“More Realism, Critically”—A Reply to James K. A.
Smith’s “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory”
By Christian Smith
I am grateful for James K. A. Smith’s (hereafter JS) very thoughtful review (see Christian Scholar’s Review 40.1 [Fall 2010]: 77-92) of my book, What is a Person? (hereafter WiaP?). Much of his exposition gets the book and my larger intellectual project right, which I greatly appreciate. But some of his critical arguments I think miss the mark. Here I address some issues that come up in his review that strike me as debatable and relevant to CSR readers. First, the general lay of the land. Both JS and I are antireductionists. But JS (apparently) subscribes to some version of pragmatism that is friendly to relativism. I am a critical realist. Pragmatism cannot tolerate critical realism’s “ontological baggage.” Critical realism, however, believes it can incorporate some of the worthwhile insights of pragmatism (such as the test of “practical adequacy” as one of many criteria for believing statements to be true), but it rejects many of the central claims of the pragmatist tradition.1 My 2003 book, Moral, Believing Animals, is more amenable to a pragmatist reading than is WiaP?, which explains why JS likes it better and judges the latter to be a “step backward” (86). My view is that when one is standing on the edge of a precipice above a bottomless chasm (of relativism), taking a step backward is a good thing to do, a prerequisite to advancing forward in better directions. The better direction is critical realism. JS is also a philosopher, while I am a sociologist. He seems pretty friendly to postmodernism, whereas I have grown increasingly unsympathetic to the same in recent years (which shows in WiaP?). JS has spent his career in Christian college and university settings, while I have spent the bulk of mine in secular research universities. He has published most (though not all) of his books with Christian publishers (Baker, IVP, Eerdmans, and so on), while I have published most (though not all) of mine with secular university presses (Chicago, Routledge, Oxford). Finally, JS is a Protestant, and I am Catholic. These differences, I think, are relevant in various ways to the present discussion.
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and Director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.
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The first problem in JS’s thinking concerns his suggestion, developed mostly in the second half of his review, that my argument in WiaP? is “timid,” which is related to his pressing Christian scholars to be more “sectarian” by being explicitly Christocentric in their scholarship. I have no doubt that some Christian scholarship is timid. But the suggestion that WiaP? is timid is, for me, amusing and exasperating. That is the sort of thing that could only be said by someone who does not really understand from the inside the intellectual and social reality of the social sciences today. I think this is one place where JS, being a philosopher doing a particular kind of work in a Christian institutional context,2 shapes his review. To me this feels like a West Point officer complaining from the banks of the Hudson that the troops on the ground in Afghanistan are not fighting forcefully enough. I understand why JS argues as he does. But being intelligible does not mean being right. In the academic context in and to which WiaP? primarily speaks, it is anything but timid—as I anticipate forthcoming critical reviews in social science journals will demonstrate. That no doubt says more about the state of social science than JS’s ideas, but it is what it is. This first problem raises two related questions. First, what are legitimate forms of Christian scholarship? Second, what are good strategies for engaging academic debates with colleagues who profoundly disagree with Christian truth claims? I believe I understand JS’s position on these matters, as expressed in his review, but I think it is incomplete. Regarding the first question, JS seems to be suggesting that all worthwhile Christian scholarship needs to be driven by an explicitly Christocentric confession and argument. The mistake here is believing that scholarship across all disciplines must include an explicit theological component or else be sub-Christian. I think that is wrong and, in its own way (ironically), reductionistic. From a critical realist perspective, different disciplines seek to understand and explain different levels or dimensions of reality by logics and methods proper to their own levels or dimensions. That explains the legitimate differences between, for example, physics, biology, psychology, sociology and astronomy. And it justifies different kinds of discourse proper to different disciplines. It is one thing to believe that all thinking must ultimately be governed by the Christological reality; it is another to demand that the Christological implications of every scholarly project be spelled out explicitly in every publication (or artistic object or performance). There is more than one legitimate mode of Christian scholarship, not every one of which requires the kind of scandalously particularistic sort of explicit exposition JS seems to advocate. Following JS’s direction here would, I fear, produce the
The language JS uses to speak about critical realism throughout his review suggests to me not only that he is unconvinced by it, but that he also does not entirely and accurately grasp its claims. If so, then the latter (not grasping) probably contributes to the former (not being convinced). Critical realism is complex, rich and nuanced. It deserves to be understood well before being either embraced or written off. I know it is easy to claim, “my critic just doesn’t understand.” But sometimes, on some points, that is true. 2 I am not suggesting that institutional contexts are determinative, only sociologically influential as tendencies.
