Archive Joseph Minich Philosophy Sacred Doctrine

Class(ic)ifying Jamie Smith

It would be an understatement to say that James K. A. Smith (or Jamie Smith, as he is also called) is difficult to categorize. With a background in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, he currently straddles Reformed, Pentecostal, Dooyeweerdian, and Neo-Anabaptist (Radical Orthodox) sentiments. Only in his early 40s, he has already turned out a number of highly provocative volumes ranging from a popular introduction to the Reformed faith (Letters to a Young Calvinist), a collection of short essays, several edited manuscripts, and several technical works of philosophy. What is more, while his current vocational and ecclesiastical affiliations are in the Reformed world (Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Churches, respectively), his interlocutors and his influence are far outside that tradition, as a brief survey of his lecturing circuit would demonstrate. Impressively, he is also the current editor of Comment magazine (as well as several monograph collections for Eerdmans) and writes on a wide variety of topics including urban planning, poetry, film, and pastoral care.

Having discovered Smith in the bookstore at The Catholic University of America, I have found in him a constant “conversation partner” for the last eight years. I owe much to his tutelage. As such, I hope that the critical observations which follow can be read in the spirit in which they are given, as an attempt to ask questions that warrant further clarification – and to raise concerns that I don’t think are sufficiently alleviated in Smith’s published writing (at least the portion of it that I have read). In some cases, I hope to do to Smith what he has done to Augustine – to read him against himself – in order to suggest that there are resources in his own project to modify what I take to be his more problematic formulations. In any case, in the spirit of Reformed irenicism, I offer this as a conversation starter. In what follows, I intend to engage several movements in Smith’s project, according more or less to the chronology of his publishing. In so doing, I hope to paint a generalizing but faithful picture of his work. I will then critically evaluate the project and point out areas that warrant further clarification or revision.

Smith’s Philosophical Project

A. Interpretation and Finitude

Dr. Smith was put on the theological scene with the publication of his reworked Master’s thesis, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (InterVarsity Press, 2000 – hereafter TFI). He had published several significant articles before this (particularly on Pentecostal themes) and edited the English edition of Herman Dooyeweerd’s In the Twilight of Western Thought. TFI sets the trajectory for all of Smith’s work, which can be summarized as “the affirmation of total finitude.”

TFI is a remarkable first book (which has recently been released in an updated second edition). The book engages three perspectives on the relation between finitude, fallenness, and interpretation. First are those who associate interpretation specifically (and sometimes finitude more broadly) with the condition of fallenness. Adam, so it is thought, would not have had to “interpret” the world because he would have had unmediated “true” access to reality. Here, Smith especially engages Richard Lints. But then there are those within this general paradigm who do not so much imagine a pristine interpretation-less past, but who push the paradise of nonmediation into the eschaton. The second group identified by Smith are those who associate finitude and fallenness as irreducibly bound up with one another. There was no pristine past. There is no unmediated present. And there will be no such future. Interpretation is inescapable and inescapably violent. Here Smith traces a trajectory from Heidegger to Derrida. Beginning with a deconstructive reading of Augustine, Smith asserts a third category. Smith asserts that Heidegger and Derrida are right to claim that interpretation is irreducible (past, present, and future), but not to claim that interpretation is inherently violent. Finitude is good, not a problem to be overcome. This, of course, highlights the tension inherent in different or incommensurable interpretations of the world, and Smith obliges the reader. Building upon Dooyeweerd, Smith writes, “Truth is dependent on the self for uncovering the structural horizon of human experience, and within this horizon ‘the structures states of affairs founded in this order urge themselves upon everyone who is seriously confronted with them.’ Just as assertions, for Heidegger, must uncover the things themselves, so for Dooyeweerd interpretations ‘must also vindicate their claim to relative truth, viz. in a process of transcendental experience in the forum of the Divine world-order. For in the latter are founded the structural states of affairs which are undeniable when they have been laid bare to theoretical insight’” (TFI, 174; emphasis in original; quotes are Dooyeweerd). As we will see, the issue of “good” versus “bad” interpretation will come up again and again in Smith’s work.

In 2002, a revision of Smith’s doctoral dissertation, Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of Incarnation (Routledge, 2002 – hereafter SAT), was published. SAT is a work on the phenomenological possibility of ethical theology. How can irreducibly finite creatures speak ethically of the infinite God? Smith’s goal is to find “an interpretation of concepts as non-objectifying, non-reductive ‘icons’ which signal transcendence without violating such transcendence and reducing it to immanence” (SAT, 12). He continues, “The employment of such iconic concepts signals the possibility of a philosophical method which does justice to its other, and hence the possibility of an ‘ethical’ theology” (ibid.). The book is very technical, but equally profound. Tracing the genealogy of the challenge at hand from Husserl to Derrida, and eventually (and quite characteristically) drawing upon Augustine, Smith makes several assertions. He rejects the approach of those like Levinas and Marion who find a place for the transcendent in the latter’s ability to “widen the horizon” of the ego’s capacity to receive. As well, he rejects the approach which suggests our finitude forever shuts us off from the transcendent. Rather, as the title of the book suggests, Smith argues that the transcendent must always wrap itself in finitude. The infinite can commune with the finite precisely to the extent that the relationship between creature and Creator is “incarnation” (God wrapping Himself in finitude) all the way up. Words and concepts are “iconic” as they become handles for worship of and relation to the transcendent without pretending to exhaust it. And indeed, Smith even extends this logic to human communication and human relation in general. All relation is relation to “the other,” and “the other” always transcends our grasp of it. The key insight, building upon TFI, is that this is not violent, but rather a good and irreducible feature of finitude. Following Barth, Smith writes, “The revelation of the Wholly Other occurs precisely in God’s being willing to become other, to concede to the conditions of human knowing…Thus, while critical of the ascending movement of the analogia entis, Barth recognizes the condescending movement of an incarnational analogy is the condition of possibility of theology, that is, talk about God. Our further claim is that such is the condition of possibility of language in general” (SAT, 168). Despite Smith’s Barthian sympathies, one is tempted to perceive his entire argument as a recasting of Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy (and the corresponding Medieval “three ways”) in the language of modern phenomenological philosophy.

B. Interpretation and the Community

Smith’s interest in the phenomenological tradition and its Postmodernist descendents is continued in his 2004 work, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker: 2004; hereafter WAP). Written for a more popular audience, Smith seeks to introduce the potential insights of the philosophers of the book’s subtitle to an evangelical audience which, in his judgment, is badly misinformed about what they actually teach and unwittingly complicit in a philosophical modernity which is mistakenly believed to be more faithful to the orthodox Christian faith. Briefly, Smith argues that Derrida’s famous “there is nothing outside the text” is just an affirmation of the ubiquity of interpretation. It is not a claim that all interpretations are equal, but that interpretation is ubiquitous. The continuity with his previous work is clear. Drawing upon Lyotard’s famous “incredulity toward metanarrative,” Smith argues that the latter’s “metanarrative” is not something like a “story of everything,” but rather a feature of reality which can adjudicate between competing narratives, cultures, and claims. That is to say, Lyotard’s metanarrative is something like a tool for getting “outside” of our particular stories, claims, reasons (etc.) so that we can communicate with “the other” on “common” theoretical ground. Drawing upon Lyotard, Smith argues that no such “outside the narrative” access exists. Tools like reason (or any modern Hegelian, Kantian, or capitalist metanarrative) are always themselves inextricable from particular stories, communities of practice, etc. Finally, Foucault’s famous “power is knowledge” is taken as an observation about the manner in which knowledge, plausibility, and what is deemed “reasonable” is very much bound up with communities of practice and formation. The communitarian formation of knowledge is an irreducible feature of language, practice, and hence of knowledge. Smith, however, argues that this must be seen as a calling to the church to be a community of practice that forms persons to perceive the world rightly and to respond to God’s call within it. As we will see, this communitarian emphasis will become especially significant in Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, which I will consider in a moment. Once again anticipating the criticism that his view allows for no adjudication between “better” and “worse” interpretations, Smith writes, “The fact that something is a matter of interpretation does not mean that an interpretation cannot be true or a good interpretation. When I construe this thing in front of me as a cup and use it to drink my coffee, although I am interpreting the cup, I am also interpreting it well. True, the cup does not exist as some brute fact, but that doesn’t mean that my interpreted understand of the cup is not good or true” (WAP, 44; emphasis in original). Arguing against the notion of brute reality and objective “fact,” Smith points out that the gospels themselves point to a variety of responses and “interpretations” of what happened on the cross, concluding of the various interpretations that “each of them is a ‘reading’ of what took place and the phenomena in front of each narrator” (WAP, 47).

C. Community and Human Action

Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project began in 2009 with Desiring the Kingdom (Baker, 2009; hereafter DTK); Imagining the Kingdom (Baker, 2013; hereafter ITK) was published in early 2013. A third (and final) volume on political theology is still forthcoming. In my judgment, this is Smith’s most important work to date. Taking both volumes together (and significantly reducing much of its fascinating and subtle content!), Smith is intent on articulating a philosophy of action which honors the manner in which human beings actually move around in the world. In DTK, this involves a critique of “worldview” approaches to Christian discipleship (not worldview as such), which emphasize the causal power of ideas in the formation of Christian character. Drawing upon Charles Taylor’s notion of “social imaginaries,” Smith argues that most of what actually moves human beings in the world is pre-cognitive, unarticulated, and carried along in communal practices which orient us to relate to the world via the implicit “take” (to use a Smith-ism) on the world that is carried along in such practices. And so, argues Smith, Christian discipleship cannot just be a matter of downloading the right ideas into the human person, but must be a matter of shaping Christian practices – practices which carry an implicit “grasp” (another Smith-ism) of the world as God’s creation or some idolatrous alternative. He writes, “The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (DTK, 25; emphasis in original).

Smith builds upon this idea in ITK. Drawing upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu’s account of human action as commonly situated between mere “response to stimuli” and “response to reason,” Smith describes the manner in which much of our “grasp” of the world is located in the “know-how” of embodied interaction with the world – particularly as formed in us through cultural practices which we imbibe without thinking. These practices, argue Smith, carry implicit narratives, construals of the world, and visions of the good life. As he writes, “the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story” (ITK, 14). For Smith, the imagination is precognitive, aesthetic (and activated kinesthetically) precisely because it is so related to the body (ibid., 17). His account of this is detailed and draws from fields far outside philosophy. And as in his first volume, Smith argues that the payoff of this insight is that Christians need to be attuned to the manner in which believers are tempted to unconsciously “construe” the world in a manner which does not correspond with God’s own values – namely, by contact with communities of practice (capitalizing upon our own sinful hearts) which are not aimed toward the kingdom. The antidote, then, is to be absorbed into a community whose practices are oriented toward the kingdom, that is, the church. Christian liturgy, Christian disciplines, and Christian community (and precisely working through repetition and habituation) are used by the Spirit to recalibrate us to be aimed at the kingdom, to construe the world in a pre-cognitive manner that makes Christian behavior almost automatic and instinctual (or second-nature). Of course, this process is never complete in this life. In any case, one of Smith’s major goals in this project is to argue that our understanding of the battleground for the Christian person must grasp what human beings really are and how they really operate. And in reality, ideas and reason are a fundamentally “emergent” or “second-order” aspect of human behavior. We can certainly reflect critically and Christianly, but only after already living in the world and grasping it in a certain way. There is a role for critical reflection, in part to look back on the phenomenon of human behavior itself (as Smith does) and to then strategize how to move humans from being oriented to idols to being oriented to the kingdom – that is, to strategize our battle moves in a manner fitting to the actual nature of the human conflict. But “it is not enough to convince our intellects; our imaginations need to be caught by – and caught up into – the Story of God’s restorative, reconciling grace for all of creation. It won’t be enough for us to be convinced; we need to be moved. Otherwise … we’ll be convinced but not transformed” (ibid., 157).

Within the next year, Smith will continue emphasizing the role of the community in his forthcoming Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Taking Rorty, Wittgenstein, and Brandom to Church (Baker). He delivered a lecture series based upon this book early in 2013 at Point Loma Nazarene University. In this series, Smith argues for a form of Christian pragmatism that eschews the realist/antirealist philosophical conundrum, because (he suggests) it is an answer to a question we should stop asking, concerning “how I can be sure I know.” Following (again) Charles Taylor, Smith argues that the realist/antirealist conundrum is a function of the inside/outside picture of knowledge that afflicts modern philosophy, specifically, the problem of “representationalism.” That is, the question becomes this: “How do I know that my mind’s representations of reality match up with reality outside my mind?” For Smith, this question assumes an impossible critical distance from the world in which we are inextricably (and most importantly, pragmatically!) bound. The word has a sort of “thereness” and “givenness for me and to me” which eludes articulation within this critical posture. And yet, argues Smith, this givenness is still mediated through language and communal practices which “use” the world “as” this – which (in some sense) construe the world “as” this – rather than that. Taking up Augustine’s distinction between “signs” and “things,” Smith argues that we are inextricably bound up in the world – but precisely as doers who “use” the world in a certain way. And this certain way is not necessarily a cognitive construal (though it includes that) but, more fundamentally, a sort of practical orientation to reality (again, a “know-how”) that we imbibe through our belonging to a community of practitioners who “use” the world in this way. We cannot but do this, and that is okay. It is all part of the goodness of our finite “coping” (a term Smith borrows from his Pragmatist interlocutors) with the world. It is precisely what God has designed and it is here that He meets us. Smith ends by arguing for a version of what he calls “confessional realism” (on which, see below).

