Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Theology, Human Origins, and the Church: A Conversation

My home institution has been in the news of late: as many probably know, Calvin College is wrestling with issues at the intersection of faith and science--specifically issues at the intersection of Reformed theological commitments and the implications of an evolutionary account of human origins. Indeed, I think it is precisely because we are a Reformed institution that we are pressed to engage such issues: I see this as "coming with the territory," so to speak.

This internal debate has been externally aired in places that include Christianity Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and NPR. For the most part, I think the journalism around this issue has been sloppy (not to mention the blogging)--though the CT coverage was much more nuanced than most. From some of these outlets, you'd think the question was whether or not scholars at Calvin College could affirm evolution. That's simply not the issue. That was settled for the college (and for the denomination) years ago. The question is what sorts of theological implications that entails--and how such entailments and inferences can (and should) be drawn. In this particular instance, the question is whether the affirmation of common descent requires jettisoning the orthodox Christian doctrines of the Fall and original sin.

But before one can address that sort of specific question, it is necessary to attend to fundamental methodological issues (e.g., about the nature and interpretation of Scripture, the role of the confessions [since we are a confessional tradition], the notion of "natural revelation," etc., etc., etc.). While I've been cagily silent about these matters in public, I am currently co-chairing the college's ad hoc committee addressing this issue. I'll continue my silence on the specifics until that report has been made public.

But more recently John Kloosterman, one of the op-ed editors for our student newspaper, the Chimes, sat down with me for an interview about some of these surrounding issues in this conversation. That conversation is now available on the Chimes website (pdf): "Human Origins and the Church: A Discussion with James K.A. Smith."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Google asks: "What do you love?"

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes try to crystallize the philosophical anthropology at the heart of the book in this way: "If I really want to know who you are, I'm not going to ask what you know. I'm not even going to ask what you believe. If I really want to know what you're about, the question I will ask is: What do you want? What do you love?"

Well it appears that Google is now asking just that question.

[Thanks to Dieter Bouma for the pointer.]

Monday, September 19, 2011

From Coffee Shop to Book Shop

EerdWord, the Eerdmans blog, has just posted a little piece in which I recount the back story to my newest book, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, co-edited with my good friend, David Smith.

"From Book Shop to Coffee Shop" gives a glimpse of how this book on pedagogy began its life on napkins in the local coffee shop, turned into a grant proposal, then morphed into a multi-year research team, and finally became the book that is due to hit the shelves in the next couple of weeks--just in time for David's conference on "Education as Formation: Christian Approaches," October 6-8, 2011 here at Calvin College.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Prospects for a Christian Philosophical Anthropology: An Exchange with Christian Smith

As promised, here is my follow-up exchange with Christian Smith in light of my review of his book, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up--in which I clarify how much I resonate with, and appreciate, Smith's project, but also note points of continued disagreement.

CSR Exchange With Christian Smith

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Other Journal: Print Edition

I've long been a friend and fan of the good folks at The Other Journal. For several years now they have been publishing theologically informed cultural commentary, along with art, fiction, and poetry, all with a solid aesthetic sense for design.

However, The Other Journal has always been virtual--until now. In this age of Kindles and iPad apps, The Other Journal gang has taken the ridiculous risk of producing a print edition. And it's fantastic. I heartily commend it to you: holding The Other Journal in your hands is a whole new experience that seems exactly right. They've done a great job with design: sharp, minimalist, with just a hint of a Paris Review feel I think. A Warhol photograph adorns the first cover.

And the content is great, too--though I don't want to harp on that too much lest it look like self-promotion (not that I'm above that! ;-). This first issue includes my interview with James Davison Hunter, as well as my review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity (it was fun, I'll admit, to go back to that). You'll find essays, interviews, criticism, reviews, fiction, and poetry on themes ranging from artist Jeff Koons to pundit Glenn Beck, the Twilight phenomenon and the meaning of freedom. Great stuff throughout.

Do yourself a favor: skip three days at Starbucks and sign up for a subscription today.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review Essay on Christian Smith and David Kelsey

Last year, in the Christian Scholar's Review, I published a review essay looking at Christian Smith's What is a Person? alongside David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence. This was commissioned as an opportunity to compare and contrast discussions in the social sciences regarding the nature of the human person with a robust theological anthropology. I've uploaded a pdf of the essay on Scribd and am happy to share it here.

CSR Review Essay on Smith and Kelsey

This generated a response from Christian Smith, to which I replied, in a later issue of Christian Scholar's Review. I'll post that exchange in a couple of days.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Contradictions of David Brooks

One doesn't need to read Fors Clavigera very long to notice my (increasingly less grudging) appreciation of David Brooks. And his column today, "If It Feels Right...," pretty much covers my reading list over the last three years: Christian Smith, Charles Taylor, James Davison Hunter, and others.