“More Realism, Critically”—A Reply to James K. A. Smith
academic equivalent of the CCM (contemporary Christian music) genre of “faithbased” music: always explicit, not very poetic, pretty boring. Does this view create possibilities for some Christian scholarship to be timid, even compromised? Of course. Is the proper response to demand that all Christian scholarship make explicit all of its Christological moorings and implications? No. Let’s get real. What is possible to say in IVP and Baker books is mostly not possible with the University of Chicago Press. I do not have a problem with that. The world needs both. Both are important and valuable. But let us not imagine that scholars can, in the name of “embracing the scandal,” simply shift the same message untranslated from one to another. I do not even think that they should. To some extent, I read JS’s argument as simply telling us that he really appreciates good theology that connects to issues like human personhood. I am glad for that. I do too. But that does not mean all good Christian scholarship must at some point shift into an explicitly theological mode. It no doubt sometimes should. But it certainly need not always. Just because such moves are in principle possible (as they are with WiaP?) does not mean that they must become actual at every opportunity. And just because some scholarship dealing with issues of reality and truth does not make explicitly Christological claims does not automatically mean that it is a work of “nontheistic natural theology” (87). (So, comparing Smith to Kelsey is apples and oranges, but JS seems to want to view them as apples and apples.) What about the second, related question of good strategies for engaging in academic debates with colleagues who embrace radically different presuppositions about reality? There is more than one way to skin a cat. The Christocentrically inyour-face approach has much to commend it—I have known Stanley Hauerwas (personally) and read Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics) long and well enough to know all about this. But there are also other approaches that embody different Christian virtues that are equally legitimate and, in many contexts, I think, preferable. Christian scholars need to employ a variety of forms, styles, postures, methods and strategies in their scholarship, each discerningly best suited to their particular conditions. JS is concerned that too many fearful and insecure Christian scholars have backed themselves into shrinking and apologetic defenses of mere theism and natural law. That may be. But that concern must also be balanced with an appreciation for the fact that certain less “scandalous” forms of scholarly engagement can also be motivated, not by fear or insecurity, but by Christian love for “the (worldview) stranger,” a kind of hospitality to “the (intellectual) alien,” an open humility to learn from “the (scholarly) Samaritan” and a patience in viewing the task of Christian scholarship as a long-term, developmental process. That has its own dangers. But what does not? Yale’s Lamin Sahnneh has rightly highlighted the significance of the fact that Christianity is a translatable faith, not one that demands that everyone learn the “pure language” of, say, Arabic or Aramaic. That is a relevant fact for Christian scholars directly engaging often smart and well-intentioned colleagues who simply cannot see (for sometimes understandable reasons) that Christian truth claims
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make any sense. Given this outlook, JS’s apparent position on Christian scholarship, indicated in his review, at least when read as a programmatic statement, strikes me as flat-footed. The important possibility JS seems to miss is a vision for scholarship that tells much but not all, that pushes but not to the breaking point, that lays out the dots but lets the reader connect some of them, that builds a case by steps over time rather than announcing everything up front, that sometimes romances rather than overpowers. A few other points. JS criticizes WiaP?’s theory of action as being “intellectualist,” “narrow” and “cognitivist” (83-94). On the one hand, this is a misplaced critique, since the purpose of WiaP? is to develop a theoretical ontology of personhood, not an account of agency and action. Delivering the latter will require a whole other book building on the former (which I have already begun to write). On the other hand, the argument of WiaP? does provide numerous indirect indications about agency and action, very many of which clearly provide balance to cognitioncentered themes also present. Readers should note, for example, my reliance on Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge;” my repeated emphases on the embodied nature of human personhood, on the unconscious and on the relational constitution of human being; and my arguments in chapter six (on the personal sources of social structures, a key chapter which JS’s review does not mention) about the (non-intellectualist) forces of “reiterated body practices,” “collective activity currents” and “intractable interaction processes” in propelling and governing human action. I hear what JS is saying on this point and I believe I know why he is saying it, but I think it is one-sided. JS also objects to a supposed “internal tension” between critical realism and my use of Charles Taylor’s phenomenological epistemology (footnote 38). It may be possible to detect such a tension when these matters are framed differently than I propose. But from my critical realist perspective, there is no tension here. The work of Taylor I employ is not his entire philosophical program, but specifically the epistemology laid out in the early chapters of his Sources of the Self. While Taylor is generally a kind of hermeneutical interpretivist, his particular argument for the specific epistemological approach on which I draw is decidedly realist (even though non-foundationalist and fallibalist) and I think very useful. Whether other works of Taylor can be found that claim to dissolve the entire realist/antirealist/ critical realist debate successfully is debatable. As a realist, I doubt it is persuasive in the end (though, as a good “Taylorite” here, always “reasoning in transitions,” I am in principle open). I have actually discussed critical realism with Taylor over dinner, and we significantly agree about some things but not entirely so. So be it. But that our larger programs are not identical does not mean that I cannot coherently draw upon a particular line of reasoning in one of his key books to integrate profitably into my constructive program. I can and do, I think, with success. Finally, JS’s review (85-86) objects to my clustering of “antirealism, positivism, empiricism, reductionism, constructionism, and pragmatism” together as a “package.” That list, however, has to be understood in the context of my arguments in the previous 269 pages, which address each of these isms one by one in some de-
“More Realism, Critically”—A Reply to James K. A. Smith
tail. That “package” is listed in summary mode, not as sharing all things in common, but as entailing belief commitments about ontology and science that, I argue, lead to “antihumanist, person-annihilating” views, “especially when… combined” (270). JS seems particularly concerned about defending pragmatism (to some version of which [the kind that could “take Rorty to church”] he seems to subscribe) against being conflated into reductionism (and perhaps a negative view of relativism, although that is not included in this list of isms). But the pragmatism critiqued in the previous chapters of WiaP? was the pragmatist theory of truth specifically, which I very much hope JS is not trying to defend. Of course JS is formally correct that the isms in this list are “positions which are separable” (84). I think part of the difference here, again, however, concerns different disciplines. Philosophers often multiply distinctions to parse out items that are indeed logically potentially separable. In the actual, concrete instances of sociology that I am taking on and criticizing, however, these isms often go together—in often crazy and messy ways. Sorting out positive solutions will undoubtedly take some fine distinction-making, of the kind I offer in the chapters on social constructionism and truth. But before ever getting there, one must first persuade one’s colleagues of the existence of any problem needing any solutions. And accomplishing that, at least in sociology, can take sharpening a stick that draws attention to the kind of difficulties involved with the “package” I summarize above. JS also writes as if “natural law” is a secondary, sub-Christian, non-scandalous matter. This is a very Protestant view, in that some robust version of natural law is crucial in and for Catholicism, but not most of Protestantism. That natural law is also a non-scandalous matter is also empirically false. In most of the academy today, definitely in the social sciences, to believe in the reality of natural law is obviously to be nutters, barking mad, belonging among those interested in hunting witches and fighting Crusades. Were Christians actually able to persuade their academic colleagues that, say, moral facts exist as part of the very nature of reality, that would be a massive, game-changing accomplishment. Like JS, I have no interest in defending mere (non-Trinitarian) “theism” (with Barth I find forthright atheism preferable); but please let us not treat arguing for natural law as secondary and non-scandalous. Finally, I suspect that Protestant-Catholic differences structure this discussion in other ways. For example, WiaP?’s basic argument embodies a very “grace-buildson-nature” approach (even though it also integrates, as JS notes, some standard moves of Reformed epistemology). My book presupposes hope that even “fallen” people—guided by the structures of (even admittedly subjected-to-frustration) nature, the light of (even admittedly significantly darkened) reason and the inextinguishable human longing for (despite simultaneous alienation from) God—can make limited though valuable moves of knowledge in good and helpful directions. In due course, nature must be enlightened and perfected by grace. But, because of the constantly irrepressible love and grace of God for humanity, even the reality of nature (including human nature) can help humans, despite their frequent