D. Pentecostal Paradigms and Dooyeweerdian Discipleship

It is very helpful (in assessing Smith) to read his work against the backdrop of two of his identities: He is (1) a Pentecostal and (2) a Dooyeweerdian. To interpret these identities as access points for “grasping” Smith is not particularly speculative. In his 2010 book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010; hereafter TT), after listing a handful of Pentecostal distinctives, Smith writes, “I believe that if we engage in reflection we will be able to see, and then demonstrate, that these distinctively pentecostal assumptions have significant implications for classical philosophical questions. And … we will be well within our ‘rights’ to pursue such questions out these prephilosophical commitments. For example … in epistemology, the pentecostal emphasis on experience and affectivity would be the ground for a critique of dominant rationalisms … and provide a fund for unique developments in phenomenology and our accounts of knowledge … In ontology, the pentecostal belief in a continually ‘open’ universe, evidence in the central belief in the miraculous and God’s continued activity in the world, should make a fundamental difference in the way we construct our metaphysics.” (TT, 13; emphasis in original). It is important to note, however, that Smith’s variety of Pentecostal theology does not see the miraculous as discontinuous with some static “nature.” Rather, God’s presence in the regularities of nature and the particularities of less common involvements are of a piece with one another. In other words, Smith’s is a Pentecostalism which does not seek to overcome finitude.

Smith’s Dooyeweerdian streak is best articulated in his 2004 work, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Eerdmans, 2004; hereafter IRO). Arguing that sin has so marred the human ability to properly constitute the world, Smith writes that “regeneration is the condition for proper perception, coupled with the lens of scriptural revelation, which is the condition for proper understanding” (IRO, 166). This is followed by a denigration of classical apologetics and a reflection on the manner in which basic Christian theology informs the Christian knowledge and grasp of all other disciplines. Going even beyond Dooyeweerd’s famous “ground-motive” (which is located in the heart as immediately grasped through the work of the Spirit), Smith argues that the church’s basic confession (in its pre-theoretical form) is the basic Christian commitment that enables it to perceive all of reality rightly – hence the aforementioned “confessional realism.” Smith writes, “The rich confession of the church’s faith – rooted in God’s revelation in the Word – constitutes the theology that should shape Christian theoretical investigation of the world” (ibid., 179). In context, the theology here is a pre-theoretical grasp of Christian truth, rather than any particular item of theological doctrine. Contrary to Dooyeweerd (per Smith’s reading of him), Smith self-consciously emphasizes the role of the church as forming the more robust “Christian ground-motive” which enables the Christian to perceive the world aright, because (in the language of neo-Calvinism) the theory-making structure is properly aimed at reality, as informed by God’s revelation and moved by the Spirit. And so, argues Smith, we can move beyond methodological fixation, and engage the world (predominantly) via the witness of proclamation (ibid., 182).


A. Commendations

There is much to commend in Jamie Smith’s works:

(1) To read them is to gain an education in the works and ideas of Augustine, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Taylor, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, and many others (not to mention that he is a very talented writer, ideal for the layman). While one might disagree with his appropriation of certain Postmodern thinkers, he certainly helps us to see them for what they are actually saying – rather than the insane caricature that is often attributed to them. He is entirely aware of how provocative it is for a Christian philosopher to make friends with a Derrida or a Rorty, but his own reading is far more nuanced than the typical dismissive one-liners, and quite worthy of consideration. The irony, of course, is that Smith appropriates these thinkers for the sake of a robust Christian orthodoxy, rather than many of “emergent” variants that Smith constantly (and rightly) sees as unwittingly giving into some of the worst aspects of modernity!

(2) Smith’s articulation of the irreducible embeddedness and finitude of human knowing is a major breath of fresh air in the midst of constant but unfortunately naïve invocations of “absolute” truth. Not only is Smith realistic about the limitations of human knowing, but he is positive about it. Finitude is irreducible, never to be overcome, and most importantly, good!

