Sunday, April 24, 2005

Relativism Strikes Back

A friend of mine suggested that the mystical experience of the divine in all things might be a possible motivation for the conviction amongst religious believers that God is necessary as the underpinning of morality. Plato's argument, as presented in my last post, presents goodness and God as two separate things, one coming before the other. Instead, the believer may see God and the Good as being indistinguishable. As God is the basis for all of being, this means that goodness is the ultimate reality. Therefore, to deny the existence of God is to deny that goodness exists.

I have a great deal of respect for the mystical experience. As much as I despise the attempts by the religious to impose their views upon the physical world, I am still convinced that this esoteric experience is not just some brain fart. It is this experience that lies at the root of all religions and much of our art. If fundamentalists really wanted to return to the foundations of their faith, this is where they would go.

But I do not for a moment think that this is where conservative Christians are coming from. The equation Reality = God = Good doesn't really require the middle term--neither Plato nor the Bhuddists use it. For them that Goodness is inescapable. To see the world as anything else is an illusion. But the middle term introduces a qualifier, a volitional aspect. Goodness isn't necessarily the Ultimate Reality; Christianity still has its Manichean streak. If God can save you by showering you with Grace, it is equally obvious that God can withold his Grace and let you rot. You see, if the true nature of reality is goodness, you can't charge admission. It's already there all around you, and within you. I found it comical that in the Catholic Bible, Jesus words "Heaven is within you" were immediately explained away in a footnote as meaning "it is within your grasp, it is Jesus." Although there may be Christian mystics who see God as the Unifying Principle of Being, organized religion is a political endeavour, and God is used as a term of separation.

The second snag lies with the mystical experience itself. As Lao Tzu put it, the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. The experience is inexpressible, and yet we feel compelled to express it. This means that this universal ground is expressed in billions of different ways around the world and throughout history. Each expression is true insofar as it springs from this Truth, but is imperfect because this Truth is ultimately beyond our ability to express. So what you end up with, again, is relativism, but a relativism which is closer to the relativity of Einstein than the relativism of the postmodernists. The reality is what it is, but what you see depends upon your frame of reference. For our current discussion, this means that there will be almost as many religions as there are people.

So while the Truth may be absolute, its expressions are always dependant upon the person or group in question. Christianity and Islam are triumphalist religions, however, and that means that for the believers in those faiths, it is not only their right, but their responsibility, to eradicate all other expressions of this Truth but their own. This is like a one-eyed man insisting that everyone else be blinded in one eye, so that the heresy of depth perception may be stamped out. By dwelling upon one expression to the exclusion of all else, they deny the very Truth that it is based upon, and accentuate the importance of the merely contingent. They make an Idol of their own beliefs and the particular expression of the Truth that they adhere to. In other words, they enshrine the value of the purely contingent and deny the very possibility of a universal truth that might lie beneath all the religions. Ethics are considered dependant not just on religion, but upon a particular religion, and indeed, upon one sect within that religion.

There is much to be said for ethical relativity, as opposed to relativism. Take the golden rule: "Treat all others as you would have them treat you." Well, I like peanut butter. If I were very hungry, I would very much like for someone to give me a peanut butter sandwich, which would give me a good mix of proteins and energy. But someone with a severe peanut allergy would die if they were given the same thing. In this case, what is good for me is bad for someone else. So there is more to following the golden rule than just following it to the letter. It is an imprecise expression of a deeper principle. We have to understand the other person's circumstances in order to carry it out. What is good for them is only good relative to their situation. The first and most important part of loving your neighbour is empathy; putting yourself in his or her shoes, seeing things from their point of view. Generosity is pointless if what is given is useless or harmful to the receiver. And you cannot know what someone needs without trying to understand him. It is this very attempt to understand the other that the primitive absolutism of reactionary religions would like to forbid.