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denials of the reality of grace, to take important steps of understanding in the right direction. And that matters a lot. It helps, for instance, to answer JS’s questions, “Whose ‘we?’ Who is ‘we?’” (87). Humanity does not enjoy the Enlightenment’s “strong we” of self-guiding universal rationality, but we humans must and do enjoy a kind of “weak we” by virtue of our common humanity, providing something with which “we” (Christian scholars) can work—and without which the very question of personhood would be meaningless. The outlook mentioned just above also provides a coherent vision and justification, rooted in two millennia of theological reflection, for the very project of vigorous Christian scholarship per se. I do not pretend to be able to label JS theologically as a person. But I think I may detect in the ideas in and behind his review more than a few traces of the Kuyperian “antithesis,” perhaps a post-Kantian human disconnection of faith from (“noumenal”) reality that leaves only one kind of divine revelation and professed human beliefs, and perhaps even faint echoes of the Canons of Dordt’s view of total depravity, reprobation, the inaccessibility of the lost, the Protestant confessional stance, and so forth. Or maybe that is just my imagination. Now, I am just about as friendly to Christians in the Reformed tradition as I am to anyone, but I cannot say that I believe that (or any Protestant) approach to be the best account of things.3 Hence my coming down with Catholicism, and so the nature of my argument in WiaP? To conclude, my goals here have been to draw attention to issues that seem important to the larger project of Christian scholarship, and to try to balance out what I think are some of JS’s more debatable ideas in order to help position potential CSR readers of WiaP? to grasp, I hope, the nature, approach and purpose of that book better. If I have mischaracterized or otherwise been unfair to JS’s position, which is not unlikely, though not intended, I beg forgiveness. This is the sort of “conversation” that is of course much better had over nachos and a few Guinnesses—the pleasure of which I hope to have with JS in due course. Meanwhile and in any case, I hope that many more people besides us will read WiaP? and enter into this larger discussion about the important issues it raises.
Why I explain in two forthcoming books: Christian Smith, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011); and Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Moving from Biblicism to a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011). (Remember that “evangelical Catholic” is no necessary oxymoron, but ought, I think, to be the proper state of affairs—leavened of course with a healthy dose of Karl Barth, a move which, I am convinced, despite common assumptions to the contrary, is entirely possible and needed.)
Natural Law’s Secularism?— A Response to Christian Smith
By James K. A. Smith
I deeply appreciate—and am just a little surprised—that Christian Smith (CS) would take time to respond to my review essay, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory.”1 And let me clarify, right from the outset, that I would be as disappointed as CS2 if, on the basis of my few critical comments, readers somehow concluded that they could bypass What is a Person? I clearly share his “hope that many more people besides us will read WiaP?;” indeed, that is precisely why, in my essay, I open by saying that WiaP? “deserve[s] wide, deep consideration from Christian scholars across a range of disciplines” (79).3 So none of my criticisms were meant to be an encouragement to bypass or dismiss the book. On the contrary, I think this is one of those indispensible, landmark books that everyone needs to go through, not around. I took this invitation to respond to CS’s reply because his essay raises important questions about the nature of Christian scholarship—questions that really signal a new maturity in this conversation and take it to a new level. We will not agree on these matters, but I hope our disagreement might nonetheless be instructive. With that in mind, let me respond to CS on three clusters of issues: first I will take up his defense of critical realism against my hints regarding pragmatism; second, I will attend to his suggestion that this is a Protestant vs. Catholic issue by taking up the question of natural law in the context of antifoundationalism; finally, I will briefly address the task of Christian scholarship. 1. First, as I try to point out, and as I think CS concedes, his anti- or nonfoundationalism, first broached in Moral, Believing Animals, puts him on the precipice of relativism: if there is no God’s-eye view from which we just see “the way things are,” then following Geertz it seems we need to own up to the concern that it might just be turtles all the way down. While Moral, Believing Animals left his account hanging there, WiaP? admittedly steps back from there into the safety of critical realism. And stepping back from a precipice, he suggests, would seem like a good thing. But is it? What is the price of “safety” here? Could critical realism be crying
James K.A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.
