Review Article on James K.A. Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol.87, No. 2, 2015, pp.169-75)

Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood by James K.A. Smith
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 186 pp. pbk.$19.99
ISBN 978-0-8010-3973-7

It is important to see how the sub-title of this book answers the question asked in the main title. Smith provides the link in his Preface: “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood” (12). So one purpose of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is to counter the deep suspicions about relativism held by many Christians.

But there is another agenda underlying this book. Already in the Preface, Smith suggests that “this book has a constructive project of advancing a ‘Christian pragmatism’ and exploring the implications of that for theology and ministry” (12). Indeed, in the final chapter of the book where Smith provides an exposition of the George Lindbeck’s postliberal understanding of religion and doctrine, Smith describes what seems to be a quite different agenda of his book. “[M]y engagement with pragmatism could be seen as a more explicitly philosophical path to a similar account of the relationship between practice and theory, worship and doctrine” (152). This book therefore also needs to be seen as providing a philosophical framework for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, expressed in his books, Desiring the Kingdom (2009), and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) (cf.152, n3).

Despite its Christian orientation, much of this book focuses on an exposition of philosophers who are not Christian. Like its predecessor, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), the book under review belongs to “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series which Smith himself edits. The explicit purpose of this series is to draw lessons from postmodern writers for the church. Both books makes much of following Augustine’s spirit of “looting the Egyptians” – “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans and putting them to service in worship of the Triune God” (11).

Most of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is devoted to an exposition of three pragmatist philosophers. In Chapter 2, Smith analyses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “meaning as use.” Smith argues that meaning and truth are more a matter of “know-how” which precedes knowing-that, and which is always found in the context of community (60). Chapter 3 explores Richard Rorty’s project “to get philosophy to own up to its –and to our – contingency and historicity” (78). Smith enjoys teasing out the meaning of Rorty’s controversial claim that truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying (84). Smith agrees with Rorty because ultimately epistemology comes down to “the ethnography of a particular people” (85). Robert Brandom, reviewed in Chapter 4, provides a critical extension of Wittgenstein’s and Rorty’s ideas, by focusing on “conceptual pragmatism” or “rationalist pragmatism” (121). For Brandom, reasoning and justification are fundamentally social practices, which in turn provide a context for some accountability (130, 145). It should be noted that each of these chapters (as well as chapter 1) includes an analysis of a film to help students picture the issues under discussion (13).

In the final chapter, Smith is more explicit in working out the implications of the previous three chapters for Christian theology. He does this by exploring the ideas of George Lindbeck’s landmark book, The Nature of Doctrine (1984). Here Lindbeck articulates “a ‘postliberal’ understanding of religion and doctrine that is fundamentally pragmatist in its account of theological meaning while at the same time fundamentally missional in its understanding of the church’s task of proclamation in a post-Christian culture” (152). It is communal religious practices, not doctrines or personal experiences, which are primary in Lindbeck’s interpretation of religion (159). The book concludes with a fascinating account of the implications of Christian pragmatism for apologetics. Smith maintains that “postliberal apologetics is invitational, not demonstrational” (175).

Interestingly, Smith admits that the apologetic strategy of Christian pragmatism is quite similar to that of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology (174). I find this interesting because Smith is very critical of Plantinga in the beginning of the book (25-9). Perhaps Smith’s Christian pragmatism isn’t quite as different and radical as he thinks. But on the whole, Smith’s account of Christian pragmatism, based on his exposition of the four writers examined in his book, is clear and illuminating, though somewhat repetitious.

I raise two further evaluative points. The first has to do with Smith’s and Lindbeck’s emphasis on religion (and Christianity) as being “a matter more of initiation than of information, a matter of know-how before it ever becomes a matter of know-that” (159). This point is made repeatedly in the book and is of course in keeping with Smith’s earlier books. But, I have serious doubts about giving know-how the priority Smith gives it. I also question whether knowing-how always precedes knowing-that. We are not only doers but also thinkers, and sometimes thinking precedes doing. Jesus obviously considered knowing-that important because he spent much of his time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines. A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine. Indeed, in most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application. A biblical approach, I believe, requires a balance between doctrine and practice.

