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I am grateful for James K. A. Smith’s (hereafter JS) very thoughtful review (see Christian Scholar’s Review 40.1 [Fall 2010]: 77-92) of my book, What is a Person? (here-after WiaP?). Much of his exposition gets the book and my larger intellectual project right, which I greatly appreciate. But some of his critical arguments I think miss the mark. Here I address some issues that come up in his review that strike me as debatable and relevant to CSR readers.

First, the general lay of the land. Both JS and I are antireductionists. But JS (apparently) subscribes to some version of pragmatism that is friendly to relativism. I am a critical realist. Pragmatism cannot tolerate critical realism’s “ontological baggage.” Critical realism, however, believes it can incorporate some of the worthwhile insights of pragmatism (such as the test of “practical adequacy” as one of many criteria for believing statements to be true), but it rejects many of the central claims of the pragmatist tradition.1 My 2003 book, Moral, Believing Animals, is more amenable to a pragmatist reading than is WiaP?, which explains why JS likes it better and judges the latter to be a “step backward” (86). My view is that when one is standing on the edge of a precipice above a bottomless chasm (of relativism), taking a step backward is a good thing to do, a prerequisite to advancing forward in better directions. The better direction is critical realism. JS is also a philosopher, while I am a sociologist. He seems pretty friendly to postmodernism, whereas I have grown increasingly unsympathetic to the same in recent years (which shows in WiaP?). JS has spent his career in Christian college and university settings, whileI have spent the bulk of mine in secular research universities. He has published most (though not all) of his books with Christian publishers (Baker, IVP, Eerdmans, and so on), while I have published most (though not all) of mine with secular university presses (Chicago, Routledge, Oxford). Finally, JS is a Protestant, and I am Catholic. These differences, I think, are relevant in various ways to the present discussion.

The first problem in JS’s thinking concerns his suggestion, developed mostly in the second half of his review, that my argument in WiaP? is “timid,” which is related to his pressing Christian scholars to be more “sectarian” by being explicitly Christocentric in their scholarship. I have no doubt that some Christian scholarship is timid. But the suggestion that WiaP? is timid is, for me, amusing and exasperating. That is the sort of thing that could only be said by someone who does not really understand from the inside the intellectual and social reality of the social sciences today. I think this is one place where JS, being a philosopher doing a particular kind of work in a Christian institutional context,2 shapes his review. To me this feels like a West Point officer complaining from the banks of the Hudson that the troops on the ground in Afghanistan are not fighting forcefully enough. I understand why JS argues as he does. But being intelligible does not mean being right. In the academic context in and to which WiaP? primarily speaks, it is anything but timid—as I anticipate forthcoming critical reviews in social science journals will demonstrate. That no doubt says more about the state of social science than JS’s ideas, but it is what it is.

This first problem raises two related questions. First, what are legitimate forms of Christian scholarship? Second, what are good strategies for engaging academic debates with colleagues who profoundly disagree with Christian truth claims? Ibelieve I understand JS’s position on these matters, as expressed in his review, butI think it is incomplete. Regarding the first question, JS seems to be suggesting that all worthwhile Christian scholarship needs to be driven by an explicitly Christocentric confession and argument. The mistake here is believing that scholarship across all disciplines must include an explicit theological component or else be sub-Christian. I think that is wrong and, in its own way (ironically), reductionistic. From a critical realist perspective, different disciplines seek to understand and explain different levels or dimensions of reality by logics and methods proper to their own levels or dimensions. That explains the legitimate differences between, for example, physics, biology, psychology, sociology and astronomy. And it justifies different kinds of discourse proper to different disciplines.

It is one thing to believe that all thinking must ultimately be governed by the Christological reality; it is another to demand that the Christological implications of every scholarly project be spelled out explicitly in every publication (or artistic object or performance). There is more than one legitimate mode of Christian scholarship, not everyone of which requires the kind of scandalously particularistic sort of explicit exposition JS seems to advocate. Following JS’s direction here would, I fear, produce the academic equivalent of the CCM (contemporary Christian music) genre of “faith-based” music: always explicit, not very poetic, pretty boring. Does this view create possibilities for some Christian scholarship to be timid, even compromised? Of course. Is the proper response to demand that all Christian scholarship make explicit all of its Christological moorings and implications? No. Let’s get real. What is possible to say in IVP and Baker books is mostly not possible with the University of Chicago Press. I do not have a problem with that. The world needs both. Both are important and valuable. But let us not imagine that scholars can, in the name of“embracing the scandal,” simply shift the same message untranslated from one to another. I do not even think that they should.

To some extent, I read JS’s argument as simply telling us that he really appreciates good theology that connects to issues like human personhood. I am glad for that. I do too. But that does not mean all good Christian scholarship must at some point shift into an explicitly theological mode. It no doubt sometimes should. But it certainly need not always. Just because such moves are in principle possible (as they are with WiaP?) does not mean that they must become actual at every opportunity. And just because some scholarship dealing with issues of reality and truth does not make explicitly Christological claims does not automatically mean that it is a work of “non theistic natural theology” (87). (So, comparing Smith to Kelsey isapples and oranges, but JS seems to want to view them as apples and apples.)

