Thursday, June 21, 2007

...and taking names (1)

A good friend of mine in the homiletics doctoral program at Vanderbilt has some fondness for Jamie Smith's work. In fact, a cadre of the Vanderbilt graduate students in religion apparently nicknamed him "Kick Ass" after his official literary moniker: James K(ick). A(ss). Smith.

I confess that I, too, enjoy Smith's work. Well...some of it. Speech and Theology is an exquisite little book, for instance. The subtitle is inspired: Language and the Logic of the Incarnation. Smith's central focus is the philosophical possibility of theology, of speaking about God. The question he presents is how it is possible to speak about that which resists language. Since concepts are inadequate to the transcendent thing (they are not the thing signified by the concept),“what we are looking for is a ‘third way,’ a mode of speaking which is non-conceptual, non-objectifying, and non-predicative—and therefore non-reductive and non-violent. It will be what we might describe as ‘praise’ (Augustine, Marion) or ‘de-nomination’ (Marion), ‘prayer’ (Derrida), or Augustine’s strategy of ‘confession.’ (44)” In fact, language functions incarnationally, to incarnate the signified in the sign. This is similar to Marion's idea of the icon. In incarnational logic, the transcendent appears in the immanent and yet remains transcendent.

Smith traces transcendence in the genealogy of phenomenology (particularly Husserl through Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida and Marion), then reflects on Heidegger's "formal indications" and Augustine's "strategy of confession" before moving on to the most constructive chapter, wherein he elucidates the logic of the incarnation. It is particularly the Incarnation that serves to liberate theology from the bonds of inadequation of concept and thing in language:
“The Incarnation is God’s refusal to avoid speaking, and so the Incarnation functions as a paradigm for the operation of theological language which both ‘does justice’ to God’s transcendence and infinity, but at the same time makes it possible to ‘speak.’ In other words, it is the Incarnation that provides an account which affirms both transcendence and immanent appearance—both alterity and identity—without reducing the one to the other" (154). Thus the Incarnation grounds language's ability to speak about the transcendent.

This thesis is a gem. It is a fine recovery of a patristic kind of thinking conversant with philosophical currents whose practical purchase tends to extend far past its actual purview. It is precisely this move of Smith's that I fear far too few Emergers have made (see my previous post). What is not entirely clear is how the Incarnation so opens language's capax Dei. A somewhat problematic aspect of the book shows itself in a line such as this:

By describing my account as ‘incarnational,’ I mean to invoke the analogy of the Incarnation, of the appearance of God within humanity in the person of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth [drawing on Kierkegaard]. This is an instance of the transcendent appearing within the immanent, without sacrificing transcendence. In the Incarnation, the Infinite shows up within the finite, nevertheless without loss. …I invoke the Incarnation as a metaphor, bracketing strictly christological questions, but nevertheless pursuing a question about the philosophical possibility of theology itself (10, emphasis mine).
The question the metaphor of the Incarnation raises is found precisely in the "bracketing" Smith feels compelled to perform. If the Incarnation is the only possibility for language performing incarnationally, then his argument cannot be made apart from an Incarnational ontology (a point he acknowledges, assuring his readers he is working on it and the results are forthcoming--I've not yet read his Fall of Interpretation; maybe he works it out there). The Incarnation is the ontological ground of what Smith wants to do here, not simply a metaphor or example of it. One must accept the validity of the Incarnation without reserve if one wishes to affirm Smith’s turn. The only way he could speak metaphorically (rather than ontologically) would be to point to the actuality of speech that is not violent as the natural phenomenon. But it is precisely here that the deconstructive critique is most forceful. In other words, phenomenology/language is related by analogy to the Incarnation, not Incarnation to language/phenomenology.

Even so, on the whole, Smith offers an outstanding answer to the seeming deadlock between deconstructive negation and Christian theology, without falling into silence.

Stay tuned for more on Smith's work. Next up: Smith's critique of Radical Orthodoxy's "participatory ontology."


WTM said...

Thanks, Andy. This was very informative. Keep it coming!

Cynthia Nielsen said...

Nice post. I take it that you are Balthasar fan given your blog name.

In the critical section of your post, specifically the sentence, "In other words, phenomenology/language is related by analogy to the Incarnation, not Incarnation to language/phenomenology," I take you to be emphasizing the paradigmatic or archetypal status of the Incarnation which created reality reflects, imitates or participates in (e.g., language) and that if this is the case, then one must so to speak, keep the archetypal/ectypal relationship straight. Am I following your critique or is there more that I have overlooked?