Secondly, I would call into question Smith’s basic strategy of “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans.” Smith advocates a review of these “pagan” philosophers as “an exercise in self-examination prompting us to remember and retrieve core convictions of Christian orthodoxy” that “we have effectively forgotten in modernity” (32, 36). But surely a better way for Christians to retrieve their core convictions is to start with the Scriptures. I worry about “bringing Rorty to church because he has something to teach us” (32). I would rather bring the church and its message to Rorty. He is after all an atheist, and thus it comes as no surprise that Smith is forced at times to suggest that Rorty’s atheism is incidental to his pragmatism (104, 100, n 25). But maybe his atheism is a logical outworking of his initial pragmatist premises. There is a danger in starting with “pagan” philosophers. As Alvin Plantinga has reminded us, we need to have more courage as Christian philosophers to set our own agendas and to develop our thinking on the basis of Christian resources. I suspect Smith would agree with Plantinga on this, so perhaps Smith needs to write another book which argues for Christian pragmatism from a specifically biblical perspective.

I shift now to a second major thrust of Smith’s book – the themes highlighted in the title and sub-title of the book. Who’s afraid of relativism? I have already alluded to Smith’s answer to this question. According to Smith, Christians shouldn’t be as afraid of relativism as they tend to be. Indeed, according to Smith, a Christian understanding of human nature entails a kind of relativism. Smith’s appreciation of the pragmatism of Wittgenstein, Rorty and Brandom is in part based on the fact that they give us “a scrupulous philosophical account of the contingency, dependency, and sociality that characterizes human creaturehood” (36). Indeed, they give us “an account of knowledge and truth that remembers and re-appreciates the implications of a biblical doctrine of creation” (36). Later in the book Smith argues that our claims to knowledge and truth are always “relative” in some special sense, namely, “related to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community” (179). I am largely in agreement with all this, though it should be noted that the word “relative” in the above quotation has a slightly different meaning than “relativism” as traditionally understood. The Scriptures are very clear about our status as created and social beings. And I agree that our claims to knowledge and truth are therefore in some special sense relative.

But, Smith doesn’t stop here. Indeed he seems intent on defending relativism as traditionally understood in terms of denying objective reality, absolute truth, objective values, and universal reason (15). Chapter 1 begins with a bold critique of Christian writers who have objected to postmodern relativism and anti-realism. J.P. Moreland, D.A. Carson, and Joseph Ratzinger are chastised for their “reactionary dismissals” of relativism (16). Christian Smith’s attack against social constructionism and his defense of moral realism also come under criticism (19-25). Even Alvin Plantinga is criticized for unfairly attacking postmodernists as anti-realists (25-9).

To help us understand Smith’s sympathies with relativism we need to return once again to his analysis of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom, now focusing on the issue of relativism/realism. Throughout these chapters, we find Smith challenging correspondence and representational models of truth and knowledge, which are assumed by realists and by those who believe in absolute truth. Wittgenstein argues that “meaning – even ostensive or referentialist meaning – is ultimately dependant upon the conventions of a community of practice” (47). Hence his notion of “language-games” which highlights the practical context in which our speech makes sense (46). For Wittgenstein correspondence is ultimately conventional, by which he means that the connection between words and the world is contingent and a matter of agreement between language users (52). A central thrust of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is to counter some bad habits in the history of philosophy, namely thinking that knowledge has to mirror reality (74). “So rather than looking to ground truth as correspondence, we do better to see truth as ‘warranted assertability’ – truth as ‘what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying’” (84). Indeed, truth is more “a matter of ‘what is good for us to believe’ rather than the metaphysical acrobatics of ‘contact with reality’” (84). Brandom too stresses the social dimension of rationality and justification (119). Brandom admits that our “folk” vocabulary about the world tends to be stated in representational terms, but he is trying to articulate “an account in nonrepresentational terms of what is expressed by the use of explicitly representational vocabulary” (142-3).