What about the second, related question of good strategies for engaging in academic debates with colleagues who embrace radically different presuppositions about reality? There is more than one way to skin a cat. The Christocentrically in-your-face approach has much to commend it—I have known Stanley Hauerwas (personally) and read Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics) long and well enough to know all about this. But there are also other approaches that embody different Christian virtues that are equally legitimate and, in many contexts, I think, preferable. Christian scholars need to employ a variety of forms, styles, postures, methods and strategies in their scholarship, each discerningly best suited to their particular conditions. JS is concerned that too many fearful and insecure Christian scholars have backed themselves into shrinking and apologetic defenses of mere theism and natural law. That may be. But that concern must also be balanced with an appreciation for the fact that certain less “scandalous” forms of scholarly engagement can also be motivated, not by fear or insecurity, but by Christian love for “the (worldview) stranger,” a kind of hospitality to “the (intellectual) alien,” an open humility to learn from “the (scholarly) Samaritan” and a patience in viewing the task of Christian scholarship as a long-term, developmental process. That has its own dangers. But what does not?

Yale’s Lamin Sahnneh has rightly highlighted the significance of the fact that Christianity is a translatable faith, not one that demands that everyone learn the “pure language” of, say, Arabic or Aramaic. That is a relevant fact for Christian scholars directly engaging often smart and well-intentioned colleagues who simply cannot see (for sometimes understandable reasons) that Christian truth claims make any sense. Given this outlook, JS’s apparent position on Christian scholarship, indicated in his review, at least when read as a programmatic statement, strikes me as flat-footed. The important possibility JS seems to miss is a vision for scholarship that tells much but not all, that pushes but not to the breaking point, that lays out the dots but lets the reader connect some of them, that builds a case by steps over time rather than announcing everything up front, that sometimes romances rather than overpowers.

A few other points. JS criticizes WiaP?’s theory of action as being “intellectualist,” “narrow” and “cognitivist” (83-94). On the one hand, this is a misplaced critique, since the purpose of WiaP? is to develop a theoretical ontology of personhood, not an account of agency and action. Delivering the latter will require a whole other book building on the former (which I have already begun to write). On the other hand, the argument of WiaP? does provide numerous indirect indications about agency and action, very many of which clearly provide balance to cognition-centered themes also present. Readers should note, for example, my reliance on Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge;” my repeated emphases on the embodied nature of human personhood, on the unconscious and on the relational constitution of human being; and my arguments in chapter six (on the personal sources of social structures, a key chapter which JS’s review does not mention) about the (non-intellectualist) forces of “reiterated body practices,” “collective activity currents” and“intractable interaction processes” in propelling and governing human action. I hear what JS is saying on this point and I believe I know why he is saying it, but I think it is one-sided.

JS also objects to a supposed “internal tension” between critical realism and my use of Charles Taylor’s phenomenological epistemology (footnote 38). It maybe possible to detect such a tension when these matters are framed differently than I propose. But from my critical realist perspective, there is no tension here. The work of Taylor I employ is not his entire philosophical program, but specifically the epistemology laid out in the early chapters of his Sources of the Self. While Taylor is generally a kind of hermeneutical interpretivist, his particular argument for the specific epistemological approach on which I draw is decidedly realist (even though non-foundationalist and fallibalist) and I think very useful. Whether otherworks of Taylor can be found that claim to dissolve the entire realist/antirealist/critical realist debate successfully is debatable. As a realist, I doubt it is persuasive in the end (though, as a good “Taylorite” here, always “reasoning in transitions,” I am in principle open). I have actually discussed critical realism with Taylor over dinner, and we significantly agree about some things but not entirely so. So be it. But that our larger programs are not identical does not mean that I cannot coherently draw upon a particular line of reasoning in one of his key books to integrate profitably into my constructive program. I can and do, I think, with success.

Finally, JS’s review (85-86) objects to my clustering of “antirealism, positivism, empiricism, reductionism, constructionism, and pragmatism” together as a “package.” That list, however, has to be understood in the context of my arguments in the previous 269 pages, which address each of these isms one by one in some detail. That “package” is listed in summary mode, not as sharing all things in common, but as entailing belief commitments about ontology and science that, I argue, lead to “antihumanist, person-annihilating” views, “especially when… combined”(270). JS seems particularly concerned about defending pragmatism (to some version of which [the kind that could “take Rorty to church”] he seems to subscribe) against being conflated into reductionism (and perhaps a negative view of relativism, although that is not included in this list of isms). But the pragmatism critiqued in the previous chapters of WiaP? was the pragmatist theory of truth specifically, which I very much hope JS is not trying to defend. Of course JS is formally correct that the isms in this list are “positions which are separable” (84). I think part of the difference here, again, however, concerns different disciplines. Philosophers often multiply distinctions to parse out items that are indeed logically potentially separable. In the actual, concrete instances of sociology that I am taking on and criticizing, however, these isms often go together—in often crazy and messy ways. Sorting out positive solutions will undoubtedly take some fine distinction-making, of the kind I offer in the chapters on social constructionism and truth. But before ever getting there, one must first persuade one’s colleagues of the existence of any problem needing any solutions. And accomplishing that, at least in sociology, can take sharpening a stick that draws attention to the kind of difficulties involved with the “package” I summarize above.

