Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood

James K. A. Smith Baker Academic, Grand Rapids April 15, 2014

Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the editor of the series The Church and Postmodern Culture. The purpose of the series is “to bring together high-profiled theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology to write for a broad, non-specialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church” (p. 9).

In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), an earlier volume in this series, Smith took on “the unholy trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michael Foucault” in order to show how “their philosophical critique of modernity was a catalyst for the church to remember what it had forgotten” (p. 11). In this volume, he extends that project, using Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom to wrestle with relativism. His “thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood” (p. 12).  Of course, the key words in this thesis are “of a sort,” and the book unpacks what he means by that.

Although the claim is often made that postmodernism rejects truth, Smith observes: “I haven’t run into many so-called ‘postmodern’ theorists who actually go around saying ‘there isn’t any such thing as truth.’ That would be a bit too earnest and direct, not befitting their irony.  . . . It would be better to say that they offer us deflationary accounts of truth. They explain truth in terms other than our (realist) habits incline us to” (p. 27).  Smith also affirms the postmodern emphasis on contingency, observing, “The Christian claim about contingency is not that everything is contingent but rather that everything created is contingent” (p. 36).

In “Community as Context,” Smith appreciates Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games” and argues that Christian language is rooted in a contingent relationship between words and world. Words have meanings by convention “and there is no naming or reference that isn’t rooted in such convention. Community precedes correspondence. And this is a feature of finitude, a characteristic of creaturehood” (p. 53). Smith rightly affirms the significance of language for life in this world: “Language is bound up with our investment in cultural projects; it is part and parcel of our culture making” (ibid.).

In “Who’s Afraid of Contingency?” Smith appreciates Rorty’s pragmatism, which is rooted in contingency. His sophisticated evaluation of relativism in Rorty is very helpful. Smith explains that Rorty does make value judgments, so “any reading that reduces Rorty to nihilistic ‘anything goes’ indifference has failed to appreciate the nuances of his account” (p. 98). But Rorty does “see such valuations as relative to and dependent upon contingent social practices and communities of discourse.” In this sense “Rorty is a relativist, But who isn’t? is Rorty’s reply” (ibid.). Smith concludes, “Now a Christian ‘realist’ might say that she is ultimately dependent on God, but I think Rorty’s account is actually more attuned to the fact that, as creatures dependent upon God, we have been made to be dependent upon others. Our dependence on the divine is inextricably bound up with our dependence on other human beings. This is why we are not merely dependent but also social. We are social because we are dependent” (p. 99).

In “Reasons to Believe,” Smith appreciates Brandom’s emphasis on sapience. He explains, “In short, sapient beings—‘us’—are those beings that can answer the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” (p. 118). He summarizes, “ ‘We’ are those who inhabit ‘the space of reasons,’ and in that space we express (make explicit) what was implicit in our practice and hold one another accountable to the inferences assumed therein. It is these sorts of obligations that bind us to one another . . . they free us to be human, to be social, to be with” (pp. 135–36).

In an “Epilogue: How to Be a Conservative Relativist,” Smith draws several conclusions. First, he insists that “relativism” must be defined and nuanced. As he uses the term, it does not mean “arbitrary or subjective or governed by fleeting whims” but describes “claims or accounts which are, well, relativerelated to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community. As relative to, what’s ‘relative’ is dependent upon—is contingent” (p. 179). Thus, “rather than misusing the word ‘relativism’ to mean nothing matters, I’m arguing that relativism means everything depends—and that such a claim is a radically creational, radically Christian claim about the status of creaturehood, including creaturely knowing” (pp. 179–80). In short, “as creatures, we are contingent, dependent and relative (i.e., in relation—to the Creator, but also to other creatures)” (p. 180).

Second, “this is why it borders on idolatrous hubris for humans to claim absolute truth (i.e., truth absolved of relation, truth that is independent) as their defense against ‘relativism’ (by which they mean anything-goes-ism). We ought to reject anything-goes-ism, of course. But the alternative to anything-goes-ism is not some absolute standpoint” (ibid.). Rather, “we creatures are called to depend rightly—relate rightly—to the One who is Absolute but graciously condescends to our finitude in the incarnation. In Jesus—the Absolute becomes dependent, Necessity inhabiting contingency—we learn how to be dependent. And as contingent rational creatures, we are called into rightly ordered communities of discursive practice” (ibid.).

This is a provocative book; that is the author’s intention. It is a short book; but it is packed with content. It is a helpful book; it repays slow and careful reading. It presupposes some understanding of basic philosophical categories, but it is accessible to the novice. It is highly recommended for those who desire to understand and critique postmodern philosophy. The reminder that Christians are contingent and social creatures is beneficial. And the example of how to engage with non-Christian perspectives is a model worth emulating.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2014

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2014 vol. 171 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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