EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesus & Dawkins welcomes guest posts. Today’s entry comes from Mike Saou, a fellow Duke Divinity grad. He’s a clinical researcher at UNC, an Ironman finisher, and a dad. If the zombie apocalypse happened, I’d really want this guy by my side.
The latest installment of Jamie Smith’s excellent Church and Postmodern Culture series does not disappoint. In his latest contribution to the series, Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, takes on relativism.
The received view of relativism is that “I can have my truth, and you can have your truth.” This sophomoric view becomes a sort of “anything goes” approach to understanding reality. Smith dismisses this description outright.
He offers a more robust account of relativism: it takes away our pretension to absolute truth and replaces it with the dynamic, yet humble, practice of conversation with peers.
Smith focuses on three thinkers in his book. These bros form a kind of lineage for relativist, or pragmatist, philosophy:
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Richard Rorty
- Robert Brandom
The uninitiated reader need not fear, though, because Smith does an excellent job explaining these thinkers. Honestly, Smith makes you feel like you’re walking into an important conversation that’s not over your head.
As he claims, no one is a stranger to this discussion about relativism. The great specter of relativism looms over the church and our culture, threatening to corrupt the youth and rob good God-fearin’ folk of meaning and morality. Or at least that’s what some would have you believe, according to Smith.
He’s got no time for this straw man, though. He destroys straw men as easily as Stone Cold Steve Austin crushes beer cans. Instead of cowering before relativism, Smith actually refashions it into a gift for the church. His goal is to inspire some rigor in Christian thinkers. He thinks they make mistakes at deeply embedded structural levels:
The Christian reaction to relativism betrays a kind of theological tic that characterizes contemporary North American Christianity—namely, an evasion of contingency and a suppression of creaturehood.
In the demand for absolute truth, American Christians have claimed for themselves God-like capacities for knowing—which just might be heresy, Smith claims. This is not to say that anything goes and nothing matters, because that is a sloppy understanding of relativism. Instead, Smith argues that knowledge is relative to or dependent upon so much, which is to say that it is contingent:
Only the Creator is necessary, independent, and absolute in himself. But we’re not God . . . And that Absolute Being has bound himself covenantally to a people; otherwise we could never know him. The incarnation is the Absolute’s refusal to remain absolved of relation to humanity . . . Relativism then . . . is just a name for the human condition, the ethos of creaturehood.
So often, we are too afraid to let others push and pull at our metaphysical commitments. This fear makes our spiritual and intellectual lives stagnant and perverse. But given a little courage, we might unclench our fists and welcome others as friends we can listen to, share with, and learn from.
What’s The Bottom Line?
One of the central claims of this blog is that bad theology yields bad atheism. With people like Jamie Smith demanding more of both sides, we might just end up somewhere we all like.
So, think of relativism as some kind of good mentor, limiting your idolatrous hubris by reminding you that knowledge is contingent upon God. Without acknowledging this contingency, we are doomed to assume God-like powers for ourselves. As the evil Governor from The Walking Dead showed, that is always a poor choice.