Relativism as Lebensgefühl: Untying the Knot Through Intellectual Conversion

Successfully engaging college students of introductory theology in a way that addresses their genuine religious questions, and especially those questions they may have judged already to be unanswerable, demands a novel approach in the classroom. If it is not so much content as it is persons that we are called to teach, then we must meet the students at the level of our times—and our time is an age of reflex relativism about fundamental human questions, including theological questions. The American secular context in which introductory theology must be taught summons practitioners of the craft to make the answering of these fundamental questions central to the aims of our classes, in addition to the task of introducing basic intellectual skills pertaining to our discipline. The alternative, as I recounted in my narration of the “salvation history” approach to teaching theology, is to inadvertently reinforce student presuppositions that introductory theology is nothing more than a sophisticated mythology class, albeit one focused on biblical mythopoetics. Relativism about fundamental questions, namely the questions at the heart of a liberal arts education and those which the discipline of theology explicitly seeks to answer, must be named, explored, and refuted if the study of theology is to become both intelligible and attractive.

Relativism as Lebensgefühl

To discern an effective approach to confronting these impediments to the study of theology, it is worthwhile to attend more closely to relativism as a Lebensgefühl or “life-feeling,” the what it is like of living with relativism about fundamental questions as a basic given.[1] Psychotherapist and theologian Paul J. LaChance has spoken of this experience as one of fundamental “self-doubt,” a flight from “self-presence.” Describing the ideals of education in the contemporary technocratic West, LaChance writes:

The focus on outcomes and consequences in all areas of modern living is consistent with our scientific culture and takes its cue from the way in which school children are taught to think about truth and objectivity in contrast to opinion and subjectivity. Beginning with the basic division between fact and opinion, students learn that being objective is good while being subjective is bad. Believing objective facts is a sign of intelligence, while placing too much faith in subjective opinion in not. Here is the first step in the orientation away from self-presence. Self-presence is subjective conscious experience. But such subjective experience has no currency in formal prescriptions for scientific, fact-based, objective thinking.[2]

The criterion for objectivity in the relativistic age is extroverted, meaning the focus on what is “out there” to be sensed. Given that “God,” “right and wrong,” “meaningful life,” “the divine inspiration of these Scriptures,” and such related phenomena are in no way “out there,” observable by the senses, the extroverted criterion swiftly slots all such phenomena into the “subjective” bucket. And, as LaChance notes,

Under the influence of this high cultural standard of objectivity, everyday common sense strives to imitate this extroverted mentality. Opinion, bias, and subjectivity all come to mean similar things. The standards for proof and legitimacy are conceived along the lines of the objective-subjective dichotomy. Children and adults all carry away the prize in any argument if they can successfully assert, “That’s just your opinion.”

My students’ ideal of knowing—extroverted sense perception—finds itself in conflict with their moral ideals: humility about the inherently biased nature of every subjective viewpoint.[3] So too would it be morally wrong, or inconsistent with their fundamental moral relativism, to declare that Hitler was evil in his aims and actions, despite the strong sense within students that they want to be able to declare this to be so. But there is the rub: such moral wanting is no more valid than Hitler’s own wanting. They are simply two subjective experiences, two opposed feelings, and because there is no intelligible nexus that the relativist can apprehend between such moral feelings and objectivity, the feelings remain counterpoised, suspended in mid-air as equally irrational expressions that speak not to the real order of things but instead only to self-interest and bias.

This double-bind—feeling inexorably drawn to pronounce moral judgments, judgments about meaningfulness, judgments about ultimate reality, but also finding oneself unable to do so, in a kind of perpetual frustration or “failure to launch”—is precisely the Lebensgefühl of relativism. LaChance concludes his diagnosis of this “philosophical wound” thus: “The thrust of formal educational practice is an orientation away from self-presence, and the cumulative impact is pervasive self-doubt”: self-doubt born of a reflexive historicist understanding of one’s own moral and intellectual judgments, self-doubt about matters most central to human living, self-doubt about the meaning one ascribes to human existence and to one’s life in particular. But such a state of perpetual self-doubt is unsustainable, for the psyche craves homeostasis and will not long tolerate the sense of being at odds with itself.[4]

This unstable position illuminates that most remarkable alchemical feat of the relativistic age: the transforming of the vice of self-doubt into the virtue of enlightenment. This experience of self-doubt is masked, hidden from the subject’s own psychic attention, by a pervasive moralism, such that the failure to make pronouncements on issues fundamental to human living in fact signals a great moral achievement, namely that of having transcended bias precisely by acknowledging intractable bias. What makes this an achievement is that to forsake the sense of being right, and all others wrong, is something past generations were apparently unable to do, and with disastrous results. Accordingly, those revanchists who still think of their ideas about God, or the good life, or any other fundamental question as objectively true are not only benighted but dangerous. As students remind me whenever I ask them why they believe religion is something never to be discussed in polite company, the threat of violent disagreement is always crouching at the door if we should broach topics of such existential depth or seriousness.

