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Dictatorship of Relativism?

Handling Differences at School

German Version


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2006/3, P. 187-193
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The words "Dictatorship of Relativism" come in the centre of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's sermon delivered by him as dean of the cardinals' collegium on 18 April 2005 at the opening of the conclave in St Peter's Cathedral:

"How many faith opinions we got to know in the past decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking ... (But) to have a clear faith according to the credo of the church is often stamped as fundamentalism, whereas relativism, i.e. the 'letting oneself be driven to and fro by the gusts of any teaching', appears nowadays as the only opportune attitude. A dictatorship of relativism arises that acknowledges nothing as final and accepts as last measure only the own Ego and its cravings." {1}

We know today: That determined sermon, by which Ratzinger programmatically placed himself again into the tradition of Pope John Paul II, probably considerably contributed to the large majority with which on the following day the cardinals elected their dean Pope Benedict XVI.

"Dictatorship of Relativism" - this formula reminds however first of Pius IX and Pius X, of "Pascendi dominici gregis" and of the modernism oath, of retreat and integralism practiced by the church already at the beginning of the last century. With the encyclical letter "Pascendi dominicis gregis" (1907) Pope Pius X had resolutely opposed the "theological mistakes" of his time. Thereby he fell back among other things upon the Syllabus Errorum of Pius IX. Outsiders may - in view of the image which Cardinal Ratzinger had particularly in the public opinion of West Europe and North America - not be astonished, because these conceptions fit in the cliché of the conservative supervisor for faith. But well-informed listeners may have been surprised, because they have already read different words from Ratzinger about the keyword "relativism". For in a "best-seller" of the current Pope Benedict XVI, which he wrote still as cardinal - "Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs" (values in times of radical change) - under the heading "Relativism as Condition of Democracy" the following passage turns up:

"The modern conception of democracy seems to be indissolubly connected with relativism; relativism however appears as the true guarantee of freedom, just in its essential centre: freedom of conscience and religion." {2}



The Ambivalence of Relativism

Is relativism, understood as indifference and arbitrariness, now the declared political standard or is it an important constituent of that modern form of government which at least in our western cultural area is regarded as the only appropriate one to man and his natural rights, namely democracy?

The more exact reading of the quoted essay will help to answer that question. Ratzinger makes clear that the state, if it wants to do justice to the democratic constitution, must aim at liberty and equality as basic goods for all human beings {3}. Relativism therefore belongs in the literal sense to the preconditions of this form of government:

"Today the respect for the freedom of every individual seems to us quite essentially to consist in the fact that the truth question is not decided by the state. Truth, so also the truth about the good, does not appear as jointly recognizable. It is controversial." And: "It is no public but only a private good or a good of groups, but not of the whole." {4}

In this sense relativism is the precondition of modern democracy. On the other side the state subsists on the fact that individuals and groups which recognize a truth as congruent with the goods of equality and liberty articulate this their truth to the public of the polity with which they and discuss and reflect on it. The state subsists on the fact that citizens answer for this truth and offer it to others, yes, that they, as it were, "feed" it into the state, so that it too can live on those preconditions that it, for the just mentioned reasons, is not allowed to create. Or as Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde relevantly formulated it: It seems clear that "also the secularized lay state must ultimately live on those internal drives and binding forces which the religious faith communicates to its citizen" {5}.

A "dictatorship of relativism" is therefore only given when a "Political correctness", behaving in a totalitarian manner, stamps "a clear faith according to the Credo of the church ... as fundamentalism" {6}, and wants to restrain from the public discourse the decided religious viewpoint as undemocratic and society-endangering, because of its otherness [Alterität] and difference. That can in the long run only be harmful for the polity. The state does rather well to give social space to Christianity, which is without question the "most universal and rational religious culture" {7} of mankind, so that it firstly can contribute to the finding of a "reasonable moral faith", "without which no society can exist" {8}, and secondly can mobilize its rationality for the civilization and integration of religion as a whole in a secular state {9}.



That the Catholic Church and the Protestant Regional Churches in Germany are suited best for that promising task, is in the meantime acknowledged by the different political camps and also by the German media {10}.