(3) His discussion of the phenomenology of religion is extremely helpful, and in fact quite consonant with the best of classical emphases. Indeed, all of God’s revelation is accommodation to created categories and being. It is incarnation “all the way up.” A divine infinite Person communicates with us in a mode which is irreducibly finite – because we are created and finite. The gap between finitude and infinity is not a chasm to be overcome, but a good feature of being a creature in covenantal relationship with the triune God.

(4) Smith’s critique of an overemphasis on “worldview” is not just profound, but very timely. As a former homeschooler raised in Dallas at the height of “worldview-ism” and the Christian Coalition in the late ’80s through the ’90s, I can attest firsthand to the problems inherent in worldview education and the banking of our hopes for the next generation’s preservation of the Christian faith on “having the right ideas.” There are usually a lot of bad ideas mixed in with the good ones. And good ideas can help you fight bad ideas, but they will not win the fight against the idols of the heart for you. As Smith’s model might well predict, I saw Christian confessors drop like flies. But Smith does not just sound a proper warning. He articulates an anthropology that corresponds quite accurately with human experience. We are indeed desiring and worshipping animals. And our attention to these aspects of human behavior enables us to locate more precisely the real site of our moral and even our intellectual battles. The modern conditions of belief and the plausibility structures which make certain ideas and practices seem right or insane are located at the intersection of our unconsciously consumed habits, our conscious ideas, and our desires. Indeed, the majority of ITK details the manner in which human beings are fundamentally actors whose behaviors reveal their subconscious conscription into implicit narratives. That is, we buy into community stories through imbibing practices – whether consciously or unconsciously – and these constitute our character, our default settings toward reality.

(5) Smith has several helpful suggestions about habit formation, and the manner in which we can change habits which are identified by the mind to be out of accord with our most fundamental narrative. But, argues Smith, our habits change only as we submit our bodies to practices which carry within them another implicit construal of reality. In less technical parlance, Smith argues that we must “fake it till we make it.” In my judgment, there is a great amount of wisdom here. This is precisely the manner in which the New Testament commands us to obey. There is no “formula” or “9 steps.” There is just a pure command to practice the character of Christ – a practice which (over time) seeps into our bones. From what I can tell, very similar advice is often given by professional counselors to those who are in struggling marriages or who struggle with personal anxiety, for instance, and this is testimony to its insight (a theoretical analysis of something we implicitly know).

B. Ambiguities

Despite these affirmations, there are a number of profound ambiguities in Smith’s project:

(1) It is not always easy to tell how Smith relates to the pre-modern Christian philosophical tradition. He constantly appeals to Augustine, of course, but he also argues against most “realisms,” etc. But the latter is always set up against its recent backdrop. The “inside/outside” problem is modern, and the realism which is situated within it is a modern realism. What, then, of Aquinas? What of Aristotle? What, indeed, of Augustine himself? Certainly they are not proto-pragmatist-phenomenologists. They actually think the world is real, there, what it is and as it is – apart from anyone’s thinking so. And yet they are not modern. There are many philosophical moves in modernity that do not address that particular ontological and epistemic construal of Aquinas, for instance, as noted with special clarity by Edward Feser in The Last Superstition and his Aquinas (which has an especially helpful contrast between Aquinas’ own view and any “representationalist” model). One might also do well to consult W. Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, which ably demonstrates that there is nothing “static” or rigid about Aquinas’ metaphysics. Indeed, it easily incorporates many modern philosophical and scientific insights. But it remains irreducibly a version of “realism,” a version which asserts that some ideas are better than others and that the rational mind can discern as much via a very public rationality. What is more, it is demonstrable that Aristotle and Aquinas understood the situatedness of human knowing and did not think of “knowledge” as somehow intellectual insight that transcended its packaging in particular languages, practices, and communities. Smith’s own model, ironically, implies a sort of communal or practical representationalism which only shifts the inside/outside picture to another (corporate) location. He is right that human beings do not stand at an epistemic distance from the world with which they are always already engaged, but he seems to have it that “the world” is constituted as what it is through communal practices. Isn’t this just practical/communal representationalism? That is, knowledge of the world is not located in the individual mind’s representation of reality but in the community’s practical construal of reality. This is still a form of Neo-Kantianism, wherein the “world-in-itself” is not just immediately known, but rather constituted variously by various communities of practice. The alternative is just to apply Smith’s own critique of individual “representationalism” to his own seeming corporate/practical “representationalism.” Neither individuals nor communities stand at a sufficient critical distance from the world to “constitute it” as this or that. Both levels of human being (corporate and individual) are immediately involved with the world by their very nature, and their “use” of it (to put it in Smith’s own terms) is, to a massive extent, common and natural (see below).

