The Corpus of James K. A. Smith: Worldview Made Flesh

First published in The Christian Courier February 12, 2018 and it won First Place Award, Feature Articles, Canadian Church Press, 2019.

Dr. James K. A. Smith has been called both an “academic rock star” and “a faithful guide” and I want to commend his postliberal Biblical vision for creaturely life to you. I have been following him for years, trying to keep up with his prolific writing, identifying him as a post-boomer peer who offers a fresh paradigm and practice for Christians. I would describe him best as a provocative public intellectual: a self-described “philosophical theologian with interest in socio-political realities” who teaches at Calvin University in Michigan, edits a magazine (formerly Cardus’ Comment Magazine and now at Image) and a book series (The Church in Postmodern Culture) while publishing regularly in newspapers, scholarly journals, and speaking in a wide range of venues. He seems to spit out a book every year, and has just released the third and final book of his acclaimed trilogy on “cultural liturgies” entitled Awaiting the King (which Hans Boersma hints will possibly “profoundly redirect contemporary public theology.”)

James K. A. Smith

So it’s a good time to assess his offerings to the church and academy, and a short interview with him gave me some extra insight into his body of work—and his body. I say “and his body” for reasons that will be revealed below, but this is one of the central themes of Smith’s corpus: Jesus saves bodies—creatures, institutions, traditions, and planets. Because Jesus is more a Body than an idea and so Smith, too, is more than a list of ideas. He offers us his life testimony.

Why commend Smith as one of the trusted prophets of our age? One basic reason is that Smith is a complex person; meaning within Smith there is always much left to discover and wonder about. For example, he is a white Canadian living in what he calls “the most segregated city of the north” in the United States—Grand Rapids. He has the single most prevalent surname in the USA yet chooses to work out his vocation in an academy owned and operated by a church historically rooted in an invisible minority—Dutch settlers to North America. He has formative Brethren and Pentecostal connections but carries a Reformed banner woven with catholic threads. Finally, he sees things as a Gen-X philosopher (he’s not even 50), serving as a public intellectual with a quick wit and cultural savvy who mysteriously calls himself a postliberal conservative relativist.

Some background on this intriguing Doctor Smith. He grew up in the historically Presbyterian small town community of Embro, Ontario, with a vague awareness of a “bland theism” but definitely not a church-shaped household. He grew up working class, playing hockey and football, in a broken family “multiple times over” and has been estranged from his father since age 11. (This sense of abandonment by fathers has been one of the key issues that have shaped his spiritual journey). Then through “missionary dating,” his girlfriend (now wife) Deanna introduced him to faith and church—specifically, the Plymouth Brethren tradition.

He tells of how his future father-in-law and uncle presented him with a gospel message one night that “made immediate intellectual sense.” He then went home, knelt beside his bed, asked forgiveness for his sins, and let Jesus come and rule in his heart. He had a very real, tangible, palpable feeling of Jesus coming and kneeling beside him.

This full-bodied conversion experience still grips him to this day. This tangible Jesus is the heart of his faith, and when Smith recently overheard someone publicly commended for his “deep love for the Reformed tradition,” he wondered: OK. Fine. What about his love for Jesus?

An enthusiastic convert, Smith jumped into Emmaus College, a Bible College in Iowa, to immerse himself in his new spiritual life, and soon became an itinerant preacher for Brethren assemblies. This was a fundamentalist prophesy-and-end-times tradition, however, that did not acknowledge itself as a human tradition but as simply following “what the Bible says.” Serendipitously, some Old Princeton theologians’ tomes caught Smith’s attention at the college, and he became a voracious reader of Reformed theology, eventually landing in graduate work at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Smith testifies: “The framework of ‘creation-fall-redemption-consummation’ was, for me, an absolute epiphany.”

He began a steady diet of postmodern philosophy, which convinced him of the limits of human knowing. He encountered what would be one of his first major themes and the subject of his first book: everything is interpretation. His preaching soon began to subtly suggest a gap between “the way things are” and “the way we see things as Brethren” and some red flags were raised by elders. There was some interrogation of his beliefs, and a subsequent letter from a Bible College professor calling him “a student of Judas Iscariot” indicated his career with the Brethren had come to an end. Looking back, Smith feels he was “duped” by the fundamentalist claim to objectivity and the postmodern emphasis on interpretation offered him therapy and in time, recovery.

