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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Who's Afraid of Relativism?" (James K.A. Smith)

TITLE: Who's Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (The Church and Postmodern Culture)
AUTHOR: James K. A. Smith
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (192 pages).

A lot of authors and defenders of the faith have taken up the mantle of maintaining the absolute truth of the gospel and the Word of God. One common argument is that if everything is relative, then everything becomes more and more meaningless without reference to something absolute. For example, if the concept of relativity itself is relative, one asks "relative to what?" If the "what" itself is also relative, then what is it then relative to, and the questioning becomes an endless trip down rabbit's hole. This approach is more combative and may even be perceived as forceful and aggressive. Is this the only way? According to author and Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Calvin College, relativism is nothing to be afraid of. It can even become a tool that helps "loot the Egyptians." or to use the argument for relativism in an positive way. Based on his background and expertise in French philosophical thought, Smith's thesis is based on the work of three prominent persons with regards to culture and thought surrounding relativity. In a counter-intuitive manner, he argues that Christians ought to be "relativists" in the first place, but with a disclaimer. It ought to be read with the three works:
It can also be used as a "portal" to begin a study of the above three books. Four films are particularly relevant to this book:
  • "Wendy and Lucy"
  • "Lars and the Real Girl"
  • "Crazy Heart"
  • "I've Loved You So Long"

Smith kicks off by addressing the common phrase: "It Depends." He notes some common accusations against relativism as "treason against God and his word." Taking a different tack, Smith notes that "absolutism" itself is not necessary an "antidote" for relativism. He says that we can all learn what it means to "be a creature" by studying Richard Rorty's "pragmatism" philosophy. For absolutism does not adequately capture what it means to be imperfect and human. "It Depends" essentially affirms what it means to be "finite, created, and social beings." The reason why many of us insist on something more permanent is due to our insatiable desire for "security, comfort, and autonomy." Like Wendy and her dog Lucy, the film looks from the eyes of Lucy, projecting onto a number of characters a perspective of dependency and vulnerability in life. For Christians, everything in creation is "contingent" on God.

As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, language and meaning matter. Rather than to dismiss relativism as a "do-as-you-please" philosophy, all people need to recognize that they need language to help form meaning. First, the use of language is for the purpose of describing something or leading to some end. Second, we understand that language and meaning are beyond words. Together, these dual purposes of language as use and meaning spell out the need for dependency as both use and meaning are dependent on something bigger. Wittgenstein asserts that to be human is to be social, pointing out a parallel that any statement of fact is dependent on something, such as context which the facts are in or pointing to. Using this, Smith borrows the Augustine's metaphor of traveling from use to end, and ultimately bringing our travels in relativity toward God.
Richard Rorty extends Wittegenstein's insights on pragmatism toward a philosophy of "creaturehood." In a nutshell, truth is not an argument but key patrol of meaning and significance. He calls the practice of knowledge and truth claims as being "commodities traded in a community of human practices." How one can think of knowledge can be represented in the film "Crazy Heart" which shows a jaded country singer, battling addictions and how he turns around eventually wanting to get help for his drinking problem. It is a demonstration of how independence is delusional and until one acknowledges his dependence on external help, he cannot be saved. 

Maintaining his thesis that "meaning" is dependent on something which makes it a relativist concept, theology is more pragmatic than we think. The third French philosopher, Brandom deals with the question "Who are we?" that "we" only makes sense relative to a community. Brandom poses two key concepts called "expression" and "inference." The former is a movement from something implicit to explicit while the latter which is an orientation of meaning toward "relational" rather than conceptual.

So What?

It is easy to be caught up in the philosophy, concepts, and definitions of terms that we can be lost in the maze of arguments. The language can get rather technical and if readers are unfamiliar with philosophy, this book can be rather dense and requires time and energy to comprehend. The best way to read this book is in conjunction with the mentioned works of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom. Having said that, it is still possible to read this book by understanding Smith's way of doing apologetics and how we proclaim the Christian gospel. If the first four chapters of the book is the author's way of presenting the "what" and the theory, chapter five is about the practical side of things, how the theory relates to the practice. Both must hang out together. Christian theology is highly practical. Christian pragmatism is also based on strong doctrine. There is nothing to be afraid about relativism because the gospel is relational and communal. Meaning cannot exists in a vacuum but in dependence to some bigger picture. This is where Smith shines in showing us that "relativism" is very much an expression of what it means to be human. Living as Christians is not about an absolute way of life, but a need to contextualize ourselves in the cultural environment we live in. Doctrines and religious practices must exist together. "Conservative" and "liberal" branches of Christianity have much to learn from each other with regards to hanging on to theory and putting them into practice. No one should be arrogant to dismiss one another away. For to do so, they may fail to recognize that both are actually or unconsciously a reflection of each other's weaknesses. Smith calls his approach a "postliberal" approach where our doing precedes our thinking, and where "practice is primary." At the very heart of his argument is how we actually understand what "doctrine" means. For him, it is the doing that makes real what the doctrine means.

Smith has highlighted an important aspect of works that evidence our faith. We can say all the "right" things, believe all the "right" doctrines, and to trumpet all the "right" facts. However, all these are pretty meaningless if they are not put into practice, and contextualized in a way that is beneficial toward loving our neighbours. What good will we be if we say to the poor and needy, "God be with you" when what they need is food and shelter? Doctrine needs to be connected to practice, worship needs to be in tandem with theology, and principles must work with people, so that people will learn what it means to be principled people rather than people simply uttering labels. After all, action speaks louder than words. In apologetics, Smith reminds us that the gospel is "invitational, not demonstrational"; that the Word of life is also a "way of life"; to be disciples rather than mere believers.

This book has an important message that more can benefit from hearing. The unfortunate thing is that the language and manner in which the book is written can be a deterrent in itself. Those wary of philosophy and theory can be put off in the first part of the book, and may fail to progress to the last chapter, which is worth the price of the book. Perhaps, what Smith could have done is to incorporate practical guide rails, or reality snippets at various pause points in chapters 1-4, to whet and to keep the interest of readers alive. Maybe, the book is meant more for seminarians or for readers more comfortable with philosophy, doctrine, and theology. Hopefully, the reward of seeing how theory and practice are put together eventually can be an incentive to finish the book. Even more important, it is the need to re-orientate our thinking to move away from a conservative-liberal divide, toward a more reconcilatory "post-liberal" or "post-conservative" alignment.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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