The “Biola” Turn in Christian Philosophy

Or, a return from relativism.

I have several goals in this paper.  I utilize Dallas Willard’s metaphysical realism to rebut post-Kantian idealism.  I also challenge James K. A. Smith’s quasi-Derridean view of interpretation.

In “How Concepts Relate the Mind to its Objects: The God’s Eye View Vindicated,” Dallas Willard defends a robust realism in the face of various post-Kantian proposals.  While criticisms of Kant are common and always welcome, this paper takes a different turn. It is a response to the various “creational hermeneutics” by men like James K. A. Smith who appear to posit an endless deferral of meaning.  To be fair, Smith doesn’t advocate a strict Derridean view. He assumes meaning is possible. Rather, he advocates that every hermeneutical event is always (already?) situated by our finitude. We never approach the realm of “pure interpretation.”

Further, Smith isn’t a Kantian.  He isn’t saying (as far as I am aware) that our minds create reality.  In this case, many of Willard’s remarks won’t directly apply to him. There are some parallels, though.  Both Kant and Smith function as though there is a “wall” between our minds and reality.

On one level that seems true enough. I don’t even know what a pure interpretation unsullied by presuppositions would look like.  I think there is something more, though. It’s not enough that Smith wants to avoid a Derridean relativism or something like an endless deferral of meaning.  Well and good. I fear, though, that his epistemology is underdeveloped and if pursued consistently, will in fact lead to relativism.

In a new chapter to Fall of Interpretation Smith responds to criticisms of Derrida.  He says Derrida does affirm that communication takes place. However, it only takes place within “communal discernment” (Smith 215-216). Indeed, communities “fix meanings.”  We will come back to this claim later.

Dallas Willard’s article provides a summary of how the mental process works. He discusses what a concept is and how the nature of a concept (which always includes intentionality, relations, etc) avoids what he calls the “Midas touch” of post-Kantianism. Followers of Kant see the concept as an activity of the mind.  As Willard explains, “It [the Kantian view] always turns the ‘mediation’ of the relation between the mind and world into a form of making: the object which comes to stand before the mind is in some essential way made by a ‘grasping’ of something other” (Willard 2-3).

The Structure of the Knowing Act

While Willard’s article decisively rebuts Kantianism, it does have a small payout for the “Derridean Christian Philosophers.”  If what Willard says is true on how the mind knows, then it doesn’t matter if we posit that our knowledge is “mediated” or “structured” by communal knowings.

Survey of the Material

Kant: what comes before the mind as objects are products of the action of the mind (Willard 4).  Evidently, there is some amorphous sludge that is present before our mind. Our mind then categorizes it and “out comes the perceived object.”

Beginning of the Case

Willard’s main argument is that all knowing acts involve “intentionality,” which is the “about-ness” or “of-ness” of something.  If I know a dog, this dog, then “there must be something about each of the terms (my thought of my dog, my dog) that my thought of my dog is “together with” or pairs up with my dog” (5).

What is a Concept? 

A concept is acquired, applies to or is “of” something (extension), has intension (inherent properties), is transpersonal.  If there is anything that “mediates” between our minds and the outside objects, it is concepts, not endless linguistic deferrals or “communal” interpretations. 

Further, concepts are properties, not acts or events.  As such, they don’t “do” anything. A concept also has a “nature.”  This means it has properties, relations, and an overall place “in the scheme of things” (8).  Since it is a universal, it is exemplified in time and space but itself is not in time or space.  

With all of this in mind (no pun intended), we can see that intentional properties are concepts which form a bridge between thought and its object.  I do not think of the intentional properties but “of what is before my mind through them” (10). The intentional properties of a concept are not identical with “the properties which things must have to fall under the concept” (11).

We can try to say it another way: there is an intentional affinity (the of-ness or about-ness of a concept) between the concept and the properties of the concept. They are related in such a way that the intensional properties “always come to mind upon the instancing of the property which is the concept, but not by being instanced in the thought along with the concept” (12).  In other words, the concept is before our mind, not simply the inherent structure of the concept. The following diagram might help:

Thought of a dog (exemplifies) concept of a dog (has natural affinity with) properties making up caninity (exemplified in) Dogs (Fido, etc). (Willard 13).

The Pay off

If the above is true then the objects of thought do not take on any character. They aren’t changed in structure from an amorphous sludge to a dog.  Therefore, we are not “locked inside language” (14).

How does this work with the Radical Orthodox type crowd which posits an intermediate communal meaning?  At the most basic level it makes it irrelevant. Let’s take the concept of a dog. I read about a dog in a text.  How does placing “the communal interpretation of the faith-community” between myself and the dog “make” the text correct?  

That might be somewhat trivial.  Let’s take a theological dictum. If all the RO guys are saying is that we must read in conjunction with fellow believers, then there really isn’t a problem. A more hard-line approach would be “the church’s interpretation is our interpretation.”  Only Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy say anything that silly. It’s common enough, though. Let’s look at it. What mediates the church’s reading of the text and the text itself? It doesn’t work to say the church, for that is no different from their own characterization of Protestantism writ-large.  Further, it’s no different from the very foundationalism they eschew.

But if the church doesn’t mediate between the church’s interpretation and a given fact of experience, then who does?  We are then thrown back to the individual believer’s responsibility to interpret the world, receive data, and make judgments.  These judgments aren’t infallible, but they are still warranted. He can accept many of them as basic beliefs (in the absence of overriding defeaters).  

