Nervous about the new Pope

I am surprised by the amount of attention bloggers are paying to the election of the new Pope. The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) clearly makes people nervous.

Cardinal Ratzinger is an outspoken proponent of moral absolutes, as defined by his Church. The evidence is unambiguous. For example: (1) Under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its mandate is to enforce official doctrine. (2) Cardinal Ratzinger is notorious for a statement in which he pronounced all faiths other than Roman Catholicism “defective”. (3) The first official statement of the new papacy was a denunciation of Spain’s political leaders for legalizing gay marriage.

Even apart from Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s personal convictions, the office of Pope is absolutist. One man ultimately determines the theological position of the global institution. When a Pope speaks ex cathedra (from Peter’s chair) he is considered infallible. In such a system, there is limited acceptance for dialogue or consensus, never mind dissent.

Rick Salutin, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, recently took issue with the absolutist worldview. Salutin asked, “What’s so scary about relativism?”* In brief, he argued:

Relativism defined:
“The point of ‘relativists’ is not that everything thought by anybody is true, but that any view might hold some truth and no one vision can contain it all….This is sometimes called perspectivism, the notion that every view of reality emerges from a particular standpoint, so each of us has only a partial grasp of ‘the’ truth.”

Relativism’s method illustrated:
“Where knowing works best, in science, it is always tentative, gradual and rejoices in overturning what it once knew.”

An admonition to rethink thought itself:
“As Nietzsche said, ‘Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for knowledge.’ He meant our minds. What are they designed for? Wondering. Pondering. Asking….

“I don’t think it’s easy for Catholics or anyone else to retool their thought processes away from a focus on absolute truth. It means radically rethinking thought itself, from a quest to know, into a process less about truth than about exploring the world and the human condition thoughtfully and, to some extent, for its own sake.”

I find the Salutin column instructive, which is why I offer the above excerpts. I would like to supplement it with an analysis of my own.

I believe that every system has both strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, I believe that each system’s greatest strength is the flip side of its greatest weakness. As a result, it is impossible to eliminate the weakness without also eliminating the strength.

Let me illustrate the point with an example. Imagine that you have a friend who always sees the good in people. When others behave badly, she always gives them the benefit of the doubt and rationalizes their behavior. This is undeniably a strength: it means you can rely on unconditional acceptance from her.

But it can also be a weakness: for example, when you are in conflict with a third party. You want — you may even need — your friend to support you; but, as ever, she is inclined to make excuses for the other person’s behavior. You may feel that she has let you down, that she has betrayed your friendship.

The same trait is at work in both circumstances. In one instance, you experience it as a good; in another instance, you experience it as a failing. Her greatest strength as a friend is also her greatest weakness.

I am tempted to describe this as a yin/yang worldview. According to this philosophy, every phenomenon contains within itself the seed of its opposite state; and all phenomena change into their opposites in an eternal cycle. But I don’t want to appropriate language that I understand only dimly, at the risk of introducing distortions.

The particular trait we are discussing here is the Roman Catholic commitment to moral absolutes. It is both a strength and a weakness of the Church. Likewise, the moral relativism touted by Rick Salutin has both merits and demerits.

The most serious objection to moral relativism is that it calls into question the very possibility of moral knowledge. If all views contain some truth, and every view contains error, and truth is contingent on one’s perspective, what is left of “truth”?

How will we argue, for example, that female circumcision (aka genital mutilation) is wrong? The practice is a product of a particular worldview, and arguably we are guilty of cultural imperialism if we presume to oppose it.

In such situations, a system of moral absolutes can do great good. It can come to the rescue of those who would otherwise be victimized.

But in other situations, moral absolutes do great harm. In fact, the problem of female circumcision itself arises from a system of moral absolutes. Certain cultures regard female circumcision as a Muslim practice. In those cultures, people insist it is for the girl’s own good, as well as the good of society.

Similarly, biblical texts have been used to negate the values of others and demean them as individuals. Homosexual marriage is a current example. The Church hides behind fine distinctions (“love the sinner; hate the sin” — a slogan that originated with St. Augustine). Meanwhile, religious leaders oppose a fundamental human right: the equality of homosexuals before the law.

Pope Benedict’s absolutism may maximize the positive impact of Roman Catholicism. (That is certainly his expectation.) If so, the gain will come at a great cost. Pope Benedict’s absolutism will also maximize the negative impact of Roman Catholicism, for the strength and the weakness are flip sides of one another.

Ultimately, I believe we would be better off if the Church were less dogmatic in its positions. If the Roman Catholic Church were to embrace moral relativism, it could still be a force for good in the world. By appealing to reason, the Church could attempt to persuade us of the validity of its beliefs and the utility of its moral positions.