(2) It is not easy to tell how Smith’s constant insistence that “not all interpretations are equal” is consistent with his overall theory. Not equal as construed by which community? What if a particular community of practice “carries along” in its habits a view of the world as x, and another community of practice “carries along” in its habits a view of the world as ~x? How does one adjudicate between these two interpretations? By what standard do we say they’re not equal “construals” of the world? Sure, we can say that not all takes on the world are equal, but if there is no way to demonstrate this apart from the controversial norms of my own distinctive community, then I’m only asserting rather than demonstrating that my assertion is, in fact, “better” than another. And hence the problem, to which such a clarification is meant to respond, still stands.

(3) For all of Smith’s qualification concerning the situatedness of human knowledge, its finitude, (etc.), he has written very little about the positive value of reason in itself. He does argue, in ITK, that only reason can reflect theoretically on human behavior, establishing its own secondarity (Smith’s word for non-primacy) to human behavior and desiring itself. But the question remains: whether reason has any normative rather than merely descriptive role. And even in the latter role, is this description of reason something that can be commonly agreed upon, or are the plausibility structures that render Smith’s two-volume Cultural Liturgies project persuasive themselves community-dependent, irreducibly subjective takes on the world which other communities would not be obligated to believe on the authority of reason/observation itself? One might get the impression, especially given the endorsement of Foucault, that “reason” is, to its core, most usefully a tool of community coercion (again, see below).

C. Criticisms

For all the commendations of Smith’s work, the above ambiguities set the stage for even more significant criticisms.

Reason and Common Nature

(1) Smith is correct to argue that human knowing is irreducibly finite and particular. He gives an insufficient analysis, however, to the fact that there is significant common overlap in various cultures’ expressions of reality precisely because they share a common human nature. Lyotard’s anxiety about “translation” can be alleviated by two facts: (a) that we actually do objectively observe translation in action, including inter-cultural persuasion, and (b) that there is a common human nature within which such interlocution can take place. We never transcend finitude, but common finitude is inflected variously in many cultural forms. And this is the basis upon which we can appeal to basic phenomenological observation and reason to communicate with others. Smith is right, of course, to highlight that interpretation is irreducibly plural: that others may have a different interpretation and expression of reality than we do. But as Smith himself argues in SAT, a phenomenon always eludes our grasp and transcends our articulation. And for precisely this reason, different interpretations are not necessarily incommensurable – as Smith himself argues. And when they are, it is the phenomena themselves and the tools of human dialogue and reason which can adjudicate disputes. And these are not “my reasons” and “my phenomena,” but “our reason” and the same reality with which we are both simultaneously interacting.

The alternative to this construal of the matter is to say that all grasping of the human experience of the world is so inextricably bound up with a person’s “ground-motive” or “basic confession”: that all bits of reality are experienced differently by those who start from a different “confession.” In this view, the world really is different for the believer and for the unbeliever – even if only one of them is living in the “real” world. But isn’t this just the sort of intellectualism that Smith wants to avoid? Is human comportment to the world really so determined by a confession? What of hypocrisy? What of human inconsistency? And most importantly, what of human “nature” in the image of God? Perhaps Smith would emphasize that this is not so much a matter of ideas (though basic Christian confession must include this, I would think), but rather of practices. But this just moves the problem. Are human beings such coherent “doers?” Do they carry single narratives in their practices? Much of Smith’s writing is based upon the fact that they certainly do not. And so I cannot imagine how we can speak of an unbelieving orientation to the world which grasps it wrongly “in general.” Implicit in such a view would be a sort of coherentism (ideological or practical) which qualifies the truth-value of various “grasps” of the world in relation to some sort of “central” belief or practice. But can’t we distinguish our experience of things qua themselves from that of things in relation to other things? For instance, certainly a Christian will perceive the sun to be “hot” as well as “created by God.” Does disagreement about the latter entail disagreement about the former? If so, then we must suppose perfect consistency (whether practical or ideological) in human knowing and doing. Or at least we must suppose that to fail to experience all aspects of a thing is to fail to experience any of it. Of course, this (again) stands in tension with Smith’s own take on human coping with the world. And the examples he uses are, frankly, unfair. The interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross is very complex and nuanced. The propositions “2 + 2 is 4,” “I feel hot,” and some form of the greeting, “Hi,” are not. Certainly these are integrated into whole frameworks differently, but taken as such, I can’t really imagine someone not grasping what any of these things really mean.

