Relativism and “Absolute” Truth – an Excerpt from Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

The following is an excerpt from Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, by James K. A. Smith.

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Those Christians who foment alarm about the threat of relativism often invoke “absolute truth” as both a casualty and antidote. What’s threatened by relativism is “absolute” truth, and yet the only thing that can deliver us from relativism is “absolute” truth.

Cover ArtThe frequent and sloppy use of the qualifier “absolute” leads to a common confusion of “relativism” with sheer arbitrariness. So when someone encounters the claim that truth “is relative,” this is what they hear: truth is arbitrary—anything goes. In response, Christians then invoke “absolute” truth as an insulator and buffer against such arbitrariness—without ever really explaining what the adjective “absolute” does when appended to “truth.”

What exactly does the qualifier “absolute” add to the word “truth”? And if something’s being absolute means that it is absolved of relation (the technical sense of the word), then what could that mean for contingent, social creatures like us?

This Christian reaction to relativism, with its therapeutic deployment of “absolute” truth, is a symptom of a deeper theological problem: an inability to honor the contingency and dependence of our creaturehood. There might even be something rather gnostic (and heretical) in this failure to own up to contingency; indeed, one could argue that the claim to such “absoluteness” is at the heart of the first sin in the garden.

Conversely, 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.” Owning up to our finitude is not tantamount to giving up on truth, revelation, or scriptural authority. It is simply to recognize the conditions of our knowledge that are coincident with our status as finite, created, social beings. And those conditions are pronounced “very good” by the Creator (Gen. 1:31).

One reason Christians should take seriously the pragmatist tradition from Wittgenstein through Rorty up to Brandom is that it can be received as a rigorous philosophical account of finitude and contingency, attentive to the material, social conditions of human, creaturely knowing.

©2014 by James K. A. Smith. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Comments

  1. This seems correct, but I wonder if the author would have more positive influence on this important debate if he went straight to the heavy hitters of the Christian tradition on contingency rather than to Wittgenstein and American pragmatism. Seems to me that the mistake of contemporary evangelical epistemology lies at least in part with the idea that the Christian understanding of truth throughout the centuries is well-represented by modern correspondence theories. But this simply is not the case.

    Anyway, perhaps these concerns and others are dealt with in the book. I look forward to reading it.