By embracing moral relativism, the Church would also minimize the destructive impact of its traditions. It would create some wriggle room for itself: some capacity to retreat when its theology, rigorously applied, would lead it to negate and demean others.

The solution, as Rick Salutin suggests, is to rethink thought itself. Religious institutions already concede, in principle, that no human system can contain all truth. They are less eager to embrace the concomitant belief, that others also have a contribution to make to human beliefs, values, and mores.

Religious institutions must become more open to dialogue, consensus, and even dissent. They must focus less on “knowing” and more on wondering, pondering, and asking: on exploring the human condition thoughtfully, while recognizing that all conclusions are provisional and subject to change.

Pope Benedict XVI will likely maintain the current direction of the Roman Catholic Church. But, in due course, another Pope will be elected. Perhaps the Church will one day ask, in its turn, What’s so scary about relativism?

*The Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s national newspapers. “What’s so scary about relativism?”, was published on Friday, April 22, 2005, p. A13.

West Meets East: Yin/Yang

I am perennially interested in what I prefer to call things unseen: spirituality, theology, psychology, the great mysteries associated with human existence. I know something about Judaism and Christianity, but I am also interested in Eastern religious and philosophical systems.

I am very much a Westerner in my thought processes, and I struggle to grasp Eastern ideas. Recently, I’ve been doing a little research on yin/yang. What follows is a summary of information gleaned from several Web sites, and then a few observations of my own.

Introductory concepts

According to the ancient Chinese philosophy, Tai Chi, yin and yang are the elemental principles of the cosmos. Though they are opposites, they complement one another to form a single whole. Together, yin and yang generate everything that exists. Every person and thing is governed by the continuous interaction between them.

Neither is good or bad. Though they appear to be opposites, each exists only by virtue of the other. Though we can distinguish between them, they are inseparable.

“Yang” means “the sunny side of the hill”; it corresponds to the day and more active functions. “Yin” means “the shady side of the hill”; it corresponds to night and less active functions.

The yin/yang symbol:

(aka the Tai Chi symbol)

The yin/yang symbol

Within each colour there is a dot of the opposing colour.
The dots signify that every phenomenon contains within itself the seed of its opposite state, though it may be unseen.

The dividing line between the two sectors is curved.
The curved line denotes movement and a constant flowing of yin into yang and yang into yin. It signifies that all phenomena change into their opposites in an eternal cycle.

When yin has reached fullness, it recedes in favour of yang; when yang has reached fullness, it recedes in favour of yin. They can consume one another: extreme yin (water) can extinguish yang (fire); extreme yang (heat) can cause yin (water) to evaporate. Neither principle continually dominates the other or determines the other.

The two colours are in equal proportion, evenly balanced.
The balanced proportions depict an ideal state. To increase one sector would necessitate decreasing the other. Every phenomenon or state that we experience (poverty/abundance, sickness/health, power/weakness, etc.) results from the transient precedence of one principle over the other.

Theoretically, the ideal state is an appropriate balance of yin and yang. This is not to say that everyone should have exactly half of each. Each of us needs to find a balance appropriate to our own constitution, climate, season, occupation and even emotional environment. In reality, yin and yang never exist in a static, 50:50 balance.

Further details

When the cosmos was taking shape, the quality of yang was more rarefied and vast. It therefore floated upwards to form the Heavens. Yin was more condensed. It sank down and created Earth.

Yin and yang are always spoken of in relative terms. Something can be yin in relation to a second thing but yang in relation to a third. For example, Earth is yin in relation to the sun but yang in relation to the moon.

Any yin or yang aspect can be further subdivided into finer gradations of yin and yang. For example, temperature: hot (yang) can be further divided into warm (yin) or burning (yang). Likewise, cold (yin) can be further divided into cool (yang) or icy (yin).

Yin/Yang relationships
(adapted from the big view)
Yang Yin
day, light dark, night
fire water
heat cold
south, east north, west
left, up right, down
intellect intuition
active, dynamic passive, static
innovative, reformative conservative, traditional
mountain valley
desert river
hard soft
physical (observable) world psychological (astral) world


(1) I know I’m hopelessly captive to the canons of Western logic, but how can a thing become its opposite? According to the Asian Art Mall, the interior dots signify “that each force contains the seed of the other, so that they do not merely replace each other but actually become the other.” I understand that darkness succeeds light, and light succeeds darkness: but how can light become darkness, and vice versa?

