Request an Exam Copy

[Common Places]: James K. A. Smith and Augustinianism (Part 2)

Categories Common Places


As we saw in the previous post, Smith claims an Augustinian starting point. But the phenomenological framework he uses leads to basic differences with Augustine and the Platonist framework he utilizes. These differences compound when we turn to a more detailed examination of Smith’s cultural liturgies project. We see this, for example, in Smith’s use of imagination, which he draws on to replace conscious, rational thought as the primary bridge between our wider reality and our subconscious desires. While Augustine acknowledges that imagination mediates between the world and our experience of it, it is for him as much a liability as a benefit. The imagination can be productive and beneficial as, for example, in his discussions of the incarnation, the goodness of material creation, and the vital role of human embodiment. Here, following Carol Harrison, we might develop a positive aesthetics of the imagination. However, Robert O’ Connell also has a point that Augustine’s Platonism generates suspicion against imagination, and here a gap opens between Smith and him. Recall, for example, Augustine’s (Platonist) sharp critique of the poets in Confessions where he claims they led him astray by causing him to fixate on fictitious suffering and evil while avoiding his true sin. While this does not necessarily entail a wholesale rejection of narrative performances, Augustine does harbor suspicion against them. This is in contrast to the way Smith places narrative performance at the heart of the Christian liturgy for its ability to cultivate and form properly human desire.

The problem for Augustine is that poetry and drama appeal to affections and imagination while bypassing reason. In this, Augustine is suspicious of imagination for precisely the reasons that Smith draws on and lauds it, namely, for its ability to circumvent conscious reason. If imagination is praiseworthy for Augustine, it is in the way it connects with reason and not in the way it bypasses it—in the way affective experiences are brought together by imagination and are filtered through the moral and rational check of human conscious, reason. This is precisely what does not happen to Augustine’s friend Alypius when he attends the Roman gladiatorial games. In Confessions book 6 Augustine warns his friend not to attend the games because of the way the images filter into the mind, often unconsciously, and distort human identity by desensitizing it to unjust violence. Such spectacles overwhelm human thought and reason, and prey upon human affection and imagination. Often this is the way Augustine treats imagination, as a potential weakness and opening for the devil to exploit us (see also a parallel discussion of the dangers of imagination in On the Trinity 4).

In one respect Augustine’s critique of the gladiatorial games converges with Smith’s insightful critique of cultural liturgies. Smith argues that certain cultural practices, such as consumerism, are a type of liturgy orienting humans to certain ends and shaping human desires for those ends. These are dangerous not only because they diverge from a Christian ethics but also because they are most often appropriated subconsciously, and so noncritically, through human imagination and affection. Though Augustine does not label the gladiatorial games a secular liturgy, he shares many of the same concerns. But here again we can see Augustine and Smith would part ways in how they address such dangers. Unlike Smith, Augustine does not develop and juxtapose in nearly as robust a manner a positive set of Christian liturgical practices that work at the level of imagination to counteract such secular liturgies. For Smith, the remedy is not a flight from imagination or the cultivation of a critical spirit against it as it often is for Augustine, but rather to acknowledge its fundamental place within human identity formation and so to work to reconstitute human identity through a positive set of Christian liturgical practices that engage the imagination.

Such disagreements between Augustine and Smith portend wider differences on questions of embodiment. In Augustine on the Body, Margaret Miles has demonstrated the robust place of human embodiment in Augustine’s work: from his sensitivity to its centrality in human living, to its role in the incarnation, to his staunch defense of bodily resurrection. But David Kelsey astutely observes that not all defenses of embodiment are created equal. The question must still be put: what kind of embodiment is the author defending as intrinsic to life both here and now and at the resurrection? On both questions, Augustine and Smith are fairly far apart. Augustine defends a basic Platonist two-source anthropology, with body and soul having distinct origins and natures. This is not to say the two are independent and unrelated. Body and soul interrelate and necessarily come together in a psychosomatic unity to form the human person, but Augustine nonetheless treats them as fairly distinct ontological principles. While I am not certain exactly about the technical details of Smith’s account of body and soul, his treatment of the sacramental imagination and the way he centralizes materiality in our worship of God read the relation between matter and spirit, and by implication body and soul, in far more intimate union than Augustine’s two-source anthropology.

We can also see a similar set of differences that open up between Smith and Augustine on the issue of worship. The retrieval of a proper model for understanding Christian worship is the central theme of Smith’s project, and the main payoff he develops out of his claimed Augustinian view of the person. Here Smith admirably brings forward an Augustinian theme sometimes lost among scholars who focus too heavily on the Platonism and intellectualism in Augustine, namely, that worship is a central category that runs through Augustine’s thought. Recall, for example, that Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms is his longest work, and one in which he develops important claims on the church, Christ, and the human person. We can also see in Augustine’s sermons an abiding concern for proper worship, one that opens onto his view of the human person as created in the divine image, who as such is only genuinely human when open to God in a basic act of worship. Smith’s greatest contribution is the way he develops the view that worship is the most fundamental and genuine expression of human nature, and then goes on to tie this to a detailed examination of the Christian liturgy. This is well done and in keeping with an Augustinian spirit.

However, the differences between Augustine and Smith on embodiment, reason, and imagination are again harbingers of differences in their conception of worship. Consider, for example, Augustine’s treatment of Job 28:28—piety is wisdom—which he often construes to mean that wisdom is the worship of God. In On the Trinity and elsewhere, Augustine reads this verse in intellectualist categories, connecting wisdom to the highest level of the conscious mind and arguing that ultimately reason must open to God in an act of worship. This view is complemented with his claims in his Literal Commentary on Genesis that angels and the human soul are both doxological creatures because they exist at a basic level in a reflective, rational act in which they return praise to God. Such esoteric and intellectualistic claims sometimes leave commentators shaking their heads because they can be difficult to reconcile on a practical level with the Christian liturgy, with which Augustine as a bishop was intimately familiar and on which he often preached. Despite such a potential disconnect, it remains in striking contrast to the way Smith draws on imagination rather than reason as the bridge between humans and God to connect liturgical rituals with human embodiment and the material practices that accompany the liturgy (e.g., vestments, singing, church architecture). Augustine would not reject the material practices of the liturgy, and indeed found them laudatory. But neither does he claim they are the fundamental and primary driver of Christian worship, or the expression of the human spirit in the way that Smith does.

I would like to conclude by saying that though much of this and the previous post appear to be a critique of Smith they are not primarily intended in this regard. They could just as much be a critique of Augustine. Indeed, where I am most critical of Smith is in his failure to adequately critique Augustine and highlight his own nuanced departure from him. This is to say that while I may not necessarily share all of Smith’s views, he offers a profoundly rich discussion of Christian worship that should not be summarily rejected should it be proved to be inadequately Augustinian. Perhaps rather Smith shows some of the limits of the Augustinian tradition and in this his project would be more accurately branded a critical appropriation of Augustine. If this is right, it is also one that should not then advertise itself as a straightforward Augustinian project as Smith claims, but rather should be framed as one that brings forward certain Augustinian themes within a more contemporary (phenomenological) framework in order to rectify some of the limits of the Augustinian tradition.


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

[Common Places]: James K. A. Smith and Augustinianism (Part 1)
[Common Places]: James K. A. Smith and Augustinianism (Part 1) In James K. A. Smith’s rich cultural liturgies series we find an Augustinian voice that on its face resonates in harmon...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.