Smith doesn’t blame the fundamentalists alone. In February 2021 he publicly apologized to this same group of people in an essay on how he changed his mind about the relative efficacy of the intellect. He takes some responsibility, noting his age at the time:

I look at my sermon notes from this period and cringe. I want to go back to these congregations and apologize—for boring them to death, sure, but also for a youthful selfishness, imagining my abstractions and speculations had anything to do with living the Christian life. Here were people quietly burying their elders, terrified for children bent on destroying themselves, facing death and loneliness and loss, never given permission to doubt, carrying any number of secret burdens and sins they longed to confess; and here’s a 22-year-old kid who’s read a lot of books trying to parse trinitarian personhood through 19th-century scholasticism as if it matters.

He was like a kid just discovering what he thought were superpowers, but in hindsight might have been a subtle idolatry of the mind.

Witnessing Smith in the flesh, you’ll soon know he is not a stiff and staid scholarly voice from the ivory tower. He occupies Richard Mouw’s office at Calvin and he sees Mouw as his predecessor and model; but unlike the irenic Mouw, Smith is a feisty, at times contentious, and provocative prodder into dozens of nooks and crannies of modern (pop) culture. He does not stick slavishly to a script when he talks, but like a good Pentecostal preacher is ready to trust the Spirit and speak from passion and memory. The odd time a rash tweet or sharp-sliced book review has caused him grief and he’s been publicly rebuked. He says where he has been lacking in grace he’s been repentant, but sometimes he refuses to tip-toe around truth, and he’s not sympathetic to timid hearts who don’t like a good, frank debate.

I asked around at Calvin College and faculty say he’s away often on speaking tours, but he’s well-liked, has a cheerful disposition, is actively involved in the life of the school, and is particularly keen on interdisciplinary collaboration and college policy. Personally, I find Smith quite approachable and quick to laugh. As the author of How to Be Secular says of Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular:

[His book] is sort of fun… Smith has figured out that the English language need not be a delivery mechanism for joylessness. His philosopher-badass-riding-in-on-a-Razor-scooter-to-the-accompaniment-of-Arcade-Fire’s-“Wake Up” persona is kind of charming.

This critic (Jacques Berlinerblau) obviously disagrees with Smith and is being a little dismissive. But he suggests its hard to ignore—and easy to enjoy—Smith’s philosophical work.

1. From “Worldview” to “Liturgy”

As a primer on Smith, let me suggest there are at least six more good reasons to acquaint yourself with Smith’s work. First of all, even though he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, he challenges the whole “Christian worldview” paradigm. Smith seeks to reform the Reformed camp from within by arguing that if worldview is not understood in an applied way—and an implied way, implied in our very habits—we could be assuming a non-Biblical view of persons: that we are just minds seeking understanding, “brains-on-a-stick.” “We have spent a generation thinking about thinking,” writes Smith. “But… we don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice.”

Instead, he posits that humans are first of all worshipping (loving, desiring) creatures, and we need to pay attention to the “cultural liturgies” that shape our hearts, bodies, and minds. Liturgy is not just the structure of Sunday worship for Smith but the matrix of practises and stories that configure our everyday life and imagination; these cultural patterns are more fundamental to our being than just what we think. Our habits—where we live, how we gather food and eat, our patterns of work, recreation and rest—all reveal and shape our loves and purposes in ways that may even contradict what we say we love.

Smith seeks to “redeem ritual” for Protestants with an allergy to repetitious action. This is ancient wisdom, evident in Biblical commandments and sacraments, is summarized in the Latin repetitio est mater studiorum: “repetition is the mother of all learning.” But Smith insists this insight is not just for faithful Christians: all of life is liturgy, whether it’s a consumerist liturgy, a nationalist liturgy, or a militaristic liturgy. We shape the routines of our day and week, but these routines in turn shape our imagination and thus our heart to love something beyond ourselves. Our daily practices can be expressive in nature (supposedly revealing our inner self), but they are more fundamentally formative (shaping that self and its community).

2. Word Becomes Flesh

Smith is an ecumenist in many ways. After his Brethren days he first joined the Pentecostals, and to this day calls himself a Reformed charismatic, adding that being a pentecostal (small “p”) makes him a better Calvinist. Charismatics recognize the sovereignty of God can disrupt our worship, and that the Spirit can surprise us, and infect us with a joy that is outside of our nervous desire to control. Furthermore, “Pentecostal worship is the extension of the Reformed intuition about the goodness of creation and the goodness of embodiment,” writes Smith. Think of the healings, the tongues, the raised arms and prostrate bodies, not to mention the warm touch of hugs and laying on of hands in prayer: its not the traditional sober, cerebral Reformed style.

 The central feature of the Reformation was the Word, and that most often means reading Scripture. Today many Reformed congregations have been positively influenced by the various waves of charismatic Christianity, and the Spirit—and the visible bodies of the gifted laity—have become more prominent. Synod 2009 encouraged church members to be “open but cautious” with this disruptive, joyful, embodied tradition. But for Smith this consecration of our physical self is not just about worship style but the heart of a full-blooded Christianity—rooted in the incarnation, where God blesses human bodies and the whole material world with his Word-in-the-flesh presence, grace, and Spirit.

In fact, our embodied life can be sacramental—a channel of God’s peace. This challenges the Enlightenment assumption that individual rationality and choice are the most basic and elevated elements of our existence. We are enfleshed souls, bent to love and community, and that’s why our liturgies are fundamental to our faiths. Our bodies are central to our routines and relationships, and the charismatics invite their Reformed brothers and sisters to join in the holy dance.

3. Worship Matters for Neo-Calvinists

Thirdly, Smith returns church and worship to a primary role for Christian living. A wave of neo-Calvinist thinkers have championed the fact that faith permeates all of life—to the point where some professors at Calvin College protested when the plans for a campus chapel were being made because they said it architecturally suggests that worship spaces are more holy than classroom, lab, or studio spaces. Smith maintains while it is true that all of life is part of some cultural liturgy which tunes our heart to sing praise to something ultimate, the act of rehearsing the drama of Christ’s death and resurrection in a habitual way contains a thickness of formation that permeates our other everyday practises. Thus Sunday morning can fuel our kingdom imagination as it saturates us in the Biblical story and nourishes us for a week of faithful service in our vocations. Communal worship has primacy in our discipleship.

One of Smith’s earlier books, using postmodern theorists as therapy to relieve the church of its modern malaise…

Not just any worship service, however. This is not worship geared to staking out “the next best thing” or the novelty of spiritual-but-not-religious messages for enlightened minds and targeted audiences. Worship needs to challenge rival pagan and secular liturgies. Smith grounds his view of worship in the long liturgical tradition of the universal church: kneeling in confession, standing to recite the Apostle’s Creed, splashing the water of baptism, eating and drinking at the King’s table, singing praise and lament, and holding out hands to receive a benediction and be sent into service in God’s world. Worship grounds us in the Story, teaches us God’s design for the world, and fuels our imagination for cultural engagement and innovation. Worship and mission are interdependent practices.

4. Postmodern Conservative

In Canada, to be a conservative is to be suspect, especially in mainstream media and the public academy. I find it refreshing that in a world that prizes the progressive and radical—or reacts against it in an embattled fundamentalism, Smith chooses to self-identify as a “postmodern conservative” or “conservative relativist.” So this is not your stereotypical conservatism, and certainly not the Fox News brand. That means he is duly critical of Republicans like Bush or Trump, distances himself from current forms of global capitalism and certainly its temple, the mall, but nevertheless believes the past has something worth preserving (especially the fourth century, a similarly “cross-pressured” age of waning empires). He revives the term “anti-revolutionary” to remind us that unless God has completely abandoned a culture, the radical call to raze the current structures to the ground and start off “fresh” can be nothing less than wanton destruction.

Smith is conservative in a postmodern, which is to say postliberal way. It’s a conservatism that has experienced the fragmentation of both liberal and libertarian ethics and seeks a renewal of our common life. To be conservative is to resist the expressive individualism (“The Big Me” described by David Brooks) of liberal America—a basic feature of both the right and the left—and seek a third way. This “redeemed” conservatism is at heart seeing one’s life attached to others—including the saints of generations past. This means we are all necessarily people of some tradition, and that being a reflective participant in a tradition and institutions is not a failure of the autonomous self but the very nature of a healthy human self. Dependence on others suggests life is both indebtedness and gift. One of Smith’s choice quotes from the Catholic writer George Weigel communicates a paradox:

“The real question is not whether you grow up in a ghetto, but whether the ideas and customs and rhythms of your particular ghetto prepare you to engage other ideas and customs and life experiences without losing touch with your roots.”

This is why Smith begs Reformed congregations not to try and meld into evangelical or mainline molds. (See his article, “Buried Treasure.”) Be your gifted, idiosyncratic communal self, and without apology! Our good differences add to the trans-national, trans-historical catholic church. In a sense, your ecclesial particularity is what makes you truly universal; for human beings only exist in particulars.

5. Freedom Within the Bounds of Flourishing

What this comes down to, as a fifth point, is a more nuanced understanding of freedom. Freedom in the West is almost always understood negatively, as freedom from—from constraints, obligations, relationships, structures, institutions. In other words, freedom is individual autonomy for “choice-machines.” This is the freedom that fuels empires and their markets, which proliferate choice without any notion of what a good choice would be for the common good. Regulations and restrictions are viewed as inherently bad.

Smith continually insists, drawing on Augustine and Isaiah Berlin, that freedom can also be understood positively—as freedom to, freedom for the good, to flourish, to sacrifice, to give, to be empowered for service to the Triune God. Constraints not only restrain us, but they also hold us, shape us, and give us boundaries within which to play and find a home. “To be free is to be empowered and enabled to choose the (specified) Good that constitutes human flourishing,” Smith writes. This is not a rational choice between many options, but a desire for the common good perceived in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. That’s real freedom.

This is why Smith upholds the value of marriage, especially because it is a binding institution that benefits the poor and vulnerable. In his family of origin he has experienced the fragmentation of so-called “freedom.” There are good guardrails that keep us on track for the common good, and that’s why Smith advocates for Christian schooling that intentionally nurtures children to be agents of cultural renewal.  He models this through his families’ participation in neighbourhood urban renewal projects. Such positive freedom suggests explains why Smith works from a desk at a small Christian college with a particular mission and vision, governed by a denomination. Accountability can seem an infringement on our autonomy, but true freedom comes when we run in the grooves that go with the grain of God’s creation, and those grooves come in the form of blessed boundaries.

6. Reformed as a Way of Being Catholic

Smith decries the “radical” non-denominational, fundamentalist and Anabaptist churches that promise “getting back to the Bible” and view 2000 years of church history as excess baggage. Such primitivist moves are an affront to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit through the rough and tumble of centuries. John Calvin was no revolutionary; he consistently checked his work back through the church fathers. So Smith sees “the Reformed tradition as an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic.” In fact, leaving his Brethren sect and “becoming Reformed was a way of being catholic.”

This is not the Roman Catholic church, for they do not own catholicism. All who hold to the creeds and practice the traditional liturgy of word and sacrament are part of the church catholic. We celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year, but we have 2000 years of history as Christ’s church.

This is one place where Smith parts company with the “emerging church” crowd, who may speak of an “ancient-future” faith but often despair of human knowing and seek a space of radical indeterminacy. Smith finds this to be a reversal of modern pretensions to certainty, and would rather accept our finitude and partial knowledge as fundamental to our humanness, our creaturehood. We see through a glass darkly, but we do see. Instead of despairing, Smith invites us to do our best to live “catholic” lives—in touch with the saints of other times and places. That’s a humble faith without embarrassment or nostalgia, a faith that recognizes we all live by trusting something larger than ourselves, and this long historical perspective can be the richest and deepest experience that facilitates our healing from modern distortions and pretensions to objectivity.

Smith is not just catholic: he is also constantly in dialogue with those outside his traditional home. Most of his scholarly life has been a sustained debate with other schools: Derrida and the postmodern theorists, the radical orthodoxy movement, the emerging church, and his “philosophical northern star” the Canadian intellectual Charles Taylor. Smith takes the best from these thinkers and sharpens his own identity as “a catholic Christian with a Reformed accent and charismatic sensibilities and convictions.”

Messy Layers of Liturgies

In sum, Smith says everything we do—especially the actions we repeat in a regular way—shape us to love some particular ultimate end. We may not love what we think we love, so we need to be intentional about our participation in the liturgies of life. We can be shaped unaware to worship false gods.

The best introduction to Smith’s cultural liturgy series…

Unfortunately, liturgies are not structured to life in a neat and tidy way. For one thing, even our particular Christian liturgies are a complex blend. Commenting on the multiple denominational affiliations that pepper his biography, Smith says, “I’m a mutt, providentially, and that gives me sympathies and appreciation that I hold in my person and in my work, and which comes out in my writing and posture.” Furthermore, our Christian liturgies overlap with numerous other liturgies—some thickly woven into the fabric of our lives and others are more thin and superficially present. For example, Smith’s family is involved in local gardens and farms, recognizing that some global food systems are harmful to the planet and the poor. Yet at the beginning of his book Imagining the Kingdom, Smith admits to the “ugly irony” of finding himself reading Christian farmer-poet Wendell Berry in the food court of a sprawling Costco. Not only that: he alludes that he’s experienced McDonald’s drive-thru. We live juxtaposed within the cross-pressures of rival liturgies and powers, and sometimes our bodies find themselves in places where our worldview feels squeamish.

Smith recognizes how messy our liturgical lives can be in this secular age between the fall and Christ’s coming again; especially in a highly mobile, wired world, where the grooves we slip into take us in directions we may not wish to go. The cry of Romans 7—that “I do what I do not want to do”—probably describes us more than we imagine. But imagination is the crux of the matter, and that is the role of the thick liturgies of Sunday worship: to shape our imagination so that the daily practices of our embodied souls will align with the rule of the coming King.

Pendulum Problem (written in April 2021)

I want to end with a comment on one of Smith’s latest pieces, where he seems to undermine his own philosophical gift and perhaps over-rate the world of poetry and the arts. I’m now asking: is Smith swinging too far in the opposite direction now, where he over-corrects for his old intellectualist self? In February 2021 Smith says most starkly in The Christian Century: “I’ve abandoned all hope that we can think our way out of the mess we’ve made of the world. The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination… it will be the arts that resuscitate the imagination.” He’s now editor of the American Image arts magazine rather than the Canadian public theology of Comment, and his loyalties seem to be shifting to literature, that modern sacred scripture. “I’m throwing in my lot with the poets and painters, the novelists and the songwriters,” he confesses.

If I can venture a comment here, I would remind Jamie of Sartre’s stories, Kierkegaard’s parables, and Lewis’ Narnia. Philosophy need not be equated with rationalism, analysis, intellectualism. Indeed, an interdisciplinary approach is most holistic and reflective of the kingdom. We know artists can slip into their own version of “American Idol”—narcissism seems to be a liability of the trade, where they fall in love with their own creative expression. No discipline is a fast route to God on its own. So, as a non-philosopher, let me humbly say that philosophy needs to be part of that multi-faceted approach, too. In fact, I’m pretty sure Smith won’t be able to fully leave his philosophical self behind. Its one of his gifts, even as he relativizes the role of the intellect and analysis in cultural and spiritual formation.

That said, his latest book On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (2019), is a welcome shift from his more argumentative books, like Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (2014). This new book is more biographical and autobiographical, and carries a kind of philosophy—the kind that feels more like wisdom, the pursuit of the good life—to the foreground. We will see where the corpus of Smith turns next. I’m not sure if I’d be disappointed or intrigued if he releases a book of his own poetry. But I’m sure it would be better than his paintings, as he has a way with words. If he finds better ways for words to be made flesh, well, God bless his efforts.

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