Now, this does not imply that we must suffer under any illusion that reason or the “thereness” of phenomena make the job of solving disputes easy. Of course it is not easy. But this is rarely the failure of reason and phenomena, but rather the failure of persons, and manifestly so. There are plenty of people who might imagine the world differently, but who fail to open themselves up to the possibility of doing so. This is not the fault of reason but (often) of human stubbornness – a feature of human behavior which I am sure is easy to observe even (perhaps especially!) in the academy.

The major point here, however, is that there is a common human nature with common faculties which is pressed upon and asserted upon by a common reality. Certainly the particulars of culture and language give shape to particular “takes” on reality, but only suspended atop a common nature interacting with a common reality, a reality which is usually big enough to be known rightly even while being known differently by different persons and cultures. And that common nature possesses the God-given potency to perceive the world rightly and to grow in our perception as we dialogue with others. This is just another way of saying that God has made the world and also made us to perceive it, for the most part, correctly (and with increase).

Reason and the Public Square

(2) Implicit in the above, but made more explicit here, the “secondary” nature of reason (in the order of experience) does not denigrate its normative authority or entirely determine its role. One might get the impression from Smith that the ultimate function of reason is to establish its own secondarity or to (within a particular confession) provide the intelligentsia with a tool to strategize practices fitting to aimed-at kingdom goals within a community. But the secondarity of reason is surely not an argument against its prominent normative role. Speech is secondary to babies, but it takes on a more prominent role as they grow. Reason is secondary to human beings, but it has a normative quality – particularly for evaluating claims about the world. Smith’s project cannot get off the ground without this being the case, and he does recognize this to some extent. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If reason can analyze and theorize concerning human action, it can also provide normative critique of human ideas across communities of practice. And while it is usually insufficient for moving human beings from one position to another (for all the reasons Smith points out), it is a more necessary feature of moving human beings than Smith seems to grant. If the cash-out of reason is identifying the nature of human action, and then elite strategizing concerning the orientation of the larger community – because, let’s be honest, who else but intelligent elites are actually going to do this? – then the role of reason is itself predominantly coercive.

Contrary to this inference, the proper role of reason and persuasion is to show others the world. Reason is not sufficient (nor does it even exist) by itself, but it is a common feature of human nature which enables persons to challenge arguments and claims and to summon other persons to take second glances at the world, to try to perceive it differently, to suspend their first impression. In phenomenologist language, reason can summon a person to perform the epoche, and to evaluate critically even their very grasp of the world which stands alongside reason (and fine-grained observation). Is it not a simple fact of human experience that fine-grained critical analysis is an effective tool for moving one to reconsider the way one has “grasped” the world? Perhaps it does not, by itself, convert the imagination, but it is often an essential and irreducible tool for doing so.

The Kingship of Christ

(3) What is at stake in this reduced role for reason is the very status of Christ as Lord of all reality – as the Logos in whom all of creation coheres. Certainly Smith acknowledges Christ’s Lordship, so what does this mean? As Lord of reality, Jesus is also Lord of reason. Any construal of the world as anything in tension with Christ or with Christian claims is not just in tension with the claims themselves, but is itself reducible to non-reason by the canons of reason and reality themselves. If Christ is indeed the Logos, then all of reason, material and psychological phenomena, human aspirations, and true statements about the world (either in isolated bits or in grand paradigms) testify to the One in whom all of reality coheres. And if all of reality coheres in Christ, to be in tension with Him is just to be in tension with reality itself, with reason, with experience, with observation, with humanity, etc. Ours is not “a” take on the world, but the fulfillment of all proper takes on the world. And any claim which is in tension with a true bit of doctrine or special revelation certainly cannot be demonstrated true by reason, observation, or legitimate inference. Or Christ is not Lord and He is not the Logos. Arguments against Christian claims reduce to failures in judgment, practical inconsistency, or (especially) moral tension with God Himself. Our theology is public and publicly persuasive because Jesus is the public Lord. Certainly worldviews, ground-motives, systems, and the like are all useful entry points and necessary features of reality for demonstrating how this is so. But fine-grained and common “construals as” are just as necessary, inextricably bound up with larger systems, and are irreducibly suspended in the Lord who holds all things together by the power of His Word. And so to say it again (because this cannot be missed), there is no legitimate inference of reason, fine-grained observation, or rational analysis which can stand in tension with Christ – nor can there possibly be.