 

 

Desiring the Kingdom (Smith)

Thesis: “We love in order to know” (Smith 18n).  Christian education is formative as well as in-formative.  It is a formation of desires. This is Augustine 101.

Smith notes that the phenomenology of visiting a mall echoes that of visiting a cathedral (20ff).  This shows the limit of “worldview” talk. W-V ignores the formative impact of cultural sites.

Thesis 2: “Liturgies–sacred or secular–shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (25).  Liturgies teach us in pre-cognitive ways. Do liturgies take precedence over doctrine, as some of Smith’s critics fear? Not necessarily. I don’t think it is a strict temporal separation.  Do you learn how to pray by reading treatises on prayer or by actually praying? What about both?

Education: a constellation of “practices, rituals, and routines that inculcate a vision of the good life” (26).  “Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology” (27).

In the first chapter Smith gives a very lucid account of how phenomenologists like Heidegger and Husserl, echoing Augustine, describe pre-cognitive modes of being-in-the-world.  He also analyzes alternatives to worldview talk. Pace the worldview revival, we aren’t simply “thinking things,” brains on a stick. 

Other thinkers in the neo-traditionalist school (Macintyre, perhaps Plantinga and Wolterstorff) give a better construal:  we are governed by control beliefs that operate on a pre-cognitive level This is good but Smith notes several problems:

  • it simply moves the clash of ideas down a level.
  • still tends to operate with a disembodied view of the world.
  • Is it really possible to have a belief that we don’t think about?  Maybe. I can believe something to be true without always thinking about it to be true.  Smith doesn’t really address this point.

Smith, instead, suggests we view man as “homo liturgicus.”  What we love is a more ultimate category. This is Augustine 101. Love is our most basic mode of being-in-the-world.  He illustrates this with Husserl’s category of “intentionality.” We are always intending-towards or -about something.  We don’t simply “think.” We think about something. Consciousness is consciousness about something.  

There are different modes of intentionality.  We don’t simply “think.” We are “involved” (what Heidegger called “care”). Heidegger shifted the discussion from the cognitive to the sub-cognitive level, from the head to the kardia.

Augustine would have changed “care” to “love.”  Love is the primary mode of being-in-the-world. Its structure is longing and desire (50).  Habit is Love’s Fulcrum.

Apocalyptic literature exposes what the Empire tries to hide.  It gives us a new perspective so to see through the blinders. As Richard Bauckham says, it provides its own counter-images (Smith 92).

Towards a Liturgy

Smith’s liturgical proposals, far from being simply “high church” (what does that even mean?), is more or less the same as many Reformed and Evangelical proposals in the last 40 years (Horton, Gore, Webber).   Sure, some of his applications are goofy but the structure is not. Some high points:

Prayer

“It is a practice that makes us people who refuse to settle for appearances” (193).  Prayer is a “performative ontology,” a new construal of the God-world relation. It is also a “performative epistemology.”  When we pray we are training ourselves for reception and dependence–epistemic humility.

Scripture and Sermon: Renarrating the World

When the Scriptures are read aloud, they are in a certain sense “enacted.”    When we are habitually engaged in the reading aloud of the Scriptures, we begin to absorb its ethical and moral compass.   Scripture does not confront us with merely abstract truths, but with narrating creation’s telos (196).  It is the shape of the kingdom we are looking for, so it narrates our telos, too.

Eucharist: Supper with the King

Draws on recent analyses of the “communal” and “economic” aspects of the Supper, rather than focusing on essences.  Correctly notes that the Supper is a sign of kingdom economics, where none will hoard a surplus or go without; it is one of free distribution (200-201; cf. Isaiah 55:1-2; 65:21-23). 

Smith ends with a critique of the Christian University.

Good

As is usual with Smith’s work, he is a complete master of difficult philosophical literature–namely the German phenomenological tradition (yikes!). I now know what Heidegger and Husserl are saying. Further, he connects Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality with Heidegger’s Dasein, noting that both are drawing off of Augustine’s understanding of love as our Dasein. If someone does not address Smith’s use of Heidegger and Husserl in his critique of this work, then they simply do not know what Smith is saying. Full stop.

Smith isn’t saying that we first “do liturgy” and then only secondly come around to the doctrine stuff.  Rather, he points out that we are already engaged in a being-in-the-world. As Augustinians, we will see this being-in-the-world as directing our love toward God or toward things. Smith’s project is Augustine 101. 

He is saying that liturgies affect us in two ways: 1) what we hear and 2) what is happening in our tacit dimension (HT to Michael Polanyi).  To illustrate this he “exegetes” the experience of going to a mall. In short, malls are shaped like cathedrals and have the same sort of sensory overload as a cathedral does.

Bad

*Smith’s applications, especially in worship, aren’t near as goofy as they were in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?  We are encouraged on that point.

*Smith spends a lot of time attacking “nationalism” and “American Religion.”  True, those can be idols, but they are also convenient idols. No one is going to get in trouble attacking “nationalism” today.  But if someone starts attacking the EU, the UN, or the IMB, or the Council on Foreign Relations, watch out.

