Who’s Afraid of “Relativism”?

Richard Beck is doing some interesting work over at Experimental Theology right now regarding the metaphysical grounding of ethical truths. Basically, he’s making the argument that all of our ethical reasoning (and, I think it could be argued, reasoning in general) requires “metaphysical” (or “axiomatic”) truths. I.e., truths that we take as given, or, as Plantinga might say, “properly basic.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time making this argument in the philosophy course I’m teaching. The basic idea is this — regarding religion, morality, knowledge, and so on: at some point, we hit a brick wall. We can reason and reason and reason all the way down to try to understand the most rational course of action, or what we can know about how we ought to act. However, at the bottom of all of our reasoning is what I call the “brick wall” — the thing that stops us from being able to reason anymore, where we simply must take certain truths about the world for granted. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these truths are beyond rational evaluation; only that there is little that evidence or reason can provide when attempting to evaluate those claims about how the world really is. Thus, the brick wall.

Anyway, Beck writes of Euclidean geometry as an example of a system that begins with “self-evident” truths, from which reason can depart to determine other truths:

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can’t tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can’t lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it’s a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

Two things. First, I think his point that reason is basically a “computational” function is an incredible image. We ought to trust that reason (in its purer, logical forms) can give us access to certain truths — but it can only do so within a system that has given rules about what the world is already like. Further, humans cannot be purely rational creatures — in fact, that’s undesirable! Second, Beck’s paragraph here brought to mind James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, where Smith addresses the notion that the concept of “relativism” may not be as scary as some Christians have been led to believe. To say relativism is at least partially true, for Smith, is to say that our rationality is contingent on claims about the world that we have taken to be true outside of the realm of rationality.

Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spurn our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. (35)

We all “take” the world to be a certain way, prior to our use of reason to determine other truths about the world. The problem is when we assume that our use of reason is what got us to how we “take” the world to be in the first place.

Outside the System

The principalities and powers will always seek to capture and enslave God in an attempt to use the name of God to underwrite current power arrangements. To go against the status quo, declare the powers, is to go against God… Consequently, before proclamation to human captives can be made – freedom to those being oppressed by current power arrangements – the prophet must dare to proclaim that God is not the spokesperson for the status quo, but rather stands outside the system – free – to speak a word of judgment.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (120)

Changing Allegiances

When we change allegiances in baptism, we are renouncing the way the world defines significance and value. Concretely, the hero systems found in serving the principalities and powers offer a vision of ‘success,’ a vision that guides just about everyone around us… But in baptism, Christians turn their backs on this game… and reject the things that give others value, respect, and significance. By this act, Christians register a dissent that implicitly indicts how everyone else is choosing to live their lives. And we can’t kick out the props of everyone else’s self-esteem without expecting a negative response.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (82)

A Secure Heart

If we receive everything – even our very lives – as a gift, then we have nothing to cling to or to protect. Following the example of Jesus, we become ‘nothing.’ In a sense, we ‘die’ – and thus we no longer have to fear dispossession, loss, diminishment, or expenditure in the face of death. Not that we seek out such losses. But we form our identities in such a way that we are freed from the anxiety of self-preservation, which makes different choices and modes of being human open and available to us. The creation of a secure heart makes love a possibility. It enables us to do something that biological creatures worried about self-preservation don’t naturally do: place the interests of others before our own.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (77)

Neurotic Death-Denial

Love, as many Christians seem to conceive of it, costs nothing and requires no real sacrifice. We can see the neurotic death-denial at work here, creating and maintaining the fantasy that we can always say “yes” to ourselves and simultaneously say “yes” to everyone else. Need, want, and lack don’t exist in this illusion of deathlessness.

But need really does exist, and sacrificial love will quickly bring it to the surface. We find that when we give, what we give isn’t always replenished. This truth is what marks love as love, as something more than mere exchange, as an act of grace. The account books are not balanced. Love gives gifts and makes sacrifices and expects nothing in return.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (66)

Saturated with Death

We are enslaved to the fear of death because the basis of our identities – all the ways we define ourselves and make meaning with our lives – is revealed to be an illusion, a lie, an obfuscation, a neurotic defense mechanism involved in death repression. Death saturates every aspect of our personhood.

…This predicament gives us a glimpse into why the biblical authors speak of conversion and discipleship as a death – our identities are too saturated with death to be rehabilitated as they stand.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (39)

The Works of the Devil

In contemporary American culture our slavery to the fear of death produces superficial consumerism, a fetish for managing appearances, inauthentic relationships, triumphalistic religion, and the eclipse of personal and societal empathy. These are the “works of the devil” in our lives, works produced by our slavery to the fear of death.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (35)

Basic Survival Fears

As mortal creatures the selfish pursuit of survival and self-preservation becomes our highest good, and these survival fears lead us into all sorts of sinful practices. Almost every unwholesome pursuit of humanity – from hedonism to self-aggrandizement to acquisitiveness to rivalry to violence – can be traced back to these basic survival fears. The fear of death creates the experience of the ‘satanic’ in our lives.

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck (13)