(2) According to Richard Hooker, “all opposites that one experiences—health and sickness, wealth and poverty, power and submission—can be explained in reference to the temporary dominance of one principle over the other.” Do all the positive phenomena (health, abundance, power) result when yang is dominant? Do all the negative phenomena (sickness, poverty, weakness) result when yin is dominant? If so, why isn’t it accurate to say that yang is good and yin is bad?

Other sources include: Ray Wood; Wikipedia; and Yin yang house.

Consoling a broken-hearted friend

Imagine the following scenario: a friend comes to you and confesses that his heart has been broken. He is in great distress, and looking to you for counsel and encouragement.

A fellow blogger recently found herself in that situation. Here is her entry — a plea for assistance — followed by my response. (I apologize for not providing a link, but she prefers to keep her blog private.)


Financial Managerwrote:

Here’s the thing – I have never had my heart broken. This – I feel – leaves me at an almost complete loss when it comes to dealing with other people who’ve had their hearts broken. So tell me – how long does it take to go away? If you eventually moved on, and married or became part of another long-term couple, does that person who ripped your heart out and stomped on it still hold some sort of special place in your heart? Even though they are obviously AWFUL?!?!!?Anyone ever been left at the altar? Do we think this is quite possibly the cruelest thing anyone can do? How do you pick yourself up after that?

And, if you have head your heart broken, how long before there is room for someone else? I realize it all depends on individual situations, but I’m attempting to approach this as something with a logical schedule.

Because hey, I’m a Financial Manager. I like order, dammit! And love/romance/etc. is SO DAMN DISORDERLY.


Stephen replied:

By all means, say encouraging things. But the deeper advice I have for you is this: what you say is secondary; just being there and being supportive is the most important thing.As for encouragement — You ask, If you eventually moved on…does that person who ripped your heart out and stomped on it still hold some sort of special place in your heart?

You’re describing one of those profound experiences (being left at the altar) that will be remembered for a lifetime. The good news is, it will be remembered with ever-diminishing emotional significance.

Emotions are like tides: (1) Emotions are never static; they are always either rising or falling in intensity. (2) Emotional peaks (like high tide and low tide) are momentary events; the rest of the time, our emotions are closer to the mean (less intense).

The point is, your friend’s pain will diminish as time passes; eventually, he’ll achieve some emotional detachment from the event. That’s something you can say to encourage him. But I can’t give you any hint as to how long the process will take.

In order to explain the rest of my advice, I will tell you a story.

A female friend once went through a very difficult time. She repeatedly experienced severe abdominal pain, to the point where they admitted her to hospital.

For weeks they couldn’t figure out what the problem was. (Eventually they diagnosed it as endometriosis.) So, in addition to the physical pain, she was scared.

I went to visit her on several occasions. On one occasion, she was inconsolable. I talked to her, I prayed for her (we met through church), and the whole time she kept crying as if I wasn’t even there.

I didn’t know what to do. So I just sat beside the hospital bed, holding her hand in silence.

After a while, to my surprise, her crying became less intense. A few minutes later she began to speak to me through the tears. And a few minutes after that, the tears stopped completely.

I took away a lesson from that experience. Words are sometimes pretty useless. (A difficult thing for me to admit, because I love words, and in general I regard them as quite powerful.) In situations of deep pain, very few of us have anything brilliant to say — our words are not adequate to the situation.

But we can still be a source of comfort and encouragement, just by being there and being compassionate.

In sum, I’m sure you’ve already begun to do the most important thing. Don’t panic if words fail you. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

Muskrat love

Does anyone remember The Captain & Tennille? Specifically, I am thinking of the song, “Muskrat Love.”

Here’s why it’s on my mind. Last night, about dusk, I went for a walk by the local river. Spring has just established itself here; we got up to 20ºC (=70ºF) for the first time yesterday.

There were three muskrats swimming near shore. This is not an uncommon sight in the spring, when I often see muskrats working industriously near the shoreline. What surprised me was that one of them was squeaking. I have never heard a muskrat make any noise before; I thought they were always silent.

The mystery was solved when another muskrat swam swiftly over, gave the squeaking muskrat a few love bites, then climbed up onto its back. I had witnessed a “come hither” squeak.

muskrat kiss

And that is when I thought of “Muskrat Love”. The Captain’s synthesizer solo, which is programmed to sound like little animal noises, is kind of accurate. The critters really make that noise when they indulge in a little muskrat love. Who knew?!

I have a native friend who says that muskrats are my spirit guides. I like to sit by water when I’m wrestling with a problem. As a result, at times of transition or crisis in my life, I have often been comforted by the sight of muskrats frolicking.

So what are my spirit guides telling me?:

  1. I am in for some hot sex, complete with love bites;
  2. As the Desiderata says, “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”; or
  3. I should rush out and buy The Captain & Tennille’s greatest hits.