Best wishes,

p.s. I am adding you to my blogroll

Andy said...


Yes, I am a Balthasarian. I was a new testament guy until Balthasar breathed life into theology for me.

As for your question. Yes, I think you have understood my critique perfectly. Although in and after and around modernity the question of verification arises with regard to the Incarnation, I think what Smith is trying to do CAN ONLY be done if the Incarnation is true. That is, without the dogma of the Incarnation, Smith's theory of language falls apart as mere speculation...according to the rules of the games he's playing (i.e., phenomenology of language, etc.).

Thanks for the comment and the blogroll!


Cynthia Nielsen said...

Hi Andy,

I tend to agree with you and I think that Smith does as well in spite of the "bracketing" move, yet your point is well-taken.

Balthasar has become my new love this summer, and I am even considering writing on him for my dissertation. As time allows, I would appreciate your interaction on my Balthasar posts (and others as well).

Kind regards,

James K.A. Smith said...

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement and helpful critique. Your worry/criticism/suspicion is right on the money. My project in _Speech and Theology_ was a bit conflicted and tortured. While I continue to affirm the core intuition, the book has two nagging problems (because it was written in a transitional phase for me): (1) it still clings to a lingering project of "fundamental theology" which I would now want to reject (this explains the "bracketing" problem); (2) the church basically nowhere appears in the book. Now I would suggest that the ecclesia needs to be central to such a project. So I'm a bit embarrassed about both of these elements. But your insightful critique confirms my own self-suspicions in this regard. It's an honour to have serious readers.

Andy said...

Dr. Smith,

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. It's doubly an honor when serious readers are taken seriously. I'm glad to hear your perspective on my critique, and I suspected, having read some of your more recent work, that you might have your own reservations about the book. Even so, I think "the core intuition" (as you put it) is really well presented and refreshing. Thanks again.

James K.A. Smith said...

By the way, it struck me after posting the comment that it was perhaps a bit of a faux pas on my part to do so--I rarely step into such to step into such conversations about my work (and probably won't be able to do so in the future). In particular, I'm worried that my presence in the comments might disrupt the conversation. For instance, I know you had promised some more robust critiques and I don't mean to impede your articulation of those. So please carry on as if I wasn't here!

Larry said...

Its hard to defend someone after they have already granted you the right to your critique. But I think that Smith's commitment to the incarnation is faulty only in that it doesn't go far enough. On the other hand, I agree that incarnation attests not only to the boldness of God but also to the boldness of the church to proclaim God's coming.

But what I think is important in Smith's use of the incarnational logic is that the incarnation doesn't negate language, or the limits of language but it does fulfill language. So to argue, after Smith explanation of the non-antagonistic (to language) manifestation of the incarnation, that "phenomenology/language is related by analogy to the Incarnation, not Incarnation to language/phenomenology," is kind of too dogmatic. I think Smith has scored better than that, at least he desires a "perhaps" rather than a warning against dogmatism. I just wonder if it is better to say "perhaps" language is incarnational and that "perhaps" language is dogmatic...


Andy said...


Thank you for your comment. Yes, my position is dogmatic; I'm a Christian. More specifically, I am taking the incarnational analogy further. My response is quite obviously Christocentric in its determination that the incarnation of Jesus as the Word of God and the true exegesis of the Father is the rule by which language is judged. Having said that, I'm not sure we're addressing the same problem.

You seem concerned to safeguard language against the incarnation, as though the incarnation could somehow be antagonistic to language. But language is the given here. Of course language, theology even, happens. The questions is how does language "happen" so as not to freeze the transcendent God in immanent words. The answer is the plenitude of God in the human Jesus.

If I understand you correctly, you are afraid transcendence will swallow up immanence in silence, whereas I am trying to show (and this is how I read Smith, too) that the immanent can disclose truthfully (if not altogether fully) the transcendent.

My critique of Smith was precisely what he admits in his response. In Speech and Theology it is clear that he is trying to ground theology in a phenomenology of language. He tries to do this by use of idea of incarnation. My argument was simply that the idea of incarnation is fine, but useless unless an actual incarnational phenomenon is known, i.e. unless the Incarnation of Christ is real (and therefore prior).

This is where Marion's saturated phenomenon fails as well. Ultimately the "proof" (so to blasphemously speak) of the saturated phenomenon is theological. The idea of the saturated phenomenon is great, but only an idea because ineffable, unless one has already received such an ineffable word. I am of course talking of revelation.

And so it is that I happily leave my "perhaps" under erasure.