This does not mean, of course, that everyone will be persuaded. But this highlights the real tension between belief and unbelief. The ultimate tension is not epistemic, but rather moral. The sages of the world (great philosophers and religious leaders of various traditions) testify to this fact by their agreement with much of what Christianity claims about the world. One can find pagan corroboration for many Christian claims, and even some secular philosophers who do not find Christian claims about reality to be innately ridiculous. Many pagans criticize disoriented social order and superstitious religious practices, for instance. There are many parallels between the sages of other cultures and the Old Testament prophets’ critiques of idolatry (and note that the prophets often expect their hearers to find the prophetic critique obvious to reason!). Certainly these are the exceptions, but they highlight the irreducible tension. They highlight the essentially moral antithesis which can filter into ontological or epistemic claims. And it is precisely this that highlights the nature of sin. Certainly sin corrupts the mind, but it does this largely by corrupting the will. And this essential moral corruption eludes rationality to the core. It is insanity. It is an ultimate orientation to non-reality, with which all reason, common human nature (including regular human knowing), and the reality which asserts itself upon our being stands in fundamental tension. To state it more bluntly, unbelief and heresy are always in tension with the commonly perceived and understood reality which human beings take for granted. Indeed, even our grasp of the world “as” creation can be shared with an unbeliever. A single subject can grasp the world in fundamentally contradictory ways, and it is precisely the introduction of sin that makes this the case. Certainly not all unbelievers do so grasp the world, but the single innate impossibility for the unbeliever is, as I’ve been emphasizing, not the lack of potential for understanding the reasonableness of a certain construal of the world, but the impossibility of repentance and faith in Christ – to which special revelation predominantly speaks. Special revelation delivers much of the content of natural revelation in the mode of speech, but it also delivers God “for us.” It delivers Christ as the fulfillment of all that which is legitimately inferred from natural revelation and history. And it is here that we find the fundamental tension between the unbeliever and the Logos.

And so we can agree that sin darkens the mind. And we must certainly also agree that natural and special revelation have always been together since the beginning. The absence of special revelation or regeneration does not mean, however, that other positions become “reasonable” or on epistemic par with Christian claims per alternative construals of natural revelation – for all the reasons stated above. And the fact that sin corrupts human judgment does not mean that the image of God fails to obtain in preserving the human faculty of reason and its orientation to natural revelation, any more than the decaying earth fails to be sustained in fundamentally orderly being. Chaos and irrationality are suspended atop a foundation of even more fundamental order, human nature, and reason, all of which continually testify against derivative parodies of reality. Sin distorts the human grasp of the world, but it does not destroy it. And it is precisely the preservation of human nature in its being which ever remains a testimony to the Christian construal of reality. And one can find the pagans, in their most honest moments, agreeing with the Christian construal point by point – only without bowing the knee to the Lord Himself. And this is sin at its most disturbing – a matter fundamentally of irrational and insane will (and a corruption we all know with the utmost intimacy). This is the epistemic condition of the demons, who believe and shudder.


I suspect that it is clear that I believe there is much to be gained from Smith’s work. While I have attempted to treat him as a sort of ally, my criticisms have registered the concern that much of his work runs the risk of Bartley’s “retreat to commitment,” and fails to articulate the way in which we can normatively evaluate the human epistemic and liturgical habits that he so eloquently describes. While I think there are some resources in his own work for clarifying these matters, we must be able to experience a second naïveté which takes us right back to the world of norms and “obviously wrongs” where human beings start – the world which in which all of our grandmothers live. As we anticipate the arrival of Smith’s final volume in the Cultural Liturgies project on political theology, we can only hope that some of these matters will be clarified – especially since the latter topic warrants serious consideration of the manner in which Christians claims relate to “the public.” Here at The Calvinist International, there has been much discussion of the manner in which one might envision a pluralistic society which is comfortable with a form of secularity (a “culture of persuasion” as distinct from secularism) precisely because we are confident in the demonstrable nature and rationality of our faith, confident that its critics cannot take their critical stand upon the public reality which we all share. What I think we can learn from Smith, however, is the manner in which persuasion must appeal to the whole person, how it must stand to reason but also capture the imagination. But what I hope Smith can clarify is the manner in which reason (and public reason at that!) is still an essential ingredient in the recipe of public persuasion, because the extent to which this is denied (or even under-emphasized) is the extent to which we rely fundamentally on a coercion that circumvents the critical faculties and capitulates to the sort of marketing culture which, in my judgment, fails to really capture the whole person.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

2 replies on “Class(ic)ifying Jamie Smith”

Comments are closed.