June 30, 2016

In his new role Dorrien is expected to act as a public intellectual in the footsteps of Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of last century. He thinks that despite liberal hand-wringing, for a lot of people Pope Benedict will be a welcome relief. "We're in a period now where the swing in the churches is toward homogeneity and security," Dorrien says. "There is a lot of anxiety."

But is moral relativism really all that bad? Essentially, what it means is allowing others the freedom to determine their own set of values. Moral relativists argue that with 6 billion people on earth, there can be no "one size fits all" set of behaviors or beliefs. Further, moral relativists are not saying that anyone can do anything-they're saying that humans should be constrained by values they've developed through experience, reason, and contemplation.

In other words, you can't be a polygamist in America because that hurts, or at the very least negatively impacts, other people. But you can be a polygamist in Africa because the community condones it. Further, moral relativism recognizes an undeniable truth: society's values change over time. Slavery and sacrificing your first-born (both practices found in the Bible) are no longer acceptable. Some day polygamy may be thrown overboard in Africa. So if you try to hold to absolute values, you're closing off the possibility of humanity making advances in our moral understanding.

To put it in Christian terms, says Dorrien: "God still speaks to us."

The most recent example of what he considers God's new language is the gains in women's equality. "To be a witness to the extraordinary changes that have swept through parts of Christendom based on raised awareness of women as agents as equal in God's sight-and all the scripture that goes with that-it's a hugely significant movement. And it's a movement of the Holy Spirit in our time," Dorrien maintains.

So what will Pope Benedict XVI do about these competing visions of truth? Will he clamp down, as liberals fear? Or will he make Christian theology unbending, yet superior, as conservatives hope?

"He'll try to be clear, and he'll try to be attractive," says Portier. "The best apologetic is holiness and spiritual attractiveness, spiritual beauty. He's got to go with that, somehow, because to approach pluralism as a hated theoretical idea is not going to get him far."