Relativism And Timidity

If we fear error too much, and thus overvalue critical reason, we will develop a mind active and able in doubt but untrained to move toward belief, a mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions.

Ideally, we would like critical reason to minister to the more fundamental project of affirming truth. We picture ourselves scrupulously examining various truth-claims, weeding out the irrational ones, and then judiciously assenting to those that seem to have solid grounds. 

R.R. Reno, writing at First Things, on the intellectual timidity of our age.
In my experience, although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequences: an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths, because those are the only points on which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.
I have to ponder that observation, as it happens I've been thinking about this very thing recently, or rather, about intellectual phenomena which appear to me to be related. In some ways he's only re-stating the complaint that we have reduced reality to that which can be empirically observed, which flattens the imagination and obliterates practically everything that's actually interesting, important and delightful. Or it could be a re-statement of the criticism of Great Books programs: great at getting you to think about the right things, not so good at inculcating prudence. At some point you not only have to consider what's right, you have to decide and go do it.

I've been thinking about relativism on "the Right," even the Religious Right, prompted by comments left at another site in response to a proposal that divorce be taxed. Immediately a dozen people protested that this would hurt divorced people, and one person, obviously smarting personally, declared it was insensitive to divorcees even to raise the topic.

A divorce tax may or may not be a good idea, but what struck me was that the comments and arguments were precisely those used by homosexuals to advance the cause of same-sex marriage --namely, the "unfairness" to some, and the appeal to hurt feelings as a means of shutting down discussion. The common good and the role of marriage and family law in shaping it did not come into play.

Maybe they would have if the hurting bully hadn't whomped everyone into silence, but the conversation was disheartening. Hard cases make bad law, but hard cases are all we're allowed to talk about --and isn't that the same thing, really, as being so afraid of making a mistake --of being unfair to someone, somewhere-- that you can't make a decision --or offer a norm-- at all?

That was followed a few days later by a controversial post about whether it could ever be acceptable for a Christian to attend the reception celebrating a same-sex union (after having declined, with explanation, attending the ceremony). The discussion was blurred by an unfortunate analogy, but the actual moral teaching (possibly yes in limited circumstances) appears to me defensible, especially since, applying the reasoning given, most people in most situations would have to conclude they couldn't attend. But maybe the argument was not prudent, given that it could hardly but be misconstrued in precisely the way the comments reveal it is being, and might lead an uninformed person astray. Hard cases make bad law.

How do you talk about tricky cases without encouraging the overthrow of what remains of standards of morality --or disheartening the faithful? How do you not talk about tricky cases when there are more and more of them thanks to the tyranny of relativism and loss of faith? The true requirements of Prudence maybe can be least discussed where most needed? Or do we just have to be satisfied with, "he who has ears let him hear" a lot of the time?

It so happens that my book club just finished Lewis' space trilogy and I was very taken with the middle volume, Perelandra (the conceit of which is basically creation on Venus, and our hero has to prevent the Fall by intervening in Satan's temptation of the Venutian Eve), and Ransom's eventually having to give up on out-arguing the subtle and persuasive and almost-right devil and resort to physically fighting him. This seems related for some reason I can't articulate, though I'm sure Lewis has an essay somewhere that would make it obvious.

Maybe it just means sometimes I'd like to punch people in the comment box. (Not you, of course!)