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What Is an Elephant Like?

In one Buddhist parable, a ruler in northern India summoned some blind men of his kingdom and directed each of them to touch an elephant. He told them, “That is what an elephant is like.” Some touched the elephant’s head, some its ear, some its trunk, some its hindquarters, and others the hair at the tip of its tail. Finally, the king asked the blind men what an elephant is like, and they each answered according to part he had felt. They answered: “It is like a pot,” “It is like a plow handle,” “It is like pillar,” “A mortar,” “A broom,” and so forth. The blind men began to quarrel about who was correct, striking one another with their fists, which delighted the king.

In Buddhist terms, this parable functions to illustrate not only the human inability to know what is true but, moreover, the ultimate non-existence of any truth whatsoever. This Buddhist belief is much like the message in some of the middle and late Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, which hold that existence is not real but mere illusion. Truth, then, is viewed as relative; we all see the world much as the blind men touching different parts of the elephant. And in higher levels of Hindu, Jainist, and Buddhist discourse, reality itself is called into question.

Relativism and pluralism are among the greatest threats to the Church today, and Eastern thought has contributed to these two challenges to Christian belief. Catholics often are left wondering how to respond to such claims as “There are no absolute truths or values; every person has his or her own truth” (i.e., relativism), and the offspring of this idea, that “the plurality of religions is indeed God’s will, and all religions are equally valid paths to salvation” (i.e., pluralism).

In the Eastern worldview, there is a tendency to deny man’s ability to know truth through rational, objective study. Indeed, the attraction to Eastern relativism and the East’s propensity for religious pluralism has become increasingly popular in the West. Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., and the famous Trappist writer Thomas Merton are both examples of Catholic priests who have studied and praised the relativistic philosophies of the East; for example, Fr. Kennedy identifies himself as a Zen Master (Roshi), and Merton said that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”

The Crisis of Relativism in the West

Recent Church leaders have expressed concerns over the intellectual lure of relativism. For example, in Lamentabili Sane, Pope St. Pius X condemned sixty-five errors, including the assertion that “truth is no more immutable than man himself, since it evolved with him, in him, and through him.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the problem of relativism on numerous occasions. In an interview in Murcia, Spain, in 2002, Ratzinger suggested that relativism remains the largest problem for those who wish to convince others of the truths of Catholic belief. He noted that general opinion today holds that “whoever is not a relativist is someone who is intolerant. To think that one can understand the essential truth is already seen as something intolerant.” He suggests that there is a dilemma regarding doctrine and dialogue: On the one hand, the denial of absolute truth overturns the permanence of Christian doctrine, while on the other, to maintain the certainty of truth often is taken by non-Catholics as intolerance for other religious or worldviews. In other words, the issue for many is one of freedom, and relativism provides a sense of being liberated from an accountability to truth.

Many relativistic assertions made by modern intellectuals follow the ideas of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that truth is nothing more than a cultural “necessity” and that there is no real moral or scientific truth; a “truth” is merely an expedient condition of language. Nietzsche’s denial of knowable truth is echoed in the works of several influential scholars, such as Cornell literature professor Jonathon Culler, who wrote that “since no reading can escape correction, all readings are misreadings.” In this vein, the historian Simon Schama states that “the claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” Otherwise said, we cannot trust anything we hear or read, for all spoken and written words are subject to the “truth” of the speaker or writer and not our “truth.”

Relativism and pluralism are linked, for any assertion that one religion cannot be the bearer of absolute truth necessitates the conclusion that all religions are of equal value in one’s spiritual path. Ratzinger asserted in Dominus Iesus that the “Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories that seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle).” In other words, the religious pluralism caused by relativism leads to a mentality of indifferentism that, as Pope John Paul II stated in Redemptoris Missio, is “characterized by a religious relativism that leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.’”

The Lure of Eastern Relativism

So what is the effect of Eastern thought on secular and religious philosophy in the West? The Daodejing, the famous Daoist work, begins with this statement: “The Way (dao) that can be applied is not the not the constant Way (dao), and the Name (ming) that can be employed is not the constant name (ming).” The gist of this saying is that no understanding of what the Way is can be taken as correct—that is, permanent. And no name assigned to a given object can be taken as accurate, for no name can describe perfectly an object’s true essence. This view of reality and language can be explained further by quoting a famous Chinese sophistic discourse: “A white horse is not a horse. . . . The word horse denotes a shape, and white denotes color. What denotes color does not denote shape. Therefore I assert that a white horse is not a horse.” According to this statement, there can be no such thing as a white horse, as “white-ness” and “horse-ness” are not the same. Simply said, no words or labels are unfailing.

