Who's Afraid of Relativism?

Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood

series: Church and Postmodern Culture, The

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Following his successful Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? leading Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith introduces the philosophical sources behind postliberal theology. Offering a provocative analysis of relativism, Smith provides an introduction to the key voices of pragmatism: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom.

Many Christians view relativism as the antithesis of absolute truth and take it to be the antithesis of the gospel. Smith argues that this reaction is a symptom of a deeper theological problem: an inability to honor the contingency and dependence of our creaturehood. Appreciating our created finitude as the condition under which we know (and were made to know) should compel us to appreciate the contingency of our knowledge without sliding into arbitrariness. Saying "It depends" is not the equivalent of saying "It's not true" or "I don't know." It is simply to recognize the conditions of our knowledge as finite, created, social beings. Pragmatism, says Smith, helps us recover a fundamental Christian appreciation of the contingency of creaturehood.

This addition to an acclaimed series engages key thinkers in modern philosophy with a view to ministry and addresses the challenge of relativism in a creative, original way.

Contents
1. "It Depends": Creation, Contingency, and the Specter of Relativism
2. Community as Context: Wittgenstein on "Meaning as Use"
3. Who's Afraid of Contingency? Owning Up to Our Creaturehood with Rorty
4. Reasons to Believe: Making Faith Explicit after Brandom
5. The (Inferential) Nature of Doctrine: Postliberalism as Christian Pragmatism
Epilogue: How to be a Conservative Relativist
Index


Endorsements

"It is often observed that one of the most important and revealing questions you can ask someone identified as a 'thinker' is 'What are you afraid of?' Writing with clarity and great sympathy, Smith helps us see that Christian theologians have betrayed their best insights by being afraid of relativism. He helps us see that the challenge is not relativism itself but rather the epistemological concerns that produced relativism. As is usually the case with Smith's work, this book is both clear and constructive: he not only provides a clear account of the work of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom but also develops an account of why and how Christians should navigate the contingent character of our lives."

Stanley Hauerwas, chair in theological ethics, University of Aberdeen

"In very readable and reliable expositions of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom, Smith builds an extremely attractive case philosophically for recognizing the place of contingency, finitude, and dependence in human life. From a Christian perspective, this actually reaffirms an acceptance of creaturely existence and thus of a properly orthodox version of relativism, which there is no reason to fear. A wonderful thesis."

Fergus Kerr, Honorary Fellow, School of Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh

"In Who's Afraid of Relativism? Smith takes a beautiful risk, boldly and successfully making a case for the relevance of pragmatism for contemporary Christian self-understanding. In this remarkable book, he not only succeeds in making the difficult and enigmatic work of complicated thinkers like Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom accessible to the uninitiated (no small task in itself) but also argues convincingly that the pragmatist emphases on contingency and fallibility should play a key role in a Christian understanding of humans as dependent creatures. The mutual hostility between religious thinkers and pragmatists like Rorty is well known; Smith has the wisdom to see past this impasse in a timely and radical effort to encourage contemporary Christians to think differently about themselves."

Ronald A. Kuipers, author of Richard Rorty


The Author

  1. James K. A. Smith

    James K. A. Smith

    James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment...

    Continue reading about James K. A. Smith

Reviews

"[A] provocative volume. . . . It is excellent like so much of Jamie's work. With verve and a range of knowledge in both philosophy and theology that is at times baffling, Smith writes with equal facility to audiences in the academy and the church. . . . The title alone should draw curious readers into his argument. They'll find a familiar interaction with films as was present in Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, making the argument and reach of Who's Afraid of Relativism? that much more relevant and timely."

Chad Lakies,

theotherjournal.com


Resources


Media

Introducing Who's Afraid of Relativism? Translating Postmodern Philosophy for the Church Relativism as a Theology of Creatureliness "Truth is what your friends will let you get away with saying" Revisiting Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine