ROME, AUG. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Aggressive relativism is the newest form of fundamentalism, according to author Deacon Daniel Brandenburg, and Catholics are called to stand up and do something about it.
In this interview with ZENIT, Deacon Brandenburg, who will be ordained a priest of the Legionaries of Christ this December, comments on his book “The New Fundamentalists: Beyond Tolerance,” recently published by Circle Press.
Q: In a nutshell, what is the new fundamentalism that you address in your book?
Deacon Brandenburg: When we hear fundamentalism, what normally comes to mind is religious narrow-mindedness, perhaps with an irrational or even fanatical bent, like that displayed by some Muslim followers after Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address.
The “new” fundamentalism that I describe in my book often displays the same intolerance, irrationality and extremism. The key difference, however, is that the new fundamentalists profess to be secular followers of no religion. Yet closer examination shows that the relativistic dogma underlying their worldview excites more religious fervor than do many tenets of the great world religions.
John Paul II’s experience with Nazism and Communism — two completely secular ideological systems — led him to write in “Centesimus annus”: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.”
I would say that what Nazism and Communism were in the past, relativism is today in our times. The methods are different — softer and more subtle, working from the inside out — but the effects on people and social structures and relationships do bear some comparison.
Secular religion did not die with those defunct systems. During an address last June 11, Benedict XVI touched upon the difficulties of passing on the faith “in a society, in a culture, which all too often makes relativism its creed. … [I]n such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth.”
We face a new fundamentalism — a new secular religion — that assumes there is implicit arrogance in any statement of truth, especially if it implies a value judgment about morality or the merits of one religion or worldview in comparison to others. The relativism of our time admits no rivals and is aggressively intolerant.
In the end, when truth is taken away or ignored, might makes right. That applies for any brand of secular religion.
Q: Your book opens with a case study of a college student named Jeff who is virtually blackballed on campus for standing up for his faith, even though he did so in a reasonable and respectful way. What is the urgency of combating secular fundamentalism on college campuses?
Deacon Brandenburg: Jeff’s case is one of countless true stories, all of which call us to an essential point: It’s not enough to understand the nature and dangers of this new fundamentalism. We also have to equip ourselves and others to oppose it, using the tools of logical argumentation and reasonable dialogue.
This is of the highest urgency, since relativism has a corrosive effect on almost every area of human life, from religion to morality to the organization of social and political life. The battle is not limited to college campuses, but extends to all levels of education, the media, politics and social life.
Q: What specific solutions do you propose as an antidote to the influence of relativism?
Deacon Brandenburg: Since this new fundamentalism is both a human and a religious malady, the medicine I prescribe at the end of my book has a human and a religious ingredient.
On the human level, I urge mutual respect, dialogue and honesty. This last point of honesty is vitally important, since it entails a constant attitude of openness to truth.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be continually challenged by truth. It might seem easier to dig our heels into what we already know and just settle into a familiar landscape of facts and opinions that we feel we have mastered.
But truth is not something we can possess and put in our pocket. It is something that masters us, possesses us, and constantly challenges us to grow. To avoid that challenge would be to run away from growing into our full stature as human beings … and as children of God, who is truth.
On the religious level, I believe the remedy is authentic religion: a faith rooted in the personal encounter with a God who transcends and loves us, leading to deep attitudes that build on the best of human virtues and surpass them.
For example, authentic religion builds on the principle of mutual respect and elevates it to the virtue of charity. In a similar way, faith takes dialogue to a higher level of impact by opening man to the fullness of his spiritual nature. And honesty is brought to its full wingspan when man reaches after objective truth with all his strength.
Relativism and agnosticism clip man’s wings by discouraging him from inquiring after the great questions and actively seeking the answers to his most profound longings. The liberation of faith is that it brings back that wide horizon of ultimate questions and sets man free to search for the answers.
Q: Your book occasionally cites insights from Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th-century Frenchman who wrote “Democracy in America.” What do you think De Tocqueville would say if he could see the impact of relativism in America today?
Deacon Brandenburg: I think De Tocqueville saw the potential danger from the beginning. He was one of the first to say that a democracy is worth only as much as its people are, and that the character of a nation is dependent on the moral character of its individual citizens.
One of the points I argue in the body of the book is that the doctrine of tolerance is having a clear and measurable impact on marriage, family and the quality of social relationships as a whole; it is weakening the people who made our nation strong.
Q: What do you think are the key concepts that help us to engage effectively in debate and action?
Deacon Brandenburg: Many people might argue that tolerance is the key to interpersonal relations, but I would venture to say that charity and truth are much more important.
If I really care about a person — charity — I will seek the truth for them. A doctor does his ailing patient a disservice to tell him he has nothing wrong, just as a parent destroys his child’s future by tolerating self-destructive activity like engaging in premarital sex or taking drugs. We need to go beyond tolerance and pursue truth; hence the subtitle of my book.
We can’t be afraid to say that truth exists. The relativistic ethos of our society tends to frown upon statements of objective truth because it assumes that growth in intellectual maturity runs on par with growth in skepticism. For the modern mind, intellectual sophistication seems to require systematic doubt, an ability to see all sides without committing to any one point of view.
Of course, there is no doubt that there is a legitimate complexity to many things in life and answers are not easy to find. Yet this will never legitimate the lack of absolute answers to anything.
Maturity means moving from doubt to renewed conviction about what is good and true. Truth, in this context, is not just a soap box to stand on, or a state of intellectual stagnation to sit in. On the contrary, seeking after truth is dynamic, active, growing, and yes, critical and discerning, because it requires going beyond skepticism to a deepened and perhaps purified grasp of reality in all its dimensions. Again, it’s a matter of allowing reality to challenge and change us.
We can respect people and tolerate their right to hold their own ideas while still affirming that some ideas are true, and others are just plain out of touch with reality. Part of dialogue entails this respect for the person and the willingness to engage in debate based on the objective merit of the ideas.
That’s what this book is intended to drive forward: to provide the tools and means for committed Catholics — like Jeff — to engage in reasoned dialogue with the secular world without losing confidence in the truth they have received.