The most recent of Jamie Smith's published works is a fine little volume entitled, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. I found the expositions of recent films that opened each chapter a fitting tribute to Francis Schaeffer, not to mention a fine practice of cultural interpretation. But quite beyond this fitting structural element, the book is a welcome argument for the current ecclesiastical milieu.
Who's Afraid of Postmodernism is the first in "The Church and Postmodern Culture" Series, edited by Smith. From the beginning of the Series Preface, Smith argues that the postmodern condition offers news ways of thinking about and doing church. The "former barriers between evangelical, mainline, and Catholic" churches are breaking down. "Postliberalism--a related 'effect' of postmodernism--has engendered a new, confessional ecumenism wherein we find nondenominational evangelical congregations, mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches. (9)" This matrix offers an ideal locale for discussing postmodern theory and the church. The introductory volume in the series does this really very well. Utilizing the works of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, Smith offers some proposals to churches engaged in postmodern ecclesial negotiation.
The emerging church is perhaps the most obvious constituency. One can see a running dialogue throughout the book with" emerging" sensibilities. (Apparently one working title for the book was, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? A Radical Orthodoxy for the Emerging Church. The subtitle eventually found its way as the title for chapter five: "Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church.") And his voice toward the emerging church is not uncritical. For instance: “Much that we find in the name of postmodern spirituality, or even in the name of ‘emerging’ Christianity, is a timidity with respect to the particularities of the Christian confessional tradition. While this is almost certainly a corrective with respect to rabid forms of fundamentalism…a retreat into a thinly ‘ecumenical’ Christianity that reduces confession to bland concerns with justice or love[!] still remains a latent version of a very modern project.” The interesting turn of emergers is their desire to reclaim ancient religious practices, but largely turn agnostic on matters of dogma, all in the name of a more thoroughly postmodern embrace of reality.
At the risk of assured denials by emergent folk, let me offer a brief analysis. Emergers strike me as those who have largely come from evangelical roots, but who seek a more substantive faith. This happens in two directions. Some emergers come from the "contemporary" evangelical scene, in which religious symbolism and spirituality was either removed or made "relevant." Williow Creek is, of course, the bastion of this brand of Christianity--remove all religious ornamentation to be welcoming to the unchurched, preach something relevant to an unchurched world. Of course, after a while, this is what it means to be churched. But the younger crowd has grown restless. Many of them long to return to the ancient roots. One of the major influences here has been the late (and much missed) Robert Webber. There is also affinity here with the liturgical renewal evident in many mainline denominations. The other path of emergers is the post-evangelical or post-conservative evangelical sentiment. This group wishes to be rid of the authoritarianism of evangelical fundamentalism, and is particularly keen to emphasize communal hermeneutics over against the new sacramental priest of the contemporary evangelical Christians: the preacher. And so we find churches who wish to meet in pubs, and/or enjoy plainsong, candles, incense, icons, and stained glass. But dissatisfaction is really the name of the game. The church has failed to form them properly as Christians, so these emergers are forging their own communities of Christian faith which will do so.
And so Emergers do not necessarily wish to be "spiritual but not religious" as much as authentically Christian, but free. In some measure, this issues in the the peculiar postmodern phenomenon of religion without religion, or at least religion without institution, which Smith takes to task.
After elucidating the roots of the phenomenon (a la John Caputo), Smith makes two major points against “this quasi-postmodern religion without religion,” which shies away from dogma: (1) It “does not upset the modern Cartesian formulation of the problem. Instead, it proceeds by accepting the Cartesian equation of knowledge with certainty; then, because such certainty is impossible, it must conclude that knowledge is impossible. (120)” He goes on to remind his readers that medieval theologians from Augustine through Aquinas affirmed a difference between comprehending God (impossible) and knowledge of God (possible). (2) “The most significant problem with this, from a Christian perspective, is that it is deeply unincarnational.” After all, “it is the acceptance of the modern Cartesian paradigm that undergirds Derrida’s and Caputo’s critique of dogma and determinate religious confession. (121)” Smith’s suggestion is striking: “A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinate confession and its institutions: dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church. Perhaps in its most scandalous form, there is nothing more postmodern than hierarchy! (And nothing more modern than autonomous, nondenominational anarchy.) (122-23)” This, I think, is right on the money. Emergers sometimes fall victim to a certain brash traditionalism that ignores both dogmatic and institutional contexts for the kind of religiosity the emerging church longs after. And here they show themselves not to be a third kind of Christianity, neither Protestant nor Catholic (as Phyllis Trickle has suggested), but quite clearly a Protestant movement.
