“Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part I of III)

14 Oct

whosafraidofrelativism(if you are unfamiliar with Professor James K.A. Smith and the quality of his work, please see the post I have on the Just and Sinner blog introducing this series)

I firmly reject the views of those who reduce all knowledge to notions of social privilege, control and power (is this view not amazing?!  See more here).

For these folks, other persons besides “security, comfort, and autonomy” (31) -seekers (others like themselves of course!) must be trusted to be benevolent with knowledge, which is just another way of saying “effectively exercising power”.

On the contrary, my view of knowledge, more in line with those of the classical philosophers (which I argue is more in line with that of the biblical authors)[i] is quite different. For example, I believe it is indeed a valid assumption to think that all human beings, throughout their history, have shared a lot of “common ground” as it has been called – and hence a lot of “common sense”. This I attribute to the Providence of God, lovingly crafting an orderly creation (I’ve written more about this here in particular).

For example, when Paul says, in I Corinthians 15….

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead…”

Or when Christ says, in Mathew chapter 24, that,

“For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be”.

Or when He says, in Mark chapter 10, that,

“….from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate….”

…it seems clear to me these are words[ii] that most any human being who has ever lived could readily understand (taking into consideration the need for translation, and noting that some philosophers have, for example, asserted that “nature” is eternal – they nevertheless could still understand what Jesus is getting at). And also, perhaps – depending on the Spirit’s work – be convicted that they are true (see John 16 – and note we are not told that such conviction necessarily entails saving faith). Again, to emphasize: not just Christians can begin to understand these things!

Simple enough, right? I think so! We can all really go home now, without getting into deep philosophical questions and quandaries….

But what happens if someone – particularly a Christian – calls this into question? Or, what if they do not directly call this into question, but establish a kind of thinking about knowledge and language that seems to indirectly call this into question? To say the least, if this happens, does this not mean that there may need to be some re-thinking about all of this: and perhaps some new ideas and new arguments?

These questions have been prompted in me due to my reading of James K.A. Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood”, a book I have been thinking about for a good long while.

This 2014 book has been reviewed in publications ranging from the Christian Century (very positive, almost breathless, review) to The Evangelical Quarterly (quite negative review). Those wanting to check out the available online reviews can do so here, here, here, and here (most positive to most negative – the CC review is not available for free online).[iii] This review will kind of split the middle….

In this series of posts, I will

a) sum up as best I can the core message of the book ;

b) highlight some aspects of the book I think are particularly helpful ; (all this in part I)

c) highlight some things I do not think are helpful or raise questions ; (part II)

d) present an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account (part III)

So, let’s start by…

a) summing up as best I can the core message of the book

“relativism…who in their right mind would sign up to defend such a monster? Well, I’d like to give it a shot…” (16)

“relativism…who in their right mind would sign up to defend such a monster? Well, I’d like to give it a shot…” (16)

Is truth really “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, as Richard Rorty once quipped? James K.A. Smith dares to think that Christians have a lot to learn from this feared arch-relativist and “whipping boy” of Christian apologists. Noting his own gadfly proclivities (see 11-17), Smith dives in, specifically focusing on the form of relativism known as pragmatism (36). “Social constructivism”, which he describes as the “scholarly rendition of relativism” (20), goes hand-in-hand with this.

Smith argues that “Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort” (12), and at the very least, is convincing in his argument that there really are important aspects to what Rorty says (chap. 2). He also deftly unpacks Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that the meaning of our language, verbal or otherwise, tacit or explicit, has to do with the way it is used in particular “forms of life” – and in particular situational contexts where particular goals are in mind…. “meaning is use” (chap. 3). Also, he explains in depth Robert Brandon’s argument that reasoning, logic and justification are primarily social practices, which are the real context for accountability (chap. 4, pp 130, 145).

In sum, Smith is looking to steal these philosopher’s good ideas insofar as they can help Christians better realize their creaturehood and the community, sociality, contingency, dependence, and finitude that comes along with that. Challenging those of us who sympathize with [evidently all] versions of the correspondence theory of truth, Smith states:

“…what counts as “correspondence” is, at root, a social production. Social context is not a necessary evil that “taints” our ability to represent the world; rather, we are embedded in social practices that are the matrix from which all of our knowledge emerges… practices of “justification” are going to be relative to that “society,” that community of practice. To wish it otherwise is to wish away our finitude. (p. 85, italics his)[iv]

As the Christian Century reviewer put it, those Christians who see things otherwise necessarily “hold on to representational notions of truth by which one’s interior impressions precisely mirror external reality” (and hold this view, with their “all-seeing impregnability”, to preserve power and privilege). Smith himself agrees with Rorty (and evidently Charles Taylor, see 24, 25) that many Christians are trapped in their referentialist (“’naming’ theory of the word-world relation”)… representationalist, (“inside/outside picture of mind and representation”, where “something ‘inside’ our minds… hook[s] onto things ‘outside’ our minds”)… realist (“correspondence theory of truth”) frames of mind (24, 88). “Realism”, as he puts it, is not the only way to affirm something as true (25). In understanding what Smith is getting at I think this statement about Brandon’s explication of “objectivity” is particularly helpful:

“Brandon’s project is to secure an account of objectivity without lapsing back into the representationalism that is assumed behind realist, “correspondence” accounts of objectivity. His goal is to explain how propositional contents can be “objective in the sense of swinging free” of the attitudes of the linguistic practitioners deploy them in assertions” ([Articulating Reasons, 2000], 188, emphasis added). A claim will be “objective” in this sense if it is not idiosyncratically tethered to subjective impressions; that is, an “objective” claim is one that can be shared because it doesn’t depend on the attitudes of specific linguistic practitioners. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t depend on other factors and conditions [me: here is where Smith would say relativism is essential – things and everything always depend on a context]. To say that an “objective” claim swings free of the attitudes of linguistic practitioners is not the same as saying it is free of all conditions or independent of the communities of discursive practice. Brandon has belabored the point that all claims are always and only made within the ‘space of reasons’ that is forged in a linguistic community. Thus he’s after ‘objectivity of a particular sort’ (190)” (p. 147 in Smith)

Indeed he is, and that is likely to scare the heck out of many of us. “It’s not that knowledge is either social or ‘objective’; rather, objectivity is a social accomplishment” (93) – it does not lift us out of our “contingency, creaturehood, and community” (149; see 97 also).[v] Further, while “objectivity” is certainly related to truth (see 147 and 148 for more), truth in this narrow sense of the word is ultimately “warranted assertability” or that which is “good for us to believe” (84, italics mine).[vi] As one reviewer helpfully put it, “truth is not an argument but key patrol of meaning and significance”.

“Why is Smith messing with this stuff?”, we might think. Here he might say, “now don’t be too hasty here”… reminding us that both Rorty and Brandon affirm “that we all inhabit a shared world that pushes back on us – a shared environment with which we ‘cope.’” (see 95-97, 100) We are not only accountable to a “community of fellow knowers”, but must “grapple with the ‘antics’ of things”. In other words, Smith says constraint does not necessarily equal correspondence (28). He also smartly points out how we tend to reduce knowledge to “know-that”, but that “know-how is not un-true”, but “true differently” (96, italics his). And so, Smith argues, perhaps Rorty shows us a “realism without correspondence” – something “to which Christians should be committed” (88, 89; see 97 also).

As a reviewer of Smith’s book puts it: “Suggesting that relativism does not mean that ‘nothing matters,’ but simply that ‘everything depends’ on some context, Smith claims that Christianity is fundamentally about such dependence – on God and the community of faith.” (J. A. Simmons, Furman University, Choice Reviews Online, italics mine).

Smith summing up Hauerwas: ”...everything depends – not just our life and breath, but also truth and knowledge, even our epistemology and metaphysics.” (35)

Smith summing up Hauerwas: ”…everything depends – not just our life and breath, but also truth and knowledge, even our epistemology and metaphysics.” (35)

It is hard to imagine any Christian arguing that such dependence is indeed [updated: NOT!] an element of Christianity (though it is fundamentally about God’s love for His creation)[vii] – or that our claims to knowledge and truth are “relative” in the sense that they are “related to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community” (179). This is why Smith provocatively says:

“’Is Christianity true?’… ‘It depends.’ It depends on the One in whom all things hold together.” (31)

And this, ultimately, is why Smith says that we can affirm with Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandon that “what is true depends on what we human beings say or think” (29). To say that truth is relative is not equal to saying truth is arbitrary (30).