Another Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, suggests that all language is unreliable and ultimately relative to each individual. According to Zhuangzi, the words this and that are merely relative terms, one creating the other. He further states that no word’s meaning is completely reliable, as one person’s “this” is another person’s “that.” That is, while a pen held by Tom is called “this” by him, it is called “that” by Sally across the room. Since nothing can be two things at once, words and reality are both relative; for a pen to be both a “this” and a “that” is impossible. The Chinese philosopher asks, “Which is true?” He answers that both are true. In this fashion, Eastern thought believes that no truth can be known and that reality cannot be understood with certainty; all words and things are relative.

The question of truth also became an important point of discussion among Buddhists. Nagarjuna asked two questions: How can the ego (self) be used to eliminate the ego? And if there is ultimately no ego, then who/what is trying to eliminate it? Nagarjuna, like most Mahayana Buddhists, toys with the belief that nothing actually exists. Indeed, the goal of Buddhism is to be “extinguished” (nirvana), and thus escape from being, which is the cause of suffering. Nagarjuna’s answer was that nothing exists in the first place. Later Buddhists questioned this conclusion, asking, “If there is no self, then how can one even ask the question of whether he exists or not?” Their answer was that humans consist of “consciousness only.”

In short, for these Buddhists, the ego, or self, is merely an illusion to be shed. Existence is itself relative to a self-constructed illusion of a self that has no true substance. This is, perhaps, the ultimate form of relativism, a form that totally rejects tangible realities as illusory distractions. According to Buddhism, all religion, even Buddhism itself, is thus reducible to a “construction.” The successful Buddhist escapes from the illusion of his own religion. One can see how problematic it is that some Catholic thinkers suggest that Catholicism and Buddhism are two sides of the same coin, for one of Buddhism’s core beliefs is that religion itself is a illusion.

A Catholic Response: Truth As a Starting Point

For some who identify themselves as Catholics, the lure of Eastern relativism and religious pluralism has been embraced. Influenced by such ideas, Boston College theology professor Fr. Michael Himes envisions a Catholic faith removed from the certainty of doctrine, enmeshed pluralistically with other religions. In his article “Catholicism as Integrated Humanism: Christian Participation in Pluralistic Moral Education,” Himes argues that “no perspective or doctrine can be enshrined as the final and complete formulation of truth.” Such contentions as this are condemned as “dogmatic relativism” in Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis, which states that “divinely revealed truth . . . gave enlightenment to the human mind through the Church.” In other words, truth is revealed by Christ to his bride, the Church. Himes’s dogmatic relativism leads him to state that the Church’s “intrinsic pluralism . . . should free it from creedal absoluteness.” He appears to reject that the creeds of the Church were formulated to make Christian belief more absolute. Also, the denial of “creedal absoluteness” is itself another form “creedal absoluteness,” which resonates with the old question “Is it in fact true that there is no truth?”

How do we respond to such contentions as Jesuit Fr. Francis Cloony’s, who in his article “Goddess in the Classroom” argues that “it is not prudent for Catholic institutions to insist that ‘we’ have a right to treat Mass as the official mode of campus worship”? Instead, Cloony suggests a more pluralistic approach: All religions should be given equal status. Indeed, Catholic schools should allow images of Buddha and Shiva to reside beside the crucifix. For Himes and Cloony, dogmatic relativism and religious pluralism are, a priori, the only correct views of “Catholic belief.” We can respond to such sophistic claims, both within and outside the Church, by defending the possibility—indeed the rational absoluteness—of truth. While Eastern thought (with the notable exception of Confucianism) has occupied itself with the deconstruction of rational formulations of truth, most Western intellectuals have seen the mind as a tool for its discovery.

Early Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras have proven certain mathematical formulas to be objectively true. Two plus two equals four, and a2 + b2 = c2 whether one is in China, India, France, or America. Plato held that mathematics is perhaps the best place to begin in philosophical inquiry, for it establishes the unequivocal existence of absolute truth. But unfortunately, many thinkers today have concluded that truth is relative and that even if there is an objective and ultimate truth, our limited mental resources cannot apprehend it. At best, they admit that while there may be one moon, all we can see are the numerous reflections of its light; we are like the blind men who cannot agree on what an elephant is like because we cannot see it entirely.

In order to enter into a dialogue regarding the truth of the Catholic faith, both sides must first agree on the existence of objective and absolute truth. Second, both must agree that relativism and pluralism are necessarily linked and that to herald religious pluralism is to exclaim the ideals of relativism, which undermine the authority of Christian faith. Yes, Christians may admit that there is one moon and many reflections, but it is precisely the claim of Christianity to see the moon directly. And finally, it is not intolerant to believe in absolute truth but rather intolerant of truth to deny it.


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