This is Part 2 of my conversation with James K.A. Smith (Part 1 is here). The occasion for this conversation is the introductory essay to Jamie’s book The Devil Reads Derrida, “The Church, Christian Scholars, and Little Miss Sunshine.” Thanks very much to Jamie for doing this!
Dave: It’s interesting that you mention finding your way into the Reformed tradition starting with “Old Princeton.” So where did you go from there? The Evangelical mainstream — if there is such a thing — as well as the intellectual leaders of the Evangelical mainstream, remain rooted in Old Princeton, at least concerning epistemology and scripture. This can be a significant tension, which I think is commonly experienced. A big part of the community holds pretty strongly to the belief that common sense realism, combined with B.B. Warfield’s concept of Biblical inerrancy, are vital and sufficient for Christian intellectual engagement. Often this is coupled with a very strong sense of cultural antithesis, so that opposition to these ideas is viewed as opposition to the Kingdom of God. But for many people, myself included, the more you poke at it, the more Old Princeton starts to look moldy and crumbly. It may have been an important for its time in the Nineteenth Century, but the paradigms it offers don’t hold up very well against many advances in learning from other fields of inquiry. What alternative paradigms exist for Christian scholars who hope to remain within the historic stream of Christian thought and belief?
Jamie: When I started my graduate studies, I landed at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. I knew this was a philosophical graduate school “in the Reformed tradition,” which is why I was attracted to it. But given my formation to that point, “Reformed” for me just meant Edwards, Warfield, Hodge and gang. Little did I realize that ICS was rooted in the Dutch philosophical tradition of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd–and that they’re philosophical framework constituted a trenchant critique of the “common sense realism” of Old Princeton! In fact, when I was at ICS we started with a week-long “boot camp” that was basically a baptism into Dooyeweerd. And already in that week I saw the prim, tidy edifice I had erected crumbling around me.
Perhaps one could just say that the Old Princeton paradigm does not stand up to the critique of rationalism that was articulated in the 20th century, whereas Kuyper and Dooyeweerd were articulating a critique of the idols of reason well-before Heidegger, Derrida, et. al.
So “where did I go,” you ask, after Old Princeton? Amsterdam! Now, I didn’t exactly settle down there, but the Dutch side of the Reformed tradition offered a model of the Christian scholarly project that seemed much more nimble and attuned to contemporary challenges. It’s this tradition that would later produce folks like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga and George Marsden. And if I recall correctly, Kuyper makes a significant cameo in Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Indeed, Andy Crouch’s new book, Culture Making is kind of “Kuyper for Evangelicals” (and much preferred to Colson’s rendition of the same in How Now Shall We Live?).
If anyone wanted to follow up on this, I would still recommend Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton, published simply as Calvinism. But I might also recommend a little-known book that looks at classic figures in Christian thought (from Clement up to Gutierrez) from within this paradigm: Bringing into Captivity Every Thought: Capita Selecta in the History of Christian Evaluations of Non-Christian Philosophy (University Press of America).
Dave: I really appreciated “The Secret Lives of Saints: Reflections on Doubt,” which is included in The Devil Reads Derrida. But I’ve had trouble distinguishing “doubt” from “unbelief” from “scholarly skepticism,” and I wonder if you could comment about that. Academe is all about asking questions. Some think this results from relativism in the universities, a belief that there is no ultimate truth, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. Most of my academic colleagues, at heart, are passionate truth-seekers, though they might believe that ultimate knowledge of the truth is humanly unobtainable — or that Christianity simply isn’t true. Offer them a pile of steaming apologetic skubala and they’ll throw it right back at you. I’ve been covered in it more times than I want to admit. So this mindset forces us to ask questions: “who says,” “why,” “why not,” “where’s the evidence,” “what about this,” and so on. I might even say that this is our job as scholars. Yet an important part of our faith as Christians is confession — “I believe….” How can a Christian scholar start to integrate these apparently competing postures of “question” and “confession”?