Imagining the Kingdom (Smith)

We all know that worldviews (hereafter w-v) are inescapable. Worldviews rarely move beyond the intellectual dimension.  Smith doesn’t want to do away with w-v talk, but to place it within a larger whole.  We are not simply isolated intellects, but situated intellects–situated and embodied.  We are always embodied individuals and we experience the world as being-in-the-world (per Heidegger).

And we are not Gnostics.  Rather, “The Spirit marshals our embodiment in order to rehabituate us into the kingdom of God (15).”

What is imagination?  Smith defines imagination as  “a kind of faculty by which we navigate and make sense of our world, but in ways and on a register that flies below the radar of conscious reflection” (19).  This is why using concepts like “social imaginary” or “plausibility structure” is much superior to w-v.   W-v rightly highlights the inescapability of presuppositions on our thinking.  We do not deny that.  Smith notes, however, that social structures and our bodily being-in-the-world also function in a “pre-theoretical” (per Dooyeweerd) manner.

Knowing in the Body and By Stories

Liturgies are not only aesthetic, but kineasethic.  They come to us in the body and tell a story.

Perceiving by Stories

*Who we are is shaped by the stories we encounter and imbibe.  “We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we’ve become characters in the drama that has captivated us” (32).

*narrative trains our emotions and those emotions condition our perception of the world.

*we are not disembodied choice machines.

Smith aims to capture “the creational conditions of human action” (33).  This is where Anchoretism fails.  Anchoretism seeks to transcend finitude and attain unto hyperousia.

*Perception and evaluation are intricately linked.

*“Affect and emotion are part of the ‘background’ I bring with me that constitutes the situation as a certain kind of situation” (35).

*“Stories are means of emotional prefocusing that shape our tacit ‘take’ on the world” (38).

*Antepredicative know–the affective register upon which narrative operates–is processed by the body below the cognitive level (Merleau-Ponty).

Pre-cognitive perception breaks down the traditional epistemology of subjects and objects.  “The world is not what I think, but what I live through” (Merleau-Ponty).  Our being-in-the-world is between instinct and intellect (43).  We aren’t just thinking-things.  “We don’t have being-in-the-world; we are being-in-the-world” (44).

More on Stories

A story has a “flow” and “rhythm” that simply isn’t reducible to a string of facts.  A string of facts is not a story.  It’s a memo.  No one dies for a memo.  No one’s embodied life is transformed by a data brief.  But people do die for the Story of Matthew, for instance.

“The material meaning of a poem means uniquely because it is meant on the register of motor intentionality” (Merleau-Ponty).  Kineaesthetic and Poetics are interconnected.

Worship: Story as Liturgy

Smith doesn’t add too much on Reformed liturgies.  He does apply his earlier insights into how it shapes stories, drawing on scholarship on John Calvin.  We can rejoice that more Evangelicals are moving away from “3 songs and a lecture, 3 points and a poem.”  People don’t die for that, either.  So, good stuff here.

We live at the nexus of story and body–a “between” space where the aesthetic power of a story captures our imagination because it resonates with our body. And all good liturgies tell an implicit story.  The Holy spirit reconfigures our neural maps.

Liturgy is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with a Story about who and what we are (139).  It is an imaginative social practice that captures our imaginations by becoming the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Criticisms:

Smith admits he has a hard task: steer a middle course between popular literature and the scholar.  He kind of succeeds.  His thesis is fascinating and I believe (literally) life-transforming.  Still, one gets the feeling he is often “Dancing on the edge” rather than “diving in for the kill shot.” As a result, a lot of sections seemed to “go on” in a way that repeated earlier chapters.

How Not to Be Secular (Smith)

Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there were ideological moments that made it possible. And that leads to Taylor’s thesis: it is not that belief in God is simply wrong for secularists; rather, it is unthinkable. The structures that made belief in God likely on a societal level, so Taylor, are not there anymore.

With this shift came a different understand of person and cosmos. The pre-modern self is ‘porous,’ open to outside influences (grace, blessing, curses, demons). Thus, the modern self is “buffered,” insulated from outside forces (Smith 30). But that gives way to another phenomenon: the nova effect: new modes of being that try to forge a way through cross-pressures (14ff).

Smith has an interesting but undeveloped account of epistemology and the immanent frame (IF). The IF is a concept that, like a frame, boxes in and boxes out, focuses in and out. It captures how we inhabit our age (92). It is our orientation to the world. It is more of a “vibe” than a set of deductions.

Smith is concerned that foundationalist accounts of knowledge (justified, true belief) play into a closed-world, naturalist system. “If knowledge is knowing something outside my mind, the transcendent would be about as far away as one could get” (98).

Criticisms

One horn of my criticism is aesthetic. I think postmodern literature and art is an offense against decency, so I really can’t “relate” to Smith’s usage of them. But that doesn’t negate Smith’s thesis. The other horn of my criticism is that Smith tends to give too much of the farm away. His initial claim is good: secularism not only makes belief in God difficult, it entails an entirely new structure of beliefs that do not have room for God. But I am not sure, pace Smith, why I should be impressed with this new structure. Smith asks “How do we recognize and affirm the difficulty of belief” [in a secular age, p. 6]? The first part of the question is fine–we all recognize that belief in God can be difficult for our age. But why affirm it? What does that even mean or look like? To be fair, Smith acknowledges this point occasionally (20 n32).

