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Response to Long | CTRF @ AAR | 30 October 2010

James K.A. Smith

I’m grateful to Bernie and CTRF for hosting this conversation about Desiring the Kingdom, and
am especially grateful to Steve for taking the book seriously in his response. This is especially
helpful as I’m working on subsequent volumes in the trilogy. In the interests of opening up the
conversation, let me respond to a few of Steve’s points, which are all very helpful, even when
they might put me back on my heels a bit.

1. Intentionality: Steve is right to note a certain tension or equivocation on the notion of


“intentionality” in this discussion. On the one hand there is the specifically
phenomenological sense of intentionality—that we are aimed at something, that we are
ek-static creatures who are always projected toward some telos. On the other hand, we
tend to use the word “intentional” to mean volitional, voluntary, a matter of conscious
choice. My argument, which owes something to both phenomenology and cognitive
science, is that we are ineluctably intentional in the first sense but that we often
overestimate the extent to which we are intentional in the second sense. “Automaticities”
are acquired habits of intentionality and orientation that operate under the radar of
“intentional” deliberative choice. This is why I think at the heart of DTK is actually a
philosophy of action, and that will be a significant focus of volume 2. More on this in a
moment.
2. Evaluation and Discernment: Steve rightly picks up on an important issue: if, on the
one hand, I affirm a participatory ontology such that all that is participates in the Creator
in some sense, then how can one recognize and evaluate disorder? Here I think
Augustine provides further resources. Consider, for instance, his evaluation of the devil:
on the one hand, the devil, insofar as he exists, exists in virtue of God’s good act of
creation and sustaining; on the other hand, the devil represents something like the
pinnacle of disordering in his orientation, his aim. So the mode of affirmation is
ontology; the mode of evaluation is intentional or ontological. Or consider a more
germane example: in City of God Augustine gives us a remarkably ambivalent evaluation
of the so-called “peace of Rome” and the so-called “virtues” that are part of that. On the
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one hand, he’ll say that such peace doesn’t even deserve to be called peace; on the other
hand, he can still say that the peace of Rome of less disordered than the viciousness of
the barbarians (we can debate the specifics). For Augustine, the evaluation is
teleological, and it is conducted with a protractor.
3. Resisting Paganism: I hope I don’t give a free pass to paganism, but I take Steve’s point.
Here let me just say that I think we need to recognize the contextual nature of our
theological claims, which then lead us to certain emphases. The fact of the matter is, I’m
usually spending time contesting evangelical dualism (Gnosticism), and thus tend to
emphasize an affirmation of materiality that slides toward something like the pagan end
of the scale. In other words, I’m willing to risk the pagan over-corrective as a corrective
to Gnosticism (cp. Greene’s priest at the end of The End of the Affair: a little superstition
might be the beginning of faith). And we may be reaching a kind of tipping point on this
such that context requires us to begin correcting in the other direction and avoid
naturalism (which I take to be part of Hans Boersma’s project in his forthcoming book).
4. Doctrine: I especially appreciate Steve’s invitation to consider doctrine with more
nuance. It is certainly the case that DTK lumps “doctrine” with beliefs, ideas,
propostions and the ideational spectrum. In this sense, I read the doctrine/worship
distinction as akin to Taylor’s theory/imaginary distinction. I do affirm a place for
doctrine, but admit that the burden of the argument actually relativizes doctrine. Let me
explain why that is and then suggest a slight revision.
Again, I think it’s important to see that in some fundamental way, DTK is about a
philosophy of action, an account of how we are moved to act and orient ourselves in the
world. Following Charles Taylor (and to some extent Bourdieu), one could say that I am
countering “intellectualist” philosophies of action which tend to overestimate the causal
role of deliberative thought and choice in our action. In a similar way, I think I’m
countering a simplistic philosophy of action that is often assumed in notions of Christian
formation which prioritize right thinking as the antidote to disordered desire. And thus
these models look to doctrine as that set of right thoughts that will causally entail
sanctification. I argue that doctrine doesn’t have this causal impact, not because doctrine
is wrong or unimportant, but simply because we are not those sorts of actors.
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That said, I think Steve is right that I could have accorded more importance to a
constructive role for doctrine, and not just the sort of corrective role he seems to suggest.
Indeed, I would envision a kind of feedback loop where theological reflection and
doctrinal formulation helps to aim and direct the practices of Christian worship and
formation. So one of the things I wished I emphasized more in DTK was the importance
of “liturgical catechesis”1—helping practitioners understand what they’re doing (and
why) when they’re engaged in worship.
5. Pneumatology: Finally, Steve wonders whether my model is sufficiently Augustinian
since it seems to exhibit an overconfidence in the power of formative practices, and thus
fails to recognize “the limits of virtue,” as Wetzel puts it. This is a really helpful
pushback that I need to consider as I continue to work out these themes. I’ll say only two
things at this point: (a) I don’t take these formative practices to be merely natural;
following Craig Dykstra, I understand them to be “habitations of the Spirit,” so their
formative power is sort of supercharged. (b) This points to what’s also indispensible in
Augustine’s sacramental theology, namely the centrality of the Spirit.2 In other words,
my account of practices assumes a robust pneumatology. However, that said, I do also
need to own up to an account of why these practices don’t always seem to “work.” That
will be a significant focus of volume 3.

1
REF Witvliet.
2
[See my forthcoming critique of Eric Gregory on this point in JRE.]