It does not take a Karl Rahner or a Karl Barth to see where I'm headed. If the misappropriation of dogma and institution is a Protestant feature, what does this say for Smith's counter proposal to the emerging church? A very telling line is this: "the most persistent postmodernism will issue in a postmodern dogmatics.” Conspicuously, the institution has fallen away from the equation. Where once was the suggestion of dogma and institutions, now here we find only dogma. Curious.
So let us look at what Smith judges to be the value of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to see if we can make sense of this curiosity. I am not, however, going to start at the very beginning, even though it's a very good place to start. Instead, we begin with Smith's analysis of Foucault. The slogan of Foucault upon which Smith wishes to capitalize is his famous, "Power is knowledge." The inversion of "knowledge is power," Smith's musings on Foucault have to do with power, control, authority. "The critical point is that Foucault is absolutely right in his analysis of the way in which mechanisms of discipline serve to form individuals, but he is wrong to cast all such discipline and formation in a negative light. (99)" The reason Foucault must paint any formation and discipline negatively is because of the "liberal" presupposition of the person as completely autonomous agent. But this has never been part of Christian anthropology or ecclesiology. "Averse to hierarchies and control, contemporary evangelicalism thrives on autonomy: the autonomy of the nondenominational church, at the macrocosmic level, and the autonomy of the individual Christian, at the microcosmic level. And it does not seem to me that the emerging church has changed much on this score; indeed, some elements of emergent spirituality are intensifications of this affirmation of autonomy and a laissez-faire attitude with respect to institutions. (99)" There is much more I could happily quote, but for brevity's sake I will resist the temptation. In short, Foucault challenges us to accept proper authority of institutions and discipline. Perhaps the largest question for nondenominational churches (as Smith points out in a footnote) is "how to connect to the normativity of the catholic tradition. (100)" But I wonder if the same is not true of Protestantism in general. If local institutions are means of proper formation, what about regional and even global institutions? We'll come back to that question.
Let's move on to Lyotard. "Postmodernity is 'incredulity toward metanarratives.'" This is Lyotard's offering to a more thoroughly postmodern Christianity in Smith's account. While "many assume that metanarratives are the target of postmodern disbelief because of their scope, because they make grand, totalizing claims about reality and have universal pretensions, (64)" such is not the case. In fact, what vexes postmodernity, according to Lyotard, "is not the scope of these narratives but the nature of the claims they make. (64)" "Metanarratives" appeal to some form of legitimation outside of themselves (read: they appeal to universal reason). Self-legitimizing stories (even if universal in scope) do not claim their legitimation from some supposedly neutral ground, and are therefore less suspect in the postmodern condition. Long story short: metanarratives are "universal discourses of legitimation that mask their own particularity; that is, metanarratives deny their narrative ground even as they proceed on it as a basis. (69)" This, in turn, engenders "a suspicion and critique of the very idea of an autonomous reason, a universal rationality without ultimate commitments. (71)" The postmoderns, then, do not ask us to deny or relinquish our faith commitments (whether in God, science, or magic blue squirrels who play upon enchanted flutes made of mistletoe), but that we openly confess them.
The payoff from Lyotard is that we cling to the narrative character of our faith. In the postmodern condition there is no knowledge without faith, but faith is largely narratival. (There is some affinity here with the popular use of "worldview" in Christian theology, especially following N. T. Wright's justly acclaimed The New Testament and the People of God.) "This is why the Scriptures must remain central for the postmodern church, for it is precisely the story of the canon of Scripture that narrates our faith. (75)" And this narrative should also, then, infuse our liturgy and worship. Postmodern churches narrate their story in their practices. The "role of Scripture is central, not just as the Text that mediates our understanding of the world but also as the Story that narrates our role in it. (76)" Beautifully spoken.
