For some time now James K. A. Smith’s agenda has been to enter into critical but charitable conversation with postmodernist writers, looking for points at which their arguments resonate with Christian claims and undermine the common enemy of modernism. I believe this is a worthy and worthwhile project, although I have questions about whether Smith is sufficiently critical, as I will indicate below. Smith’s 2006 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? purported to “take to church” three leading postmodernists: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He argued that some of the distinctive claims of these writers have been misunderstood and misrepresented by evangelicals; properly understood they offer epistemological insights that ought to be affirmed by Christians. The hope was to introduce a lay Christian audience to “the real postmodernism” and to foster, if not a close friendship, at least a fruitful mutual acquaintance.
Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is a follow-up to Smith’s earlier book. On this occasion Smith seeks to play the role of defense attorney for ‘relativism’; more precisely, the philosophy of pragmatism as propounded by the controversial American philosopher Richard Rorty. His central thesis is easily identified, since it is repeated in different forms throughout the book: pragmatism is a philosophy centered on the recognition of our dependence, finitude, and contingency; thus Christians, who acknowledge the dependence, finitude, and contingency of the creation, ought to be sympathetic rather than hostile toward pragmatism. As Smith puts it, “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood.” (p. 12)