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[Common Places]: James K. A. Smith and Augustinianism (Part 1)

Categories Common Places


In James K. A. Smith’s rich cultural liturgies series we find an Augustinian voice that on its face resonates in harmony with the fifth-century Bishop but, as one probes deeper, offers a provocative counterpoint to Augustine. Smith claims Augustine as his source of inspiration at various points, going so far as to say that the three intertwined proposals in Desiring the Kingdom on theological anthropology, Christian education, and church liturgy all have their fundamental source in Augustine. On these proposals, however, Smith offers a fascinating blend of Augustinianism and contemporary phenomenology that is at once neither straightforward Augustine nor phenomenology.

Smith’s claims on the nature of the human person are a good place to start because they anchor his wider project on Christian liturgy. Smith’s stated goal is to move beyond modernist and Enlightenment cognitivist models that anchor human identity in dimensions of human conscious thought, whether reason or belief. Smith argues, and rightly I think, that Christians, especially those coming from the Reformed tradition, have often bought into some version of this model. This is true even of evangelicals who, despite appeals to piety and faith that have led to concerns of anti-intellectualism by scholars such as Mark Noll (Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), nevertheless often inhabit a cognitivist landscape, especially in the more fundamentalist strains where our basic connection with God is conceived as our (rational) assent to propositional claims (i.e., the Christian fundamentals). Pushing back against such tendencies, Smith argues for a model that grounds human identity and our relation to God in love. We are shaped primarily not by what we know but by what we love. This is not anti-intellectualism because love is intentional—it has an intellectual dimension—in the way it directs us toward that which we desire. But this intentionality is not, for the most part, conscious; rather, it operates at a subconscious level, sort of like the way riding a bike involves an understanding of how to ride it but one of which we are mostly not aware except as we are learning to ride a bike. And as riding a bike requires the development of certain habits (e.g., balance, pedaling), our love is formed through habits as they are inculcated through bodily practices, which themselves come from our wider socio-cultural surroundings.

Smith hails Augustine as the inspiration for this model of human identity formation, and there are Augustinian themes to commend in Smith’s proposal. Like Smith, Augustine argues that love is basic to human identity formation, moral development, and our relation with God. Augustine also agrees that love is intentional in directing us toward the objects we desire, and that we are formed or deformed according to the way we properly or improperly love objects. Augustine, moreover, argues that the way we love develops through the formation of habits. So far, this is all in keeping with Smith’s claim to an Augustinian heritage. But Smith reads his claims on love through a French and German phenomenological lens that I find persuasive in its contemporary philosophical and scientific relevancy, albeit one that also alters his Augustinian trajectory in a way that moves him far afield from Augustine. We see this beginning in the way Smith positions love as a replacement for the Heideggerian notion of care, which is Heidegger’s description of how we engage in our everyday living mostly out of routine and without consciously thinking about everything we are doing—from driving cars, to interacting with people, to grocery shopping. Following Heidegger, Smith argues that this everyday subconscious type of practical thinking (like riding a bike) is mostly how we get around in the world and is dominant in shaping our identity. Smith identifies this type of subconscious thinking-activity with love, which offers for him an Augustinian corrective to Heidegger’s model in the way it locates this formative activity at the level of desire. This is an important claim Smith reiterates throughout his account of human identity formation: the most enduring and fundamental influences to our identity happen at the level of subconscious desire/love.

From an Augustinian perspective, the problem is that Augustine does not offer this type of nuance in his account of love. In part, this is because Augustine does not possess the various lenses through which Smith reads love—romantic, post-Freudian, phenomenological. This is not to say that Augustine altogether discounts the extra-rational dimensions of human experience. For example, in his famous account of memory in Confessions book 10, Augustine points to the hidden and unknown depths of memory and the way we are formed and deformed through the thoughts, temptations, and desires hidden in memory. Here, Smith’s account syncs up somewhat with Augustine. For Augustine, we are not always conscious of the loves that form or deform our relations with God and neighbor. But Augustine does not have a clear sense that this process occurs mostly at the subconscious level. Indeed, Augustine more clearly positions love in relation to reason than as a subconscious dimension within the human psyche. For example, in De Trinitate book 10 Augustine asks whether one can love something that is unknown, and argues this is impossible and that we can only love what we know. Smith might well counter that he is not claiming that we love what is unknown—as if love were anti-cognitive—but rather that what we know in love is known mostly apart from conscious reason. Here I agree that within contemporary humanistic and social scientific discussions this model has much to offer. But Augustine does not have the conceptual tools to offer such nuance, and instead falls back on claiming that since we cannot love what is unknown we must know something about what we love, even if only in a general way. In this, Augustine concludes that love and reason have a mutually implicating nature and are deeply intertwined.

Indeed, the conceptual tools of Platonism and Stoicism available to Augustine, and upon which he sometimes draws, move him further toward the cognitivist model Smith eschews. Here we might take note of Sarah Byers recent work Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine, in which she argues that Augustine relies heavily on a Stoic cognitivist model for his account of the affections. While Byers’s analysis is heavily stilted toward the philosophical and does not give adequate nuance to Augustine’s theology—to the way philosophical concepts are reconceived through biblical and theological doctrine—she nevertheless offers an argument that deserves consideration, and one that complicates Smith’s appropriation of Augustine for his non-cognitivist model. Beyond this, Augustine’s employment of Platonist concepts, much discussed in contemporary Augustinian scholarship, also generates tension with Smith’s claim to an Augustinian heritage. We see this, for example, in the way Smith draws on an Augustinian notion of love to argue that our embodied, affective experience of the world is not only important but also primary in our development. In a few respects, Augustine too argues that embodiment is basic to human existence. It is what distinguishes us as rational creatures from angels and demons, and so what constitutes our unique rational and moral life. Augustine also directs love through our embodiment: in his psychology, he maintains that what we first experience and love comes through the bodily senses; in his theology, he holds that the way we love God rightly is through God’s embodiment in Christ. But underlying both his psychology and theology is a stronger cognitivist sensibility than Smith acknowledges, and one that Augustine borrows from Platonism (and Stoicism). In his psychology, Augustine argues that the order of human development in which our physical and affective experiences precede rational thought (e.g., consider the psychology of childhood development) belies the true (ontological) order of reality where the spiritual and rational come first from the mind (Word) of God. This is mirrored in the human psyche (e.g., Augustine’s doctrine of illumination), where our rational capacity forms and makes possible our empirical, embodied experience of the world. In his theology, Augustine treats the incarnation—the embodiment of God in the sensible world—as the primary vehicle that properly directs our love to God. But in De Trinitate and elsewhere he casts the dynamics of this love in cognitivist categories. Augustine frames our salvation as Christ’s reforming of the divine image, which he clearly locates within the highest levels of reason and the mind. Beyond this, he describes the goal (telos) of salvation as the vision of God, which again is most closely associated with the mind and reason. There may be a way to bring Augustine in line with Smith, but it would require considerable nuance and sophistication in reconciling Smith’s notion of embodied, subconscious love with the spiritual and rational lenses through which Augustine reads love.


Matthew Drever is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Tulsa. He has written Image, Identity, and the Forming of the Augustinian Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).


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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