The Relativity of Relativism

Though in our day we must wrestle with the postmodern expression of relativism, relativism itself is nothing new. Protagoras of ancient Greece, philosophical nemesis of Plato, held that “man is the measure of all things.” So, if relativism is an old enemy of God’s revelation, why tackle it here…again? Crystal Downing, in her recent work, How Postmodernism Serves (my) Faith, notes that speaking about relativism is a tricky matter. Not all forms of relativism are opposed to the Christian message. She notes at least three forms of relativism, with the second having three expressions.

The first form of relativism that Downing mentions is what she calls Bird relativism. This view approaches the matter from a bird’s eye view, assuming that it can understand the nature of truth from a non-situated position. This is the type of relativism that most people fear and denounce. It’s the view that says all views are equally true, or equally false.

BrainThe second form of relativism is Brain relativism. This form acknowledges that because of the plurality of human experiences, cultures, religions, etc., people think differently (“Brain”). There is therefore no way to enter in sympathetically to another’s perspective. In effect, we are trapped in our sphere of interpretation. Downing notes three sub-divisions of Brain relativism, namely the bouncing, bombardment, and lastly, the boundary form. Bouncing relativism calls us never to settle on a particular interpretative community, instead calling us to bounce around and “find ourselves” through multiple identity-forming communities. Since no one true interpretive paradigm has it all right, any attempt they make to totalize life under their scheme is inherently oppressive. In order to free oneself from the tyrannical control of just one worldview, the bouncing relativist must free themselves and “dip and dab” in various schools of discourse.

The bombardment relativist, like Stanley Fish, holds that discourse is always played according to the language games of our community. Since we live in a particular ideological commune our ultimate commitment is to that party, and we should radically defend our view of the world. While from a Christian perspective, at first glance this view may seem appealing, we must recognize that Fish’s sword cuts both ways; for a Muslim to question their towers of influence is inherently wrong. There is seemingly is no way to mediate between perspectives, we simply think about the world differently (this is way it is a subdivision of brain relativism). “If we endorse the bombardment position of Fish, we cannot say the that the actions of al-Qaida are universally immoral; we can only say that they are immoral according to our tower’s language of morality.” They took the notion of bombardment quite seriously.

richardrorty_narrowweb__300x3800Richard Rorty, the (im)famous American neo-pragmatist philosopher, is Downing’s representative of Boundary relativism. Immediately one will notice the parallels with the boundary and bombardment schools of relativism. Boundary relativism argues that one ought to cultivate the virtue of solidarity with one’s community. Why do Americans prefer freedom and democracy? Because those are American values. To break solidarity with the society’s paradigmatic view of the world is to be immoral. We ought to remain within our society’s boundaries because they work for us. Rorty is not concerned with the “how do you know?” question that has plagued western philosophy for centuries. He freely admits to parasitically feeding off of the Judeo-Christian worldview when he condemns cruelty and injustice. Were we to ask him why should he hold these standards as opposed to others, he would simply reply, “These are the values that have shaped America.  And I’m an American.” Before moving on, I note that such a view of truth, morality, and solidarity, the notion of a social, intellectual, or ethical reformer is rendered unintelligible; by definition to reform is to break solidarity according to Rorty, and hence is immoral (i.e it doesn’t ‘work’). Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce (who fought to end the slave trade in England), and Einstein (who rejected the Newtonian scientific paradigm of his day) would have to be remembered with disrepute rather than honor.

nestle-building-canadaLastly, Downing writes of Building relativism. Here she makes use of the word building as both a verb and a noun. As a noun the term building speaks of the structures, or towers, as she likes to call them, that act as ideological paradigms (such as fundamentalist Christianity, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, progressivist Christianity, etc.). These towers serve as our worldview forming communities. As a verb, it speaks of the action of moving upward toward a truth that transcends our perspective. Thus, Building relativism is not mutually exclusive with a belief in absolute truth.