The statements in the above paragraph sound very relativistic and also seem to reject realism. However, there is another strand of thought in these writers and here things become rather confusing. At times Smith points out that Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom want to say that there is more to knowledge and truth than social construction, that there is an outside world out there that pushes back on our constructions of knowledge and truth. I will limit myself here to Rorty by way of illustration. We are told that Rorty clearly affirms that “we all inhabit a shared world that pushes back on us – the shared environment with which we ‘cope’” (88). But then, a few pages earlier, Smith states that Rorty wants “to disabuse us” of thinking that language “represents” the world, “hooks onto” the world, or “corresponds to” the world (85). But surely this statement contradicts the previous one. Of course Smith and Rorty will reply that I am locked into a representational/correspondence paradigm which is precisely what they want to get rid of (26, 74-85). But I would counter that you cannot debunk the notions of representation or correspondence without ending up with full-blown relativism, a relativism where “anything goes” (100). We must also never forget that language which is embedded in “communities of practice” can be misguided, and the only way in which to account for such errors is by making reference to something beyond social constructions of knowledge and truth.

In his exposition of Rorty, Smith makes an interesting concession that begins to address the fundamental problem I have identified in Smith’s defense of pragmatic relativism. Smith concedes that the idea of our living in a shared world that pushes back on our claims to knowledge and truth “is (at best) nascent and understated” in Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (88, n15). Yes, indeed! And this is also a problem running throughout Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism? The focus is on describing the human dimension of making claims to knowledge and truth. And parallel to this, there is a tendency to understate talk about the existence of a reality independent of the knower. Indeed, at times there is outright denial, as for example, when Smith describes Rorty as not taking recourse to magical appeals to “the way things are” (89). But without such appeals, I believe we are indeed lost in a sea of relativistic human constructions of knowledge and truth. Of course, the problem here is that there are difficulties in giving an account of this extra-linguistic reality and the way in which our language corresponds to this reality. Indeed, this is the point that Smith and his pragmatists highlight ad-nauseum. They therefore focus on describing the human dimension of knowing and truth-claiming, and I will concede that they do a fairly good job of this. But if this description is not balanced with an equal emphasis on the existence of a reality independent of the human knower, we have a very incomplete analysis of knowledge and truth.

I would suggest that an underlying problem in these accounts of knowledge and truth is that they fail to distinguish clearly between the human search for and articulation of truth, and Truth itself. I am quite prepared to admit that the human search for knowledge and truth is “relative” to some degree. But this claim needs to be separated from the notion of Truth as an absolute ideal, as something we are striving for. We need a concept or an ideal of absolute truth to remind us of the relativity of our own claims to truth. As William James puts it, “The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge” (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI, 1907). That comes pretty close to what Paul says about our only knowing in part, but there will come a day when we will know fully (I Cor. 13: 5,7).

The above distinction between the human search for truth and Absolute Truth helps to put into perspective what Smith and his pragmatist philosophers do with regard to truth. Smith argues that he hasn’t run into too many postmodern theorists “who actually go around saying “there isn’t any such thing as truth” (27). Instead, “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” (27). In the final chapter, Smith once again explains his approach: “a pragmatist account of meaning and knowledge does not preclude referential claims; it just accounts for those claims differently” (166). Brandom is cited as giving us a refined way of making sense of this. Brandom suggests that “the representational dimension of propositional contents should be understood in terms of their social articulation” (142). But what is really going on here? Representation and truth are being located within the language of the community.

