dinsdag 10 februari 2009

Progress after all

Angela Merkel was fantastic last week, when she addressed the pope about the Holocaust-denial of bishop Williamson! Who would have thought that in our age of relativism of truth and values a leading politician makes a serious point of historical facts?

I think that means progress in three respects.

In the first place it means progress compared to an earlier dispute between Germany and the pope. In the Middle Ages the German emperor and the pope fought to be the highest Christian authority in Europe. Also then, during the so-called Investiturestruggle, parties brought in the notion of truth, but that was the vague, supernatural kind of truth. Each party claimed to know the will of God. But in fact it was an ordinary struggle for power.

Of course there is nothing basically wrong with struggles for power, they are often unavoidable. But I find it rather confusing when they are coupled to truth-claims, certainly those of the speculative and unverifiable kind. And that was the case with those theological thoughtconstructions by which pope and emperor fought each other.

The difference with the Middle Ages is that in the present interaction between Merkel and the pope there is nothing at stake but the sober, historical truth – at least at Merkel’s side. I call that progress.

Besides, the Bundeskanzler by her attitude makes clear that Germany is a mature democracy which does not evade discussion about its own past. And which makes sure that also in the future the historical truth may not be violated. That attitude existed already in Western-Germany, but to observe that it also holds for the united Germany is encouraging.

Finally there is progress with respect to our own contemparary intellectual climate. Under the influence of postmodern thinking we got used to think that truth is always relative. There are several truths, and which one you choose only depends on from what perspective you are looking. The notion that some facts are irrefutable and utterly independent on how you look at it, at times disappears in a total indifference for truth.

Scepsis as to the possibility to know the truth doubtlessly may have a liberating effect, when it comes to all kinds of metaphysical truthclaims. But postmodernists transgress a border when they deny factual truths. The Great Stories may have ended but there still are things we must never forget. With her attitude Merkel contributed to marking that difference.