Who’s Afraid of Relativism (Review)

If you’ve spent any time in Christian circles discussing apologetics and theology, you are probably familiar with warnings against the specter of relativism.  We are warned that moral relativists are the problem, they are slippery and stand on shaky ground  According to relativism, we are told, anything and everything goes.  Against this we must stand for objectivity – truth and morals are the same for everybody, always and everywhere.

Christian philosopher Jamie Smith thinks this not only oversimplifies and misrepresents relativism, he thinks clinging to objectivity is damaging to Christian faith.  His fantastic book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, sets out to defend these points.  He spends time introducing the reader to three philosophers who espouse pragmatism and relativism – Wittgenstein, Rorty and Brandom.  Smith’s strategy is that of St. Augustine – to loot the Egyptians.  This hearkens back to the story of Exodus, when the freed Israelites took prizes from Egypt.  Augustine, in his day, found great philosophical truth in Platonic philosophy without adopting it wholesale.  In other words, what this means is that we can find truth in these philosophers without affirming their ideas all through.

Smith finds a lot of truth in these philosophers.  The primary truth Smith sees here is that pragmatism and relativism remind us of our creaturehood and contigency.  To Smith, the focus on objectivity is an uncritical acceptance of modernity where universal objectivity was valued.  The goal became a removal of all bias and a seat in a place where all could be seen.  Yet, as Christians, we recognize only God possesses such knowledge.  Postmodern philosophy reminds us of our location in a context, the fact we do not know all.

There is much more here of course.  He spends the final chapter drawing out what we learn from these philosophers and applying it more directly to theology.  My key takeaway here is that in the Christian life, like learning a language, we learn how to do it before we learn what it is.  Take learning a language.  All humans learn to speak a language long before they learn the rules of grammar.  In the same way, we do not learn the doctrines of the church and then live based on them, as if simply having the right knowledge leads to dsicipleship.  Instead we live in community with other Christians and learn the practices of faith.  As we reflect on these practices, explain them before a listening world, we get the content of theology.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to all pastors and those interested in Christian theology and philosophy.

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