest of us - does not realize that Obama is absolute only on the level of organization for power and will say anything that will promote organization. If it promotes organization and therefore delivers power, it is “good.” What for? It doesn’t matter. And this ultimately will keep Obama, now in power, in power. The great mistake is the one that George (and the rest of us) makes, and that is that each one of the first order “positions” is true, when for Obama, Emmanuel, Axelrod, etc. nothing is “true” – in itself, except the self. I am deriving this thinking more from Alinsky than from Obama’s actual texts, although Freddoso’s “The Case Against Barack Obama bears our the above in his historical political life as well as his position on the life issues.

Witness one of the major sources for the intellectual and political formation of Obama, Saul D. Alinsky. In his book “Rules for Radicals – a Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.” The burden of the book is organization for power. When one asks the question, Power for what? The response is: “In this book I propose certain general observations, propositions, and concepts of the mechanics of mass movements and the various stages of the cycle of action and reaction in revolution. This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; different people, in different places, in different situations and symbols of salvation for those times. This book will not contain any panacea or dogma; I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic. Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.”

My immediate contention is that Obama can be a conceptual first order chameleon because there is a hidden absolute on the second order that is the self – the invisible “I” – but now unencumbered by the metaphysical burden of Truth as Self-gift (Christ). He achieves power by the organization of the masses according to whatever slogan can be hoisted on the impetuous petard of the moment. The moment may have come that the sensible slogans of an advertising culture become the Magisterium that drowns out the ontological thrust of the true “I” made in the image and likeness of God. Like an unused muscle, the ontological thrust for the Absolute that is the true “I” has been weakened by disuse and neglect and dumbed-down into acquiescence to the contradictions that have been and will be presented to the public. No one will be able to complain since every position on first order epistemology will be presented with its conceptual rational. The only problem will be to keep the society mesmerized by the technology of sight and the screen so that the contradictions don’t jar the deeper hold on truth that is the experience of the self (“I”) in the image of the Absolute. Ratzinger said as much in response to the observation, “nihilism is rapidly taking the place of Marxism:” “It is explained by the encroachment of relativism and subjectivism, an inevitable consequence of a world overwhelmed by the alleged certainties of natural or applied science. Only what can be tested and proved appears as rational. [Sensible] Experience has become the only criterion guaranteeing truth. Anything that cannot be subjected to mathematical or experimental verification is regarded as irrational.

This restriction of reason [and therefore, the call to the broadening of reason] has the result that we are left in almost total darkness regarding some essential dimensions of life. This is serious because if, in a society, the bases of ethical behavior are abandoned to subjectivity alone, released from common motives for being and living, handed or to pragmatism, then it is man himself who is threatened.”

And remember: the great ideologies of Communism and Capitalism have collapsed. The field is now “NIHILISM.” Ratzinger continued: “The great ideologies have been able to give a certain ethical foundation to society. But today, Marxism is crumbling and liberal ideology is so split into fragments that it no longer has a common, solid, coherent view of man and his future. In the present situation of emptiness, there looms the terrible danger of nihilism, that is to say, the denial or absence of all fundamental moral reference for the conduct of social life. This danger becomes visible in the new forms of terrorism…” He then puts his finger on what I sense to be the dynamics behind the Obama phenomenon: “In this era of sovereign subjectivity, people act for the sole pleasure of acting, without any reference other than the satisfaction of ‘myself.’

“Just as the terrorism that was born from the Marxism of yesterday put its finger on the anomalies of our social order, in the same way the nihilistic terrorism of today ought to show us the course to be followed for a reflection on the bases of a new ethical and collective reason.”

That “new ethical and collective reason” is the call to broaden reason. Benedict is calling on philosophers to “widen the horizons of rationality” to take in the fullness of “Being” as absolute. On June 7, 2008, he said: “I would like to begin with a deep conviction which I have expressed many times: ‘Christian faith has made its clear choice: against the gods of religion for the God of philosophers, in other words against the myth of mere custom for the truth of being’ (cf. J. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ch. 3).”
[3] And “the truth of being,” he goes on, is the “performative” experience that the human person has of himself in the act of faith as self-gift. The experience of the self, going out of self, discloses a new dimension of reason that is the consciousness of the self that is not reduced to the limitation of sense experience and abstract concepts, but to an experience of the existential “I” that is the “empirical” source of absolute value, such as authenticity and the good. Notice Benedict’s remarks: “Christianity… is not only ‘informative,’ but ‘performative’… This means that from the beginning Christian faith cannot be enclosed within an abstract world of theories, but it must descend into the concrete historic experience that reaches humanity in the most profound truth of his existence.

