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.”
- 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. [↩]