Relativism

A Theology of Interfaith Cooperation

SUMMER IS READNG time and there’s nothing I like more during the warm months than delving into geeky works on religion. This summer, Peter L. Berger and Brian D. McLaren have topped my list.

In a set of recent essays, Berger emphasizes that relativism and fundamentalism are two of the most prominent religious paths in the world today. Here’s my one line definition of fundamentalism: “Being me is based on dominating you.” And my simple definition of relativism: “I no longer know who I am when I encounter you.”

For Berger, while relativism and fundamentalism are at opposite extremes, they are actually closely connected in that they are both “products of the same proc-ess of modernization.” As he first wrote decades ago in his book The Heretical Imperative, frequent and intense encounters between people with different identities is the signature characteristic of the modern era. In Berger’s pithy phrase: modernity pluralizes.

Berger continues, “pluralism relativizes ... both institutionally and in the consciousness of individuals.” In the pre-modern era, institutions, ideas, and identities had a largely taken-for-granted status. For most of human history, the vast majority of humankind had little to no choice about which institutions they were going to participate in or what their identities were going to be. Such matters were experienced as fate.

In the modern era, institutions become voluntary associations—people choose whether to participate—and identity has moved from fate to choice. This puts an awful lot of pressure on moderns like us to constantly make conscious choices about what we participate in and who we are. This is pressure that our ancestors, who simply took for granted the network of institutions they grew up in and the identities they were handed, simply did not have.

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'Greater Works Than Mine'

THE SAGA OF Elijah that we are following in 1 and 2 Kings culminates in a poignant parting as the prophet prepares to be taken up into heaven. His disciple, Elisha, makes a final all-or-nothing request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah states a condition for the fulfillment of Elisha’s prayer: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2:10). It is as if Elisha has to look unblinkingly into the reality of their separation. If he is to inherit the prophetic mantle and spirit of his teacher, he must claim the vocation in its entirety. He is now to be the prophet.

The story is an uncanny pointer to the truth that John the Evangelist highlights in Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you ...” (16:7). John even echoes the “double spirit” theme in 14:12, when he has Jesus assure us that our prophetic endeavors will be more abundant and powerful than Jesus’ own!

The season following Pentecost helps us realize that we are the prophets now, vested with the mandate and endowed with the gifts for enacting the good news of liberation.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ JUNE 2 ]
A Climate of Relativism
1 Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

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Love, Cardinal Ratzinger

Holy Mother Church has done it again. Amid all her brilliant statements on economic liberation in the year of Jubilee, defense of human dignity, and the imperative of confession (see the pope at Yad Vashem), one of the highest ranking cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church recently released documents that deemed the rest of the Christian family as "suffering from defects."

I'd like to be able to say that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, didn't really mean his declaration that all non-Catholics are in a "gravely deficient situation in comparison with [Roman Catholics] who have the fullness of the means of salvation." But he did mean it that way. The question is why?

For those of you who don't know Cardinal Ratzinger, he is affectionately known as "The (doctrinal) Enforcer." Every church has at least one. He has poked, prodded, reprimanded, defrocked, and silenced anyone who has suggested a model of church that is not clerical, dogmatic, and rule-bound. Inclusive language makes him queasy. Liberation theology and women's ordination give him hives. Now his shields are up against religious "relativism."

A little context is helpful. Cardinal Ratzinger is upset with some Asian bishops engaged in interfaith dialogue with Buddhists. He's also afraid of closer relations with the Eastern Orthodox church, which invests much greater authority at the level of bishop than Catholics do. He is also, undoubtedly, making political overtures to increase the conservative climate within the Vatican as he anticipates a successor to Pope John Paul II.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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