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The Problem with Relativism

June 11, 2013
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At the United Nations, we talk a lot about universalizing things. Sounds appropriate, right? If we can agree on things, it unifies us in our approach to make local, national and international changes. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want world peace? Ultimately, we all want the same things: health, happiness, security and fulfillment. During my internship at the U.N., I’ve learned that in the political world, not everything is as clean-cut as I’d like to imagine.
For example, when we’re talking about children’s rights, virtually no one is opposing the movement. No Ambassador is sitting there with their mouth to the mic saying, “Mr Chairman, this is preposterous. Children don’t need basic necessities or development!” So why is this even a discussion? For one thing, children’s rights are still being violated. Human trafficking, preventable diseases, child marriage, poverty and abuse are only some of the problems are threatening children today. In the U.N. Charter, it states that children “shall enjoy special protection... be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable [them] to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.” This is agreed-upon language. We all want this. But countries have varying opinions of what children’s rights are and how they’re to be carried out. This is affected by cultural, economic, and religious influences, in addition to many other factors. Most of the time, it's these nuances that are being discussed and negotiated.
So, the question naturally becomes: do universal rights exist? Going even deeper: is there universal truth?
Discussing this question with people my age is always a hot-button. The opinions will range, varying from “one truth” to “relative truths” to “no truth”. It scares us that we may be wrong, or that some people have the answers and we don’t. We’d much rather believe that truth depends on one’s experiences, believing in our own realities. While I would agree that perspective will no doubt vary according to each of us, I could not possibly believe that there is no Truth.
Let’s take a small example: Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone was there and experienced family time. There were objective events that happened regardless of how you viewed them. Just because you didn’t see the turkey being made, doesn’t mean it just magically appeared or that it doesn’t exist. We can definitely vary on how we felt during that time and what perspective we have on how certain events and conversations went - Constructivism, learning socially, and experiencing things viscerally is a good thing. But ultimately, we can’t deny the facts. The tree still fell if no one was there to hear it.
Why, then, do we have difficulty believing that there is one Truth for the big life questions? Like politics: not as simple as we like to think. A common struggle with religion is how we can distinguish which one is “right”. How can one religion be right while others are wrong? I’m not sure this question is a positive one to pursue.
Imagine that there is a universal Truth. Imagine that this is a reality that unites us all, and we are on a quest to discover the fullness of it. Yes, there are many options claiming to be truthful. Navigating through all of them to see what is right literally takes a lifetime and more. But isn’t this what we’re searching for? Relativism is the most terrifying idea - not only does it separate us from community and suck us into our own, isolated reality, but it’s also susceptible to the flightiness of this world. There can never be peace, even in the mystery. If not truth, what are we working toward? What are we searching for?
I whole-heartedly believe that each religion has some sort of truth and beauty in it, and that Catholicism has found the fullness of it. Interfaith dialogue is so important but so difficult. We agree on many things, like loving one another and treating your neighbor how we each would like to be treated. Yet just like in politics, we rarely disagreeing on universally “good things”, but it’s in the execution of these things that gets people to sometimes disagree. How do we show love? What is considered “loving”? How do I want to be treated?
I personally haven’t found the answers yet, but I’m staying true to the questions that challenge me to Truth.
This blog comes to us from Leanna Cappiello, a former S+L intern who recently graduated from Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. Leanna is currently living in New York City, where she works as an intern at the Holy See Mission to the United Nations.
(CNS photo/Eskinder Debebe, courtesy U.N.)

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