Thursday, 8 November 2012

Relativism, or Why Gregory Baum is Irrelevant

Barona was kind enough to send me an article by Gregory Baum. Upon reading it my immediate reaction was that this man is steeped in relativism. I will not link to the article because I have no wish to propagate Baum's writings. I will, however, examine the roots of my own reaction to it.

I have wondered for some time what all the fuss is about when speaking of relativism. I mean couldn't people see for themselves what the fundamental flaw is in this notion? Apparently not and I am just now realizing why.  There are some books that have had such a great effect upon me that I keep them close to me. One such book is A Rumor of Angels by Peter L. Berger. I stumbled across this book when I was quite young and new in my faith. It has had the effect of inoculating me against the worst effects of relativism. Berger points out the fundamental flaw in all relativism...

... a hidden double standard, which can be put quite simply: the past, out of which the tradition comes, is relativized in terms of this or that socio-historical analysis. The present, however, remains strangely immune from relativization. In other words, the New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time, but the contemporary analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity and radio users are placed intellectually above the Apostle Paul. p58

The relativizers imagine they are standing upon a rock when in reality they are standing upon thin air. Well, we can play that game too. Subjecting them to the same relativizing analysis they would inflict on more orthodox religious types yields some surprising results.

One (perhaps literally) redeeming feature of sociological perspective is that relativizing analysis, in being pushed to its final consequence, bends back upon itself. The relativizers are relativized, the debunkers are debunked - indeed relativization itself is somehow liquidated. What follows is not, as some of the early sociologists of knowledge feared, a total paralysis of thought. Rather, it is a new freedom and flexibility in asking questions of truth. p59

This sort of sociological analysis may be quite useful for some things but it is quite incompetent to pass judgement on fundamental questions of truth. Whether there are angels in our midst or no, nothing any sociologist or theologian can say will have any effect on that truth in any way whatsoever. This is simple fact... angels go on existing quite apart from any speculation we frail humans may make about them. Where does this leave those of us who believe in them?

It is relatively easy, sociologically speaking, to be a Catholic in a social situation where one can limit one's significant others to fellow Catholics, where indeed one has little choice in the matter, and where all the major institutional forces are geared to support and confirm a Catholic world. The story is quite different in a situation where one is compelled to rub shoulders day by day with every conceivable variety of 'those others', is bombarded with communications that deny or ignore one's Catholic ideas, and where one has a terrible time even finding some quiet Catholic corners to withdraw into. p61 

You see the problem. If you are to go out into the world to preach the gospel, as our Saviour asks, it would be wise to inoculate yourself against the common ailments you are likely to find out there. The alternatives are to either stay home and hide under the bed, or to somehow impose your worldview. It is not for nothing that the very first thing the angels said to the shepherds  above Bethlehem was "Be not afraid." There is a third possibility... that we might step into the unknown and find a God whose mercy provides angels to tend to us.

As for Gregory Baum, he is as much a product of his time and milieu as any other cultural phenomenon from that era. His impact will be for future generations to determine but fortunately the task of passing the faith on to those generations is in other hands.

Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural


Barona said...

"The idea that Jesus appointed twelve apostles and these in turn ordained bishops as their successors has symbolic meaning, but it does not describe what actually happened".

"The ordination of women to the priesthood would restore a prophetic quality to the Church’s ministry, educating people to discern the injustices in present society and presenting them with an ideal for the participation of women in the life of society".

Gregory Baum

Two examples of Baum's theology.

Freyr said...

You cannot refute either of these propositions without reference to the magisterium. Without the magisterium both of these propositions make some sense, indeed may even be seen to be good in and of themselves. Someone who does not believe in the authority of the magisterium in the same way as an orthodox Catholic can come up with an endless series of propositions, each more outlandish than the last. You are playing whack-a-mole with a very clever theologian... a frustrating and pointless task. Gregory Baum is irrelevant because his disregard of the magisteriun makes discourse impossible. There is no common ground.