Between Relativizing and Dogmatizing: A Plea for An Open Concept of Tradition

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1995 »Between Relativizing And Dogmatizing A Plea For An Open Concept Of Tradition

Lieven Boeve

After seven years of drudgery in a foreign land and before he headed for home, Hans received a lump of gold as big as his head for his wages.  Along his way, he met a knight and because he found the lump too heavy, he exchanged it for the horse.  He still was not satisfied and exchanged the horse for a cow, and later for a pig, afterwards for a fat goose, and finally he exchanged the goose for a grindstone and a white pebble.  When Hans, fatigued by the journey, bended over a well to drink, both stones fell into the well.  Content that he was also relieved of those burdens, he trod on with a light heart and freed from all cares and worries and arrived home.

Has not the Christian faith fared likewise?  Were not the numerous re-appropriations of the content of faith, under the pressure of modernity, continuing processes of relativizing, so much so that in the end instead of valuable gold what remains is a pebble which can easily be thrown away?  Do we not live now with that painful awareness that a great deal of valuable tradition has been lost -- just as Hans' contentment will be altered into discontentment, once he discovers what he ‘squandered away?  Such considerations with the present crisis of modern thought -the 'master stories' losing their credibility -- are more than ever becoming actual, surely now at the end of modernity where nothing seems to have authority or value anymore, where everything has become relative.


A first relativizing arose in the nineteenth century with the modernizing of the Christian faith.  Under the pressure of modern rationality and criticism of religion, Christianity re-interpreted itself so much so that the results of this modern thought were reconciled with it.  Moreover, the whole of modernity was understood as the logical consequence of the secularizing dimension that was characteristic of the Christian faith.  Secularization theologians emphasized that the world was entrusted to humans by the Creator during creation.  What sociologists called 'secularization' and 'functional differentiation' was theologically recuperated: the world became the domain of human responsibility and rationality.  Even the results of religion criticism were theologically received.  Thus were 'progressive' theologians relentless over those elements in the bible and tradition that went against the natural sciences or gave it a different meaning, and they criticized just as stubbornly those elements within religion that were responsibly reckoned before Kant's indictment of 'selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit' (the theory of 'self-incurred tutelage').  Likewise when modern thought itself was able to see through its own dialectic, theology followed suit. Neo-marxist authors from the Frankfurt School functioned alongside Christian tradition as a second source.

Theologians followed the modern master stories to which the content of faith conformed: the liberal theologians did so in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth -- until after the Second Vatican Council for the Catholics -- when scientific positivism and modern freedom of thought reigned ideologically supreme; the same intention was carried out by the political theologians and liberation theologians in the heyday of the (neo-) marxist critique at the end of the sixties.  At each stage, the content and formulation of the faith followed suit.  Tradition became synonymous, negatively, to a solidified past, and, positively, to continual adaptation.

This first phase of relativizing went wrong when the modern master stories of rationality and emancipation lost their credibility.  That put an end to the attempt to control functional differentiation -- i.e., the disintegration of the lifeworld into subsystems, each with its own rationality -- by the formulation of a unifying story.  There is no more overarching rationality which integrates and legitimates all partial rationalities.

Due to this, a pluralization of reality concurrently came into stride.  While earlier, the master story steered the listeners through the field of choices -- pillarization is the most telling example thereof -- this is now confronted with a broad range of possibilities, without a steady guide.  This freedom of choice is at the same time an obligatory choice.  The contemporary person feels compelled to construe an identity from the broad range of offers in the market.  This presupposes an increased individual reflexivity: time and again, the individual is faced with the question: 'Who am I and who do I want to be?'.  Philosophers of culture like Wolfgang Welsch  pleaded for dealing creatively with plurality.  The human person, having arrived at postmodernity, does not need to grieve over the lost unifying story but is able to joyfully see enlarged opportunities for freedom and humanity in the multitude of rationality types, act and life patterns, orientation frames, horizons of meaning, social outlooks, language games, value scales and world views.  Others, like Jean Baudrillard, discard pluralizing as ever more of the same: differentiation turns into indifference, into absolute relativism. In view of the overwhelming multiplicity, only a sceptical position can survive.

