René Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book Violence and the Sacred, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Recently NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Girard at his home near the campus.
NPQ: When Pope Benedict XVI recently denounced what he saw as the “dictatorship of relativism,” especially in European culture, it caused great controversy. Is the Pope right that we live in such a dictatorship?
René Girard: Yes, he is right. This formula—the dictatorship of relativism—is excellent. It is going to establish a new discourse in the same way that John Paul II’s idea of recovering “a culture of life” from the “culture of death” has framed a whole set of issues, from abortion to stem cell research, capital punishment and war.
It makes sense that this formula comes from a man—(the former) Cardinal Ratzinger—whose specialty is dogma and theory.
This reign of relativism which is so striking today is due, in part, to the necessities of our time. Societies are so mixed, with such plurality of peoples. You have to keep a balance between various creeds. You must not take sides. Every belief is supposed to be accorded equal value. Inevitably, even if you are not a relativist, you must sound like one if not act like one.
As a result, we have more and more relativism. And we have more and more people who hate any kind of faith. This is especially the case in the university. And it hurts intellectual life. Because all truths are treated as equal, since there is said to be no objective Truth, you are forced to be banal and superficial. You cannot be truly committed to anything, to be “for” something—even if only for the time being.
Like Ratzinger, however, I believe in commitment. After all, we are both convinced by the idea that responsibility demands we must be committed to one position and follow it through. …]
NPQ: Just as there is clash within Islam between tradition and modernity, doesn’t Pope Benedict’s crusade against relativism also announce a clash within the West? But the issue in the West is not about accommodating faith with reason. It is about resisting a culture of materialism and disbelief by insisting on values, as the Pope has put it, beyond “egoism and desire.” Figuratively, the conflict is between the Pope and Madonna (the pop singer).
Girard: It is a culture war, yes. I agree. But it is not Ratzinger who has somehow changed and suddenly become reactionary and conservative. It is the secular culture that has drifted beyond the pale.
Remember, Ratzinger was a supporter of the Vatican II Council that reformed the Church in the 1960s. He opposed the idea that the Church should stand still in a modernizing world. For him, to be a Roman Catholic is to accept that the Church has something to learn from the world. At the same time, there is a Truth that doesn’t change the Gospel. Today, he is just reaffirming his position. He is just standing his ground.
Ratzinger is an intelligent conservative. He wants to avoid the fundamentalism of some Muslims and Christians—no change at all—but also avoid this idea that whatever is new is better than what is old. He wants to resist this dissolving of the Church in whichever direction the world goes. In this sense, I am pro-Ratzinger . . .