Little is more surprising these days than the revival of blasphemy as a crime. A secular age had presumably relegated blasphemy - irreverence toward things sacred - to the realm of obsolete offenses.
No American has been convicted for blasphemy since Abner Kneeland in Massachusetts a century and a half ago (for what was deemed a ''scandalous, impious, obscene, blasphemous and profane libel of and concerning God''); and the last prosecution, in Maryland 20 years ago, was dismissed by an appellate court as a violation of the First Amendment.
But a secular age, when it creates its own absolutes, may well secularize blasphemy too. Consider the deplorable role the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag played in a recent Presidential campaign; or the cries of outrage provoked by the Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Johnson, holding that punishment for the political burning of an American flag breached the Constitution; or the demonstrations protesting the ''desecration'' of the flag at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The very word ''desecration'' implies that the American flag is sanctified, an object of worship. We are witnessing the rise of what Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan's Solicitor General, calls the ''doctrine of civil blasphemy.'' Whether religious or secular in guise, all forms of blasphemy have in common that there are things so sacred that they must be protected by the arm of the state from irreverence and challenge - that absolutes of truth and virtue exist and that those who scoff are to be punished.
It is this belief in absolutes, I would hazard, that is the great enemy today of the life of the mind. This may seem a rash proposition. The fashion of the time is to denounce relativism as the root of all evil. But history suggests that the damage done to humanity by the relativist is far less than the damage done by the absolutist - by the fellow who, as Mr. Dooley once put it, ''does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts in th' case.''
Let me not be misunderstood lest I be taken for a blasphemer myself and thereby subject to the usual dire penalties. I hold religion in high regard. As Chesterton once said, the trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they thereafter believe in anything. I agree with Tocqueville that religion has an indispensable social function: ''How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?'' I also sympathize with Tocqueville who, Andre Jardin, his most recent biographer, tells us, went to his death an unbeliever.
It would hardly seem necessary to insist on the perils of moral absolutism in our own tawdry age. By their fruits ye shall know them. It is as illogical to indict organized religion because of Jimmy Swaggart and the Bakkers as Paul Johnson is to indict the intelligentsia because of the messy private lives of selected intellectuals; but the moral absolutists who are presently applauding Paul Johnson's cheap book ''Intellectuals'' might well be invited to apply the same methodology to their own trade. As the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, ''The worst corruption is a corrupt religion'' -and organized religion, like all powerful institutions, lends itself to corruption. Absolutism, whether in religious or secular form, becomes a haven for racketeers.
As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source of our concern for human rights. In fact, the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense. They were notorious not only for acquiescence in poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression but for enthusiastic justifications of slavery, persecution, abandonment of small children, torture, genocide.
Religion enshrined and vindicated hierarchy, authority and inequality and had no compunction about murdering heretics and blasphemers. Till the end of the 18th century, torture was normal investigative procedure in the Roman Catholic church as well as in most European states. In Protestant America in the early 19th century, as Larry Hise points out in his book ''Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840,'' men of the cloth ''wrote almost half of all the defenses of slavery published in America''; an appendix lists 275 ministers of the Gospel who piously proclaimed the Christian virtue of a system in which one man owned another as private property to be used as he pleased.
Human rights is not a religious idea. It is a secular idea, the product of the last four centuries of Western history.
It was the age of equality that brought about the disappearance of such religious appurtenances as the auto-da-fe and burning at the stake, the abolition of torture and of public executions, the emancipation of the slaves. Only later, as religion itself began to succumb to the humanitarian ethic and to view the Kingdom of God as attainable within history, could the claim be made that the Judeo-Christian tradition commanded the pursuit of happiness in this world. The basic human rights documents - the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man - were written by political, not by religious, leaders. And the revival of absolutism in the 20th century, whether in ecclesiastical or secular form, has brought with it the revival of torture, of slaughter and of other monstrous violations of human rights.
Take a look at the world around us today. Most of the organized killing now going on is the consequence of absolutism: Protestants and Catholics killing each other in Ireland; Muslims and Jews killing each other in the Middle East; Sunnites and Shiites killing each other in the Persian Gulf; Buddhists and Hindus killing each other in Ceylon; Hindus and Sikhs killing each other in India; Christians and Muslims killing each other in Armenia and Azerbaijan; Buddhists and Communists killing each other in Tibet. ''We have,'' as Swift said, ''just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.'' The Santa Barbara Peace Resource Center, reporting on the 32 wars in progress around the planet in 1988, found that 25 had ''a significant ethnic, racial or religious dimension.'' And when religious religion is not the cause, then the totalitarian social religions of our age inspire mass slaughter.
It is natural enough, I suppose, if you believe you have privileged access to absolute truth, to want to rid the world of those who insist on divergent truths of their own. But I am not sure that it is a useful principle on which to build a society. Yet, as I noted earlier, the prevailing fashion is, or was a year or two ago, to hold relativism responsible for the ills of our age. A key document, of course, is Allan Bloom's best seller of a couple of years back, ''The Closing of the American Mind.'' Indeed, one cannot but regard the very popularity of that murky and pretentious book as the best evidence for Mr. Bloom's argument about the degradation of American culture. It is another of those half-read best sellers, like Charles Reich's murky and pretentious ''Greening of America'' 17 years before, that plucks a momentary nerve, materializes fashionably on coffee tables, is rarely read all the way through and is soon forgotten.
