(A talk given at the Honan Chapel, University College Cork, at a seminar to mark the opening of the Institute for Japanese Studies, September 12, 2011.)
‘The tyranny of relativism,’ a phrase given currency by the Vatican in recent years, strikes a bell immediately with all who are disturbed by the many forms of relativism sweeping contemporary culture. The most troubling of these for most people is moral relativism, the replacement of clear moral rules by a subtle calculus of results, feelings, or intangible values such as authenticity, sincerity, fulfilment. Close on its heels comes religious relativism, the pervasive sense that all religions are more or less equally valid spiritual paths. Doctrinal relativism is closely linked to this and holds that dogmatic language has no objective content – certainly not one that remains invariant over time – but merely gives expression to religious intuitions. Cultural and historical relativism are the philosophical background of these theological outlooks. All truths and meanings are constructed within a particular cultural and historical horizon and must undergo huge change when transferred from one horizon to another. Interpretation thus becomes a very free art, and its slipperiness is exposed in the most radical way in Foucault’s poststructuralism and Derrida’s deconstruction. The self-refuting movement of philosophical relativism holds that no truth can be stated at all, even the truth that no truth can be stated. All of these movements are laced with a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that in the wake of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud queries the genealogy of religious traditions as human inventions whose real motive and function has to be brought to light. Relativism goes hand in hand with secularism and with a naturalist view of religions as ideologies jostling for a place in the market of cultural products.
However, these movements of thought that converge to produce a tsunami of relativism are not merely an evil doom. They reflect a growth of awareness. Moral relativism, for example, can be seen as reflecting a shift in the anthropological paradigm, the emergence of a subtler understanding of the values involved in sexuality and marriage, birth and death. The human sciences and the ongoing practice of discussion and consultation that is characteristic of a democratic culture have produced an awareness that cannot be done justice to by a stonewalling defence of older positions. But an aprioristic construction of a new paradigm – in the fields of psychology, philosophy, law – needs to be supplemented by cross-cultural study. The late William Lafleur, in Liquid Life, studied traditional Japanese attitudes to miscarriage, abortion and infanticide (sending the baby, regretfully, back to the gods), showing how these human realities can be situated within a moral and spiritual horizon far from that of the Christian West. The study could be extended to suicide (see Maurice Pinguet, La mort volontaire au Japon) and euthanasia. Here the relativization of a paradigm proceeds not by abstract argument but in dialogue with those who live or lived by other paradigms.
Religious pluralism is often discussed in abstract terms in the discipline known as ‘theology of religions.’ Japan is a good country for grasping this pluralism in a more concrete way. The Japanese can enter into the spirit of different religions – celebrating Christmas or marriage in Christian style, visiting a Shinto shrine in the New Year, arranging funerals with a Buddhist temple, professing atheism outside these religious contexts – in a palette or smoragsbord of religious investments that has no dogmatic framework and is not looking for one. Religions become practical devices, for elevating the occasions of life or for increasing communal or individual energy. Interreligious dialogue does not flourish in such a regime, since the concern with establishing truth is so secondary.
The Buddhist sense of the fragility and impermanence of all existents, so appropriate to a country where high seismic activity reminds people that even the ground under their feet offers no solid substantial basis, provides deep philosophical underpinnings for this light approach to religious ideas and practices. In Buddhism these ideas and practices are skilful means for communication and for orientation on the path to ultimate liberation. Buddhism itself is only a raft for carrying one to the other shore. Strong and effective in that function it must be set aside when it has fulfilled its purpose. If Buddhism weans its adherents away from attachment to delusive objects of clinging such as an alleged substantial self, it also teaches them detachment from the doctrines and practices of religion itself. This produces a pervasive conventionalism. A flexible play of conventions is the most appropriate way of articulating religious wisdom. Japanese culture as a whole treasures and cultivates conventions as the precious cement of peaceful and civilized living. No doubt this can be intellectually stifling, in contrast to the relentless trust in logic and dialectic whereby western philosophy and science forge their way to a firm and systematic grasp of truth. A philosopher like Nishida, who feels his way to a sense of how things are, by a kind of osmosis, in impressionistic dialogue with western and Buddhist sources, with very little in the way of sustained rational argument, is a characteristic product of such an intellectual environment.
Zen dialogues enact the relativizing impact of Buddhist dialectic, according to which ultimate reality neither is, nor is not, not both is and is not, nor neither is nor is not. The all-undercutting tetralemma perhaps provides a logical warrant for dialogues such as the following:
A monk asked Ch’ang Sha: ‘What kind of thing is my mind?’
Ch’ang Sha: ‘The whole universe is your mind.’
The monk: ‘If it is so, I would have no place to put myself in.’
Ch’ang Sha: ‘Quite the contrary: this precisely is the place for you to put yourself in.’
The monk: ‘What, then, is the place for me to put myself in?’
Ch’ang Sha: ‘A boundless ocean! The water is deep, unfathomably deep!’
The monk: ‘That is beyond my comprehension.’
Ch’ang Sha : ‘See the huge fishes and tiny fishes, swimming up and down as they like!’