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“peace, peace” where there is no peace? Let us recall, after all, what put us on that precipice: it was precisely Smith’s antifoundationalism that stirred up the specter of relativism. Now, in WiaP?, having roused the specter that now haunts us, CS looks for defense measures, protection from relativism’s haunting. The ghostbuster in this respect (apologies: I write this on Halloween) is supposed to be critical realism that delivers us from the danger by hooking us up from our precarious place on the precipice of relativism, yielding a humble, fallibilist “realism” and yet an epistemological confidence that our concepts refer to some reality “out there.” We are standing on lots of turtles, the critical realist tells us, but at some point and in some way the turtles stop and we get realist correspondence. The problem, I am arguing, is that CS cannot have his antifoundationalist4 cake and eat his realism, too. A thoroughgoing antifoundationalism—which CS still invokes in WiaP?—is exactly what calls into question the epistemic paradigm that gets us any sort of “realism.” In short, “critical realism” is the answer to a question we should stop asking. It is the answer to a question that still assumes an epistemic framework that distinguishes between some “inside” (of our concepts, ideas, representations and so on) and some “outside” (extra-mental reality, objects, “data” and so on). This is why I invoked Taylor’s work on Wittgenstein and MerleauPonty.5 Taylor rejects both realism and anti-realism, not by taking some middle-ofthe-road position in “critical” realism, but by refusing to ask what he thinks is a bad question: How can we be sure we know the external world? Per Wittgenstein, Taylor suggests that we have become captive to a (false) picture—what he calls the Inside/Outside (I/O) picture which maps the terrain of knowledge as an “inside” and an “outside.” Then per Merleau-Ponty, Taylor shows how that picture, sedimented into our folk epistemologies, has us posing questions and inventing
1 James K. A. Smith, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory: A Review Essay,” Christian Scholar’s Review 40:1 (2010): 77-92. Due to some comments later in C. Smith’s response, let me here note for the record that (a) I was assigned Smith and Kelsey to be reviewed in tandem and (b) was granted 5,000 words of space to cover two books comprising 3 volumes and totaling 2,040 pages. This will explain why I compare and contrast the two, as well as why I was not able to cover all aspects of WiaP? 2 Things are bound to get a bit confusing here, but I will follow C. Smith’s convention and refer to him as CS (to be distinguished, but by just a hair, from JS). I will try not to confuse things by also introducing an acronym for my book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, since then we would be talking about CS’s WiaP? and JS’s WAoP? Whew! 3 Indeed, I have been something of an evangelist for CS’s work in a number of different contexts, including discussions in congregational studies as well as discussions about secularism and the social sciences coordinated by the Social Science Research Council. See, for example, James K. A. Smith, “Secular Liturgies and the Prospect for a ‘Post-Secular’ Sociology of Religion,” in The Post-Secular in Question, eds. Gorski, Kim, Torpey and VanAntwerpen (New York: SSRC/NYU Press, 2011). 4 CS seems simply to equate antifoundationalism with “fallibilism” in epistemology—with a kind of epistemic humility about our (correspondence) claims. I think the latter is not necessarily antifoundationalism. Indeed, one could imagine a kind of fallibilist foundationalism. As I will suggest below, that might be more like what CS’s critical realism amounts to. 5 See J. Smith, “(Re)Turn,” 85n.38.