Nonetheless, the book has a number of poignant (and occasionally brilliant) insights that should provide good reflection for apologetics and evangelism

How not to be secular (review)

Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there were ideological moments that made it possible. And that leads to Taylor’s thesis: it is not that belief in God is simply wrong for secularists; rather, it is unthinkable. The structures that made belief in God likely on a societal level, so Taylor, are not there anymore.

With this shift came a different understand of person and cosmos. The pre-modern self is ‘porous,’ open to outside influences (grace, blessing, curses, demons). Thus, the modern self is “buffered,” insulated from outside forces (Smith 30). But that gives way to another phenomenon: the nova effect: new modes of being that try to forge a way through cross-pressures (14ff).

Smith has an interesting but undeveloped account of epistemology and the immanent frame (IF). The IF is a concept that, like a frame, boxes in and boxes out, focuses in and out. It captures how we inhabit our age (92). It is our orientation to the world. It is more of a “vibe” than a set of deductions.

Smith is concerned that foundationalist accounts of knowledge (justified, true belief) play into a closed-world, naturalist system. “If knowledge is knowing something outside my mind, the transcendent would be about as far away as one could get” (98).

Criticisms

One horn of my criticism is aesthetic. I think postmodern literature and art is an offense against decency, so I really can’t “relate” to Smith’s usage of them. But that doesn’t negate Smith’s thesis. The other horn of my criticism is that Smith tends to give too much of the farm away. His initial claim is good: secularism not only makes belief in God difficult, it entails an entirely new structure of beliefs that do not have room for God. But I am not sure, pace Smith, why I should be impressed with this new structure. Smith asks “How do we recognize and affirm the difficulty of belief” [in a secular age, p. 6]? The first part of the question is fine–we all recognize that belief in God can be difficult for our age. But why affirm it? What does that even mean or look like? To be fair, Smith acknowledges this point occasionally (20 n32).

Nonetheless, the book has a number of poignant (and occasionally brilliant) insights that should provide good reflection for apologetics and evangelism.

Review: Thinking in Tongues

This is from James KA Smith’s earlier days, before he became NPR’s token Christian thinker.  This book is actually good, which pains me to say.  Smith seems unbalanced in many ways since writing this book.  I think it is Trumpphobia or something.

Thesis: Pentecostal worldview offers a distinct way of being-in-the-world (Smith 25). Embodied practices carry within them a “tacit understanding” (27).

Is a Pentecostal Philosophy Possible?

Much of the chapter deals with the relationship between theology and philosophy.   The difference is one of field, not “faith basis” (Smith 4).  Smith gives us Five Aspects of a Pentecostal Philosophy:

  1. radical openness to God, or God’s doing something fresh.  
  2. An “enchanted” theology of creation and culture.   Smith means that we see reality not as self-enclosed monads, but realizing that principalities and powers are often behind these.  this entails spiritual warfare.  I cringe at terms like “enchanted” because it’s more postmodern non-speak, but Smith (likely inadvertently) connected “enchanted” with demons, which is correct.
  3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and spirituality.  Smith defines “dualism” as not denigrating materiality.   Fewer and fewer Christians today do this, so I am not sure whom his target is.  Even chain-of-being communions like Rome that officially denigrate embodiment say they really don’t mean it.
  4. Affective, narrative epistemology.   
  5. Eschatological orientation towards mission and justice.

God’s Surprise

Some hermeneutics: Smith rightly notes that “The Last Days” (per Acts 2) is connected with “today” ( 22; we accept this model in eschatology but abandon it in pneumatology).  Smith wryly notes that Acts 2:13 is the first proto-Daniel Dennett hermeneutics:  offering a naturalistic explanation for inexplicable phenomena (23).   

Following Martin Heidegger, Smith suggests two kinds of knowing: wissen and verstehen, justified, true belief and understanding.  The latter is tacit and is at the edges of conscious action.

Per the dis-enchanted cosmos, Smith astutely points out that “There is a deep sense that multiple modes of oppression–from illness to poverty–are in some way the work of forces that are not just natural” (41).  In other words, spiritual warfare assumes a specific, non-reductionist cosmology.

Promising Suggestions

“What characterizes narrative knowledge?” (65)  

  1. a connection between narrative and emotions
    1. Narratives work in an affective manner
    2. The emotions worked are themselves already construals of the world
  2. There is a “fit” between narrative and emotion

There is a good section on Pauline-pneumatological accounts of knowing (68ff).  Anticipating Dooyeweerd, Paul critiques the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought (Rom. 1:21-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) and that the Spirit grants access to the message as “true.”  

While I found his chapter on epistemology inadequate, he does say that we know from the “heart” as embodied, rational beings (58).  This isn’t new to postmodernism, but is standard Patristic epistemology.  

A Pentecostal Ontology

This section could have been interesting.  Smith wants to argue that pentecostalism sees an open ontology that allows the Spirit to move from within nature, rather than a miracle that is “tacked on” to nature from the outside.  He makes this argument because he wants pentecostalism to line up with the insights from Radical Orthodoxy.

I have between 50-75 pentecostal relatives who “embody pentecostal spirituality.”  I promise you that none of them think like this or are even capable of thinking like that.  I do not disparge them, simply because I am not to sure Smith’s project at this point is really coherent.  He wants to reject methodological naturalism (rightly) but argues for his own version of supernatural naturalism.

