Who's Afraid of Relativism?

James N. Anderson
James K. A. Smith. Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2014. 192 pp.  Softcover: $19.99/£11.99

James K. A. Smith's latest book is the follow-up to Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006) and continues his longstanding project of sympathetic Christian engagement with postmodernist philosophy. On this occasion, Smith seeks to play the role of defense attorney for 'relativism'; more precisely, the philosophy of pragmatism as propounded by the controversial American philosopher Richard Rorty. His central thesis is easily identified, since it is repeated in different forms throughout the book: pragmatism is a philosophy centered on the recognition of our dependence, finitude, and contingency; thus Christians, who acknowledge the dependence, finitude, and contingency of the creation, ought to be sympathetic rather than hostile toward pragmatism. But embracing pragmatism also means repenting of our sympathies toward representationalist realism: the idea that truth consists in a correspondence or match between the 'inside' world of our thoughts and the 'outside' world of objects existing independently of our thoughts.

The opening chapter sets up the problem that Smith seeks to solve--or rather to subvert. Christians fear "the specter of relativism" because they think Christianity requires a commitment to "absolute truth," which relativism repudiates. Relativism and its defenders are therefore enemies of the Christian faith. Philosophers such as Rorty who challenge the notion of "absolute truth" must be opposed. The term 'relativism' is often poorly defined and has been used to label various views, some more vulnerable to refutation than others. Rather than deal with sophomoric types of relativism ("true for you, not true for me") Smith proposes to engage with a serious and sophisticated form of relativism, namely, contemporary pragmatism.

Smith's positive case for a "Christian relativism" unfolds in the subsequent four chapters. Chapter 2 lays a foundation by expounding Ludwig Wittgenstein's mature views on language and meaning. Wittgenstein argues against a naïve referentialist view of meaning, according to which the meaning of a word is simply "the object for which the word stands." His alternative proposal is that the meaning of a word consists in the way it is used in a particular "form of life": words are essentially tools for everyday tasks. From this central insight significant implications are drawn. First, meaning is always relative to a context. Furthermore, such contexts are essentially social; thus meaning depends crucially on a community of language users who have adopted a set of contingent conventions. Armed with these observations, Smith concludes that if our language has any referential function at all, it must be contingent on human community. (One wonders how Adam was able to name the animals--surely a referential task--before any other humans existed.)

I'm not persuaded that Smith's arguments in this chapter warrant the sort of paradigm-challenging conclusions he thinks they do. Wittgenstein certainly deflates a narrow, reductionistic form of representationalism, but everything Smith claims about the context-relativity and social-dependence of language seems quite compatible with a realist account of truth, such as one defended by William Alston in A Realist Conception of Truth (1996). It's hard to see here a serious challenge to anything but the crudest forms of representationalist realism. Part of the problem is that Smith appears to lump together different kinds of relativity and contingency in ways that lead to stronger claims than his observations warrant. For example, even if the meanings of words (including their references) are contingent on their use within a particular "language game," it doesn't follow that the truths expressed by those words must be contingent or relative.

Chapter three turns to Richard Rorty, the philosopher "realists love to hate," who infamously quipped that "truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying." Smith invites us to give Rorty a more sympathetic hearing. If we understand the argument that lies behind Rorty's aphorism, "we will find that, not only is Rorty's pragmatism not essentially antithetical to Christian faith, but to the contrary, his account of social justification--extending key insights of Wittgenstein--amounts to a philosophy of creaturehood that ought to be embraced by Christians." (pp. 73-74) Rorty's argument is subtle and involves a controversial reading of the course of post-Enlightenment philosophy, but the upshot is this: all philosophical claims need to be recognized as historically contingent, the notion that truth consists in 'correspondence' or 'representation' must give way to a pragmatist conception of truth, and the epistemological categories of truth, justification, and knowledge must be reconceived in terms of social practices. Smith labors to show that Rorty doesn't altogether reject the idea of truth; he just wants us to see that truth is socially conditioned. In the end, Rorty only wants us to come to terms with our finitude and historical contingency. His pragmatism just is a philosophy of contingency and dependence, and thus, Smith suggests, it has a deep affinity with biblical Christianity.