We cannot forget that this moral relativism is rarely any person’s initial Lebensgefühl. It is itself a developmental breakthrough to a purportedly higher viewpoint that has transcended the limitations of one’s former parochial and biased perspective. And indeed, the discovery of diversity along with an empirical understanding of cultures presents a serious intellectual challenge. For students in our cultural moment, encountering this challenge is an integral part of growing up—a point that Smith and Snell also highlight in Souls in Transition. That such an encounter leads to a default relativism is not surprising in the least. How could it not, if students lack philosophical foundations that would prevent it? And so for these young people, relativism is just identical with intellectual maturity. For many students in Catholic universities, who themselves grew up Catholic, such an understanding of intellectual maturity cannot but conflict with the religious convictions they were formed in (seriously or otherwise) in childhood. To simplify terms, if religious development does not keep pace with intellectual development, then likely the clock has begun ticking for the future irrelevance of religious belief for adult living. That one believed sincerely in childhood, in fact, can become a detriment for adult faith in such a context: just as faith in Santa was cast aside as one matured, so too will religious faith be shed in the maturation to the higher viewpoint of relativism.[5]

Given their relativist convictions, it was surprising to me to learn that many of my students had already, in their prior philosophy courses before taking theology, studied relativism. Most seemed to grasp that the position was incoherent in some fashion. So why were they still entrenched in their relativism? The issue is the Lebensgefühl, the felt way of being in the world, and not the philosophical positions, such as “relativism,” that are downstream from it. For students whose education has not habituated them to seeking truth for its own sake, logical consistency in one’s views can hardly be an ideal, for one can value logic as a means of achieving coherence only if one is operating in an intellectual mode of consciousness that pursues and delights in truth. Showing them relativism is logically incoherent is thus not adequate to effect a new horizon, one in which truth per se, and so questions of ultimate meaning, and so too religious traditions and their theologies, are considered worth studying. A person that can be rationally converted to x or y position is thus already converted in a most foundational sense: that of intellectual conversion. But to live in such a manner is to have long ago ceased operating in self-doubt and to be living in self-presence, for the site of the exercise of the logos is the subject and the subject’s conscious experience, not the extroversion of objectivity so-called.

A New Natural Theology: An Existential Anthropology

Is there a solution to this problem? Simply to out-narrate the secularity that our students bring to class with them, perhaps by historicizing them into the realization that they are nothing more than “moral therapeutic deists” (if they are believers at all), or immersing them in the beauty of the Catholic tradition in hopes that they will make an aesthetic judgment that a Catholic life is more interesting and fulfilling than what is on offer in the broader culture—these solutions are not radical enough. My sense is that such approaches, whatever their merits, stem at least in part from a lack of confidence in our ability to truly address the intellectual challenges to faith that our secular age has bequeathed to us. Many theologians today consider it impossible, for example, to rationally demonstrate the existence of a transcendent reality. And so one of the primary questions that students, religious or otherwise, bring with them to class—can we know objectively that God exists?—will not be discussed in a sustained fashion in their theology class. This is a missed opportunity of epic proportions. As my students report, most of them have never heard, either in their pre-collegiate Catholic theological education or in their college studies, that the Catholic Church teaches that one can know with certainty through human reason that God exists.[6]

In our relativistic age, in which many cannot grasp the reasonableness of belonging to any faith tradition at all, the theology classroom cannot bypass the most serious question of our secular moment, which is the question of theism and atheism/agnosticism. The centrality of this question hinges not only on its theological but also on its anthropological import, for the answer to the question of whether there is a transcendent reality is simultaneously the answer to a question about the nature of the human person. Are our longings for transcendence oriented towards anything real, or is man, with his religious yearnings, a “useless passion,” in the words of Sartre? The judgment a person makes about the question of God will thus be a judgment she makes about herself and the degree to which she should attend to her unavoidable religious longings, her feelings, and take their presence as a compass for discerning a path in life. Only if one has judged there to be some intelligible nexus between that restlessness of the human heart and a transcendent reality can it become intelligible why it is worth practicing any faith, much less studying one. Answering such questions about God, and about what constitutes the nature of the human person, is thus crucial for making mandatory theology classes legible in the Catholic university.

But unless the sources of the Lebensgefühl are dealt with, that is, unless self-doubt and the flight from self-presence is explicitly addressed, such traditional natural theology and even explorations of the logical failures of relativism will remain superficial, never touching the nerve center from which philosophical and theological commitments arise.[7] Fundamental theology today must therefore take the shape of an “existential anthropology” that makes the subject the starting point.[8] If the relativist believes, as Smith and Snell have pointed out, that she is trapped within her subjectivity,[9] then it is from subjectivity that we must begin to build a new natural theology. That is, our theological anthropology must be a study of the subject in her fundamental, ecstatic, ineradicable, and spontaneous orientation towards the transcendental values of truth, being, and the good, with the concomitant result of understanding at last in what objectivity consists.

“Genuine Objectivity is the Fruit of Authentic Subjectivity”

The treatment for pervasive self-doubt is a therapy of self-appropriation, the undergoing of a “personal philosophic experience.”[10] It is to become skilled in attending to one’s own self-presence and thereby to discover the immanent sources of and criteria for objectivity and truth.

Intellectual conversion is a radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity, and human knowledge. The myth is that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not there, and that the real is what is out there now to be looked at.[11]

If moral truths, or God’s existence, are not “out there” to be looked at or sensed, how does one come to know these things?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to this question comes as a result of careful, patient, and drawn-out exercises in attending to feelings. Now, for the relativist, to focus on feelings is puzzling or perverse, for it is conflicting feelings (and ideas) that lead relativists to relativize all claims to objectivity, insofar as they pit the subject’s feelings against the notions of rationality, objectivity, and extroversion. But, when understood in its phenomenological manifestation in the conscious subject, rationality is nothing other than the letting be of a fundamental and pervasive feeling of human living: the desire to know, human wonder. Attending with philosophic wonder to this desire makes the object of study the subject herself, in her conscious operations, as she witnesses in herself the unfolding of the dynamic feeling of wonder. In that unfolding lies the movement of self-transcendence, in which the subject moves beyond what merely appears to her to be to what is so in fact.[12] And in that self-transcendence lies the intelligible nexus between a central human feeling and objectivity: “Genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.”[13]

The data to which the student attends in this process is the data of consciousness, not the data of sense, for the unfolding of the desire to know in its discrete and ordered operations cannot be ascertained through sense perception but only through something akin to introspection. Simone Weil spoke of prayer as a work of attending; philosophy too is such a work, and in these efforts, students can come to affirm what is for many of them a quite remarkable discovery: that their consciousness is not a material and sensible reality, and that their conscious operations can nonetheless be known in a verifiable, objective manner. To study in oneself the unfolding of the desire to know in its dynamic self-assembling character is to understand that one reaches a judgment of truth about one’s own knowing not by seeing the sufficiency of evidence for that judgment (or the lack of such evidence) but my grasping it through intellectual insight. Recall again my students’ judgments that one cannot achieve objectivity in matters religious or moral because no one has seen God or seen that some action is “morally wrong.” There is something ineradicably spiritual, that is, intellectual, about understanding and objectivity, yet the spiritual character of both the judging and the one who makes such judgments remains obscure when the mythical understanding of objectivity dominates a culture. This is why intellectual conversion is an irreducibly personal achievement; unless one comes to know one’s own knowing, it will be difficult to be convinced that in any process of knowing it was intellectual grasp and not physical sensation that brought one to truth. But once the corner is turned, it is difficult to forget the “startling strangeness” of understanding one’s own spiritual character and the spiritual character of all knowing.[14] And once the judgment has been made that knowledge is possible concerning realities not subject to sense perception, then the door is open to asking whether other such realities might be known as objective despite not being sensible: realities such as the natural law, or the existence of God.

While what I am advocating here as philosophical therapy most certainly involves the “turn to the subject,” it is not first and foremost a question of epistemology, or of judging the adequacy of knowing to reality. It is instead something more basic: the personal attending to, the understanding, and the affirmation for oneself of what happens when the desire to know unfolds in a person. The philosophical results of studying this feeling produce a “cognitional theory,” and it is precisely this that forms the bedrock of the “existential anthropology” that, on my view, must form a new natural theology in a relativistic age. Without encountering the self as a craving for reality, objectivity, and goodness, and without seeing the emergence of all moral, philosophical, and religious views as themselves results of this spontaneous orientation of the conscious subject, plurality of opinion cannot help but produce the rotten fruit of relativism in the majority of students formed in a secular age. They may still cling to their religious convictions, but, in the most damaging of ways, they will remain secular nonetheless.[15] This is because they will instinctively judge and, more importantly, feel that subjectivity and objectivity are opposed to one another, and that to operate within one is to abandon the other. Yet intellectual conversion, and the attending to feelings by which it is effected in the conscious subject, explodes this false dichotomy. Only on the tree of the subject does the fruit of objectivity grow.[16] To have grasped this truth is to have moved existentially beyond the deadlock of the Lebensgefühl of relativism.[17]

[1] I have borrowed this German phrase, despite its different original connotation, and repurposed it here for the sake of avoiding cumbersome circumlocutions throughout the remainder of this essay. I prefer it to Weltanschauung because the latter lacks the focus on feeling that I think is central to the problem I identify in this essay.

[2] Italics mine. All further citations from LaChance are from this same source.

[3] As my friend John Steichen has put it, their conflict reveals a felt dissonance between an ideal of authenticity judged to lie in radical social inclusion and a still present commitment to the value of truth. Yet when these two conflict, it is likely truth that will be sacrificed.

[4] See Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts (1945) for a detailed psychogenetic account of how neurotic self-idealizations result as solutions to conflicts that cannot be attended to for long without psychic breakdown. Herbert Fingarette, Self-Deception (1969), carries forward a similar analysis, judging the human person’s ability to self-deceive as an attempt to lessen psychic disturbance produced by cognitive dissonance.

[5] See Lonergan’s comments on this problem in Understanding and Being (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), eds. Elizabeth Morelli and Mark Morelli (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 183-184.

[6] Dei Verbum I.6.

[7] This helps explain, as an aside, why traditional courses introducing philosophy, whether historical or topical in approach, likely simply entrench the relativism with which students enter the classroom. A detailed study of historical disagreement, when undertaken by students who believe that disagreement itself is evidence that there is no objectivity possible on a matter, can only further confirm that basic pre-theoretical conviction. As Mark. D. Morelli writes, “The great majority of contemporary introductions to Philosophy take what can be called the ‘argumentative approach.’ They introduce their readers to arguments that are ongoing and have been going on for quite some time. They are introductions to the state of those arguments, to this or that problem posed by someone, and to this or that response offered by someone else. They give the distinct impression that Philosophy is just a series of arguments, that the arguing is endless, and that nothing is ever resolved or settled. . . . [This approach] tends to transform the concrete, passionate pursuit of self-knowledge and self-possession into a fruitless and frustrating tour of conflicting hypotheses that leaves the student confused, numb, disaffected, and alienated from Philosophy.” Mark D. Morelli, Self-Possession: Being at Home in Conscious Performance (Los Angeles: Encanto Editions, 2019), 311, 314.

[8] See Bernard Lonergan, “The Scope of Renewal,” in Philosophical and Theological Papers: 1965-1980, 282-300.

[9] “They seem to presuppose that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument.” Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 45.

[10] Ibid., 68.

[11] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), eds. Robert Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 223, emphasis mine.

[12] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 99-101.

[13] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 273.

[14] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), eds. Frederick Crowe and Robert Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 22.

[15] Cf. Smith and Snell’s report (Souls in Transition, p. 52) of the following religious young woman: “In the middle of explaining that for religious reasons she does not believe in cohabitation before marriage, a young evangelical woman, who is devoted to gospel missionary work overseas, interrupted herself with this observation: ‘I don't know. I think everyone is different so. I know it wouldn't work for me, but it could work for someone else.’”

[16] Bernard Lonergan, “The Subject,” (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), in A Second Collection, eds. Robert M. Doran and John D. Dadosky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 63.

[17] This essay is not the place to reproduce the philosophical therapy by which this escape from relativism is made. For a course in such a therapy—which I use in my own classroom—see Terry J. Tekippe’s book, What Is Lonergan Up To in “Insight”? A Primer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996). For a more sophisticated course, which presumes some familiarity with the Western philosophical tradition, see Brian Cronin, Phenomenology of Human Understanding (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017). Further along this trajectory, but requiring more of the reader, is Mark D. Morelli’s Self-Possession: Being at Home in Conscious Performance.

Featured Image: Jacek Malczewski, Two Heads of Elderly Men, 1901; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto De La Noval is assistant professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD. A systematic theologian and scholar of Russian religious thought, his publications include a translation of Sergius Bulgakov: Spiritual Diary and other translations and essays in academic and popular journals.

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