Let’s hope the correct option isn’t (c). The Captain and Tennille isn’t my kind of music, even if The Captain knew more about muskrats than I gave him credit for.That’s the trouble with spirit guides: their guidance is often ambiguous. Anyway, I am pretty sure spirit guides don’t make commercial endorsements.

Recovering from a tragic loss

I had a dialogue with torontopearl that may warrant a wider readership. Torontopearl takes the position that some deaths are so tragic, it is impossible for loved ones ever to recover from their loss.

I am not in a position to form a conclusion on the specific example that introduces our dialogue. But I respecfully disagree with torontopearl’s stance. I believe that loved ones can surface from grief and find renewed meaning and joy in life.

A father’s grief

[posted by torontopearl, April 12, 2005; original article at Seraphic Secret]

Every so often a well-meaning idiot will tell me that “God never gives us more than we can bear.” When I hear this outrageous cliche I really feel like punching the person who says it. Where did they get such a stupid idea? In fact, HaShem gives us more than we can bear on a daily basis. Yes, we manage to live through these terrible experiences, we manage to endure, to survive, but we are never the same, and we are often diminished by the suffering, irrevocably harmed. I do not believe that suffering is noble or holy; it is just awful.

It is 2:40 AM, and I cannot sleep because Karen is preparing for Pesach and every shelf cleaned, every corner mopped, every book opened and dusted for crumbs only brings home the fact that Ariel will not be sitting at the Passover seder with us. He will not be reliving the Exodus from Egypt with us. He will not be explaining to us his sharp and penetrating insights into the Haggadah. He will not be smiling at the Passover table, enjoying this wonderful holiday. Ariel’s last Pesach was in the hospital, in the ICU where he was forced to celebrate the seder behind an oxygen mask, and our Passover table was that little slab of formica on wheels that’s hardly big enough for two matzos. We recited the whole Hagaddah, but it was an effort for him and at the end, he fell back into an exhausted sleep….

It is 2:55 AM, and I cannot sleep because I am writing two scripts under intense deadline pressure and I have not been spending as much time as I should writing the next volume of The Hebrew Kid. I’m also afraid that I will never be able to make the second book as good as the first. I wrote The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden while Ariel was still alive. He helped me. He inspired me. He made me a better writer with his criticism and insights. But now he is gone and I suspect that I’m not as good a writer anymore. Without him, my imagination stalls.

It is 3:00 AM, and I cannot sleep because I am sitting in the dark in my bedroom with my computer on my lap typing this blog. I am afraid to go to sleep because I dream of Ariel most every night and when I wake up my face is wet with tears.

My dialogue with Torontopearl

Q said…

A very moving entry. I hope Mr. Avrech will be able to accept his loss, when enough time has passed.

My family has experienced a lot of tragedy. My brother died, and a sister, and a nephew (my brother’s son), and a cousin. My parents have borne all this grief and more. My father’s brother died before I was born, and there are other kinds of family tragedy aside from premature death.

My father has a kind of slogan that he reminds me of from time to time: “Life consists of a series of small miracles.” He means that God has sustained him through the times of despair, providing just what he needed in a timely manner.

Somehow, when he looks back, he does not see a life littered with major tragedies. He sees God’s hand at work in a series of small miracles. I don’t know how he does it; I stand in awe of him.

Thank you for sharing Mr. Avrech’s words with your online public. I don’t mean to find fault with him (certainly not!). But I wanted to point out, perhaps for the benefit of your other readers, that it is possible to survive grief and come out smiling on the other side.

That is not a small miracle, but a great one.

torontopearl said…

I’m sorry about your personal losses.

Like anything in life, each situation is individual — based on its dynamics — whether or not the results are the same.

I’ve been following Robert Avrech’s blog entries for half a year.

I can’t imagine that he and his family can ever “accept” their loss, even if they are faith-abiding people; I can only imagine that they will continue to “endure” their loss…although I wish I could say otherwise.

Q said…

I hesitated to use the word accept. Without articulating it, I decided I could use it in its technical sense.

That is, I was thinking of Kubler-Ross’s famous work, On Death and Dying. According to Kubler-Ross, the final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. (Kubler-Ross was writing about coming to terms with one’s own impending death, but psychologists commonly apply her model to the grieving process for other kinds of losses as well.)

I’m sure accept doesn’t mean “it’s all right with me that my brother (or son, or whomever) died.” It must mean something else, but something nonetheless significant: “I’m able to find joy and meaning in the business of daily living, despite the tragic loss I suffered in years past.”