If Smith is successful, then he can show that pentecostalism lines up with quantum mechanics.  Okay.  Thus, nature is “en-Spirited” (103).  While I have problems with his “suspended materiality” ontology, Smith makes some interesting points: miracles are not “add-ons.”  They are not anti-nature, since “nature is not a discrete, autonomous entity” (104).  

That’s good.  I like it.

Tongues as speech-act.

We are considering “tongue-speech” as a liminal case in the philosophy of language (122).  Exegetical discussions are important (and ultimately determinative), but we can’t enter them here.  Smith wants to argue that tongues (T₁) resists our current categories of language and emerges as resistance to cultural norms.  I think there is something to that.

 T₁ as Phenomenology

There is a difference between signs as expression (Ausdruck) and those that do not mean anything (indications, Anzeigen).  Ausdruck is important as it means something, whereas Anzeigen serves as a pointer (127, Smith is following E. Husserl).  Husserl even notes that there can be signs that are not Ausdrucken nor Anzeigen.  This turns on the question: can signs which do not express anything nor point to anything be modes of communication?  

As many critics of Husserl note, his account of speech links communication with intention, so he has to answer “no” to the above question.  Or maybe so.  What kind of speech can there be that is not bound up with inter-subjective indication?  Husserl (and Augustine!) suggest the interior mental life.  Thus, signs in this case would not point to what is absent.  

Tongues as Speech-Act Attack

Utterances (of any sort) are performative.  While such utterance-acts do convey thoughts, sometimes their intent is far more. Let’s take tongues-speak as ecstatic, private language.  What does the pray-er mean to do?  We can easily point to an illocutionary act of praying in groans too deep for words.  We can also see a perlocutionary act: God should act in response.

Tongues as Politics

Oh boy.  Smith wants to say that tongues is a speech-act against the powers that be.  I like that.  I really do.  I just fear that Smith is going to mislocate the powers.  He begins by drawing upon neo-Marxist insights (147). However, without kowtowing fully to Marx, he does point out that Marx has yielded the historical stage to the Holy Ghost.

Tongues-speech begins as “the language of the dispossessed” (149).  This, too, is a valid sociological insight.  The chapter ends without Smith endorsing Marxism, which I expected him to do.  While we are on a charismatic high, I will exercise my spiritual gift of Discerning the Spirits.”  The reason that many 3rd World Pentecostals are “dispossessed” is because they are in countries whose leaders serve the demonic principality of Marxist-Socialism.  Let’s attack that first before we get on the fashionable anti-capitalism bandwagon.

(No, am not a capitalist.  At least not in the sense that Smith uses the word)

*Smith, as is usual with most postmodernists, gets on the “narrative” bandwagon.  There’s a place for that, but I think narrative is asked to carry more than it can bear.  In any case, it is undeniable that Pentecostals are good storytellers.  Smith wants to tie this in with epistemology, but he omits any discussion from Thomas Reid concerning testimony as basic belief, which would have strengthened his case.

Possible Criticisms

Smith (rightly) applauds J. P. Moreland’s recent embrace of kingdom power, but accuses Moreland of still being a “rationalist” (6 n14, 13n26).  Precisely how is Moreland wrong and what is the concrete alternative?  Smith criticizes the rationalist project as “‘thinking’ on a narrow register of calculation and deduction” (54).  Whom is he criticizing: Christians or non-Christians?  It’s not clear, and in any case Moreland has come under fire for saying there are extra-biblical, non-empirical sources of knowledge and reality (angels, demons, etc).  

Smith then argues that all rationalities are em-bodied rationalities.  That’s fine.  I don’t think this threatens a Reidian/Warrant view of knowledge.  Perhaps it does threaten K=JTB.  I don’t know, since Smith doesn’t actually make the argument.  Smith makes a good argument on the “heart’s role” in knowing, yet Moreland himself has a whole chapter on knowing and healing from the heart in The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Moreland 2006).

Smith elsewhere identifies aspects of rationality as the logics of “power, scarcity, and consumption,” (84) but I can’t think of a serious philosopher who actually espouses this.

Elsewhere, Smith says Christian philosophy should be “Incarnational” and not simply theistic (11).  What does that even mean?  Does it simply mean “Begin with Jesus”?  Does it mean undergirding ontology with the Incarnation, per Col. 1:17?  That’s actually quite promising, but I don’t think Smith means that, either.  So what does he mean?

Is Smith a coherentist?  I think he is.  He hints at good criticisms of secularism, but points out “that the practices and plausibility structures that sustain pentecostal (or Reformed or Catholic or Baptist or Moonie–JBA) have their own sort of ‘logic’,” a logic that allows Christians to play, too (35).  But even if coherentism holds–and I grant that Smith’s account is likely true, it doesn’t prove coherentism is true.  All coherentism can prove is doxastic relations among internal beliefs, but not whether these beliefs are true.  Of course, Smith would probably say I am a rationalist.

In his desire to affirm materiality, Smith seems to say that any religious materiality is a good materiality.  Smith approvingly notes of Felicite’s clinging to feasts and relics (36).  It’s hard to see how any one “Materiality” could be bad on Smith’s account.  But this bad account is juxtaposed with some good observations on the book of Acts (38) and tries to connect the two.

*Smith says that “postmodernism takes race, class, and gender seriously” because it takes the body seriously (60).  This is 100% false.  If facebook is a true incarnation (!) of postmodernity, may I ask how many “gender/sexual preference” options facebook has?  I rest my case.