Through the imputation of the master stories, including the Christian stories affiliated thereto, and through the pluralizing of the lifeworld, a second phase of 'relativizing hits the Christian faith and this happens in a two-fold manner.  First of all, the Christian religion loses its overarching role.  It becomes a product alongside other products in the religious segment of the market out of which free consumption is allowed.  The creative individual can choose out of a pre-sliced and variegated ideological menu.  Many 'New Age' followers seem to belong to this category of supermarket-believers.  To their hearts' content, they mix eastern meditation techniques with Christian faith symbols, incorporate ancient Celtic rituals into the sacraments, read the Hindu Bhagavadgita beside Christian classics. But secondly, Christians look at their Christian faith itself from a market perspective.  Certain elements from dogma and praxis are being consciously chosen or dismissed.  Christians begin to believe '‡ la carte', but thereby consider themselves no less Christian.  They answer with full consciousness -- thanks to the increased individual reflexivity they have attained -- the question: 'Who am I as a (postmodern) Christian?'.  In this perspective, tradition seems to be reduced to a rich supply of available religious products.

Pluralizing which leads to scepticism is, on a religious level, complemented with a deep indifference.  The relativizing of religion results in a relativizing of religiosity as such.  It is not that people are not able any longer or do not want to answer the questions; the questions themselves are not being asked anymore.


Christians who make use of the term `relativizing' in order to describe the re-appropriation of the Christian faith into modernity and postmodernity usually belong to those who are convinced that modern and postmodern theologians betray the cause of Christianity.  Both phases of relativizing soon meet up with apologetic opposition from believers as well as from ecclesiastical institutions.  As a strategy against this double relativizing of the Christian faith, they seek their salvation in what their opponents -- the progressives -- characterize as the dogmatizing of one's own story and the demonization of whatever attempts to do damage to it.

'Conservative' theologians go on to defend massively and undifferentiatedly the traditional faith content and formulation against modern onslaughts.  Adaptation and change, as far as they are concerned, inevitably lead to damage and loss.  Theology has nothing to gain with the dialogue with modernity, on the contrary.  Religion criticism is megalomania, the autonomy of the world a guilty dismissal of dependent relationship with God wherein humans and the world find their place.  In view of the fact that the modern view of humans and the world allows no place for God, these theologians find it incumbent upon themselves to reject it straightaway.  Confronted with the modern master stories, they formulate a contrast master story in which the traditional frameworks, formulations and contents are stubbornly held onto.

History, according to them, has proved them right.  The modern appropriations were but only bubbles.  They hail the crisis of modernity as their victory:  the first relativizing apparently was an inglorious mistake.  The second, in their evaluation, is no less dangerous.  Even the negative freedom of postmodernity -- having to choose for want of a pre-given story -- does not bring liberation.  Apparently, people cannot or do not want to summon that reflexivity that is required for the choice-making.  Philosophers of culture of a different persuasion than Welsch judge our time with its plea for creativity, pluralism and unlimited freedom of choice not as an opportunity for heightened humanity but as a deterioration into subjectivism, individualism, aestheticism, superficiality, arbitrariness, scepticism. If such a position is generalized and maintained, then, they are convinced, that neither the individual nor the society has any chance for survival.

The Christian answer to the catastrophic situation that modernity left in its trail lies in the hands of those of a conservative mind in the undiminished adherence to one's own master story against all relativizing and pluralizing.  The Christian tradition narrates in its inherited form the true story about God, humans and the world, and this for all peoples of the past, present and future.  This truth is inviolable, not matter-of-factly made readily available to humanity, but is revealed, entrusted in the bible and in tradition.  That such a truth-story in a time of general relativizing finds no point of departure is a consequence of its therapeutic nature.  It offers insight into what actual freedom is.  Real freedom is connected to revealed truth, as delivered by the church.  Only those who turn their backs to the world and entrust themselves to this faith find their true selves.  The church sees to it that the pre-given truth of salvation makes it through the crisis of modernity undamaged.  The result is a steadfast, obdurate dogmatizing of the historical form of an antimodern Christian master story.