Unfortunately, the reader isn't given any hint that Rorty's views on meaning, truth, and knowledge are deeply embedded in a particular worldview--one antithetical to the biblical worldview. Rorty understands his pragmatist epistemology to be a consistent outworking of a Darwinian naturalist view of human origins: all truth and knowledge claims are radically contingent because every aspect of human life is historically accidental and ungoverned by any transcendent norms or ends. It is therefore jarring to find Smith suggesting that Rorty offers us a "philosophy of creaturehood" that "recognizes our creational dependence" (pp. 74, 115). On the contrary, Rorty embraces the conclusions he does precisely because he rejects any doctrine of creation (along with other basic tenets of a Christian worldview). Rorty's is a philosophy of autonomy par excellence. I find it ironic that an author who is otherwise so attuned to the conditioning role of worldviews fails to acknowledge the worldview that informs and undergirds Rorty's pragmatism. Smith repeatedly describes his project as one of "plundering the Egyptians." I have no objection to this in principle, but surely we should think twice about trying to appropriate an ornament which appears to be firmly chained to a giant statue of Ra.

Chapter four draws from the work of Robert Brandom to address the worry that a pragmatist philosophy would leave no place for rationality and logic, thus preventing us from offering a reasoned justification for our faith. According to Brandom's "rationalist pragmatism," to be rational is simply to play the "inferential game" by the rules, where those rules are defined by a "community of practice." This means rationality must also be relative and dependent--which, Smith invites us to conclude, is consonant with a Christian view of creaturehood. However, while it is one thing to say that we are wholly dependent on God, it is quite another to suggest that norms of rationality are grounded in nothing deeper (or higher) than community convention. The latter claim is precisely what concerns Christian realists.

Chapter five seeks to show that a form of "Christian pragmatism" has already appeared in the form of the postliberal theology of George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine (1984). I think this is largely right, although unlike Smith I don't see this as a motivation to embrace Christian pragmatism, since Lindbeck's postliberalism involves, I would argue, a revisionist view of how Christians have traditionally understood creeds and other doctrinal statements. Smith also considers the implications of "Christian pragmatism" for apologetics, recommending that Christians adopt a "postliberal apologetic strategy" in which we attempt to "outnarrate" competing faiths or ideologies rather than trying to demonstrate the truth of Christian claims. Frankly, I find it hard to square this model with the strategy of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts.

There is much to admire about Smith's sympathetic engagement with postmodernist thinkers. Such writers have important insights that can expose our unwitting deference to modernist epistemologies and illuminate various aspects of Christian faith and practice. Even so, I wish Smith had been as charitable and even-handed in his treatment of realism as he is in his treatment of pragmatism. Who's Afraid of Relativism? is laced with caricatures of realism and its defenders (e.g., realists think that "truth is a mechanism by which concepts in our heads magically hook onto entities outside of our heads," p. 27), false dichotomies (e.g., between pragmatism and naïve referentialism), and pejorative descriptions (e.g., the correspondence relation is dismissed several times as 'magical' or 'mythical').

The book also suffers a lack of clarity and precision at the very points where clarity and precision are most needed. For example, while Smith evidently wants us to impress upon us our contingency, he's unclear about exactly what this contingency consists in. It's not enough to insist that "X is contingent"; we need to ask "On what exactly is X contingent--and in what respects?" Obviously those who hold to the doctrines of creation and providence want to affirm that every aspect of our lives--including our speaking and knowing--is contingent on God. But that's not at all equivalent to affirming that every aspect of our lives is contingent on our social contexts, conventions, and histories--in other words, contingent on us.

Because of such ambiguities it's hard to make out in the end what Smith's "Christian relativism" actually amounts to. If it's the comparatively modest claim that the meanings of our truth-claims and the warrants for our beliefs are typically contingent and relative to a social context, that's a fairly tame kind of 'relativism' which is entirely compatible with realism. On the other hand, if Smith wants us to embrace the more radical claim that all truths and intellectual norms are contingent and socially-conditioned, then all bets are off.

The epilogue suggests that Smith is really advocating the tame kind, in which case my complaint comes to this: his book is mistitled. Instead of asking "Who's Afraid of Relativism?" it should be asking "Who's Afraid of Relativity?" But the answer to that question is: hardly anyone. Certainly no realist philosopher who has reflected on the issues Smith explores. Such a title would have been more appropriate, but far less provocative and interesting.

Dr. James Anderson is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. His latest book is What's Your Worldview? (Crossway, 2014).