*Smith waxes eloquently on the Pentecostal “aesthetic” (80ff), which is basically a repeat of his other works, but one must ask, “How does faith come per Romans 10?”

*Smith doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize “rationalism” for separating beliefs and faith/practice, yet Smith himself seems mighty critical of those who focus on “beliefs” in their philosophy of religion (111).  Sure, most post-Descartes philosophy of religion is overy intellectual, but I do think the Reidian/Plantingian Epistemology model, integrates belief and faith-practice.

 

You are what you love (review)

What we love and desire forms the space for what we know. And so James K. A. Smith reads Augustine’s key phrases in the Confessions. Smith writes: ““In some sense, love is a condition for knowledge” (Smith 7). I love in order to know. As humans we are oriented towards something.

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

Thus, a teleological existence. Smith and Augustine call attention to Man’s “heart.” It is our subconscious orientation to the world (8). Our heart is always “longing” for something, some ultimate end.

Before he can clinch his argument, Smith calls attention to the virtues. “They are character traits that become woven into who you are so that you are the kind of person who is inclined to be” x, y, z (16), “a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made” (89). They are “thick realities tethered to particular communities governed by a particular Story” (159-160).

And if our habits are often formed pre-consciously, then they need radical re-training, hence liturgy. Liturgy for Smith isn’t necessarily smells and bells (or even church-related at all). Rather, “a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for” (46). A liturgy could be the Book of Common Prayer or it could be a trip to the shopping mall.

Smith ends with a wonderful analysis of the megachurch movement and reasonable proposals to end it without necessarily taking a side in the “worship wars.”

Criticisms

Smith rarely misses an opportunity to attack “intellectualism,” but with the exception of Descartes, we aren’t sure exactly who is guilty of this. He says “new information doesn’t change a deformation” (83), but do we not see the converse in American universities, where the professor speaks of Marxism, Darwinism, and gender fluidity?

In fact, it’s almost as if he attacks “the life of the mind” and disciplines like Scripture memorization are brushed aside (see p.139, 142). And while I heartily agree with his critique of the “seeker-sensitive movement,” no one would ever criticize seeker-sensitive churches for being overly intellectual (or intellectual at all). And I can only conclude by quoting Colossians 3:10 in that we are “restored unto knowledge.”

The Good

Smith is a talented writer and it shows. While there is a lot of repetition from his earlier works, his argument is focused. His take on virtue is quite good and his model for pedagogy bears promise. In fact, as a teacher I had been using his take on pedagogy (in short, we are in loco parentis).

Van Til and a “thrown” world

Van Tillians love to say there are no “uninterpreted facts.”  All facts are already “pre-interpreted by God.”

Now, when you get them to explain just what a “pre-interpreted fact” looks like, that ends much of the discussion.  But I think we can take it a step further.

{1}  There is no such thing as a blank world.  Van Tillians have always been good on this point.

{2} Any such world we find ourselves in already has meaning from a host of relationships.

{3} These relationships constitute a finitude of sorts. We can never rise above our tacit assumptions.

{4} This finitude is embodiment.  We are not simply isolated intellects, but situated intellects–situated and embodied.  We are always embodied individuals and we experience the world as being-in-the-world (per Heidegger).  

{5} Worldview talk usually focuses on the intellectual.  And that’s necessary.  But w-v thinkers rarely focus on institutions and cultural practices.   Social structures and our bodily being-in-the-world also function in a “pre-theoretical” (per Dooyeweerd) manner.

Double

As Jamie Smith says, ““Affect and emotion are part of the ‘background’ I bring with me that constitutes the situation as a certain kind of situation” (35)” Antepredicative knowing–the affective register upon which narrative operates–is processed by the body below the cognitive level (Merleau-Ponty).

{6}  Pre-cognitive perception breaks down the traditional epistemology of subjects and objects.  “The world is not what I think, but what I live through” (Merleau-Ponty).  Our being-in-the-world is between instinct and intellect (43).  We aren’t just thinking-things.  “We don’t have being-in-the-world; we are being-in-the-world” (44).  

{7}  Horizon:  background presuppositions and habits.  Horizons operate without our thinking.  I do not consciously invoke my horizons in order to understand the world.  They are social and shared but not a priori or universal.

Recommended Reading.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method.

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom.

A Tale of Two Metaphysics

To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one.  Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.  This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.

Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right.  They are tools, not goals.  Which one advances the kingdom better?  Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?

And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.

Continental Philosophy

To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel.  Plain and simple.  This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.”  It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc).  Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.

One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature.  This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack.  On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.30665548

Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga.  And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations.  Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?”  Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).

The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations.  This is deleterious for Christian theism.

But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.

After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing.  See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.

One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine.  I will come back to that point.

Biola and Calvin College:  Can They Meet?

I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition.  Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig.  The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith.  And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare.  Here is great promise but also great danger.

Renovare

This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline.  On a practical level, much of it is quite good.  The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).

But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys.  They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.

Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.

Calvin Cultural Liturgies

James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.”  Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.”  We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person.  (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement.  )

We will come back to that statement.

Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm.  While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).

Is that evident at Calvin College?  Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past.  Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.

It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong.  I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.

To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)

Possible Overlap

I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland

  1. Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
  2. Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines

What should we do?