Jamie: Well, this probably won’t make you happy, but I’m going to deflect this question a bit. While I don’t at all want to denigrate truth-seeking (!), I sometimes think the questions of skeptics are a cover for deeper, more affective issues they not articulating. I think there’s a place for evidence and demonstration and argument, but I also think there can be times (quite often) where this amounts to casting pearls before swine–not that our interlocutors are swine, but that they’re not really in a place to receive the arguments because, ultimately, it’s not the evidence that’s at issue. It’s love. I still think Christian scholars are doing their apologetic best when they model love–not by defending their beliefs but by living a peculiar life of love that is winsome, attractive, alluring. The fact of the matter is, despite all my philosophical proclivities, I was loved into the kingdom of God. And while skeptical interlocutors amongst are academic colleagues might be (sincerely) articulating questions and concerns in our debates with them, it might just be the case that what’s at issue is not really “intellectual.”
In this respect, I’m reminded of Augustine’s conversion in Book VIII of the Confessions. By that point, it’s not at all a matter of knowledge or conviction. Augustine knows what’s right; you might even say he believed it. What was holding him back was the will–he wasn’t willing to pursue a way of life. Christianity is not an intellectual system; it’s a way of life.
Dave: If you had to identify three books that Christian thinkers should read this year (besides the Bible or your own books), what would they be?
Wow. Tough question. By “this year,” do you mean new books that have just come out? That’d be tough to say. Let me stall by suggesting three classics that I think every Christian, not to mention Christian “thinkers,” should read at some point: Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine’s De doctrina christiana (“On Christian Teaching”), and Augustine’s City of God. Yeah, I think Augustine’s pretty important. Whether you could read those “this year”–well, that’s another question.
If you meant new books out this year, I’d recommend Graham Ward’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Discipleship (Baker Academic), D. Stephen Long’s new book, Speaking of God: Theology, Language, and Truth (Eerdmans), and Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love (U of Chicago).
Dave: Can I just ask one follow up on the question you deflected?! So I understand and agree for the most part with what you’re saying about responding to external non-Christian critics — though I might cite something like Merold Westphal’s “Suspicion and Faith” for the notion that we need to learn from our critics. What I meant to get at a little more is the “internal” check. As you describe your experience at ICS, you met with skepticism about the Old Princeton paradigm, for example. As Christian Scholars, these teachers of yours were asking skeptical questions of competing Christian paradigms in order to encourage you to develop what you’ve come to believe are richer Christian paradigms. This is part of the discipleship of the mind, as I see it — asking hard questions, and taking hard questions seriously, in ways that help refine our thinking in the process of (or as part of the process of) every thought being taken captive by Christ. But this can result in the tension between question and confession. Your confession of some Reformed distinctives won’t mean exactly the same as the confession of someone within the Old Princeton paradigm, for example, because of the questions you’ve asked. Some people who disagree with how you think of some issue of theology or Bible interpretation will suggest you fail to believe the Bible or God against those questions. Maybe my (long winded) question is this: how do you, as someone who is a bridge between the questioning world of Christian scholarship and the confessing world of the Christian Church, distinguish between “faithful” questions and questions that represent affective problems of the will?
Jamie: Oh, OK: I better appreciate what you’re asking now. I guess I would be hesitant to set up these two different worlds–the “questioning” world of Christian scholarship and the “confessing” world of the church. I think there’s inseparable intermingling here. Or let me put it this way: every question is its own kind of confession. Even our questions are articulated from somewhere, on the basis of something–however tenuous. And some of our best confessions are questions: Why, O Lord? How long, O Lord? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? As I think about it, the confessions are not boundaries that mark the limits of questioning; rather, the creeds and confessions are the guardrails that enable us to lean out and over the precipice, asking the hard questions.
I sometimes suggest that the Reformed tradition is like a Weeble. Do you remember those toys? “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!” These were egg-shaped toys with a heavily weighted bottom. You could press the toys in any direction and they could lean out, but then return to center. I think of the church’s creeds and confessions as the weighted bottom of my theoretical questioning: they provide a center of gravity that enables me to lean out into the hard questions. Granted, our churches often are not comfortable with fostering an ethos of curiosity and questioning, even though God is not at all frightened by such things. Again, I think it’s important for Christian scholars to model what faithful questioning looks like.