I find her distinctions compelling. Her nuanced presentation of relativism fleshes out the notion that not all postmodern relativists are of the same stripe. Rorty is of the boundary stripe, while Fish is of the bombardment type. Though I would be less inclined to call this last type a form of relativism, and more to call it a form of perspectivalism. But, I would argue that behind much of the reactionary rhetoric of so many evangelical responses to postmodernism is a genuine recognition that without a transcendent God- One who is not subject to the limitations of human finitude- and His perspicuous verbal revelation- to serve as our ultimate presupposition-there is no way to escape enslavement to a creaturely authority structure. But, these power structures, these “truth regimes,” need not always be our only suzerain.

As has been expounded time and again by Cornelius Van Til, and other thinkers, our slavery is often to our own sinful passions. Relativity reigns when standards of truth, beauty, and goodness fluctuate from individual to individual. Unfortunately, many advocate an aggressive acquiescence to just such an enslavement.


Posted on November 6, 2008, in Postmodernism, Truth. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Very helpful, Joe. Thanks.

    I am wondering–if you were to place the ’emergent church’ type of postmodern Christianity, especially the more radical McLaren type, into one of these categories of relativism, which would it be?

  2. I haven’t done too much reading on the Emergent movement (other than Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church) so I can’t speak with any authority on the subject. But from what I’ve heard (in lecture form) and read, my guess would seem that some of them (like McLaren) would get awfully close to Rorty’s boundry relativism. They strongly affirm the notion of solidarity with the Christian “story’ (not that that’s bad). But, then again, McLaren also seems (sometimes, at least) to inch toward ‘bouncing’ (just read the cover of his Generous Orthodoxy)

    It’s always hard for me to comment on Emergent because my interests are in postmodern theorists (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, at el), not theological adaptations of pomo, per se.

  3. I myself have done a little more reading on the movement and engaged in a bit of an independent study on the topic in my last year of college. I would agree with your classification of McLaren. Some other names associated not necessarily with the movement but more with the idea of a postmodern Christianity, such as Kevin Vanhoozer, seem to fall more in the category of Stanley Fish. The talk of interpretive frameworks and local language contexts that we are unable to break out of is found in the things they have to say. If you read enough of these guys, you’ll see them frequently reference the thought of Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard.

    Then again, this discussion might be somewhat irrelevant as some of the ’emergent’ leaders have pretty much given up on the term and the movement and are ready to rebadge it and take it in a new direction.

  4. Personally, I find guys like Vanhoozer, James K. A. Smith, and Merold Westphal to be a breath of fresh air. First, because by and large, they’re developing their view based on the actual texts of key thinkers, as opposed to pomo sloganeering. Second, because they lack the reactionary tone of someone like Douglas Groothuis (see his Truth Decay). They’re sympathetic readers, looking for the common grace in pomo. Older works on pomo tended to make guys like Derrida and Lyotard looks like idiots. That’s not exactly accurate, but it’s close.

    This of course doesn’t mean that I agree with everything with everything these guys say (which is impossible, since they disagree amongst themselves). When it comes to who is the most “traditionally evangelical” (inspiration, inerrancy, etc), the line would go like this : 1) Vanhoozer, 2) Smith, 3) Westphal. Possibly I’m a little off on 2 and 3, but that’s the impression I get from reading them. I tend to think that Vanhoozer is more of a building relativist (though I don’t like using that classification), especially since he was a student of Frame, and it shows in his work.

    Lastly, I would recommend Peter J. Leithart’s book on postmodernism, Solomon Among the Postmoderns. I’m reading it now, and it’s fantastic!

  5. Hence the reason I asked how you would classify some of these things, because it’s evident you’re more adept at doing so than myself. When I studied the movement, I focused more on theological developments (or, perhaps, lack thereof) as well as how that played out in practice. So my interaction with the more academic thinkers who dealt with postmodern philosophy was quite limited.

    Always looking for a good book recommendation as well, so thanks!

  1. Pingback: Review: How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Part 2 « KINGDOMVIEW

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