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

15 Oct

whosafraidofrelativism2…jumping right in from my previous post (and here is the intro from the Just and Sinner blog)

c) highlighting some things I do not think are helpful or raise questions

1. Does sinful man in some sense know God and right and wrong?: Two of the main influences shaping the modern West were the decline of the Roman Catholic church and philosopher Rene Descartes’s radical skepticism which called all authoritative tradition into question. With Descartes, evidence comes to reside primarily in the mind of the rational individual – who decides what counts and what is convincing – as opposed to being something that is “inherent on the side of the world”.[i]

Theology followed suit. And so, in the 20th and 21st century, James K.A. Smith, like Karl Barth and pretty much everyone associated with or somewhat friendly to liberal theology (even the “conservative” Radical Orthodoxy movement) has intractable problems with the first two chapters of Romans. The Apostle Paul teaches, in line with everything that we know about very young children by the way (see here, for example), that sinful man in some sense knows God by the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-21) – and also knows what is right and wrong (Rom. 1:32, 2:14-15) – but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (see here and here and here for more in depth reflections on this). This does not mean human beings, on their own, are capable of achieving the knowledge that is eternal life – and with that proper fear, love, and trust in the Triune God (see 110) – but it does mean that they are culpable for their sin. Despite the fact that Romans explicitly says God has made this clear to humankind, in Smith’s account any real knowledge is denied and any real culpability of man is either downplayed or goes unmentioned (for his comments about natural law, see 112 fn 49, 170, 173 fn 28).

Important here is that while the Bible certainly talks about the blindness of sin that affects all men, it also indicates that things can get much worse: we really can flatter ourselves too much to detect or hate our sin, call good “evil” and evil “good”, and even have the nerve to assert that there is no God.

That said, I don’t think that these realities necessarily should necessarily mean “turning up the heat” on the unbeliever on our part. In fact, I greatly appreciate Smith’s sensitive way of introducing folks to God’s law as well as his “soft apologetics” approach (see Proverbs 25:15, for example). In this sense, what he is doing is a lot like what Blaise Pascal did.


That said, if “harder” approaches – something I think should be in the church’s toolkit because they actually often help support the “soft” approach (see John 16:8 and Acts 17:30-31, for example) – are “out of bounds”, thought to be rarely if ever appropriate, chances are the rest of this review will not be appreciated.

2. Real second thoughts about Christians adopting pragmatism – and its consequences?: One might think that the fact that most every American – among the common man and the elites – is basically a pragmatist might be a good reason for resisting or questioning it. Also because of the fact that most intellectual pragmatists (and I think that many perhaps do not realize how the label really does fit them) – whether they be more on the “left” or “right” – cannot affirm anything which consists of a stable essence immune to change or turning – other than things like the laws of nature or basic physical particles, that is. And so with pragmatism, even the most socially conservative of secularists cannot affirm, in the end, any rationale higher than the “human dignity of autonomous choice” (see, for example, the comments made about George Will here).

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.” (more here)

Over the past 200 years what we can call the historicist worldview, set loose by the arch anti-Cartesian Vico, has set the tempo for the intellectual world (see the work of Hans Gumbrecht in this regard – this talk is a good place to start; also Martin Noland’s 1996 PhD dissertation [see here for a summary], Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack). Both Hegel and Darwin fit their own influential worldviews into historicism, and with that, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”[ii] In fact, I would argue that any theologian who wants to be academically respectable today – even in many Christian circles – needs to bend towards either or both of these narratives to one degree or another.[iii]

In his book, Smith argues that Richard Rorty is a man who is clearly concerned about moral standards (without claiming they are “objective”) and that we cannot insist his pragmatism / relativism must intellectually lead to atheism (21-23; see 98 also). On the other hand, one of Smith’s reviewers says that we need to insist on the ideal of an Absolute Truth – towards which we are all striving – to effectively counter the acidic effects of relativism. To this effect, he even quotes one of the founders of pragmatism, William James (“the founder” would be “America’s Aristotle”, Charles Sanders Peirce), who said “we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” in “[t]he ‘absolutely’ true”. This is the “ideal vanishing point” that “no further experience will ever alter” (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI, 1907).

But what ultimately happens to truth in the pragmatist view? I submit that man will tend to think that – unless checked by other strongly held convictions – what is true and what “works” – or what we convince ourselves works in the more or less “long term”! – become synonymous. And yet, it seems that there is an assumption that philosophical realism can, must, and will (if it is enacted, taught) stem this relativist tide (for example, one might think a modern philosophy like reliabilism could do the trick).

The problem with this however – not noted by Smith or any of his reviewers – is that there certainly exists forms of philosophical and moral realism – where our “beliefs… ‘correspond[]’ to an ‘objective’ reality” (see 22) where everything, under the surface, is nevertheless in flux. These philosophers, seemingly without exception, believe that the essence of human beings, for example, is gradually changing and able to be changed (by us now to) – and with this, the morality of human beings is changing as well (see here and here for more). Rebecca Goldstein’s work “Plato at the Googleplex”, where she upholds “objective” reality and morality (it’s all objective but its changing), is a good example of this. For her and those like her, this does not mean that there is no “Absolute Truth” – only that what is really absolute can be reduced to things like the most basic particles, nature’s laws, and perhaps, simply, impersonal mathematics. Here, the “Good, True, and Beautiful” are subsumed in “the Best”, which, when it really comes down to brass tacks, is all about “how to”/”know how” for the Elites who can grasp it… “get it” (see here for more). For these “new men”, ever evolving, it seems that effective technocratic power – perhaps even with a spiritual aspect (why not at this point, after the nasty theisms are so weak and discredited they can’t possibly recover?) – is all that is left.

Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon said that

“ establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe… depends wholly on the arts and sciences… For we cannot command nature except by obeying her… Truth, therefore, and utility are here perfectly identical.

If Bacon was limiting the applicability of this pragmatic approach – where all knowledge is reduced by technique – by the use of the word “here” in this sentence, I suggest that others – being written against in this N.Y. Times editorial – have let the “here” drop out, and that this in fact can fully explain and make “sensible” their view. Perhaps the “fact-value split[ter]” David Hume would not have been proud, but he should have hardly been surprised.

Tomorrow, in part III [update: here it is]: presenting an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account




[i] The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”

[ii] ibid.

[iii] As my pastor has noted of Erlangen theology, which is basically the conservative form of Lutheran theology in Germany:

“…the theologian in academia has two challenges: 1) To teach that which he should; 2) To be taken as intellectually viable. Since the enlightenment, the latter has trumped the former. The Erlangen school is appealing, for while rejecting divine inspiration, it accepts Scripture as a type of God’s Word; while rejecting the knowability of history, it accepts the events described within Scripture as a witness of the church to normative events; while rejecting a quia subscription to the confessions, it accepts the confessional nature of the church; while rejecting a standard hermeneutic of biblical interpretation, it accepts the idea that the church should be the one to interpret Scripture…In short, what Erlangen theologians attempt to do is to maintain some sort of Lutheran theology, based on what the modern intellectual community takes to be fact, or reality.” (read more here)

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