What does that mean now for the area of education, what does is mean in concrete terms for the school? In the following is to be demonstrated which rank the school, as social microcosm and as social institution for integration, has for the tasks described above: This section has the heading "Identity and Difference", because here it is particularly about these two poles. Only those who learn to develop their identity and to handle differences will be able to make a helpful contribution to a culture of liberty and equality. Further is to be pointed out which aims the religious training, especially a denominationally answered for religious training can realize with this education work in a religiously neutral school. Here interreligious learning is to be named and examined as exemplary task - because the socially integrative as well as the civilizing task of religious education seem here particularly clear. The explanation will close with a look at the social and economic dimensions of 'difference learning'.


Indentity and Difference: What Is To Be Done by the School as 'Polis'

The functions of a school are various and the scientific educational literature describing them is extensive {11}. Here only the socially integrative function of schools is to be taken into view - a function, by the way, which schools - according to the 'functional religion theory' - share with "religion". Hartmut von Hentig has described the school in a relevant and discourse moulding publication as "polis". He uses this term, because like in the ancient city-state, in a school as a small, easy to survey framework and area those things are illustrated that constitute our society on a large scale {12}: Genders and age groups, cultures and religions, races and classes, potentials and problems, successes and defeats, joy and sorrow, also life and dying. Schools are 'polities', and that makes the work in schools so exciting and so immensely fulfilling - for those who are ready to share their lives with young persons.

Integrating function means that schools have the task to work on the differences arising from the different conditions under which children and young persons are socialized in our plural society, so that at the end of their school career all girls and boys can leave the school as responsible citizens, and can now - as subjects in their own right - enter the social processes. The training of one's own identity belongs just as much to it as the acknowledgment of other people's otherness. In the ideal case young persons with their own characteristics [Sosein] will then be able to build together with others, moulded by foreign influences, our society and so to contribute to a life in freedom and equality.



Not only since the PISA-study one knows that this task is only unsatisfactorily fulfilled by the German educational system, and that just the integration of foreigners, i.e. of not German-speaking migrants by language capability and inculturation does succeed only in an extremely limited way with {13}. Here is not the place to analyze the causes of this abortive development. But it is to state: The inclusive approach to and the social intercourse with foreigners, which are necessary for democracy and could make plurality a real pluralism, did not happen in the last decades.

As in the cosmos of a polity so also in the microcosm of a school it is essential to use the chances and possibilities of religion, with regard to its richness in establishing values - think of traditions like hospitality (Lev 19:34) and unconditional love of one's neighbour (Lk 10:37) -, as well as to its integrating and civilizing strength. If schools give room to religious communities which correspond to the criteria of reflexive rationality and Basic Law, they will have reliable partners who make their contribution to a relativism in the sense of an ideological pluralism upholding the state, without supporting a dictatorship of relativism overwhelming children and young persons by an abundance of differences. Such overwhelming leads to that sort of 'integralism' which can exactly be studied in innumerable migrants' milieus - and also in some Christian Free Churches. Here definitely no ability for pluralism develops.


Identity and Communication: What Religious Education Can Achieve

According to Basic Law, article 7, paragraph 3, the confessional religious education in public schools is one of those areas in which religious communities make their contribution to identity and communication, and enable thus children, young persons and young adults to live in a pluralistic society. Of course, religious education is possible also in a different way, for instance as catechesis or "religious instruction" in the parish, as the model of strict secularism demands for instance in France and in the USA. Here the state deliberately does without the creative powers of the religions, usually for historical reasons. It is to be noted that the separation from church and state was differently motivated in the two countries: in France rather as emancipation of a homogeneous Catholic society from the church as institution, in the USA as guarantee of religious variety in a country that from the outset had a denominational pluralism {14}.



On the other hand religious education is also possible as a national affair, namely where state and church are identical or have up to this day a close co-operation, for example in the Lutheran National Churches of Scandinavia, but above all also in the area of the Anglican National Church of England. That is then an instruction which must rather be called 'religious knowledge from a Lutheran or Anglican perspective' and to which is to be returned further below.