Today Brooks focuses on the disheartening picture that emerges from Christian Smith's National Study of Youth and Religion, a remarkable longitudinal study of youth spirituality from adolescence, through "adultolescence" and eventually into adulthood. What both Smith and Brooks take to be disheartening is the sophomoric relativism of people in their twenties ("That might be true for you, but..."), their functional individualism about morality ("I personally don't think you should..."), and a general loss of virtue.

But Brooks picks up on a theme in Smith that he shouldn't. Brooks summarizes:
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
This gets to a methodological problem with Smith's work that I pressed when he visited Calvin College a couple of years ago. The entire methodology of the NSYR is a measure of articulation: the instruments and methods can only, at best, measure the ability of young people to, well, think and talk about faith and morality.

But shouldn't Brooks be a bit suspicious of what we could conclude from such measures? Indeed, isn't the argument of The Social Animal precisely that much of our action is not the outcome of rational, deliberative "thinking?" How do we square his tip of the hat to Smith's worry about what young people think about morality with Brooks' own critique of "the rationalist folk theory of morality" (pp. 280ff.)? Brooks' appreciation for the unconscious "drivers" of our action--and the action and behavior of young people--should recognize (as Charles Taylor does) that there can be a gap between how we act and how we think about how we act. That doesn't mean we might not be disappointed on both counts, but it should alert us that measuring what young people say is, at best (at best), only a measure of what they think. And the entire upshot of Brook's Social Animal--the reason why he argues that policy has been misguided and unsuccessful--is that we have overestimated thinking.

More importantly, appreciating this point--that behavior and action (which are surely the most relevant measures if one is talking about "morality") are often driven by unconscious habits and desires--generates a very different response to the problem. Smith, ever-the-evangelical (despite his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism), still tends to think that what these young people need is more teaching--more religious "instruction" in doctrines, beliefs, and moral standards. But Brooks' own argument in The Social Animal should lead us to suspect that this would be an insufficient response. What is really needed is the education of their loves, and that, as Brooks himself knows, takes practice: it takes the ethos of a community with embodied rituals and practices that inscribe virtue--not just the intellectual capacity to parse some moral dilemma, but the wants that pull us toward ends that are good (see The Social Animal, pp. 111-112).

Thus Brooks' column ends right where it should: a communtarian emphasis on virtue formation. This is not going to be pulled off at some "national" level. It will be embedded and embodied in concrete communities of practices that are pursuing a "thick" vision of the good. And such virtue is caught more than it is taught; it is absorbed more than it is deduced; it is less about what we think and more about what we love. That's a lesson I learned from David Brooks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

In Praise of Elites

Friedman and Mandelbaum's That Used to be Us seems to be a cautionary tale about America's diminished future (sort of like Super Sad True Love Story without the laughs?). But I found the closing of David Frum's New York Times review to be intriguing.

Having already noted a tone of ambivalence in the book--talking about their optimism so much you get the impression they're trying to talk themselves into it--Frum suggests that they might not be putting all their cards on the table.
Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And then this final reflection:

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I find this intriguing, perhaps especially because American evangelicals are so prone to this grassroots-ism (which is probably why they can also be so easily lured by Tea Party activism). In this respect, Frum's unabashed affirmation of elites reminds me a bit of James Davison Hunter's critique of Christian grassroots-ism in To Change the World.

But it also got me thinking of Ruskin's "Tory socialism." Might we ever be allowed to dream of kings? Ruskin's kings are a strange lot: not slovenly aristocrats destined by mere blood, but men "capable" of "kinghood." So Ruskin's monarchical dream is actually sort of democratic, too:
my only hope of prosperity for England, or any other country, in whatever life they lead, is in their discovering and obeying men capable of Kinghood.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Yeats on Blake on the Imagination

The project outlined in Desiring the Kingdom has a tenuous relationship to romanticism. On the one hand, while I accord a central role to the imagination, I spend time trying to emphasize that this is not the "inventive" imagination of the romantics; instead it is a receptive, constituting imagination--a mode of intentionality on a different register. (William Desmond is quite helpful on this point.)

On the other hand, it is romanticism that articulates a counter-modernity, displacing the rationalism of the Enlightenment strain of modernity and, in some sense, anticipating the hermeneutic phenomenology of the 20th century. This is why Charles Taylor's genealogy of our "secular age" accords a central place for romanticism. One might also consider John Milbank's recent diagnosis of trends in contemporary theology that affirms a "romantic" theology.

