Last time, we thought about objective and subjective statements. Let’s look at a similar (and sometimes confused) pair of words: absolute and relative. Why do we care about these words? In 1884, Pope Leo XIII wrote against the relativistic philosophy underlying Freemasonry in Humanum Genus. Pope St. John Paul II wrote about relativism in both Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. Both he and Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly spoke against our relativistic culture.
What is relativism? That meaning stems from the word “relative”. “Relative” means “considered in relation to something else”. It’s all about relation. If you make a relative statement, your words need to be interpreted in relation to your situation, in order to be properly understood.
The words “it’s too hot” are relative. They mean something very different when talking about the weather, a person’s temperature, or a pan on the stove. A temperature of 90 degrees may be too hot for weather, while 105 is too hot for a person, and many times that too hot for a pan. It all depends on what you’re talking about.
The meaning of a phrase may be relative to the circumstances. “Where is the kitty?” is a different question depending on whether you’re talking about pets or poker. Time or place may change the meaning of an expression. That has happened to words over time — intentionally or unintentionally. Words like “gay” and “cool” have taken on different meanings that are sensitive to the time or place.
In contrast, absolute statements don’t depend on circumstances. If I say “the temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit”, I’m making an absolute statement. Whether I’m talking about a place, a person, or a pan, we understand what the number means — and it means the same thing in each case.
What does this have to do with our faith?
Some things are relative. When dealing with moral issues, for example, there is room for relativity in the proper context. Consider mortal sin. A sin is mortal, in part, if the person was giving their full consent to the sinful act. So the gravity of a sin – whether it is mortal or venial – is relative to the amount of engagement of the person’s will. The circumstances matter and the sinfulness of an act is relative to the circumstances. I may do something grave under threat to my life, which mitigates my culpability.
A sin is mortal, again in part, if the matter of the sin is grave — if it is a serious matter. That is an absolute. The matter is grave or not. Murder isn’t more serious in some situation than in others. A death may or may not be “murder”, but murder is always a grave matter.
Some people say, though, that there “are no absolutes”. First, this is self-contradictory, as they’re saying absolutely that there aren’t absolutes. That aside, very few people actually defend that argument to the bitter end, and no one sane lives it out. If there are no absolutes, then 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4; stealing isn’t always wrong; gravity doesn’t have to work tomorrow. It becomes absurd, or at least unlivable, eventually. We all know that there are absolutes, and we all function, every day, under that assumption.
These words are relevant to our faith, as well, because of the growth of relativism. This is the belief that knowledge or truth is relative to your particular time, place, or culture. To put it another way, it means that truth is subject to time or place — that something may be true in the 2000s in the West, but it doesn’t have to be true in the East or in another religion or in AD 500. While this is so in some cases, it isn’t in regard to all truth. We agree about that regarding math; two and two has always and everywhere equaled five. We often disagree, however, about morality or about Scripture or the existence of God. The terms have to be properly understood so they can be used correctly — and so that we can recognize and engage with a belief system like relativism.
Next month, we’ll close this trio of articles with the idea of “proof” and what it means to prove something.
Copyright 2017, Joe Wetterling
Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leo_XIII..jpg