Zen dialogues constantly undercut one’s presuppositions, altering the framework of judgement from line to line. The effect might be compared with a clever detective novel, in which the focus of suspicion shifts from chapter to chapter, or with the Iranian film, A Separation, which shows the relativity of perceptions and judgements conditioned by psychology, prejudices, class tensions, conflicting codes. It does not take a broad experience of historical and cultural pluralism to realize that relativism is part of the texture of everyday human experience. To fixate on an arrested view of things is a formula for blindness and intolerance. The Japanese have a good sense of this relativity and conventionality of moral judgements. Their avoidance of unnecessary conflict is not merely due to a cult of harmony or to political spinelessness but to a sense that issues of dispute have no objective and unalterable nature but are conditioned on a particular situation or relationship, which is constantly changing.
The Catholic sex abuse scandal has generated many forms of discourse tending to exclude rational analysis or debate, but wiser heads have proposed approaches that relativize the slogans which have often substituted for patient reflection. Cloyne theologian Pat Hannon urges the adoption of Richard McCormick SJ’s nine rules for debate that can unblock a polarized situation such as the abortion controversy in which both sides believe that the case is closed and that there is no room for discussion: ‘he calls on protagonists to attempt to identify areas of agreement, to represent the opposing position accurately and fairly, and to try to identify the core issues at stake’ (‘Child Sexual Abuse: Rules for the Debate;’ in E. McDonagh and V. McNamara, ed. An Irish Reader in Moral Theology,: Columba, 2010, 2:358-64; p. 360). Recognition of the historical, cultural and situational relativity of any position one takes up can further free up the space for rational debate. As Marie Keenan notes: ‘Many of the words used in relation to this problem’s definition, such as sexual abuse, victim, survivor, paedophile, molester, pervert, sexual deviant are rooted in the attitudes of a particular time and each carries its ideological baggage… Different eras have produced different perspectives on child sexual abuse and in each era the prevailing opinion is supported by professional discourses that present what is described as convincing “objective” “empirical” research that is said to represent more advanced thinking than what went before… Each formulation is presented as progressive, claiming that the contemporary beliefs are “true” whereas the previous ones were not’ (‘“Them and Us”: The Clergy Child Sexual Offender as “Other,”’ ib., 381-407; p. 382). The expectation that this historical relativism will be progressively erased and a fully objective picture of such matters firmly established is a lure of rationalism, the kind of rationalism presiding over the DSM classification systems for psychiatric disorders, which can ‘serve as instruments of objectification, measurement and economic gain’ (ib., 386) but which never rejoin the particularity of individual histories. Even within the hard sciences such as mathematics there is ample room for relativism and conventionalism as Henri Poincaré showed long ago. How much more is this the case in the human sciences, where the countless richly textured traditions of interpretation and assessment can never be reduced to a single all-purpose model.
What does exposure to Japanese culture add to the sophisticated complexity of psychological and moral vision that one can derive from modern literature – from Flaubert, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Proust, James or Joyce? I think that the chief merit of Japan is negative – the breaking of the frames of reference that preside in the West even in modern secularized literature and philosophy, namely the references to philosophy since Plato and to biblical and Christian tradition. Though these western sources have become very influential in Japan too over the last two centuries, it is still possible to reconstitute and connect with a Japanese culture shaped only by native literary and folk traditions and Shinto along with the Sinitic imports, Buddhism and Confucianism. Lafcadio Hearn, who flourished in the USA as a Zolaesque journalist, changed his skin during his last fourteen years, spent in Japan. Set up with a wife, servants and a teaching position, and bearing the new name of Koizumi Yakumo, he rediscovered in Japan the Greek gods of his childhood and ‘lost his identity,’ by his own account. Already thoroughly relativized by his Irish-English-Greek-American background, he was well positioned to become the iconic expatriate Japanophile, the one most warmly embraced in Japanese culture itself, where he is a household name. Hearn had no philosophy and would have made nothing of Nishida. His encounter with Japan took place on a more primordial basis, with the heart, the imagination and the senses. Japan offered not just another way of thinking but another way of feeling and being, a sense-surround environment that altered the body’s way of being in the world and being together with others.
Neither Japan nor Ireland can any longer maintain the illusion of being an homogeneous monocultural insular society. Multiculturalism pervades daily life in the present and is also exhumed in the past through a recovery of the multiple strands going to make up our languages, traditions and histories. Relativism is the philosophy that enables us to thrive on this situation, constantly moving further away from the initial absolutist self-definitions as Irish or Japanese, Catholic or Buddhist toward the constantly changing and expanding space of intercultural dialogue. To find one’s moral or ideological bearings in this space it is not enough to cling to one’s initial convictions. Rather the mutual enrichment of complementary perspectives allows richer and more nuanced convictions to form and grow. Japan’s long interest in Ireland, dating back to Hearn and to the first translations of Yeats as early as 1896, is now at last being matched by an Irish fascination with Japan, and understanding between the two radically different cultural and religious universes is growing apace. This is an education in living with relativity and pluralism and the crucible in which a more broadly human and deeply grounded moral and spiritual vision is being forged.