Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of Relativism

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

Smith's Who's Afraid of Relativism seems to be a sequel to his earlier book: Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? In that book Smith tried to rehabilitate the teaching of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault and apply it to the Church. In Who's Afraid of Relativism, Smith seeks to rehabilitate the thinking of Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom and apply its teaching to the Church. These thinkers basic philosophy is pragmatism. Smith sees himself doing what Saint Augustine spoke of "as looting the Egyptians." In other words, taking the good from secular thought and capturing for the Church.

Smith argues that Christians should be relativists. However, what he defines as relativism does not seem to be the popular idea of relativism. His relativism does not seem to be anything goes. It actually argues against individualism and supports the idea of being shaped by a community.

Smith has a chapter for each of the thinkers.He adds another chapter for what he considers to be a Christian pragmatism: post-liberalism. He asserts that his book can actually stand as a prequel to George Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine. 

Who's Afraid of Relativism seems to dovetail with Smith's other works. He wants us to understand the importance of the body and embodiment. He wants to point out that our lives are limited by contingency, context, and environment.

Sometimes in reading the book I was little confused. Smith seems to be arguing one thing in one part, and then seems to be qualifying it in another part. This book does make you think. Smith seems to be arguing against realist conceptions of truth. Does his arguments refutes all presentations of realism? It does seem to refute some representations of realism, but not all.

In the epilogue Smith states that his argument for relativism is not "arbitrary or subjective or governed only by fleeting whims" (179). He seems to be using special terminology for relativism. He defines relativism as something "related to something or someone, relative to say, a context or a community" (179). I think this gives us an idea that he is implying. We are historical beings. We are not God. We are limited beings constrained by our history, context, and community. We are also dependent beings. He would argue that our practices shape our beliefs instead of saying our beliefs shape our practices. He basically is arguing for ""our creaturehood." This recognition should lead us to a more "catholic stance that begins with an affirmation of tradition, a gracious reception of the gifts we receive from our past" (182). In other words, Smith's use of secular sources point us to the importance of the Christian Tradition.

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