Already the fathers and mothers of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 decided for a different way, namely that of a confessional religious education in religiously neutral schools. The reasons are obvious: If the state wants to protect the separation of religion on the one hand and its own public sphere on the other hand - and anything else would contradict the outlined relativism and the pluralism resulting from it -, then it must integrate the religious communities into the school, in order to give them the opportunity to teach religion in their specific confessional way {15}. After all, it is also in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany the fixed "Differentia specifica" of a modern state theory, that faith and religion are an affair of the churches and not of the state {16}. Constructions like the subject 'Lebenskunde-Ethik-Religionskunde '(LER) in the Land Brandenburg made already clear how problematic it can be when state teachers inform "about" religion, without being even "religiously musical" (Max Weber). Analogous things could be said about the current plans of the Senate of Berlin. It seems also doubtful whether such an "instruction in religion" - apart from the question of the scientific qualification of teachers in such a complex subject - would actually find a sufficient acceptance with parents and children, in order to be able to unfold its religiously civilizing function. The critical voices of representatives of Muslim but also of Christian religious communities in Berlin let suspect that a subject outlined in such a way would hardly find support by religiously seriously engaged people in the capital.

Two examples from the area of a denominationally open instruction, as it is offered by religious communities for members of other religions, show the problem of lacking acceptance, with which also a state religious training would probably have to concern itself: Birmingham and Hamburg. In both cities in the past decades much considered models of a "religious education for all" have been developed and implemented - in Birmingham to a considerable extent by the Anglican Church, in Hamburg by the Evangelical-Lutheran Regional Church. In both cities in the meantime one struggles with large religious communities, the members of which - at first by taking legal proceedings - took their children out of that instruction overlapping the denominations and offer now their own religious instruction: in Birmingham Muslim communities and conservative groupings within the Anglican Church {17}; and in Hamburg the Catholic Church, which will soon sign the concordat between the city-state Hamburg and the Holy See,



in which for the first time in the history of the city is agreed upon confessional Catholic religious education {18}. The lacking acceptance of the conceptions of religion training by religiously decided and engaged people is accordingly one of the reasons for the discussion about the hitherto existing "religious education for all". Another reason is the unexpectedly large difficulties arising in the field of tasks of interreligious learning.


Exemplary Task: Interreligious Learning

Great hopes for an interreligious learning were connected with the so-called "Multi-Faith Religious Education" and the "religious education for all". On the part of Evangelical and Catholic religion pedagogy there were time and again voices that judged the confessional religious education - which in the middle of the nineties had last been declared as further on obligatory by the two large Christian religious communities in Germany -, as an obstacle for a lasting learning of getting along well with people of different cultures and religions. From the Catholic side above all Norbert Mette, from the Protestant side Barbara Asbrand criticized that the confessional religious education would not train an appropriate perception and dealing with otherness, it would rather produce strangers and difference by its division in confessional learning groups {19}. So Asbrand maintained the early separation of children into different confessional learning groups would promote the habit to "label people with ethnical or national identities, which is contrary to the educational effort to promote a living together of children of different cultural coinage" {20}. Other Protestant religion pedagogues accordingly violently contradicted her. The Tübingen religion pedagogue Friedrich Schweitzer e.g. indignantly asked, "whether here in the religious education omissions of the other school work became apparent which then - by some strange turn - are converted into a reproach of religious education as scapegoat" {21}.

Asbrand now projected, as counter model to the confessional religious instruction, an interreligious "religious education from the part of the child", which she accomplished and evaluated in the context of a research work. Her basic approach is strongly oriented towards the above sketched Hamburg model of "Religious Education For All" and shows the same structural problems: Both models assign either to the teacher a scientific competence in religious studies which can hardly be shouldered or to the children "as experts" a role that cannot be mastered by them. Thus for example in his recent notes on the Hamburg model the Hamburg religious pedagogue Horst F. Rupp pointed to the "problem of an adequate teacher training for this subject" {22}.