The alternative to acceptance is perpetual wretchedness. Thus, in my use of the word accept I meant something akin to the summation of my comment: “it is possible to survive grief and come out smiling on the other side.”

Surely, with God’s help, we can reach the summit of that slope, though its incline is steep.

I take your point, that each situation is individual, but I’m not sure where the thought leads. I assume you are not suggesting that my father’s losses are somehow less tragic than Mr. Avrech’s loss, and therefore easier to recover from.

torontopearl said…

G-d forbid I should imply or hint that your personal losses are any different. No different at all; it’s the grieving process that is different for everyone. But your father has reached a vantage point on that terribly high summit, where he can reveal the beautiful and true observation that life is a series of small miracles — I think we live for miracles, and we live from miracle to miracle. Just giving birth is a miracle, just having the ability and sense to grieve is a miracle in its own way — it shows that we are human.

I thank you for sharing *your* story and insights.

You should read the earliest entries of Seraphic Secret, Robert Avrech’s blog. You can’t help but become so caught up in another family’s pain, in that “wretchedness” that you’ve described.

I’m so glad that your family has proven that they can smile through, and in spite of, the tears…

Q said…

Likewise, it was never my intention to minimize the depth of Mr. Avrech’s suffering, or to suggest that Ariel’s death is anything less than tragic. I only hope that Mr. Avrech and his family can eventually surface from their grief. And I know from my family’s experience that to hope is not absurd.

torontopearl said…

Q, thanks for your thoughts. Just one lingering comment from me, which might also help clarify the depth of the Avrech family’s pain.

It isn’t just that their son, Ariel, passed away at the age of twenty-two, but he became sick at the age of fourteen. For eight years, Ariel was riding a physical roller coaster, as well as an emotional and mental one…and his parents, sisters, other family members, friends and community were right there alongside, riding it with him.

And I guess, just like roller coasters are designed, there were some highs and many lows along the way, times to shut one’s eyes out of fear, times to clutch the person beside you rather tightly, times to yell, “Get me off this ride — I don’t like it.” But alas, that roller coaster kept up with its run…

post script

I note that torontopearl is echoing Mr. Avrech’s own convictions. In his “About me” blurb, Mr. Avrech writes, “People tell me that time heals, but Karen and I know that is not true.”

Dream consciousness

posted by Joy, on her blog, on Apr 09, 2005

[my response follows]


All of us have our own collection of evil dreams, of nightmares that left us more tired then when we went to sleep….

In one of these old dreams, I used to run away from something. I never had the luxury of time that allowed me to turn back to scrutinize my source of terror. It’d always be within grasp of my tired feet. Its relentless pursuit exhausted me. There’d be times I contemplate just ending it. but terror never let me stop.

The dream stopped recurring after one twist of plot. As usual, I started running out of the blue. I was tired and I wasnt looking. I remembered staring at the sky and screaming for help. Suddenly I crashed into someone. I had no time to react as that person put his arms around me and hugged me tightly and swung me around. The darkness came and collided with him. He was using his back to shield me from the darkness that seemed to loom like a monster in front of both of us. In the dream, I was so stunned that I wasnt even crying. I hung on to him tightly, in fear and knowing this man is my only friend in a land of terror. The monster caught on and it crashed on the back of my protector in a tsunami of revenge. I remember looking into the expression of his face in incredulous wonder as his teeth were clenched in pain, and his expression one of determined strength. The kind of strength you have when you are determined to defy all odds, when your countenance turn from tolerance to defiance. His hold on me tightened protectively as the pain and terror increased. That was the last I remembered.

I think I must have been around 12-14… or even younger. I dont really remember, but I know when I woke up, it left profound emotions in me….From then on, the dream never came back.

Maybe in these dreams, we are hoping for salvation in one form or another. I hope the next time I am in these nightmares, I won’t need to go through them alone. Nightmare becomes tolerable when you have a friend in there. It becomes frightening when I seem to be going through it alone. Agree?

In a corner of my heart, where I gently store my folded wishes and dreams, I want to see him in my dream once again


I replied with a story of my own:

Your story reminds me of a similar experience — not mine, but the experience of a friend.

When he was young, he used to have falling dreams. He would be falling from a terrible height, helpless to slow his fall, and terrified.

My friend had the falling dream repeatedly. Then, one time, he suddenly landed — plop! — in his father’s arms. And after his father caught him, he never had the dream again.

It’s the last point that amazes me. What is it in our psychology that causes us to have these dreams? How is it that, after the dream ends happily just once, our psychology is permanently altered — so that we never have the dream again?

Nothing has changed in our waking consciousness; just in our dream consciousness. It’s a marvel to me.

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