The following words come from a homily preached in April of 2005 by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of the gathering of the College of Cardinals:
…We must not remain children in faith, in the condition of minors. And what does it mean to be children in faith? St Paul answers: it means being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4: 14). This description is very timely!
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.
The pope to be seems to have clear intentions. He proffers a choice between a mature faith and an immature one. The latter is characterized by an embrace of relativism, the former by the rejection of it. But does the rejection of absolute truth necessarily entail the creation of radically ego-centric subjects who rush down the aisle to marry the current spirit of the age (or dare we say moment)? Jeffry Perl contends that relativism, at least of the scrupulous variety, entails nothing of the kind.
In an essay entitled “T.S. Eliot’s Small Boat Of Thought”, Perl describes the inhabitants of Benedict’s small boats as follows:
The relativists in those small boats of his are Christians, even if ill equipped to navigate profound waters. Hence the homily is saying that relativism is not a stopping place, not a position. It is a metaposition, rather — a position about holding positions. A relativist Christian would presumably be one who holds that the truths of Christianity, in which he or she does believe, are relative to other truths. A Christian of this sort is not necessarily among those who say that religion must “keep up” with the times, must make room for the findings of psychology, biology, or feminist theory. What a relativist holds is that the idea of absolute truth is an incoherent idea and that, therefore, no truths, including those of Christianity, should be regarded as absolute.
Perl’s favorite example of a so called Christian relativist is T.S. Eliot:
He became a Christian yet remained a skeptic. “The demon of doubt,” he wrote years after his conversion, is “inseparable from the spirit of belief,” and the proper relationship to one’s own beliefs is “a systole and diastole, [a] movement to and fro, of approach and withdrawal.”7 This combination of “position” and “metaposition” — of specific beliefs, on the one hand, and a strong view, on the other, that beliefs should be contingently held — had its bearing on the texture of his Christianity…
…all things considered, we must ask if Eliot’s religious thought, in the decades following his conversion, qualifies, in the terms of Joseph Ratzinger’s homily, as a “small boat.” Christian intellectuals, notably Pope John Paul II, have generally admired Eliot’s craft as grand indeed. On the other hand, the assumption among such Christians, as also among the anti-Christians who loathe Eliot, has been that his conversion from agnostic to theist was at the same time one from relativist (or even nihilist) to absolutist. What both those who admire and those who resent Eliot for his conversion miss is that his Christian faith tended to make him less dogmatic, sanctimonious, misanthropic, or judgmental, and more accepting of cultural and individual difference.13 It is not Eliot’s reputation with which I am concerned here, but with the extent to which Christian virtues serve to mitigate, rather than encourage, the sour piety of which intellectual Christians (and especially converts) are sometimes accused. Evelyn Waugh, another convert of Eliot’s era, remarked that, had he not become a Roman Catholic, he might well have become a murderer. In Eliot’s case, until the process of his conversion began in earnest (around the time that he wrote The Waste Land), his work betrayed an increasing tendency to repress ambivalence — to pretend away his emotional and intellectual conflictedness. He thereby, in my opinion, endangered his capacity as an artist and, more importantly, his potential as a human being. Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, has noted that “the attempt to eliminate [internal] conflict [is] the very thing that makes most people cruel,” and of such cruelty Eliot was in
danger in the nineteen-teens.
Eliot’s conversion to Christianity made him a more gracious interlocutor. It served to attune him more deeply to the complexities and ambiguities that are inevitably the stuff of life. The Christianity Eliot came to embrace was that of the traditionalist, not the revisionist. He is not your Holy Father’s relativist to say the least.