Edward Sri, Catholic Education Resource Center
Too often, Nietzsche argued, opponents of Christianity have focused on questioning the truthfulness of Christian claims. But these individuals would be more successful if they showed its moral vision — the Christian way of life — to be something negative, evil, and harmful to human persons. “As long as one does not perceive Christian morality as a capital crime against life,” Nietzsche said, “its defenders will always have an easy game. The question of the truth of Christianity . . . is something entirely secondary as long as the question of the value of Christian morality is not addressed.”
The approach Nietzsche advocated plays a significant part in today’s crisis of faith. Many people have rejected Christianity not because they have examined its teachings and found them to be wanting. Rather, for many, the Christian path seems to be a strange, repressive, and boring way to live — much less exciting than the mainstream lifestyles offered today.
In the eyes of many today, Cardinal Ratzinger points out, Christianity “seems to place too many restraints on humankind that stifle its joie de vivre, that limit its precious freedom, and that do not lead it to open pastures — in the language of the Psalms — but rather into want, into deprivation.” Now is the time to turn the tables on this kind of critique and show how it is actually the secular, relativistic way of life that leads to unhappiness. Ratzinger notes how the early Church faced similar criticisms but was successful in transforming pagan Rome by persuasively demonstrating the emptiness of the pagan lifestyle and the happiness found in following Christ, and he argues that we need to do the same again. “Today it is a matter of the greatest urgency to show a Christian model of life that offers a livable alternative to the increasingly vacuous entertainments of leisure-time society .”
Following Ratzinger’s approach, we will begin to draw out the stark contrasts between the Christian and relativistic worldviews and the different ways of life that flow from each. In this reflection, we will focus on how each outlook views the self. We will see that the Christian view of the self is oriented toward building the kind of relationships and community that bring us happiness, whereas the view of the self that is prominent in our relativistic world today has led to much pain, heartache, and isolation precisely where human beings are meant to find fulfillment: in our relationships.
The Self: An Island or Relationship?
In the Christian worldview, every human person is made for relationship — friendship with God and the people God has placed in our lives. It is in these relationships that we find fulfillment in life. As Bl. John Paul II often noted, we find ourselves only by living for others, by making ourselves a sincere gift to others. The self, therefore, is not meant to close in on itself, selfishly pursuing its own interests and desires. Rather, the self is meant to be looking outward toward other people. As Ratzinger explains, “Man lives in relationships, and the ultimate goodness of his life depends on the rightness of his essential relationships — I mean father, mother, brother, sister, and so forth — the basic relationships that are inscribed in his being .”
Our relativistic world, however, teaches just the opposite. The self is viewed in an individualistic way, as an island, apart from its relationships with God, parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, and community. The self is simply a blank slate and each individual should choose to do whatever he wants with his life. We find ourselves not by giving ourselves to others and seeking their well-being, but by constantly pursuing our own interests.
This modern notion of the self is very inward-looking and has made our relationships suffer. The people in our lives tend to be valued only in a utilitarian way — only in so far as they are instrumental in helping me experience some benefit, advantage, enjoyment or pleasure. The well-being of my relationships is completely secondary to my own self-realization.
In this view, relationships of sustained commitment that involve unconditional, sacrificial love do not make much sense. Instead, our relationships become more self-serving and thus more unstable and tentative. We commit ourselves to our friends, family, and communities only to the extent that and for as long as we get something from them. A popular book from the 1970s expresses this modern view of the self well:
You can’t take everything with you when you leave on the mid-life journey. You are moving away. Away from institutional claims and other people’s agenda. . . . You are moving out of roles and into the self. If I could give everyone a gift for the send-off on this journey, it would be a tent. A tent for tentativeness. The gift of portable roots . . . For each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. The delights of self-discovery are always available. Though loved ones move in and out of our lives, the capacity to love remains .
This outlook has had a devastating impact on the way we relate to each other. When we view the people in our lives primarily as instruments to our own good feelings, fun times, or self-discovery, many today live without the security of long-term close relationships. Friendships constantly change. Dating relationships are fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. We live in greater isolation as no one truly knows who we are anymore. It is no wonder more and more people experience the pains of loneliness. The percentage of Americans who said they had no close personal friends (individuals with whom they could confide personal matters) increased dramatically from 10% in 1985 to almost 25% in 2004. Think about that: about one out of every four people in our country does not have a close personal friend, someone with whom they could share their lives.
Fr. Luigi Giussani, in his book The Religious Sense, describes how this instability has left people with a feeling of relational seasickness.
Uncertainty in relationships is one of the most terrible afflictions of our generation. It is difficult to become certain about relationships, even within the family. We live as if we were seasick, with such insecurity in the fabric of our relations that we no longer build what is human. We might construct skyscrapers, atomic bombs, the most subtle systems of philosophy, but we no longer build the human because it consists of relationships.
Nowhere is this instability felt more than in marriage and family life. Marriage is no longer about a communion of love in which husband and wife seek what is best for each other, help each other grow in holiness, and rally around serving any children that may come from their union. It is more about an opportunity for one’s own self-expression. As long you enjoy being with your spouse, experience helpful companionship, and feel better about yourself, remaining in the relationship makes sense. But if the marriage gets difficult and “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling” you can back out of the marriage and pursue something else that will be more interesting for you, regardless of how this might affect your spouse or children.
Similarly, parenting is all about laying down one’s life to serve the good of one’s children. However, when the modern world focuses not on relationships but on the self, many parents lose their sense of having a profound mission and become discouraged. Sleepless nights, dirty diapers, the constant demands of little children, and driving the older ones to their six-and-a-half weekly activities do not add up to a lot of fun and comfort for the self. If a parent focuses on himself — on what he gets out of parenting — he will be wiped out. This is why many people view children as something to be avoided at all costs, as something limiting their freedom. Others are tempted to run away from their responsibilities by spending hours and hours with their hobbies, careers, sports, the Internet, or social events instead of giving the best of themselves to their children. Children, therefore, often grow up without the security of both parents loving and serving them and are instilled with a haunting sense that many other things are more important to mom and dad than they are.
Relativism Justifies Our Selfishness
In the end, in our relativistic world, the focus is on the self. When we are constantly taught to do whatever makes you happy, to pursue your dreams, and live life to the fullest we turn inward and fail to consider how our choices might affect the people God has placed in our lives.
Remember, in relativism, there is no right or wrong. No one choice is better than another. All that matters is that one pursues his own desires. Whether someone remains committed to his friends or lets them down to pursue other opportunities doesn’t matter. Whether a mother gives herself to her children or focuses on other interests does not matter. Whether a man remains faithful in his marriage or abandons his wife does not matter. A relativistic outlook can help justify our self-centeredness and our failure in relationships.
But as Ratzinger has noted, something is tragically lost when the self is viewed in this isolated way. Our relationships suffer, and man himself suffers. “Man [today] is conceived in purely individualistic terms; he is only himself. The relation that is an essential part of him and that is what really first enables him to become himself is taken away from him .”
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (New York, Basic Books, 2007) p. 125.
Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1997) p. 22.
Sheehy, Gail, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1976) pp. 364, 513.
Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, p.167.