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."