“This experience, conditioned by new cultural and ideological situations, is the place in which theological research must evaluate and upon which it is urgent to initiate a fruitful dialogue with philosophy.

“The understanding of Christianity as a real transformation of hyuman existence, if on the one hand it impels theological reflection to a new approach in regard to religion, on the other , it encourages it not to lose confidence in being able to know reality.

“The proposal to ‘widen the horizons of rationality,’ therefore, must not simply be counted among the new lines or theological and philosophical thought, but it must be understood as the requisite for a new opening onto the reality that the human person in his uni-totality is, rising above ancient prejudices and reductionism, to open itself also to the way toward a true understanding of modernity.

“Humanity’s desire for fullness cannot be disregarded. The Christian faith is called to take on this historical emergency by involving the men and women of good will in a simple task. The new dialogue between faith and reason, required today, cannot happen in the terms and in the ways in which it happened in the past. If it does not want to be reduced to a sterile intellectual exercise, it must begin from the present concrete situation of humanity and upon this develop a reflection that draws from the ontological-metaphysica truth.”

Benedict XVI is calling on all of us to begin to pray, not just prayers, but to put ourselves in an intimate, real, experiential contact with the Person of Christ, such that we will experience ourselves as absolute values of good and true (authenticity), and therefore demand, not just change, but the achievement of those real values that we already are. When all positions are posited equally, and hence de rigueur contradictorily, we are in proximate danger of immanent slavery not unlike that of the Jewish Exile to Babylon.

The Great Danger is Deception:

There are “truths” as on level on, but since they are purely factual, they are not absolutes. There is no “Truth” on level two. There is the “I” of the organizer, but that “I” is not True (as in Self-gift imaging the prototypical “I”). Like Descartes and the irradication of truth, there is no truth, only method.

Notice that Alinsky speaks about the quick and profound ways that Communism could have been overcome. The assumption would be that he thought that it was “false.” But, no. That answer is that he is against the “status quo” which I take to be the equivalent of God. Hence, God must always be undermined by the method of revolution. But note that he will pray and speak about God. But that would only be method to organize some for power.
For example, he quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “The U.S. and Revolution.’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions Occasional Paper No. 116: “On trips to Asia I often asked men in their thirties and forties what they were reading when they were eighteen. They usually answered ‘Karl Marx,’ and when I asked them why, they replied, ‘We were under colonial rule, seeking a way out. We wanted our independence. To get it we had to make revolution. The only books on revolution were published by the communists.’ These men almost invariably had repudiated communism as a political cult, retaining, however, a tinge of socialism. As I talked with them, I came to realize the great opportunities we missed when we became preoccupied in fighting communism with bombs and with dollars, rather than with ideas of revolution, of freedom, of justice.”

Alinsky says: “This is a major reason for my attempt to provide a revolutionary handbook not cast in a communist or capitalist mold but as a manual for the Have-Nots of the world regardless of the color of their skins or their politics. My aim here is to suggest how to organize for power: how to get it and to use it.”

Is Alinsky consistent? No. He admits as much. He boasts of an “ideology” of change which comes from getting power. The realism is not being but the sensible empirical. He says: “Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.”
[7] Change is everything by subverting the status quo: God.

The Goal

Broaden Reason. Fight Fire with Fire. Experience Christ and self as Absolutes by self-gift.

[1] Cappella Papale: Mass of the Conclave: Homily of His Eminence Card Joseph Ratzinger Dean of the Colleges of Cardinals, Vatican Basilica, Monday 18 April 2005.
[2] J. Ratzinger, Interview: “And Marxism Gave Birth to… NIHILISM,” The Catholic World Report, January 1993, 54.
[3] Benedict XVI, “At the Sixth European Symposium of University Professors,” June 7, 2008.
[4] Ibid.
[5] S. Alinsky, op. cit 8 ftn.
[6] Ibid 9-10.
[7] Ibid 12, 13.

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