Natural Law’s Secularism?—A Response to Christian Smith
problems where there are not any. The only way out of this is a gestalt shift, a completely new picture. But too many responses to this problem continue to work within the same picture/paradigm. Critical realism is one example. Because the I/O picture has become so sedimented into our “everyday” attitude, it is “natural” for us to have “realist” worries and doubts—whereas Rorty, Merleau-Ponty and others will press us to see that this is a fabricated problem: that even when we are fretting about our “access” to reality, we cannot not be taking all sorts of aspects of our reality for granted. But the I/O picture fools us into thinking that if we reject correspondence or represenationalism, we are rejecting reality— that we are retreating into some sort of idealism, giving up any responsibility to reality. In short, we are giving up on justification. But even when we check our claims “against reality,” this is not a matter of connecting an inside to an outside; it is a matter of know-how, a communally agreed-upon coping with our world. I have no illusions that I could settle this debate in the space allotted here. Nor do I mean to suggest that these issues are settled in philosophy; indeed, I am pushing what is clearly a minority position. I only want to register that things are very complicated and it is not a settled conclusion that, of course, Christians should be realists. Maybe Christians should stop asking the questions to which realism, critical or not, is the answer. To this point, I think that CS perhaps confuses antifoundationalism with a mere fallibilism. If all he wants is the latter, and if he wants to cling to even “critical” realism in order to ward off the specter of relativism, then I suggest he needs to stop describing his project as antifoundationalist. And if he still wants to do the latter, then he cannot avail himself of critical realism since that is answering a question the antifoundationalist thinks we should stop asking. 2. This leads to my second concern: in a couple of places, CS suggests that our differences might come down to a Catholic/Protestant divide. I do not buy it, mainly because I do not think the (Roman) “Catholic” position on these matters is as settled as CS might lead us to believe. It might be that what we have got here is not a Catholic/Protestant divide as much as a difference between a more Augustinian model in contrast to a certain kind of scholastic (perhaps Thomistic6 ) framework— which would make this an intra-Catholic debate.7 In the end, the way CS wards off
6 It is also debatable whether Thomas Aquinas worked with the sort of two-level, “gracebuilds-on-nature” approach that CS advocates, where “nature” is taken to be intelligible without reference to Christological faith. For an internal debate on this issue, see D. Stephen Long’s critique of Jean Porter’s natural law proposals in his article, “The Way of Aquinas: Its Importance for Moral Theology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 19 (2006): 323-338. 7 Indeed, Smith might not realize that he is unwittingly wading into one of the most hotly contested theological discussions in Catholic theology today, regarding the relationship between “nature” and “grace”—particularly in the wake of la nouvelle théologie’s radical critique of the received scholastic model of nature as a kind of autonomous, independent “level” of reality. (I think a number of recent evangelical converts to Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism—especially those who are intellectuals—have been drawn to this scholastic model at just the time that it is being called into question with Roman Catholic theology.)
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relativism is by affirming natural law—which turns out to be just the sort of minimalist normativity that could be yielded by critical realism. So what we get in the end is a “non-sectarian” disclosure of certain “moral facts.” But does this sound at all familiar? Is this not exactly what secularism promised? There are two intertwined concerns here. First, the model of natural law to which CS appeals makes both an ontological and an epistemological claim: ontologically, it claims that there is a normative, moral order—a way things ought to be. Further, epistemologically, it also claims that all human beings can have access to these moral facts.8 But it is precisely antifoundationalism which undercuts such epistemic universality: antifoundationalism (which CS wants to affirm) is a hermeneutic emphasis on the contextual conditioning of our knowledge. So if antifoundationalism is true, then there cannot be the sort of universal access that CS invokes at the end of WiaP? Second, CS marshaled antifoundationalism precisely to call into question the foundationalist pretensions of a secularism which purported to disclose universal moral facts by means of neutral reason. Oddly, does not CS’s critical realism cum natural theology land us in the same place? This confirms my suspicions about a strange collusion—or at least convergence—between natural law theory and secularism.9 3. Finally, with CS, I want to be a pluralist about the shape and tenor of Christian scholarship. Sometimes Christian scholarship will be covert; sometimes it will be overt; sometimes it will be cagey, at other times it will be unapologetically strident; some of us will be carrying out our work in the halls of the “mainstream” academy (state universities, research universities), others will be carrying out this work in institutions that are intentionally and “thickly” Christian. We all place our bets; we all answer different callings; there are many ways to be faithful.10 However, I think we should be cautious about drawing causal inferences as CS seems to do. The way he paints the picture, you might think my work is more overtly and explicitly Christian because I teach at a Christian college and because I publish with presses like Baker Academic and Eerdmans. But, of course, the causal influence could go exactly the other direction: because I have decided that I want to do scholarship that is thickly and explicitly Christian, I have also chosen to settle in institutions that welcome, encourage and sustain such work—and have published my work with presses that permit and encourage me to be explicit and un8 CS is right that I reject the latter: the epistemological claim. But please note that this does not entail rejecting the former: the ontological claim. Here I would take my position to be sort of extending Alvin Plantinga’s critique of natural theology. See Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 15 (1980): 49-63. Again, I think this signals some internal tension in CS’s project: while he draws on Reformed epistemology to underwrite his antifoundationalism, he later avails himself of natural law for his critical realism. I do not think he can have it both ways. 9 For further discussion, see James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a PostSecular Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 49-54. 10 So nowhere do I say, as CS seems to take it, that “all worthwhile Christian scholarship needs to be driven by explicitly Christocentric confession.”
Natural Law’s Secularism? —A Response to Christian Smith
apologetic in my Christian starting point.11 Indeed, I can remember when I had to contemplate the direction I would take: while in graduate school, I could have carved out a research agenda which, though still informed by and invested in a Christian starting point, was nonetheless more covert, cagey and minimalist. Such could still be a good, legitimate calling for a Christian scholar—and as CS rightly notes, even arguing for rather minimal claims in an exceedingly naturalist academy can be somewhat scandalous and bold. My concern is that if that is all we ever settle for under the rubric of Christian scholarship, what we will tend to get is merely “theistic” or “moralistic” scholarship. It seems to me that if there is going to be something like Christian scholarship it must at some point and somewhere be scholarship that really works from the scandalous specificity of distinctly Christian starting points—and not just in theology, since Christian faith has something to say about the created world, human culture, and all of the spheres of academic investigation. It might even be the case that we do not have to choose. As George Marsden argued in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, if the university was really consistent in its pluralism, it would make room at the table for explicitly Christian starting points, just as it has made room for feminist, Marxist, and queer theory. Obviously such a level playing field has not yet arrived. However, we might be beginning to see signs of a shift, even in the social sciences. Consider, for example, the most recent issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly which is devoted to an interdisciplinary encounter between anthropologists and theologians.12 There we find, in a mainstream (historically Marxist) journal, anthropologists considering whether, how and why specifically theological claims might be germane to carrying out the work of the social sciences. Granted, this is a still a minority report, but it gives some sign that things might be changing. I regularly point to Christian Smith as an exemplary Christian scholar—he is often cited in my work, and I regularly assign his books in my courses, precisely so students can begin to imitate such a model. If I have pressed him critically, it has been intended in the best spirit of Christian friendship and scholarly fraternity, as a robust way to be contending about what is good for the tradition of Christian scholarship—which is part and parcel of a tradition. I am grateful to have such teachers and conversation partners and hope our exchange goes some way to advancing the conversation. For the future, I am willing to spring for the nachos if he pays for the Guinesses.
11 The only point that I resent in CS’s response is the suggestion that Christian scholarship along the lines I suggest would be akin to a sort of CCM-ization of Christian scholarship. I think such a comment shows a real lack of understanding of the shape of this conversation. Plus, I have explicitly criticized such “correlationist” or “assimilationist” projects in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, 68-70. 12 Global Christianity, Global Critique, an issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, eds. Matthew Engelke and Joel Robbins, 109 (2010).
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