Now one may easily share Mr. Bloom's impatience with many features of higher education in the United States. I too lament the incoherence in the curriculums, the proliferation of idiotic courses, the shameful capitulation to factional demands and requisitions, the decay of intellectual standards. For better or for worse, in my view, we inherit an American experience, as America inherits a Western experience; and solid learning must begin with our own origins and traditions. The bonds of cohesion in our society are sufficiently fragile, or so it seems to me, that we should not strain them by excessive worship at artificial shrines of ethnicity, bilingualism, global cultural base-touching and the like. Let us take pride in our own distinctive inheritance as other countries take pride in their distinctive inheritances; and let us understand that no culture can hope to ingest other cultures all at once, certainly not before it ingests its own.
But a belief in solid learning, rigorous standards, intellectual coherence, the virtue of elites is a different thing from a faith in absolutes. It is odd that Professor Bloom spends 400 pages laying down the law about the American mind and never once mentions the two greatest and most characteristic American thinkers, Emerson and William James. Once can see why he declined the confrontation: it is because he would have had to concede the fact that the American mind is by nature and tradition skeptical, irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic.
Nor does relativism necessarily regard all claims to truth as equal or believe that judgment is no more than the expression of personal preference. For our relative values are not matters of whim and happenstance. History has given them to us. They are anchored in our national experience, in our great national documents, in our national heroes, in our folkways, traditions, standards. Some of these values seem to us so self-evident that even relativists think they have, or ought to have, universal application: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example; the duty to treat persons as ends in themselves; the prohibition of slavery, torture, genocide. People with a different history will have different values. But we believe that our own are better for us. They work for us; and, for that reason, we live and die by them.
At least this is what great Americans have always believed. ''Deep-seated preferences,'' as Justice Holmes put it, ''cannot be argued about . . . and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far-reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as it appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.''
Once Justice Holmes and Judge Learned Hand discussed these questions on a long train ride. Learned Hand gave as his view that ''opinions are at best provisional hypotheses, incompletely tested. The more they are tested . . . the more assurance we may assume, but they are never absolutes. So we must be tolerant of opposite opinions.'' Holmes wondered whether Hand might not be carrying his tolerance to dangerous lengths. ''You say,'' Hand wrote Holmes later, ''that I strike at the sacred right to kill the other fellow when he disagrees. The horrible possibility silenced me when you said it. Now, I say, 'Not at all, kill him for the love of Christ and in the name of God, but always remember that he may be the saint and you the devil.' ''
These ''deep-seated preferences'' are what Holmes called his ''Can't Helps'' - ''When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it. . . . But . . . I do not venture to assume that my inabilities in the way of thought are inabilities of the universe. I therefore define truth as the system of my limitations, and leave absolute truth for those who are better equipped.'' He adds: ''Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cock-sure of many things that were not so.''
Absolutism is abstract, monistic, deductive, ahistorical, solemn, and it is intimately bound up with deference to authority. Relativism is concrete, pluralistic, inductive, historical, skeptical and intimately bound up with deference to experience. Absolutism teaches by rote; relativism by experiment. ''I respect faith,'' that forgotten wit Wilson Mizener once said, ''but doubt is what gets you an education.''
I would even hazard the proposition that relativism comports far more than absolutism with the deepest and darkest teachings of religion. For what we have learned from Augustine, from Calvin, from Jonathan Edwards, is not man's capacity to grasp the absolute but quite the contrary: the frailty of man, the estrangement of man from God, the absolute distance between mortals and divinity - and the arrogance of those who suppose they are doing what the Lord would do if He only knew the facts in the case. That is why Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledged such an affinity with William James - far more, I would warrant, than he would have found with Allan Bloom.
When it came to worldly affairs, Niebuhr was a relativist, not because he disbelieved in the absolute, but precisely because he believed in the absoluteness of the absolute - because he recognized that for finite mortals the infinite thinker was inaccessible, unfathomable, unattainable. Nothing was more dangerous, in Niebuhr's view, than for frail and erring humans to forget the inevitable ''contradiction between divine and human purposes.'' ''Religion,'' he wrote, ''is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.'' He particularly detested ''the fanaticism of all good men, who do not know that they are not as good as they esteem themselves,'' and he warned against ''the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink . . . when they try to play the role of God to history.''
Niebuhr accepted, as James did, ''the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.'' His outlook is as far away from Mr. Bloom's simple-minded absolutism as one can imagine. It represents, in my view, the real power of religious insight as well as the far more faithful expression of the American mind.
I would summon one more American, the greatest of them all, as a last witness in the case for relativism against absolutes. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln noted that both sides in the Civil War ''read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . the prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.'' Replying thereafter to a congratulatory letter from Thurlow Weed, Lincoln doubted that such sentiments would be ''immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.''
The Almighty has His own purposes: this is the reverberant answer to those who tell us that we must live by absolutes. Relativism is the American way. As that most quintessential of American historians, George Bancroft, wrote in another connection, ''The feud between the capitalist and laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want, is as old as social union, and can never be entirely quieted; but he who will act with moderation, prefer fact to theory, and remember that every thing in this world is relative and not absolute, will see that the violence of the contest may be stilled.''
The mystic prophets of the absolute cannot save us. Sustained by our history and traditions, we must save ourselves, at whatever risk of heresy or blasphemy. We can find solace in the memorable representation of the human struggle against the absolute in the finest scene in the greatest of American novels. I refer of course to the scene when Huckleberry Finn decides that the ''plain hand of Providence'' requires him to tell Miss Watson where her runaway slave Jim is to be found. Huck writes his letter of betrayal to Miss Watson and feels ''all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now.'' He sits there for a while thinking ''how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.''
Then Huck begins to think about Jim and the rush of the great river and the talking and the singing and the laughing and friendship. ''Then I happened to look around and see that paper. . . . I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' - and tore it up.''
That, if I may say so, is what America is all about. This essay has been adapted from a lecture given at Brown University on the occasion of Vartan Gregorian's inauguration as president.