In the end, I side with Moreland.  We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision.  While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.

Through Hegel, Fire, and Sword

(With proper acknowledgments to Lewis Ayres for the title).

Consistency in life and doctrine is a mark of the gospel.  The godly man  does not flit from doctrine to doctrine.   That represents an unstable mind.  However, consistency of doctrine is not the same thing as sameness of thought.  God expects us to grow in knowledge.  And there is the danger.  Growing in knowledge means opening ourselves to new situations.  The future is no longer controlled by us.

Have I been consistent in doctrine over the last decade?  Yes and no.  The best way to explain it is by way of an “autobiographical bibliography.”  Books and lectures have more of an impact on me than anything else.   To answer my question I have changed in some ways.  I want to say I stand within the Reformational tradition. Some might question how Reformed I really am.  Fair enough.  

Focal Point #1: N. T. Wright

When I was an undergrad I majored in history and minored in New Testament and Languages.  My school, Louisiana College, was still in captivity to Theological Liberalism.  This is what led me to read N.T. Wright.  In many ways N.T. Wright remained the anchor for the next ten years.  I will go ahead and advance my conclusion:  N.T. Wright and Karl Barth (by means of Bruce McCormack) kept me from fully converting to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately brought me back to the Reformational tradition.  

Several points should now be obvious: I was a student of N.T. Wright before I was Reformed.  Therefore, I didn’t leave the Reformed faith for N.T. Wright.  But please do not label me as “New Perspective on Paul.”  It’s a lot more complex than that and there are areas where I think Wright is open to serious critique.  

I graduated from LC in 2005 and went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.  It was underwhelming.  I’ve criticized it fairly severely in the past and see no reason to do so again, except to say I learned very little and didn’t begin to read seriously until after I left.  However, I did come across Oliver O’Donovan.

Focal Point #2: Oliver O’Donovan

O’Donovan was by far the most challenging author I have read.  He wrote in dense but glorious prose. But he was a rigorous thinker, bringing the whole of Western ethical reflection to bear upon any single project.  He was also an Anglican steeped into the High Tradition of the church.  

Exile to the Orthodox Lands

I left seminary disillusioned.  While I had made a lot of intellectual mistakes there, academically it was not the best (in terms of actually doing scholarship).  I didn’t want to say that the Reformed faith was wrong, despite RTS’s best efforts to make it so, but I knew there was something more.

For reasons I don’t entirely remember, I was reading Thomas Aquinas as I left seminary.  I had one foot in the door for medieval and patristic theology.  I am not sure how I first heard of John Milbank.  I do remember reading about him in James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy.  This was late 2006, early 2007.

There is a lot wrong with Radical Orthodoxy, but there is a lot right–and a lot that is just plain fun.  So what that they over-interpreted Aquinas as a Neo-Platonist?  They got all the right people in academia angry, and that is good.  For me they introduced me not only to a wider world of theology but also to ask different–deeper–questions of church history.

I dove right in.  And made mistakes.  But I also latched on to key points: how Christology shapes everything.  (Some Eastern Orthodox guys played that card as a front to justify going to Eastern Orthodoxy when in reality they wanted smells and bells, but that is another story).  Anyway, I realized that Systematic Theology didn’t have to follow the outline of Berkhof (Berkhof is useful but limited to a certain context, namely a seminary classroom).

Before continuing on the RO line, I should probably address a common criticism:  Did RO read Reformation metaphysics correctly, namely that Western theology took a nominalist turn with Scotus and the Reformation crystallized it?  Obviously, anyone who advances that reading today will be laughed at. So we can say RO was definitely wrong on that point.  Further, not all of Milbank’s criticisms in “Alternative Protestantism” hold water (or at least they might attack Reformation ontology but not where Milbank thinks they do).

This was around 2008-2009.  I was able to read the Fathers without pretending that the Fathers were a complete deposit who taught a unified, identifiable theology across time and space.  Moreover, I was able to honestly say, “St ______ is wrong here.  That’s okay.  I can still benefit from what he says elsewhere.”  Side note:  Remember that stupid facebook meme that has the Nicene Fathers pictured and the caption reads, “So these guys are right about the canon but wrong about everything else?”  The epistemological howlers in that statement are too painful to mention.

Back to the Fathers.  Since I didn’t (at the time) believe the Fathers taught a unified, ahistorical body of truth, that meant I didn’t have to play East and West against each other.  I could say guys like Anselm, Aquinas, and Wycliff were good guys.  And I could benefit from the modern John Wycliff, Oliver O’Donovan.  While some Ecumenist Orthodox guys will speak kindly of the aforementioned gentlemen, technically speaking they are heterodox (or heretics!), so good luck with that one.  The harder-line folks will say that they (and by extension, you and me) are deprived of grace.

Towards the end of 2010 I moved into a harder, Eastward direction.  I never officially became Orthodox.  It wasn’t viable for a number of reasons.  While this meant I accepted Orthodox doctrines like anti-Filoque and icons, the main problem is I had to cut off my theological past.  Another problem is I had to place the Fathers within the received tradition of the church.  This implied a number of cognitively dissonant positions:

  • The Fathers are part of Holy Tradition but I must interpret which Fathers are speaking Orthodoxically by Holy Tradition.  I couldn’t square the circle.  All of the Orthodox problems with Sola Scriptura would come crashing down on Tradition.
  • This meant that the Fathers probably didn’t disagree about “big stuff.”  
  • So what was I supposed to do when I came to issues where the Fathers sounded “Western” or were plain wrong?  