In the evaluation of her pilot scheme "religious education for all" Barbara Asbrand had to state that religiously active Muslim schoolgirls and boys "get because of their Muslim identity into a special role". She therefore asks to bear in mind that,

"In the religious education and in an training structure in which children act as religious people, the teacher cannot avoid, even by an active training organization, that the religiously educated children get into the role of experts ... The special role of religious, in particular of Muslim children seems unavoidable in an interreligious education." {23}

That special role leads however to separation and disintegration, which rather diametrically opposes the aims of every religious education. Bernhard Dressler, Protestant religious pedagogue in Marburg, recently formulated very appropriate that an in this way "dialogically" conceived religious education presupposes on the part of the pupils, what it actually wants still to achieve with its training aims, namely the "ability for dialogue" in matters of religion: "Religious education for all" accepts "interreligious learning only under conditions which can at best be a possible result of an interreligious learning process" {24}.

But which tasks and organization forms result from it for the religious education? Friedrich Schweitzer takes a middle course between the "Catholic" model of providing a home and the "Hamburg" dialogue model:

"Since children meet from early on other children who belong to a different or even to no religion, they need always also company in the sense of communication. But since children at the same time have not yet a religious identity ..., they need also possibilities to form such an identity." {25}

Schweitzer therefore develops the view that "identity formation and communication, or, to say it with the rather Catholic terms 'feeling at home' and 'encounter' have to be connected with each other and both must be supported in parallel with each other" {26}. According to Schweitzer in the religious education five points are of fundamental importance for identity formation and communication:

  • "In the course of getting to know the world [by the different subjects], religious education must help children to learn the importance of being a member of a certain denomination or religion, and to answer the question of one's own membership {27}.
  • "Since the clarifying of one's own membership does not happen in an exclusively abstract way but by identification with adults, the religious education has to make possible social experiences of identification with adults serving as reference persons {28}.
  • "Already at the elementary school age children have also an unfailing feeling for the knowledge and authority of their teachers. They can quite well recognize that some are well versed in the Catholic area and others better in the Evangelical one. Hence children are "entitled to a religious education presenting religion with the greatest possible authority" to them {29}.



  • Children need a religious education that enables them to esteem children who are moulded by other cultures and religions {30}.
  • "Confessional co-operation, which is expressed in common lessons of Catholic and Evangelical teachers - for example as team-teaching, ensures that expertise, encounter and accompanying supervision are made available in appropriate form {31}.

A so conceived and accordingly organized confessional and confessional-cooperative religious education can ensure that children and young people find an identity, due to which they are able appropriately to perceive a foreign and different reality and are so prepared for an adequate social intercourse with foreigners/migrants and other people. {32}


From Difference-Learning to "Diversity Management"

The appropriate handling of differences, differently moulded people and foreign migrants is not only an elementary necessity for our society's cohesion and prospects for the future; regarding all the effects of globalization it is also an indispensable competence in the social as well as in the economic range. Here the educational handling of that task is no longer called "Difference Learning", but "Diversity Management"; school pedagogy is now no longer responsible, but operational anthropo-gogy, or said with a modern term: personnel development. In the context of internationally interlaced and trans-nationally orientated large combines it belongs to the everyday requests of employees to deal in the intercultural context, to which also the interreligious dimension considerably belongs to deal with otherness (Alterität) and difference.

But independently of all functionalisms it should be kept in mind that an appropriate social intercourse with foreigners is first owed to their inviolable dignity as man: This too is a contribution of the Jewish and Christian religion to the culture of a state that is living each day anew on foundations which have not been laid by it.



{1} J. Ratzinger, Predigt in der Heiligen Messe "Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice", in: Der Anfang. Papst Benedikt XVI. Josef Ratzinger. Predigten und Ansprachen. April/Mai 2005 (VApSt 168, Bonn 2005) 12-16, 14.

{2} Cf. J. Ratzinger, Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs. Die Herausforderungen der Zukunft bestehen (Freiburg 2005) 51.



{3} In the same place 49.

{4} In the same place 50f.

{5} E.-W. Böckenförde, Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie u. Verfassungsgeschichte (Frankfurt 1991) 113.

{6} Ratzinger (note 1) 14.

{7} Cf. Ratzinger (note 2) 64.

