by Scott Holland
I’m writing my rather tardy contribution to the Brethren Life and Thought Blog on Easter weekend, a time when many Christians celebrate the bodily life and resurrection of Jesus. We are reminded at Easter that unlike the Greek philosopher Socrates, who faced his sentence of capital punishment with a calm, welcome acceptance as the cup of poison hemlock was placed in front of him, Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, resisted his death with the anguished plea, “Father, if it is possible remove this cup from me.” For Socrates, the body was the mere prison of the soul. For Rabbi Jesus, the body and the book and the beloved world were imagined as united in God and thus believed to be blessed by God.
James Smith’s marvelous book, Desiring the Kingdom, offers his readers a well integrated philosophy of God, world, self and others. As a philosopher schooled in both classical theologies and Continental philosophies, Smith offers us a theology of culture in which the heart, head and hand cannot be pried apart in naming ourselves and rendering God’s name in history. This theology of culture makes four important moves: First, it offers an anthropology of humans as embodied actors rather than thinking, theorizing, talking heads. It prioritizes practices rather than ideas or doctrines. It looks at these cultural practices through the lens of worship, liturgy and ritual. Finally, it offers a culturally engaged rhetoric and practice of antithesis without being against culture.
Working out of the best of the Reformed tradition, Smith critiques the rationalism so dominant in the academy and public life by offering a more holistic understanding of the human person as “a desiring, imaginative animal.” However, Smith’s project doesn’t merely replace the thinking head of rationalism with the believing body of the Christian. Indeed, in James Smith’s theological vision, the human is more than a reasoning, believing, narratological animal; the human being is also a longing, loving actor in a blessed, broken world. In this vision, we are offered a robust understanding of the narrative and performative constitution of the self.
Professor Smith trained at Villanova University, a school where classical Augustinian Christianity dances with postmodern, phenomenological and Continental philosophy. Desiring the Kingdom brings these rich intellectual and spiritual traditions into both implicit and explicit conversation with the Reformed view of theology and education. Much like Smith, I trained at a school known for blending a Catholic analogical imagination with Continental phenomenology: Duquesne University. For a window into how our theologies nicely intersect see my How Do Stories Save Us?.2
Brian Gumm’s blog suggests that James Smith’s work might resonate with my “The Pietist as Strong Poet.” Indeed it does. In that piece I accent the Pietist’s epistemology of the heart and theopoetics of desire as a corrective to received theological and philosophical orthodoxies. With James Smith’s satisfying book open on my desk let me reflect briefly on the “The Anabaptist’s Will, the Pietist’s Heart and the Lover’s Gaze.”
The Anabaptist Will
The Brethren movement represents a merging of both Anabaptist and Pietist streams of theological thought and practice. Although we now recognize that the polygenesis of Anabaptism makes it difficult to present a normative Anabaptism, we can say that the centrality of radical discipleship and obedience in the heritage demands that the Anabaptist Christian develop what I have called “a muscular will.” If Luther dissented from the justification by belief of scholastic theology, the Anabaptists, noting the failure to unite faith and following in the magisterial Reformations, were tempted by a justification by behavior which demanded the strong will of a martyr.
Although Han Denck’s insistence that no one can know Christ unless they follow him in life seeks to overcome the dualism between belief and behavior with a more holistic call to discipleship, friendly critics of Anabaptism warn that this paradigm of uncompromising obedience to Christ can create a rigid rule-based morality. Further, it assumes that the human will is clearly cognitive and conscious.
Smith’s interdisciplinary scholarship helps us here. Sigmund Freud of course rediscovered or reinvented the realm of the unconscious in the modern period but Smith leads us even beyond Freud to remind us that our orientations to life are both conscious and unconscious. Reformed and Anabaptist Christians alike put too much stock in the primacy of consciousness for belief, behavior and belonging to faith communities. James Smith’s desiring, imaginative animal accords “a primacy and primordiality to our noncognitive ‘understanding’ of the world rather than a cognitive ‘knowledge’ of the world.”
Turning to a wonderful passage from Vladimir Nabokov, Smith illustrates how we might not only think with our minds and act with our wills but also understand with our spines. Consider Nabokov’s reflections on reading Dickens’ Bleak House with our spines:
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the full length of the candle.
Novelists, poets, artists, mystics and all on spiritual journeys of meaning-making recognize the incarnational, existential truth of Nabokov’s reflections. Many years ago Church of the Brethren theologian Melanie May wrote A Body Knows, her beautiful coming out story which was empowered by listening to her own body’s wisdom as it contradicted the moral cognitions of the collective religious community. A body knows!
The Pietist’s Heart
The early Brethren, although inspired by Anabaptism, could not easily become members of their neighbors’ Anabaptist Mennonite Churches because for them Radical Pietism and Pietism offered a correction and a supplement to the Anabaptist theology of the clear, cognitive, conscious muscular will.3
Although these early believers didn’t have a theory of cognition as well developed as Jacques Lacan’s insistence that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” they nevertheless did have an understanding of the epistemology of the heart. Much like James Smith’s theory, they attempted to bring the center of human identity down from the heady regions of the intellect to more bodily sensations, emotions, feelings and desires closer to the kardia – the heart, the gut. No thoughtful Pietist wants to pry the head and heart apart like a cherrystone clam. The goal of this more holistic therapy of desire is to remind the believer that the head, like the heart, can also be a passionate organ.