In short, for Smith the word “relativism” need not signify “arbitrary or subjective or governed by fleeting whims” – i.e. “nothing matters”, but rather “everything depends”. For “as creatures, we are contingent, dependent and relative (i.e., in relation—to the Creator, but also to other creatures)” (179-180).

b) helpful stuff

In spite of the amount of criticism in this review which will follow – indicated by the way I led off part I – I really did find the book to be helpful and worth reading, as I think Smith brings up several good points that are worth reflecting on deeply (it is also a great summary of these interesting and influential thinkers). Although Smith did not talk about it directly in the book, it is clear from his discussion of Lindbeck’s “cognitive-propositional model” of doctrine (see part III) that there is a very popular and distinctly modern (i.e. from the Enlightenment) form of “correspondence” and “realism”. It makes sense to question what might be undesirable about this, and how reliance on such an inside/outside view tends to undermine the key element of social practice as it relates to knowledge. Going along with this, I think Smith has a point about the wisdom of trumpeting the notion of “Absolute Truth” vs relativism: “the alternative to anything-goes-ism is not some absolute standpoint” (see 16, 30, 115, 180). While I think it is a good idea to say that Jesus is the Absolute Truth, full stop, I wonder whether the phrase is really as useful as people think it is for other apologetic purposes. I tend to think that the salient point to be made can be accomplished by emphasizing how “we share a world out there” and rhetorically asking questions like “Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?”

What’s going to happen in part II and III?

Always good to keep in mind....

Always good to keep in mind….

I recently heard a conservative Lutheran theologian talk about how all our knowledge exists inside of rational traditions with their own linguistic rules and ideas for understanding reality – and how this is also true of theology.  Not only this, I also heard another say that we do our best to interpret Scripture – both prayerfully and thoughtfully – but that we could be wrong on most matters because we could be missing something important!

From all the listening and reading of Smith I have done, I get the impression that he would be on the same page as both these men. “How can anyone with an ecumenical bone in their body think any differently?”, one might ask. In which case, is all this, in spite of the irony, somehow “most certainly true” as we Lutherans like to say?

Stay tuned… (update: part II and part III)



Update: A sentence above originally read: “It is hard to imagine any Christian arguing that such dependence is indeed   an element of Christianity (though it is fundamentally about God’s love for His creation)”  Big typo. “Indeed” was taken out and “not” was added.


[i] Early Greek philosophers, arguably looking to subtlely undermine more mythological views of life valued by many of their Greek contemporaries, argued that that there were natures, or forms, that could be observed (or realized by signs) in the cosmos and were ultimately not only universal but eternal, vs. the idea that the cosmos – which all agreed any gods would be subject to – was basically chaotic, unpredictable and subject to change. Christians do not, of courses, believe that the things we experience in this material world are “eternal” but rather permanent and consistent in this life.

[ii] Take death and marriage for example. When it comes to the meaning of these words for human beings, there is much that can be agree on (at least until the present hour!). Just because the Christian might talk about how death and marriage both have great spiritual meaning – spiritual death and Christ and the church respectively – as well does not mean that there is no significant common ground that can otherwise be found in these things.

[iii] One of the more positive reviewers has high hopes for Smith’s approach: “…even more important, it is the need to re-orientate our thinking to move away from a conservative-liberal divide, toward a more reconcilatory “post-liberal” or “post-conservative” alignment.”

[iv] Smith writes elsewhere: “The only social constructionism that will be able to evade [Christian] Smith’s critique will be a pragmatist version that emerges from Wittgenstein’s more radical critique of representationalism (or referentialism). These are roughly synonymous ways of describing knowledge as a relation of ideas (‘representations’) in my mind that ‘correspond’ to reality ‘outside’ my mind.” (p. 24)

[v] My own approach to the issue of objectivity: “”objective reality” at the very least means that we, being personal subjects, can “subjectively” agree that there are certain aspects of reality (i.e. things, regularities, etc.) – considered both locally and more broadly, considered both inside and outside our bodies, considered both more particularly and more generally – that neither one of us should try to – and in fact many times cannot – alter by our interpretation and imaginative response to it[.] And if this is the case, is not what we debate – based on both the various kinds of evidence that “find us” and that we seek to find – simply where the lines are on our imperfect “maps” of reality (to use what I think is a good metaphor) – scrupulously created as “objectively” as we feel we can manage (and not done so apart from the wider question of “narrative”!) – should be drawn and why?”

[vi] Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928-2010) was a proponent of fideism, which grounds faith “on evidence that faith itself provides”. For Smith, his way of looking at things is a step up from fideism (see 149).

[vii] I submit this kind of partial truth is precisely what made Schliermacher’s program – where Christianity and religion as a whole were reduced to the feeling of absolute dependence – so seductive in the early 19th c.

1 Comment

Posted by on October 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


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One response to ““Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part I of III)

  1. Thursday

    March 10, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    In classical epistemology, all this talk of mirrors and representations is bull****. The mind becomes what it thinks about, at least formally.


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