{8} In the same place

{9} J. Habermas, Glaube u. Wissen. Rede zur Verleihung des Friedenspreises am 14.10.2001, in: FAZ, 15.10.2001.

{10} Cf. B. Ulrich, Glauben oder eifern. Amerikas unheimliche Religiosität fordert das liberale Christentum in Europa heraus, in: Die Zeit, 11.11.2004.

{11} Here I refer exemplarily to H. Blankertz, Die Geschichte der Padagogik (Wetzlar 1982) and in detail H. Meyer, Schulpädagogik, volume 1 (Berlin 1997).

{12} Cf. H. v. Hentig, Den Menschen stärken, die Sachen klären. Ein Plädoyer für die Wiederherstellung der Aufklärung (Stuttgart 1985).

{13} Cf. PISA 2000. Basiskompetenzen von Schülerinnen u. Schülern im internationalen Vergleich, edited by J. Baumert and others (Opladen 2001).

{14} Cf. D. Martin, Europa u. Amerika. Säkularisierung oder Vervielfältigung der Christenheit - Zwei Ausnahmen u. keine Regel, in: Das Europa der Religionen. Ein Kontinent zwischen Säkularisation u. Fundamentalismus, edited by O. Kallscheuer (Frankfurt 1996) 161-180.

{15} So auch E. Nordhofen, Plädoyer für einen konfessionellen Religionsunterricht, in: KatBl 123 (1998), 37-43, here 42f..

{16} Cf. article 140 GG and article 137 paragraph 1 Weimarer Reichsverfassung: "Es besteht keine Staatskirche."

{17} Cf. J. Hull, Religionsunterricht u. Muslime in England. Entwicklungen u. Grundsätze, in: Religion, Ethik, Schule. Bildungspolitische Perspektiven in der pluralen Gesellschaft, edited by C. T. Scheilke and F. Schweitzer (Münster 1999) 327-342.

{18} Cf. Konkordat Hamburg fast fertig, in: Radio Vatikan, 27.9.2005:

{19} Cf. B. Asbrand, Zusammmen Leben u. Lernen im Religionsunterricht. Eine empirische Studie zur grundschulpädagogischen Konzeption eines interreligiösen Religionsunterricht im Klassenverband der Grundschule (Frankfurt 2000); N. Mette, Begegnung mit dem Fremden, Aufgabe des Religionsunterrichts, in: Religion in der Schule? Projekte - Programme - Perspektiven, edited by R. Göllner and B. Trocholepczy (Freiburg 1995) 118-130.

{20} Asbrand (note 19) 11f.

{21} F. Schweitzer, Konfessionell-kooperativer Religionsunterricht. Die Perspektive der Kinder, in: Wahrheit u. Dialog. Theologische Grundlagen u. Impulse gegenwärtiger Religionspädagogik, edited by W. Weiße (Münster 2002) 107-119, 113f.

{22} H. F. Rupp, "Religionsunterricht für alle in evangelischer Verantwortung und ökomenischer Offenheit" - was soll u. kann dies heißen, in: Wahrheit und Dialog (note 21) 153-166. Also J. M. Hull grants the problem of adequate theological teacher formation. He observed above all the retreat of church located theology from the English Multi-Faith-Religious-Education - a development which should be considered just by the German representatives of "Religious Education For Everybody": J. M. Hull, der Segen der Säkularität. Religionspädagogik in England u. Wales, in: Wahrheit u. Dialog (note 21) 167-179, 176f.

{23} Asbrand (note 19) 173.

{24} B. Dressler, Interreligiöses Lernen - Alter Wein in neuen Schläuchen? Einwürfe in eine stagnierende Debatte, in: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik und Theologie 55 (2003) 113-124, 117.

{25} Schweitzer (note 21) 115.

{26} In the same place

{27} In the same place 116.

{28} In the same place

{29} In the same place

{30} In the same place 117.

{31} In the same place

{32} Cf. the appropriate approach in C. P. Sajak, Das Fremde als Gabe begreifen. Auf dem Weg zu einer Didaktik der Religionen aus katholischer Perspektive (Münster 2005).


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