The dissonance was building up.  Move on to the end of 2011. I was beginning to be more “Western” in terms of cultural outlook.  I just didn’t feel right “negating” my Western heritage.  I know that no one was “making” me to do that, but the cultural enclave mentality among a certain denomination is just too overwhelming.  I was by no means Protestant, of course, but possibly Western.

My daughter was born in 2012.  My life was turned upside down and I really had to put theology on the side.  And life was hard–all of which made me reevaluate everything.

By May of 2012 I was firmly in the Protestant, even Reformed camp (again).  From 2012-2015 (now) I have been in the Protestant camp and plan to stay there.  There are problems with Reformed theology–some big ones actually.   But there are also key gains that outweigh the problems and the Reformed tradition can be the Reformational Tradition.

The Federal Vision Problem

One of the difficulties that many of us in seminary faced–difficulties that are concurrent with many of these changes–is the inevitable glut of ideas.  Compounded with that  is that seminaries which are denominationally- or quasi-denominationally affiliated are inadequately prepared to deal with these various theological currents.  If your goal is to churn out “preacher boys,” then many cross-currents of scholarship will drown you.

The Federal Vision controversy was raging when I was in seminary, and I confess I did not always make wise choices.  Federal Visionism itself didn’t really make too much of a connection with me, at least not confessionally and ecclesiologically.  What some FV writers did, however, was weaken the confessional moorings, from which I drifted and began reading outside my tradition.

On one hand that’s healthy.  We shouldn’t seek theological inbreeding.   The problem I faced was that no one was capable of guiding me through these issues.  Once I was jaded enough, combined with a lot of real grievances from said seminary (which I won’t go in here, but they do deal with objective, financial realities), it wasn’t hard to seek out so-called “Christological alternatives to Calvinism.”

Many Eastern Orthodox apologists were saying that we should do all our theology around “Christology.”  Translation: the ancient Christological creeds, if interpreted consistently, will lead one away from Calvinism.    I’ll deal with that claim later.

And so for the next few years I read through–cover to cover–about ten volumes of the Schaff Church Fathers series, as well as most of their leading interpreters.  One of the problems, though, was I was unaware of the high, magisterial Protestant tradition.  Of course I had read Calvin.  Three times, actually.  All the way through, even.  Unfortunately, I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics.

I suspect most of us aren’t familiar with them, and how could we be?  The average Evangelical publisher won’t touch these writers.   Banner of Truth, specifically, won’t deal with the uncomfortable aspects of Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Scottish Covenanters.  

Taking the Scholastics Seriously

When I was reading through a lot of Orthodox sources, an argument I kept seeing was that all Western traditions hold to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, which reduces to absurdity; therefore, Protestantism is philosophically absurd.  The problem, though, is that I started to see several things:   a) some fathers held to a similar thesis (Nazianzus, Athanasius), b) some Reformed writers might have held to that thesis, but there wasn’t enough evidence either way to convict them, and c) the Reformed writers who did hold to that thesis had very good reasons for doing so (archetypal/ectypal).

The doctrine of authority was always looming in the background.   Anchorites have several sharp arguments against sola scriptura.  I bought in to some of those arguments, but I had done so without reading the Protestant Scholastic responses to them.   Once I began to see that a) many Protestant Scholastics could not be seen as breaking with the medieval tradition on the canon, and b) the archetypal/ectypal distinction when applied to epistemology, leading to Scripture as the principum cognoscendi, I was then able to embrace sola scriptura with integrity.

Corollary of the above point:  how many convertskii have read Richard Muller?  Once I read Richard Muller I realized that much of what I had been parroting was wrong.  Corollary #2:  How many “Calvinists” in the Gospel Coalition or TG4 have read Muller? Probably the same number.  

The Institutional Problem Reasserted

It is my personal belief that Richard Muller’s four-volume Reformed and Post Reformation Dogmatics will go down as one of the game changers in Reformed historiography.  Unfortunately, most remain unaware.  Bakerbooks should issue this set in singular volumes, better allowing seminaries to use volume one as an introduction to Reformed theology course.  First year seminarians, even the better-read ones, are woefully unprepared.

Barth and Speech-Act

I need to bring this to a close.  So here is where I am now.  I hold to Barth’s view of election.  I hold to it for ontological reasons, though I can point out some exegetical problems with the traditional Reformed and Arminian readings.  But I don’t want to say I am a Barthian.  Why should I?  

Something else happened around 2014:  I discovered Kevin Vanhoozer’s speech-act ontology.  This allowed me to combine the best of traditional metaphysics with Barth’s exalted view of preaching.

I have wandered a bit in my “journey.”  But I never let the anchors. N.T. Wright was too superior a theologian and exegete for me to dismiss him in my hyper-Eastern days.  EO simply had no exegete who could compare with him.  That meant whenever I compared Wright’s analysis with some EO scholars, I usually defaulted to Wright.  That was true in 2008, 2010, and 2015.  

So where was Hegel in all of this?  I’ve been reading Hegel for about six years now. He is so very wrong on so many points, but more people are influenced by him than they realize.  I think Hegel’s discussion of self-positing and self-posited can serve Trinitarian terminology at least on a definitional level.