Finally, we come to Derrida. "There is nothing outside the text," is Derrida's claim. In other words, "all our experience is always already an interpretation. Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world: rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation. (39)" This is Derrida's project of deconstruction. Texts are not documents we can get behind to find the "true meaning." Every attempt at such an enterprise is interpretation. Here is a link-up with Lyotard. Neither can we get behind the world to find the objective reality of the world, which in Lyotard's terms marks the incredulity towards claims that try to ground themselves in an external, neutral ground. The claim, "there is nothing outside the text," is simply the claim that everything is interpretation. Naturally, this also requires that we accept pluralism (or at the least plurality). For if everything is interpreted, then there is bound to be plurality of interpretations. "But this play of interpretations does not mean that all these interpretations are good or true. ...Instead, Derrida emphasizes that there are important, legitimate determinations of context; in particular, the context for understanding a text, thing, or event is established by a community of interpreters who come to an agreement about what constitutes the true interpretation of a text thing, or event. (53)" Everything is interpretation, but meaning is found within context.
So how do we take Derrida to church? First, Derrida helps us see that we see the world through the Word. "If all the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world. ...[T]o say there is nothing outside the text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures. (55)" The Scriptures should govern our experience of the world. Second, Deconstruction opens the church to "interpreting as if we believe the Apostles' Creed." In our interpretation we are not autonomous interpreting agents; rather, we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" and the "communion of saints." That is, community is essential both to "biblical interpretation but also for teaching us how to make our way in the world. (56)" Instead of an individualistic perspective, "I need to be formed and informed by the breadth of this community, both geographically (the global church) and temporally (history of the church's witness). ...To say there is nothing outside the Text also entails that there is no proper understanding of the Text--and hence the world--apart from the Spirit-governed community of the church. The same Spirit is both author of the text and illuminator of the reading community. (56-7)" While the Word helps us to read the world correctly, it is the Spirit in the community that properly understands the Word.
Smith further suggests that the institutions of the lectionary (as opposed to the private whims of pastors or preachers) and of the ecumenical creeds (not to mention the early Fathers and the Reformers) are appropriate witnesses to this postmodern perspective. Likewise, global voices should be celebrated. The emphasis in proclamation throughout is the church's witness to God's revelation, rather than apologetics.
I heartily endorse everything Smith is trying to reclaim. His program of embodying the faith is evident throughout, as is his praiseworthy preoccupation with the material realities of ecclesiology. But here again, I wonder if Smith stumbles a little as he closes in on the finish line. Smith waxes fuzzy on the relationship between Spirit and institution, particularly in reference to the history of the church. Smith has three basic structures to his ecclesiology: Canon, Community and Creed. Confession is bound to the ecumenical creeds, which in turn are bound to the Canon of Scripture, interpreted by the community in the Spirit. Now two out of these three were integral to the classic catholic church. Both canon and creed were foundational stones (though, of course, not the corner stone) of the early catholic church, which prized both internal consistency (fidelity) and visible unity. This is Irenaeus' classic defense of the church catholic against the gnostics. But instead of community, Ireneaus' had the apostolic succession of bishops. Here is an interesting difference. It is strange that having begun in the material, Smith's argument is perfected in the Spirit (which knows no bodies?). That is, in place of the apostolic succession, Smith would like to stop-gap the authority of the community with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how does discernment work in this Spirit-inspired community?
The same question could be raised of Luke Johnson's very important book Scripture and Discernment. It can hardly be argued that the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is the ultimate teacher and authority for the church today. But to whom is it given to discern the Spirit. Every Christian, yes, but not every Christian discerns the Spirit in the same way. Is it by democratic vote, then? "The Spirit says yes to 51 of us, no to 49 of us. The ayes have it." Or is it by charism and office? He gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be teachers.... Maybe the Spirit gave some to be bishops, some to be deacons, some to be priests? As Irenaeus would have had it, the Spirit endowed the church with the apostolic succession by laying on of hands. Ignatius first tells us that the apostles appointed single bishop successors in each city. The truth of the claim is irrelevant if the Spirit was at work ensuring a hierarchy to discern the Spirit. And so Irenaeus defended public writings, a public rule of faith, and public teachers against the secret writings, containing secret knowledge, taught by the (often Spirit-led) secret teachers of gnosticism.
Smith writes, "A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinate confession and its institutions: dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church. Perhaps in its most scandalous form, there is nothing more postmodern than hierarchy! (122-23)" This "is to affirm that our confession and practice must proceed unapologetically from the particularities of Christian confession as given in God's historical revelation in Christ and as unfolded in the history of the church's response to that revelation. (123)" But we notice also that Smith's suggestions are heavy on confession and weak on hierarchy. That is, if he is to follow through on the scandal of the postmodern church, I suggest he needs apostolic succession. Embodied apostolic succession.
(Some will claim succession through apostolic teaching, which is docetic and does not truly value the materiality of the church. That is an attempt to supplant the teaching office with the rule of faith. They are distinct pillars of the early catholic church which cannot and must not be conflated.)
By institution, Smith seems to mean church practices. Smith ably defends the development of catholic creeds and patristic practices against the "primitivists" who seek to go beyond the decadence of "early catholicism" and enjoy the fruits and practices of the (reconstructed) "primitive church." His critique is categorically correct: "I'm suggesting that this anticatholic ahistoricism stems from the absorption of a modern aversion to the logic of the incarnation and the affirmation of the goodness of creation--and the attendant affirmation of embodiment, change, time, history, and therefore tradition. (129)" "The shorthand to describe this affirmation of time and tradition is simple: this is catholic faith. (132)" Smith goes on to suggest we need to recover a more sacramental imagination, to revive the sacraments in liturgy rather than simply the ordinances of baptism and communion (e.g. Zwingli). All of this is superb, and yet, while passionately pursuing the embodied forms of the lex orandi, lex credendi--in short, while pleading for every material embodiment of the catholic tradition--he misses one key structure: the apostolic succession.
The apostolic succession, too, is a scandalous affirmation. But it is truly based on the logic of incarnation. I would hasten to suggest that apostolic succession is only valid in communion. That is, even if one grants the title princeps inter pares (first among equals) it is really neither the princeps nor the pares that is most important in the equation, but the inter. This preserves Smith's (and Johnson's, and Fowler's and Jones's) ideal of community, while also preserving the teaching office of the church. Unfortunately, apostolic succession remains in only three communions: The Roman Church, The Eastern Church, and the Anglican Communion (some northern European Lutherans also retained apostolic succession). And that is the scandal. But that is also immanence. Earlier I mentioned Smith's concern on how nondenominational churches could connect to the normativity of the catholic tradition. Now the same must be asked of any Protestant church. Can a church be catholic without apostolic succession?
The Vatican's recent response to popular questions about the church and the status of communion is instructive. Churches born of the Reformation are not churches in the true sense. "According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense." The Eastern Church, on the other hand enjoys the title "Church": "The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. 'Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds', they merit the title of 'particular or local Churches,' and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches." Instructive is the use of apostolic succession in the admission of unity. Also instructive is the fudging of reformed succession by the requirement of "sacramental priesthood" or the "sacrament of Orders." In addition, the primacy of Rome is stated in the refusal of full communion with the East. But the core insight of the Vatican remains--it is apostolic succession that most clearly unites the church catholic.
Jamie Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, like the emerging church, raises important questions of the catholic tradition for the current ecclesiastical milieu. It is a fine book with a great deal of verve and insight. But I do wonder if Smith's ecclesiology could be a bit thicker. It does seem as though his materialism does not go "all the way down." While it may be true that the catholic tradition has room for reformers, it is also true that it has no room for protesters. This is a question I hope Dr. Smith will pay more attention to in his current and forthcoming work in ecclesiology. What will it mean for protestants to truly accept the catholic faith? Will it not also mean to accept the apostolic succession, which gave birth to the councils, which in turn drafted the creeds, and let us not forget, forged the very canon protestants hold so dear? Can we take history and tradition seriously--can we take canon and creed and council seriously--without taking the development of the episcopate seriously?
And so we come to what I hope will be the last in this series of posts on the work of James K. A. Smith. I have enjoyed engaging Smith's work out loud, but alas, I have other interests to pursue. Thanks to all those who have commented or will comment, not least to Dr. Smith himself in his early comments. Always an engaging Reformed thinker with much to offer, I naturally commend to all my readers his works for their own profit.
It is with regret that I have been unable to include in my critiques Smith's important book, The Fall of Interpretation. As I mentioned in the previous post, the library to which I have some access does not own a copy, and since I am not a student and have no borrowing privileges, I am unable to acquire it. Unfortunately, after glancing at the TOC on Amazon, it looks as though it would have proved extremely helpful in my earlier critique. I hope my readers will understand if my critiques must necessarily be incomplete. It is a blog, after all.
But it is with great respect for Dr. Smith and his work that I bring this series to a close. Another round of Ph.D. applications is forthcoming, which should ensure that I am less active here for a few months, but I'll try to keep at least a few things simmering for you. Until then, pax vobiscum.