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[Common Places] A Conversation about Cultural Liturgies: An Interview with James K. A. Smith

Categories Common Places

As a conclusion to our series of engagements with James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, Michael Allen and Scott Swain interviewed him regarding the series thus far and concerning its concluding volume. In so doing Smith addresses anthropological, liturgical, formational, and pedagogical matters.

Were there any autobiographical factors (which you’d be willing to share) that led you to write Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom?

James K. A. Smith: A big impetus was an invitation and prodding from my colleague, John Witvliet, who directs the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Around here, at Calvin College and in the Kuyperian tradition more broadly, we’ve been talking about “worldview” for a hundred years. John’s challenge to me was to reconnect worldview to worship, and thereby reconnect the college—and maybe Christianity!—to the church. In many ways, Desiring the Kingdom was envisioned as both a companion volume to Neal Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World and a Protestant rendition of Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.

One of your ongoing roles as a Christian philosopher is to plunder the Egyptians by taking up the work of figures (ranging from Derrida and Foucault to Brandom and Rorty) in order to glean lessons for Christians where such figures were never intending or writing for Christians. Similarly, as we seek to glean lessons from a philosophical anthropology to help aid the task of Christian dogmatics, we might ask what contributions you either hope this would have on systematic theology, specifically, or comments in that direction that you've encountered from readers?

JS: This isn’t something I’ve been conscious of while working on the Cultural Liturgies project. I guess I’d hope for two things, though I think I’ve been largely unsuccessful so far. First, I’d love to see systematic theology that begins from worship not only as a precondition for knowing, but also as a dogmatic source—in the same way that the creedal and confessional tradition is a theological source. The liturgical tradition is a way that the Great Tradition is handed on to us, and insofar as theological thinking—like any thinking—is “traditioned,” per Alasdair MacIntyre, then theology has something unique to absorb from the liturgical tradition. We might think of this as lived catholicity.

Second, I think systematic theology needs to confront what you might call the “common grace” insights of contemporary philosophy and neuroscience and grapple with them more seriously. In my (limited) experience, theological anthropology tends to take the anthropology of, say, Aquinas as the final word—and then judges contemporary philosophical anthropology by whether or not it is commensurate with classical anthropologies. I think that’s a problem. A theological anthropology that is “reformed and always reforming” might have to rethink its taxonomy of the self. Most critiques of Imagining the Kingdom amount to telling me that I must be wrong because Aquinas or Calvin said X. Well, Aquinas and Calvin might be wrong. I think this is particularly true when it comes to the sort of “faculty” psychology we’ve inherited from the tradition. If it’s too much to ask theologians to read Merleau-Ponty, they at least need to work through MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals.

Can you identify in what way your project is and is not Augustinian?

JS: I’m not repristinating Augustine, and I’m not uncritical of Augustine (see, for example, my critique of some trajectories of his thought in The Fall of Interpretation). Nonetheless, in the broad sweep of Western theology, I’m siding with Augustine’s more “affective” account of the soul vs. Aquinas’ more “intellectualist” account. I would also say that I’m appropriating Augustine’s account of sin as disordered love; you can find a more systemic exposition of this in my books Speech and Theology and, more recently, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? And in fact my next big book project, after volume 3, is a trade book on Augustine currently entitled On the Road with Augustine.

In what ways should Scripture inform and norm the shape of Christian liturgy, not only in terms of the elements and order of Christian worship but also in terms of the rhetoric of ministers and congregations in public worship?

JS: This is a theme that, if I look back on it, has been underemphasized in the Cultural Liturgies project so far. I think that’s mostly because, as someone working and worshiping in the Reformed tradition, the importance of Scripture is so taken for granted I don’t tend to talk about it. (What we don’t talk about is less a sign of what we ignore and more often a sign of what is so assumed we don’t make it explicit.) But I’m going to try to correct this in volume 3, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. In particular, I have found Oliver O’Donovan’s work crucial in this respect.  But Alan Jacobs’s little book, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography also helps see how much Thomas Cranmer, for example, wanted Christian worship suffused with Scripture for the sake of formation.

