Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom: Philosophy and Religion and Background

Desiring the Kingdom Book Club 
Go to Simply Convivial for more discussion of Desiring the Kingdom.    I diverged from topic quite a bit, as you will see, but it was fun and will be useful for me at least as reference.   

Since I am going to be hanging out with James KA Smith until past Easter, via Mystie's book club study of Desiring the Kingdom, I thought I would research a bit where he comes from.   Usually when I am involved in a book discussion, as with Poetic Knowledge and Abolition of Man and Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and Happy Are You Poor,  I have already read the book and know the author like a friend.

In this case I know some of the other book discussion participants as friends : ) and we have discussed several other books together, but the author is new to me.   So here follows a contextual rabbit trail of Smith's biographical and academic history and his theological and philosophical foundation, at least insofar as they can be discovered on the internet.

If you want the short summary, I will say I admired what I found of our author.   Though he is not a Catholic, and I am one, a lot of his thinking and work intersects with the work and thinking of Catholic philosophers and theologians.   What's more, it turns out that this book's influences dovetails with some of the other things I am reading at the moment.

Details follow.  

Spatio-temporally speaking, Smith comes from Canada,  and received his education in America.   You can find more biographical details at Wikipedia.   He presently teaches at Calvin College, though he had a brief stint at Loyola Marymount in California.   According to Wikipedia, he is only in his mid 40's.     He must have amazing intellectual energy because he has already written several books and many articles which you can see across the web.   And they are on very substantial topics.   He seems to be well respected as a philosopher, a theologian, and a think-tank religious commentator.

Theologically speaking, Smith is a vigorous Calvinist, what some places on the web call a neo-Calvinist.   Or in some other places, a proponent of Radical Orthodoxy, though Wikipedia says he has moved away from that terminology recently. 

More links to academic/religious connections: 

Now, Smith's background is in philosophy -- specifically, French continental philosophy.    He has written several books and articles on postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida.    This book on The Influence of Augustine on Heidegger: The Emergence of an Augustinian Phenomenology,
in which Smith contributes a chapter, puts me into severe "I want that book!" mode but unfortunately it is OOP and big $$ at Amazon.        

You can find a PDF article by Smith on Continental Philosophy and Religion here.     Such philosophers as Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) and Edith Stein were also trained in continental philosophy, and much of both their work is influenced by the phenomenology of Husserl, who also was a heavy influence on Heidegger.     Whether Thomism and phenomenology can be reconciled is a topic of much interest to me right now, and though Smith's focus comes from a different perspective, he is definitely playing in that same intriguing field.

If I were to try to trace a cursory  profile of James KA Smith from my couple of hours searching across the web, I would say he has a very strong disposition towards integration of very disparate traditions, and the intellectual strength to make it happen.   Because he is a strong and out of the ordinary thinker, his opinions are sometimes controversial to the different communities he engages with.     (here is a PDF paper on Augustine, Heidegger, and Bultmann in which the writer engages Smith's thoughts, and I found quite a lot of blogs, articles and other works that discussed Smith's thinking).     "Controversial" is probably the wrong word, since Smith doesn't come off as a controversialist.   Rather, he tends to shed new light on old questions, or so it seems. 

He is by no means a Catholic, but he has written quite a lot on "catholicism" in the Reformed Apostles-Creed sense:

"Lift Up Your Hearts":  John Calvin's Catholic Faith
(he admits a debt to George Weigel here)
"Remember that you are Catholic" 
why Calvinists shouldn't choke on or leave out the "Catholic" part of the creed.
A Divided Church for the Common Good?
A call for the restoration of a more universal idea of the Church.

He has also written on the Catholic Church, and all the articles seem to be generally favorable:
Pope John Paul II:  A Reformed Appreciation
A Protestant Appreciation of Lumen Fidei

How (Not) To Be Secular 
This is a book he is writing on notable philosopher Charles Taylor,  a "practicing Roman Catholic" (according to Wikipedia) and author of a book called The Secular Society.    I want those books too. 

Here he writes in a slightly more critical vein:
Whose Rome? Which Catholicism?
About Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome.
(even though he draws a sharp distinction between two different "types" in Catholicism, and doesn't sympathize with Beckwith's "type", he also semi-admits that he feels some attraction to the shores of the Tiber himself) 

Below, you can see some of the conversation I mentioned above -- not "controversy" in the polemic sense but rather discussion of Smiths' point of view:

Let me add that I have not read through all the blogs and articles I linked to!  I am making this list partly for my own reference.

My general sense is that Smith is someone who takes the future of the Christian church as a whole very seriously, and that he is a seeker after truth.    Though my search wasn't comprehensive, I didn't find anything unfair or unidealistic among all his writings -- which makes me admire his brand of "catholic" Calvinism, even while I'm thankful that I am giving a shout-out from the other side of the Tiber.

So there is my little rabbit trail for this week.   If you wondered why I pasted so many links on Heidegger and phenomenology and the like, it is because I am reading phenomenology this year.   I already mentioned I am struggling through Heidegger's Being and Time.  If I survive, maybe I will be wiser.   In order to help me through Heidegger, I am reading a really really good book (really!) called Mind, Reason, and Being in Time.    It's a discussion of an apparently rather famous debate between two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, on what it means to "be in the world".    It even contains a chapter by Charles Taylor, though I didn't know when I read the chapter that he was a Christian philosopher. 

This topic of "being in the world" of course is very much to do with what Smith is discussing in this chapter.    When I realized how my reading was converging into one theme, I felt exactly as if God had reached down and given me a blessing.

I will just end with a few of the quotes that struck me from this section of Desiring the Kingdom, especially in relation to Heidegger and phenomenology:

As a result, significant parts of who we are—in particular, our noncognitive ways of being-in-the-world that are more closely tethered to our embodiment or animality—tend to drop off the radar or are treated as nonessential. In another sense, we could say such models are too static; they tend to treat the human person as the sort of thing that can be captured in a snapshot. In the same way that our embodiment drops out of the picture, so too does our temporality: if humans are conceived almost as beings without bodies, then they also are portrayed as creatures without histories, without any sense of unfolding and development over time.....

This Augustinian model of human persons resists the rationalism and quasi-rationalism of the earlier models by shifting the center of gravity of human identity, as it were, down from the heady regions of mind closer to the central regions of our bodies, in particular, our kardia—our gut or heart. The point is to emphasize that the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it. Like the blind men pictured in Rembrandt’s sketches, for the most part we make our way in the world with hands outstretched, in an almost tactile groping with our bodies.[13] One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the-world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead out with our heart and hands.....

Primarily and for the most part, do we think about the world? Or do we most of the time intend the world in some other way? Heidegger argued that Husserl—in Cartesian fashion[15]—tended to see humans as primarily cognitive or rational animals, as if we fundamentally and for the most part intended the world in the mode of thinking or perception. Heidegger thought that Husserl’s account of intentionality was reductionist in a way not unlike our critique of the models above: Husserl tended to reduce the richness and complexity of our lived experience to mere perception or cognition, thus reducing the texture of the world to a collection of “objects”—as if we went around all day perceiving chairs and perceiving our friends, rather than sitting on chairs and embracing our friends while engaged in much more interesting ways of inhabiting the world. In contrast, Heidegger argued that primarily and for the most part, we don’t think about a world of objects; rather, we are involved with the world as traditioned actors.

The world is the environment in which we swim, not a picture that we look at as distanced observers.[16] Thus, rather than suggesting that perception or mere cognition is the fundamental mode of intentional consciousness, Heidegger argued that care is the most primordial way that we “intend” the world.[17] With this, Heidegger made a critical move: he shifted the center of gravity of the human person from the cognitive to the noncognitive—from the head to something like the heart, from the cerebral regions of mind to the more affective region of the body.[18] For Heidegger, we might say that I don’t think my way through the world, I feel my way around it. With this shift, Heidegger both signaled the influence of Augustine (and a later Augustinian, Pascal) and began to articulate an anthropology that was an alternative to the cognitivist paradigms that had dominated the scene up to that point (and that remain operative in the person-as-thinker and person-as-believer models noted above).

Small note -- though I am no expert, I have read some of both Husserl and Heidegger.   I am not qualified to say whether  Husserl was more Cartesian or "dualistic" in his approach to phenomenology, but from the little I know, I can't help wondering whether this is really the case.

 Husserl's writing style is way more "embodied" than Heidegger's.   Husserl was a Christian convert and a deep influence on Edith Stein, who was martyred by the Nazis, while Heidegger joined the Nazi party (though in fairness he later expressed regret), didn't treat his mentor Husserl very well, and apparently played rather a dirty trick on Stein in addition.   Those are my admittedly Kardic or heart /gut/ woman's intuition reaction to the thing, but I liked Husserl when I read him (Liam gave me one of his college books which contained a Husserl essay) and I don't particularly like Heidegger so far.

This last part doesn't have much to do with DtK, but I wanted to write it down while I was thinking about it!


  1. Thank you. I have been wondering about his background but haven't looked into it too much. This is a lot of food for thought. A very helpful rabbit trail.

    1. Hi Pilgrim,
      Thanks! I was hoping it would be helpful to more people than just me : ).

  2. I love those "it all comes together" blessings!

    Thank you so much for putting this resource together! The little I looked into him, I got the distinct impression he didn't want to be pigeonholed into a certain group. :) There is definitely a strain within Calvinism that doesn't want to go near "the Tiber" (perhaps fearing to ever even cross the Atlantic), but I am in sympathy with Smith's take on catholicism (small c). He's also a charismatic Calvinist, which means he really is an odd duck.

    Now I'm off to look up what phenomenology is. :) I'm sure you're sending me down a rabbit trail I'll never recover from. Thank you!

    1. Hi Mystie,
      Yes, that seems to be a good way of putting it -- outside the box, and no pigeonholes! (which I tend to like...)

      Phenomenology is somewhat complex (at least, in my opinion, in the way it is usually written about) but the reason I am interested is because it seems like a way out of the Cartesian dualist dilemma that distances mind and body from each other. And because it deals with the topic of how we exist in the world, it seems related a bit to educational philosophy.

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  4. Thank you for this, Willa! I look forward to checking out many of the links you included here.


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