And apparently, there is room for such an approach.  To be able to avail of an institutionally anchored sense of security attracts many.  Conservative minded to fundamentalist religious movements exert a discernible attraction to both young and old.


In such manner did the Christian story become a plural given. Antimodern, modern and postmodern theologians re-appropriated, calling upon the same basis, the Christian story.  Which story has a future? Who is right?  The one who continually adapts one's own story to the changing context, at the risk of throwing away one's own identity?  Or the one who stubbornly keeps on narrating the historically delivered story, free from any context -- or better, against any context whatsoever?

The conservative minded surely are right when they point to the dangers of an adaptation of the Christian story to the context that is not seriously thought through.  Even their relativizing of an absolutized autonomy of the subject and of the modern projects of history, and their critique of postmodern negative freedom do not seem to be unjust. But then again, progressive Christians correctly indicate that the core of the Christian story is not available in itself and can only be expressed contextually: starting points need to be sought in our contemporary context in order to convey the liberating message to our times.  Hence their doubts on the life chances of a contorted self-enclosing in a bygone historical form of the Christian story are justified.

Both positions, relativizing and dogmatizing, form the extremes of a continuum.  However, in a time of crisis the middle field usually disappears through polarization.  Each one is pushed into a camp; the one reproaches the other for betraying the good truth.  To stroll along the middle way becomes close to impossible.

Our so called postmodern age confronts us at the same time with cultural relativism and flagrant ethnocentrism.  Pleas for a multi-cultural society are interchanged with strong protests for the protection of one's cultural particularity. It is no different in theology.  But in the end, both positions suffer from the same infirmities. Both remain narrating a master story; both are convinced of being in possession of the story, of having the truth at their disposal.

By seeking affiliation with the modern master stories, theologians often sought to share in the unassailability of modern (scientific) rationality and in so doing save the credibility of the Christian faith: what did not conform had to be disposed of.  The postmodern Christian, who creatively composes his or her ideological menu, radicalizes the modern position: from what the market has to offer, s/he freely chooses one's own religious identity.  Meanwhile, it is in this manner that the master story of the market and consumerism apparently survives the fall of the modern master stories.  The antimodern Christian who sees all security disappear holds steadfastly onto a well-determined form of the Christian story and considers this as the definitive articulation of the truth.  Both narrate the story of the truth.  The one puts the criterion of truth outside itself into a different story, the other puts it exclusively in itself.  But they are nonetheless of the opinion that they have the truth at their disposal.

It is precisely on this last point that critical postmodern philosophers, like Jean-Franois Lyotard, and theologians who emphasize the hermeneutic character of religion, meet.  Out of the critical consciousness that is proper to philosophy and theology, they act counter to every attempt to write a hegemonic truth story.

In their critique of the master stories, whether they be of antimodern, modern or postmodern character, these philosophers resolutely discard every identification of the truth with a particular story.  Having become conscious of the finitude, the particularity and the contingency of existence, no one can claim to have possession of the truth.  Speaking about the truth takes place, in each case, within a certain language, a specific vocabulary, certain turns of phrase and always within a well-determined context.  Hence, no one can be in a position to express the truth as such.  Moreover, the truth as indeterminability remains present in the background as a critical factor with each attempt at articulation. In such manner is each determination of the truth fundamentally questioned.  Nevertheless, language ever more particular is the only way with which to speak about the truth, the only way in order to evoke whatever truth may be, to give witness thereto.

People are not in possession of the truth, they remain therein by constantly holding on to the tension between articulation and the inarticulate.  In such manner does the truth arise: if it stands in right relation to the truth.  Lyotard sees the fundamental questioning of each articulation in the 'event'.  Herewith, he indicates the `timeless instance of time' in sensing the full richness of the truth that humans want to express with a word, a phrase, a story, without ever succeeding.  The event is the sensing of the unutterable word, the non-expressible phrase, the inconceivable thought.  This sensing problematizes, on the one hand, each and every spoken word but impels, on the other, toward testimony.  After/through the event, one can not not-speak, even if what remains perhaps is wordless speaking.