So, as you might imagine, I'm a bit of a sucker for Blake, even though part of me knows I shouldn't be. But then this past week I scored a copy of The Yeats Reader and discovered Yeats' remarkable essay, "William Blake and the Imagination"--a marvelous example of the Wildean ideal of the critic as artist. Consider these opening paragraphs an invitation to go read it for yourself:

There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him. He announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world about him; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world about us, because, in the beginning of important things--in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when are understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished. In his time educated people believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination but that they 'made their souls' by listening to sermons and by doing or by not doing certain things. When they had to explain why serious people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard put to it for lack of good reasons. In our time we are agreed that we 'make our souls' out of some one of the great poets of ancient times, or out of Shelley or Wordsworth, or Goethe or Balzac, or Flaubert, or Count Tolstoy, in the books he wrote before he became a prophet and fell into a lesser order, or out of Mr. Whistler's pictures, while we amuse ourselves, or, at best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening to sermons or by doing or by not doing certain things. We write of great writers, even of writers whose beauty would once have seemed an unholy beauty, with rapt sentences like those our fathers kept for the beatitudes and mysteries of the Church; and no matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have 'lain burningly on the Divine hand,' and that when time has begun to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. When no man believed these things William Blake believed them, and began that preaching against the Philistine, which is as the preaching of the Middle Ages against the Saracen.

He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, 'the body of God,' 'the Divine members,' and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ. The reason, and by the reason he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. He cried again and again that every thing that lives is holy, and that nothing is unholy except things that do not live--lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old times. Passions, because most living, are most holy--and this was a scandalous paradox in his time--and man shall enter eternity borne upon their wings.

Jane Kenyon, "Notes from the Other Side"

Last night I was dabbling in The Graywolf Silver Anthology and hit upon a selection of poems from Jane Kenyon. I was immeasurably moved by "Notes from the Other Side," in no small part because our congregation has been grieving and mourning alongside a family who are, unbelievably, unspeakably, journeying with their 21-year-old daughter through the valley of the shadow of death. And all of my theological 'answers' to evil (the free will defense, the importance of lament, etc., etc.) have been absolutely humbled by their unaccountable faith and grace and hope in the midst of profound sadness.

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course,

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

On Being Careful about the Charge of "Pietism"

Chris Gehrz, associate professor of history at Bethel University, articulates a fair and helpful critique of my use of the word "pietism" in Desiring the Kingdom and related discussions. As I've noted elsewhere (and Gehrz recognizes), "pietism" is a particularly loaded, shorthand term in Reformed conversations. But that narrow use of the term does an injustice to the pietism of Spener, Hamann, the Blumhardts, and others whose project would deeply resonate with what I'm trying to articulate in my "Cultural Liturgies" work.

So I'll try to be more careful in my use of "pietism" as an epithet in the future. But it's going to take practice.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Orwell for Labor Day

Thank heavens the NFL doesn't play on Labor Day, otherwise we'd have one more holiday marshaled for militarism, with soldiers no doubt extolled as the real laborers, the hero "workers."

Not that we're particularly well poised to celebrate labor in this country: while everyone trumpets on behalf of "the middle class," you'll hear next to nothing today about labor, and certainly not a good word about labor unions (those dastardly interferers with the wisdom and benevolent hand of "the market!"). Even "workers," for the most part, have been hoodwinked into opposing organized labor.

Any day is a good day to read Orwell, but perhaps today is especially appropriate. Consider this little snippet from Road to Wigan Pier:
In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Sup., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comerade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The iPhone-ization of our World(view)

Every technology is attended by a mode of bodily practice. So even if the computer is primarily an information processor, it can never completely reduce us to just "thinking things" because it requires some mode of bodily interface: whether we're hunched over a desk, glued to a screen; or looking downward at a smartphone, our attention directed away from others at the table, etc.

Apple has long understood the bodily nature of this interface. In this respect, we already take for granted how revolutionary the touch screen is: it is a new, differently-tactile mode of bodily interface. Indeed, working on a MacBook feels distant and disconnected compared to the fingertip intimacy of the iPhone or the iPad. (Do you ever thoughtlessly try to touch your MacBook screen? Then you know what I'm talking about.)

But as Pierre Bourdieu would emphasize, such "micropractices" have macro effects: what might appear to be inconsequential micro habits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world--indeed, they begin to make that world. As Bourdieu puts it in The Logic of Practice, "The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant" (p. 69).

One could suggest that our interface with the iPhone is just this sort of micro-training that subtly and unconsciously trains us to treat the world as "available" to me, and at my disposal--to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed. (In fact, one might wonder whether the basic orientation to the world that is "carried" and learned in this micropractice isn't analogous to the "training" one would receive from viewing pornography.)

I was struck by this when I recently saw a rather inane Michelob Ultra commercial that nonetheless signaled just this kind of iPhone-ized relation to the world. Consider it an illustration of this case in point: