Archive Nota Bene Peter Escalante

Smith’s Apocalyptic Community

Apparently James K. A. Smith concurs with David Bentley Hart’s idea that apocalyptic theopanies are somehow required for understanding that jumping off a bridge is a bad idea. Smith simply adds that these necessary apocalypses are only had in community, but communities, as mothers everywhere know, are sometimes disposed to jump off bridges. Smith will want to say that the community of grace is an exception, but here we must distinguish: while the mystical body of Christ always knows and does better, the visible church has in fact sometimes gathered and jumped off bridges doctrinal, moral, and rational. Smith apparently agrees with Hart’s idea of an irruptive supernature, which irruption alone allows one to understand that a squirrel missing a leg is missing something important. In order to justify this peculiar claim, he appeals to the commonsense truth that people are always culturally formed, which is certainly true, since humans are social and symbolical animals.

But the fact that reason is inseparable from imagination, memory, and language, all of which are historically and socially formed, is a truth which is not in the least denied by classical Christian natural law doctrine. Aristotle and Thomas would be the first to say that human nature is always expressed and formed in second nature. Second nature doesn’t act as a screen against nature, but rather perfects human nature, and part of what it perfects is the native ability to understand a common-world, extra-human nature. Bashō wasn’t seeing a different world than Sidney, and Aristotle wasn’t seeing a different world than Kǒngzǐ, and nothing in the record suggests otherwise, pace our communitarian subjectivists and their recrudescence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Universal reason is always imaginatively, “culturally,” situated, but this doesn’t make it less universal or any less rational, any more than differences in human color make human nature any less universal. People everywhere know the basics without the benefit of any irruptive apocalypse. So the fact of cultural variation doesn’t do the work Smith wants it to do. Smith’s idea is to say that, outside the visible church and its practices, one can’t know that poking one’s self or one’s neighbor in the eye with a sharp stick is wrong.

Thomasius had to deal with a similar claim: the theologian Alberti had said that, because of the Fall, the original light of reason had been so far extinguished that only the regenerate got it back, and the clergy in particular. As Ian Hunter tells the tale,

Alberti’s natural law privileged the person of the theologian. In renovating his own intellectual nature – by purging its sensuous attachments and developing pure or transcendental moral concepts – this personage was qualified to accede to the norms of the Decalogue and the Christian love ethic, thence to construe them in accord with the polemical purposes of confessional theology. It was through this combined intellectual and social comportment … that a metaphysician like Alberti could exercise a peculiar kind of civil power in Saxony … In arguing for the derivation of a natural law of love, acceded to by intellects restored to their status integritatis, Alberti’s Christian natural law was in effect an argument for the preeminence of metaphysical theologians over secular jurists in the consistorial government of the community of the faithful. 1

Thomasius rightly saw this as a sort of Papalism, and although his opponents talked of the law of love, this for them included trials for witchcraft and heresy. Smith, of course, isn’t looking to play illuminated vizier to a Christian prince, nor to collar witches. But in saying that only Christians can understand the law of nature, he is going against Calvin, who denied only that unbelievers can get from general knowledge of nature to (a) knowledge of the nature and extent of sin, (b) restoration of covenantal integrity so as to be able to to offer actions pleasing to God, and (c) knowledge of the mystery of redemption. Calvin certainly doesn’t deny that unbelievers know the natural law: he rather affirms that they do. According to Calvin, no gnostic apocalypse is necessary to know the world and the natural law. Men know this natural order sufficiently, he says, to attain civil order and civil righteousness; and some form of religion, based partly on primal truths, will necessarily be involved in this. And in going against Calvin, Smith is going against any possibility of conversation with the unchurched on matters of civil importance.

  1. Ian Hunter, The Secularization of the Confessional State, Cambridge, 2007: 89–90.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.