The truth is not available in its fullness.  In speech, it rather appears as an empty place which may never be filled up and to which one can only be dumbfounded.  Lyotard thus argues for a philosophy that finds its starting point with the openness of the event, a philosophy that takes distance from every hegemonic thought.  Only in so doing does philosophy become a testimony, a reference to that which does not lend itself for expression in words.

This radical hermeneutic position is very much recognizable to those mindful of the `deus semper major'.  In this, the truth about God becomes acute with the notion that we will never get around to comprehend it, let alone have it at our disposal.  In speech we refer to God but we do not lay hold on God.  This religious insight thoroughly relativizes every pretension of this speech.  At the same time, it actually points to its seriousness.  After all, only via our ever particular language are we able to make reference.

The religious consciousness has its starting point in the experience of standing in a pre-given relation with God.  The phenomena -- what appears to us -- speak of this God but do not converge with God.  They reveal and conceal at the same time.  God lets Godself be known only through phenomena, but God's divinity can never be exhaustively shown.  This tension hinders every immediate knowledge of God and makes hermeneutics necessary: the religious word is an interpretation of the phenomenon.  In so far the religious word actually also understands itself as phenomenon and thus carries within itself the consciousness that belongs to its own condition for existence, namely the fundamental non-identity of the phenomena and the divinity of God, it forms the start of a never ending interpretation process.  Interpretation demands interpretation -- precisely because of non-identity. From the outset, the religious consciousness is -- by way of the recognition of the fundamental ambiguity of the phenomena -- a critical consciousness:  the phenomena are unmistakably the way to God -- and thus not to be belittled -- but they are not to be identified with God.

Neither complete relativizing, nor stubborn dogmatizing leave room for such a critical-hermeneutic consciousness.  They fall into the temptation of formulating a master story that pretends to have the truth at its disposal.  Only a story that even in a postmodern context succeeds in giving expression to the religious critical-hermeneutic consciousness can be an authentic Christian story. Such a story will not be a master story, but a story that stands open to what is greater, to that which it simply cannot express.


For the religious consciousness tradition is no independent entity; it is not the truth itself but an ever contextually anchored expression of the relationship of the believer to God who is truth.  Tradition is the expression of the relationship between the word and the Word.  To stand in this tension prevents slipping into a hegemonic truth story.

One then also best understands tradition as a constant interpretation-process whereby every articulation is always ultimately put under critique by the sensing of the  Inexpressible.  Each word is a word too few and a word too many.  That which is called event in Lyotard's vocabulary, can be named grace in an open Christian story.  In the grace-experience, God reveals Godself as inexhaustible Love, to which every human expression in word and deed necessarily does harm.  Only words and deeds which point beyond themselves and permanently remain open to that which is ever greater, succeed in referring to God -- not in describing God.  To discover the tradition as a process of word and grace (Word) implies acknowledging that it is never finished, and realizing that what has been handed over stands continually in the tension between the expressing word and the Inexpressible.

Tradition, in the way it has reached us primarily in the form of texts and stories, is not identical with God, but is indeed the way to God.  This means that in reading the traditional texts, not the word itself but the relationship of the word to the Word accompanies the reading matter as question.  From this perspective, tradition is recognized as an on-going recontextualization process of this relationship.  Time and again believers have sought for clues in one's personal, historically developing and changing context in order to give form in word and deed to the experience of grace as inexhaustible divine gift of love.  Christians believed and believe that this relationship is definitively revealed in Jesus Christ.  His person, word and life form the excellent testimony.  God's love has been definitively made evident with Jesus' resurrection from the dead, an event indicated in originally Jewish terminology. Fourth century Christians articulated this by explaining that Jesus Christ is -- simultaneously but unmixed -- both God and man: God's overflowing love reveals itself in a particular life story, but it does not simply converge with this story. Jesus Christ is the definitive hermeneutic of God, but -- being God himself -- can only be approached hermeneutically.  Jesus Christ is the relationship between word and Word in person.  In Jesus Christ the believer understands that he or she stands in relation to God's inexhaustible power of love.