The Cultural Liturgies series seeks to correct a misplaced emphasis upon the intellect in the assumed anthropologies of neo-Calvinism in particular and of broader Christianity in general. If you were to make a positive case for the importance of the Christian mind in keeping with your broader anthropological commitments, where would you begin?

JS: This gets to my taken-for-granted point earlier. I’m not suggesting we need less thinking; my point is that we need more than thinking. And we need to think carefully about the limits of thought (I tried to tease this out in the opening of Imagining, with a hat tip to Proust). That’s not a paradox; that’s intellectual honesty. But obviously my entire oeuvre is devoted to sustained, I hope rigorous, philosophical reflection on the human person. My idols are people like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Charles Taylor. I’ve devoted myself to the university and the academy. And I have zero tolerance for the know-nothing intellectualism that still infects so much emotivist evangelicalism. In that sense, I still think Alvin Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers” is a manifesto for this work.

Neuroscience has shown great promise in recent years but also has the potential to be the next realm of naturalism. How do you, as a Christian, find neurophysiological reflections deepening your own anthropology? And are there areas where you sense a need to draw back either on specifics or regarding principled methodologies?

JS: What we need to learn from this work is a holism about the human person. In that sense, I think engaging this research can be a catalyst to recover a more biblical, almost “incarnational” sensibility. But you’re right, this can have a flattening effect, especially if Christians simply accept the plausibility structures of naturalism. That said, I think in the work of someone like Thomas Nagel you see an interesting openness to the limits of a naturalistic explanation. Or it’s interesting to see how Merleau-Ponty can’t quite shake the language of “the soul.” In this respect, I think David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God, is an important sortie in such debates.

You have commented recently on how appreciating a liturgical anthropology has led you to rethink your own teaching of college-level philosophy and to operate en loco parentis. Any thoughts on how that anthropology might reshape the theology classroom in Christian higher education, especially for those training for ministry?

JS: Well, there would be curricular implications, and then pedagogical implications. Somewhere in a footnote in Desiring the Kingdom I point out that if my argument was correct, we would need to jettison the Germanic hierarchy of the theological disciplines which privileges systematics and biblical studies, with “practical” theology as the stepchild where we learn how to do weddings and funerals. Instead, “practical” theology would be the hub of the curriculum, and dogmatics would be in service of worship and formation.  I think some seminaries have started to try to work this out.

Pedagogically, it would look like recovering what I expect were the habits of twelfth-century Paris, where the seminary is governed by the rhythms of the monastery; where liturgical disciplines are seen as pedagogical resources. David Smith and I have made some suggestions along this line—though more for a college and university audience—in Teaching and Christian Practices.

Your forthcoming third volume promises to address political theology and, from what we gather, the work of Oliver O’Donovan plays a central role (much to the delight of many Common Places readers and contributors). What do you think O’Donovan adds to reflection on political culture? In particular, how can engaging O’Donovan help those who have been shaped largely by Kuyperianism?

JS: Yes, volume 3 will focus on political theology along with issues of pluralism and public life. (You can see a teaser of that here and here.) I see O’Donovan as offering a genuine alternative to the Hauerwasian project that has captivated so many evangelicals, but also as a corrective to my own Kuyperian tradition which has slid toward a flattened account of public life in terms of “creation” (and even “natural law”) rather than the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the body of Christ as polis. I also think O’Donovan has an almost Hegelian appreciation for the dynamics and vicissitudes of history (akin to Charles Taylor), which is an important corrective to the a-historical idealism that infects so much Protestant thinking on these matters. So I’ve decided that one of the goals of this volume is to introduce a wider audience to O’Donovan’s important work, especially The Desire of the Nations (which is, let’s say, just a tad dense at times).



James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine and the author of many books, most recently You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. For more information, visit his website at


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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