Readers of Brethren Life and Thought should be aware that at an upcoming June 2012 conference on Alexander Mack, Jr. at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center will feature some papers on why early Pietiests and early Brethren, like the later Romantics, wrote their theology not only in prose but also in poetry. Poetry better embodied the heart, the heat, the spirit, the emotion and sensation of the rhythms of creation. In fact, perhaps it is not surprising that a new movement in contemporary theology called Theopoetics is well represented by writers with Brethren roots including Matt Guynn, Travis Poling, David L. Miller, Ruthann Knechel Johansen, Rachel Peterson, Melanie May and Scott Holland.4
Pietists, Romantics and Brethren drawn to Theopoetics will be very congenial to Smith’s creative and constructive work on poiesis and imagination for fashioning a theology of culture. Our culture – our language, signs, symbols, mores, institutions, rituals, art and religion – does not simply fall out of the sky like stones from heaven; they are composed, created, made, cultivated and imaginatively constructed via a poetics and a cultural liturgics. In fact, if these cultures of life we inhabit are created, or at least “sub-created” as Smith following Tolkien suggests, then Christians are more than conventional disciples miming a tradition but are instead poets, artists and citizens in a grand romance and adventure of faith.
Such cultural poetics and liturgics demand artful acts of imagination. Smith’s philosophy, current research in cognitive science and the insights of Pietists and Romantics all remind us that reason has a history. Reason can only follow the paths the imagination has dared to open and clear. If there are no new imaginative moves, there are no new reasons. If artful acts of imagination are weak or absent, then we have no new dreams, no new words and no new practices around which to reason together.
Some churchly objectors to the primacy of imagination may stand with the holy inquisitors in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Like the inquisitors, they will charge that the visions we see and voices we hear are not from God but from our imaginations. Like Joan of Arc we will answer, “Of course, this is how God speaks to us.”
The Lover’s Gaze
James Smith moves his readers beyond old or static categories of duty and discipleship to dynamic structures and pedagogies of desire. The human person is “a desiring, imaginative animal.” The good Christian is thus a good lover. Professor Smith presents a deep reflection in his book on the notion, “I am what I love.” Smith’s inviting philosophy of love merits study and consideration beyond my brief treatment here. For Smith love is more than a feeling of affection or an attitude of commitment. It has an aim, it has an end or telos, it has a fulcrum or habits of the heart, and it has formative practices or liturgies. He reminds us that or ultimate love is what we worship.
Perhaps most timely for Brethren readers in Smith’s philosophy of love is his claim that as lovers we don’t merely think about a world of objects. Instead, we are involved with the world as traditioned actors. Here Smith sorts out the key debate in twentieth century phenomenology between Husserl and Heidegger. Husserl’s phenomenology tended to reduce the complexity of lived, relational lives to our perception of objects. We perceive chairs, we perceive our friends and we perceive our ideologies. Heidegger in contrast emphasized more existential involvement so we sit in chairs, we laugh and cry with our friends and we live our ideologies, philosophies or theologies.
Working with this distinction, with Heidegger, and also in the spirit of Augustine and Pascal, Smith argues, we don’t think our way through the world, we feel our way around in it. For Smith, this distinction is important and he further contends that this is the way real people live their daily lives. They don’t think their way to the classroom each morning, or think about how to brush their teeth, or merely perceive their friends. They are involved in this sensuous living world in ways that are conscious and unconscious in the organic and cultural liturgies of life.
It seems to me this happy insight about love, life and our modes of being in the world could be helpful to the Church of the Brethren during this season of denominational sex wars about queer sex. I have participated in endless dialogs and debates around the gay sex controversy in the denomination. It strikes me that too often both sides in the argument, the conservatives and the progressives, tend to reduce the issue of homosexuality to competing perceptions of an abstract principle, doctrine or ideology.
After one such churchly debate on the topic this past year, feeling rather exasperated, I asked both conservatives and progressives, “Where is the lover and her gaze in debate? Where are the tender touches, passionate kisses, warm smiles and poetic gestures of the beloved?” I continued, “We cannot theorize or theologize love from an abstract principle that we might declare as either praiseworthy or blameworthy because we are not only perceiving paper people on the pages of a text but looking into the living face of the other!”
Smith’s well integrated, interdisciplinary philosophy, I believe, invites such questions about all of the graced and gritty phenomenological slices of life. It is a call for us to enter into the liturgical rhythms of the reciprocity of life. Last weekend I spoke at the Mennonite Writers Conference at Eastern Mennonite University. Gregory Orr, a distinguished visiting poet from the University of Virginia, offered in his presentation this poetic fragment:
The world comes into the poem,
The poem comes into the world.
Reciprocity – it all comes down
As with lovers:
When it’s right you can’t say
Who is kissing whom.5
In conclusion, it seems significant that Smith’s book is titled, Desiring the Kingdom. Those of us who continue to preach and profess Christian theology believe that if we truly desire first the Kingdom of God and its justice and righteousness, all of these other things will be given to us in the liturgy of life.
- Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. [↩]
- Holland, Scott. How Do Stories Save Us?: An Essay on the Question With the Theological Hermeneutics of David Tracy in View. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Louvain: Peeters, 2006. [↩]
- For an extended discussion of this see my “The Pietist as Strong Poet” in New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010. [↩]
- See the special issue of CrossCurrents journal on Theopoetics, Vol. 60, No.1, March 2010. [↩]
- Gregory Orr, Concerning The Book That Is The Body of The Beloved (Port Townsend, WA: Cooper Canyon Press, 2005. [↩]