Each age sought again and again for words, sentences and stories to give expression to this.  As a witness to this, we have among others the incorporation of Aristotle's philosophy by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Recontextualization imposed itself in the thirteenth century because the intellectual climate in the recently founded universities was increasingly being determined by Aristotelianism.  The old Platonic form of theology seemed no longer able to reproduce in a contextually understandable way the articulation of that which concerned matters of faith.  The theology which resulted from this recontextualization actually differed substantially from the theology which merely continued the Augustinian tradition -- the tensions with the theology of Bonaventure which, apart from a few terminological loan words, did not wish to incorporate Aristotelianism into theology, were irreducible.  The difference was even so fundamental that ecclesiastical authorities at first did not want to (or could not) accept this theologizing.

The fact that standing in the tension between word and Word did not seldom cause conflicts flows from the critical consciousness that is accompanied by it.  When the Christian story neglects its openness and basks in its found truth, grace breaks this story open.  The life story of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and the founding of the mendicant orders saliently illustrate this.  In a time when Christianity lodged itself in feudal structures, Francis broke away from the existence of the Christian plutocracy to which his family and society were preparing him, in order to experience -- in a new manner within a changed context, i.e., the rise of the large urban centres with an ever thriving merchant class -- the radicalism of the relation with Love in which he found himself situated.  The enthusiasm and the following that his example evoked were an indication also for the established church, after some opposition, of the legitimacy of this recontextualization.

Similar to this was the enthusiasm that Pope John XXIII caused with his announcement of and with his opening message to the Second Vatican Council.  His call for aggiornamento was no less than a plea for the implementation of a recontextualization which had too long been postponed.

This brings us back to the various positions of Christians, theologians and churches with regard to modernity (and postmodernity).  Considering that tradition is an on-going articulation process of the relationship with God, and it is exactly that standing in relationship to God which is strongly questioned with modernity, it soon turned out that recontextualization was a problematic affair. Where did one actually find sound starting-points for the re-telling of the Christian story?

We sketched two ways with strongly different accents: a modernizing way which held onto the core ideas that only via the context, the truth claims of Christianity could be safeguarded, and a conservative minded way which because of the methodical godlessness of modernity had fundamental objections against every form of dialogue.  Because these ways actually forgot that truth is more a matter of remaining in the truth rather than a matter of content, what remained after both cases was but a degenerated Christian story without an openness to the event of grace.  No justice was done to tradition as a process of word and Word.

One only goes beyond relativizing and dogmatizing when one realizes that an authentic Christian story itself, because of itself, necessarily relativizes; not because the truth is to be found in another story, but because it understands itself as relationship to the truth -- and precisely this being-in-relationship, to which the Christ-event ultimately refers, can or may never be given up.  Only in this way does the story unfold itself by the good grace of the context, but it is never swallowed up in it.  Recontextualization now in a postmodern context can only succeed if this is not forgotten. Postmodern Christians, on the one hand, guard against treating the tradition handed down to us as pure consumer-goods because it is a lasting testimony of the relationship with the truth, not an instrument in constructing one's own truth.  On the other hand, present-day Christians do not fall into a forced holding onto of a pre-modern form of recontextualization, as if this would be the definitive establishment of divine truth.

Postmodern theologians have a double, mutually interrelated task of recontextualization.  Firstly, they have to seek in our present context elements that will allow for a more contextually understandable expression of that standing in relationship with God.  In particular, philosophers who in one way or another take up in their thought a discussion on difference or alterity qualify for this.  Secondly, theologians must read in a recontextualizing way the texts and stories that have been handed down to us. In making use of contextually acquired elements, they can make it evident that the Christian story is really an open story  Only by taking to heart these two tasks, will theologians remain standing within the Christian tradition understood as heritage and interpretation process.

Perhaps Happy Hans did not entirely become so unhappy if one would indeed think of one who consciously squandered a large amount of gold.  During a long journey a massive piece of gold, however valuable it may seem, is actually a burden.  Thus can tradition, understood as a massive whole of contents, be more of a burden than a blessing for Christians -- the Christian's journey is after all never finished.  An open concept of tradition lends itself for comparison not with an inert lump of gold but rather perhaps with a compass that, wherever one may be in the world, always points north and thus helps one in going the right direction.