Monday, May 23, 2005

An Interview with Theologian James K. A. Smith

An interview with James K. A. Smith, author of 'Introducing Radical Orthodoxy- Mapping a Post-Secular Theology'

I was able to catch up with professor and theologian James K. A. Smith for a quick online interview. James is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship Program at Calvin College.

As most know who read my blog I'm taking a Radical Orthodoxy class right now- and it's friggin' blowing my mind! Last week I attended the Emergent convention here in Nashville and night classes in RO (radical orthodoxy). So both were engaging me and I've been on hyperdrive (reference to star wars) since. So the questions that I asked James had to do with RO and the practices of the Church.

"Radical Orthodoxy is a theological movement--or better, sensibility--operating across many Christian traditions, in dialogue with other non-Christian traditions, and working alongside other academic disciplines such as politics, economics, the natural sciences, social and cultural theory. An outline of central themes can be found in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, eds. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward" (Routledge, 1998).

Jonathon: What made you interested in the conversation and work that's going on in Radical Orthodoxy?

James: The claims I heard from folks like Milbank, Ward, and Pickstock--that there is
no "secular," neutral sphere; that confession goes all the way down--resonated
both with my orientation from the Dutch Reformed tradition after Kuyper, as
well as my interest in "postmodern" thinkers like Heidegger, Derrida, and
Foucault, who also seemed to call into question the deep structures of secular
modernity. So Radical Orthodoxy struck me as a smart movement that was
actually trying to show the impact that Christian confession has on every
sphere of theory and practice. (Plus, you know, Milbank and Pickstock's
writing is so crisp, illuminating and witty...NOT! :-)

Jonathon: Can you think of some practical ways that the theology of Radical
Orthodoxy inform and get played out within the context of a local

James: Well, I'd be a little nervous to talk about "the theology of Radical
Orthodoxy," but I'll table such academic quibbles. I'm not sure that Radical
Orthodoxy has made an impact on ecclesial practice, but I certainly think it
_can_ and _should_. (I unpack this in more detail in my next book, _Who's
Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Radical Orthodoxy to Church_, which will be out
next spring with Baker Academic.) Anyway, let me pick just two examples:

a) I think RO should push churches--including "free" or "low" churches--to
rethink the role of tradition in forming our worship practices and spiritual
disciplines. In a way, I think that RO articulates in a robust, theological
way what one finds in Robert Webber's notion of an "ancient-future" faith. For
the sake of the church's future, we need to retrieve a normative relationship
to the church's tradition. At the end of the day, it's a matter of learning to
be postmodern catholics (small _c_, but even small _c_'s have some disciplinary
bite to them).

b) I also think that RO raises the question of just what the churches are
forming us _for_; in other words, if worship is formative, and creates us to be
certain kinds of people (desiring a certain end or telos), then we need to ask:
just what kind of people are being "produced" by the church in America today?
RO--or at least my rendering of RO, which has a heavy dose of Hauerwas--wants
to highlight the antithesis between the formations of "secular" liturgies in
the market and civic religion (which want to create what Foucault calls "docile
subjects": good little producers/consumers who are happy to die for the state),
and what we are called to as Christians. Unfortunately, I don't think
Christian worship in America is doing much to counter these nationalist
liturgies; indeed, there's probably nowhere that solidifies them more than the
churches (and maybe FoxNews). So we've got some work to do.

Jonathon: Does having an emphasis on Trinitarian ontology affect how a church

"practices" its faith together? What might be the practices that would
reflect a more trinitarian idea of church?

James: While of course I want to affirm the centrality of Trinitarian worship, I
confess that sometimes this kind of talk makes it seem like invoking the
Trinity is some kind of "magic" that will save everything. I'm less sanguine
about that. But I think that if, for instance, we think about God's absorption
of violence in the Son along Trinitarian lines, we might rethink our complicity
with so-called "just" war--but that's a bit of a shot in the dark. Sorry.

Jonathon: I know you've been doing some work on Radical Orthodoxy in conversation with the Emerging Church. Can you say a little bit about how these two movements- one being theological and the other being practical might be in
conversation/partnered together?

James: As I hinted above, insofar as the emerging church is opened up to a recovery of
tradition--Webber's "ancient-future" faith--I almost see RO as the theological
articulation of what the emerging church wants. (Webber suggests the same in
_The Younger Evangelicals_.) Both are also deeply critical of the effects of
modernity--one largely on the intellectual level, the other at the level of
practice; but I think they merge and support one another quite well. However,
RO would be critical of the emerging church if it thinks it can just
eclectically (sp?) pick and choose from the tradition and include those parts
which are "cool." That's just the next stage of seeker-sensitive, consumerist
religion, not a _radical_ rethinking of what it means to be the church. I also
think that RO would challenge the emerging church to think harder about its
politics, and I think we're starting to see this happen.

Jonathon: For the American church- how do we respond to social/polital issues in such a polarized time and not alienate one another? (We're so poloarized
even within our congregations)

James: Of course, here at Calvin we just went through this with President Bush's
recent visit to deliver our commencement address. We need much wisdom and
prayer; from-the-hip, juvenile pronouncements don't help. I hope to say more
on this elsewhere (on Fors Clavigera), but I have become convinced that we must
begin with a hermeneutics of charity: I need to begin with a sense that the
Spirit is at work in my conservative brothers and sisters, and then undertake
the long, hard work of discipleship and formation in our congregations. It's a
hearts-and-minds strategy. As Rich Mouw said to me recently, we need fewer
prophets and more teachers.

Jonathon: Who have been your major influences to help inform your theology?

James: Wow, how long have you got? I'm a complete theological mutt! I have been
pretty deeply impacted by my formation in Catholic contexts (drawn to towering
figures like Augustine and Aquinas, but also Guitierrez), my participation in
charismatic and Pentecostal communities, and my intellectual debts to the
Reformed tradition (especically Kuyper and Dooyeweerd). Then there's a host of
philosophical influences from the continent--Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas,
Jean-Luc Marion--which mark my work at almost every turn. Finally, over the
last several years I've been deeply impacted by engagements with Hauerwas and
Yoder, which tends to get me in trouble more than the others. But hey: if
Stanley Hauerwas is a sectarian, I want to be one, too!

Jonathon: In your honest opinion- do you think John Milbank indeed looks like
Harry Potter on steroids?

James: You should see the size of his wand... (Forgive me!)

Jonathon: thanks for taking the time Jamie. Shalom.

Check out James' blog Fors Clavigera
for a wonderful engagement of culture and theology.



Kevin Rector said...

I wonder if Henry will give you extra credit for this interview.

c said...

thanks for that. i've heard lots of good things from RO. nice fro. i think you should shave it into a mullet so you have a frolett.

St.Phransus said...

good idea- a frolett- a convergence of cultural hair perspectives. if that's not reconcilliation, i don't know what is...


John said...

Great work, Jonathan! This is fascinating stuff.

Eric Lee said...

Wow, thank you for this. I am also taking a Radical Orthodoxy class right now! I just finished reading James K.A. Smith's Introducing RO last week, and it was quite a good read, and is starting to really kick me in the butt (in a good, non-violent, formative way, of course :)). This past week we've been reading Milbank's Theology & Social Theory, but I'm woefully behind. This next week we're reading Conor Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism and then after that, David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite.

I've made a few posts about it here on my website.

I'm going to be passing this interview along to my pastor, who is teaching this class at PLNU, who also happens to be a professor of theology there.