Now I agree that there is something right about this. At a very practical level, truth claims need to be seen as “commodities traded in a community of practice,” to quote Rorty (85). In other words, there is something to be said for Smith and his pragmatists locating truth within the realm of the human search for truth. But if this is all that we have to say about truth, then we are indeed left with full-blown relativism. In order to escape relativism, we have to introduce the notion of correspondence with reality. We also need to introduce another dimension of truth – an ideal of Absolute Truth toward which we are all striving in the midst of our feeble attempts to give truthful accounts of the world we live in. I would suggest that Smith and his pragmatists are doing much more than giving us “deflationary accounts” of truth. Ultimately, they are undermining the very notion of truth.

Perhaps a few more comments about absolute truth are in order. Already in Chapter 1 Smith objects to those who are critical of relativism by introducing the notion of absolute truth (16). He expresses concerns about those who offer as an antidote to relativism “claims to ‘absolute’ truth” (16). Indeed, he suggests that we should be just as afraid of “absolutism” as we are about relativism. At one point he even suggests that “claims to ‘absolute” truth might be almost diabolical” (115). Again in the Epilogue, Smith argues that “it borders on idolatrous hubris for humans to claim absolute truth” (180). Indeed, he draws a comparison between attempts “to pretend to the Absolute” and the fall of Adam and Eve (180). But Smith is guilty of the same “frequent and sloppy use” of “claims to absolute truth” as he accuses those opposed to his position (29). Christian philosophers who appeal to absolute truth as an antidote to relativism are not saying that humans can reach absolute truth. They are not attempting “to pretend to the Absolute,” whatever that might mean. All they are saying is that we need an ideal of absolute truth to act as a regulative principle which then explains how we are often mistaken in the claims that we make. I would further suggest that it is social constructivists who exemplify the sin of Adam and Eve. Instead of listening to God, the source and foundation of all Truth, they feel that they themselves can create truth.

I want to point to another disturbing feature of Smith’s treatment of relativism which comes to the fore particularly in Chapter 1, where he lists a number of Christians opposed to relativism and social constructivism and anti-realism – everyone from youth pastors to university presidents to Christian scholars (15-29). The language Smith uses here is often strident and sarcastic. He chastises Christians for their “reactionary dismissals and caricatured fear-mongering” of the “monster” of relativism (16). Sadly, Smith himself can’t seem to avoid caricaturing when he describes Christian critics of “postmodern relativism” as only being able to utter the words “with a dripping sneer” (16). He even compares the “Rorty scare” to “the red menace,” which gives rise to “philosophical McCarthyism” (17). He critiques Christian Smith’s “rather naive invocation of the need to recover a ‘referentialist’ account of language” when he “seems blithely unaware of the force and features of the pragmatist critique of reference and representation” (25). That sounds like an ad-hominem argument to me. One nearly gets the impression that James K.A. Smith is the only enlightened Christian philosopher around. Indeed, Smith takes great pride in being “the keeper of lost causes” and of having “a habit of affirming what other Christians despise” (11). I would like to see a little more intellectual humility here. And I would remind Smith that sarcasm and caricaturing do not reveal a Christ-like spirit.

Who’s afraid of relativism? It all depends – to use a phrase that Smith is fond of (15, 179). If by “relativism” we mean that the search for knowledge and truth must take into account our contingency, our creaturehood, and our being part of a community, then I agree, we should not be afraid of relativism, though I think it better not to use the word “relativism” to describe these aspects of human nature and its relation to epistemology. After all, we are finite, fallible and sinful people, and so our search for truth bears the marks of relativism. But if we try to give an account of epistemology “without recourse to magical appeals to ‘the way things are’,” as does Smith (89), then I believe we should be very afraid of relativism. Knowledge and truth are not just social constructions. Indeed, the sin of Adam and Eve was precisely to think that they could create truth. Individuals can be mistaken. Communities of practice too can err, a problem that Smith fails to acknowledge. To focus primarily on human dimension of knowing, as does this book is very misleading. More, it is dangerous. I cannot recommend this book to the Christian students for whom it is written.

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