JS also writes as if “natural law” is a secondary, sub-Christian, non-scandalous matter. This is a very Protestant view, in that some robust version of natural law is crucial in and for Catholicism, but not most of Protestantism. That natural law is also a non-scandalous matter is also empirically false. In most of the academy today, definitely in the social sciences, to believe in the reality of natural law is obviously to be nutters, barking mad, belonging among those interested in hunting witches and fighting Crusades. Were Christians actually able to persuade their academic colleagues that, say, moral facts exist as part of the very nature of reality, that would be a massive, game-changing accomplishment. Like JS, I have no interest in defending mere (non-Trinitarian) “theism” (with Barth I find forthright atheism preferable); but please let us not treat arguing for natural law as secondary and non-scandalous.

Finally, I suspect that Protestant-Catholic differences structure this discussion in other ways. For example, WiaP?’s basic argument embodies a very “grace-builds-on-nature” approach (even though it also integrates, as JS notes, some standard moves of Reformed epistemology). My book presupposes hope that even “fallen” people—guided by the structures of (even admittedly subjected-to-frustration) nature, the light of (even admittedly significantly darkened) reason and the inextinguishable human longing for (despite simultaneous alienation from) God—can make limited though valuable moves of knowledge in good and helpful directions. In due course, nature must be enlightened and perfected by grace. But, because of the constantly irrepressible love and grace of God for humanity, even the reality of nature (including human nature) can help humans, despite their frequent denials of the reality of grace, to take important steps of understanding in the right direction. And that matters a lot. It helps, for instance, to answer JS’s questions, “Whose ‘we?’ Who is ‘we?’” (87). Humanity does not enjoy the Enlightenment’s “strong we” of self-guiding universal rationality, but we humans must and do enjoy a kind of “weak we” by virtue of our common humanity, providing something with which “we” (Christian scholars) can work—and without which the very question of personhood would be meaningless.

The outlook mentioned just above also provides a coherent vision and justification, rooted in two millennia of theological reflection, for the very project of vigorous Christian scholarship per se. I do not pretend to be able to label JS theologically as a person. But I think I may detect in the ideas in and behind his review more than a few traces of the Kuyperian “antithesis,” perhaps a post-Kantian human disconnection of faith from (“noumenal”) reality that leaves only one kind of divine revelation and professed human beliefs, and perhaps even faint echoes of the Canons of Dordt’s view of total depravity, reprobation, the inaccessibility of the lost, the Protestant confessional stance, and so forth. Or maybe that is just my imagination. Now, I am just about as friendly to Christians in the Reformed tradition as I am to anyone, but I cannot say that I believe that (or any Protestant) approach to be the best account of things.3 Hence my coming down with Catholicism, and so the nature of my argument in WiaP?

To conclude, my goals here have been to draw attention to issues that seem important to the larger project of Christian scholarship, and to try to balance outw hat I think are some of JS’s more debatable ideas in order to help position potential CSR readers of WiaP? to grasp, I hope, the nature, approach and purpose of that book better. If I have mischaracterized or otherwise been unfair to JS’s position, which is not unlikely, though not intended, I beg forgiveness. This is the sort of “conversation” that is of course much better had over nachos and a few Guinnesses—the pleasure of which I hope to have with JS in due course. Meanwhile and in any case, I hope that many more people besides us will read WiaP? and enter into this larger discussion about the important issues it raises.

Cite this article
Christian Smith, ““More Realism, Critically”—A Reply to James K. A. Smith’s “The (Re)Turnto the Person in Contemporary Theory””, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 205-210


  1. The language JS uses to speak about critical realism throughout his review suggests to menot only that he is unconvinced by it, but that he also does not entirely and accurately graspits claims. If so, then the latter (not grasping) probably contributes to the former (not being convinced). Critical realism is complex, rich and nuanced. It deserves to be understood wellbefore being either embraced or written off. I know it is easy to claim, “my critic just doesn’tunderstand.” But sometimes, on some points, that is true.
  2. I am not suggesting that institutional contexts are determinative, only sociologically influential as tendencies.
  3. Why I explain in two forthcoming books: Christian Smith, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011); and Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Moving from Biblicism to a Truly EvangelicalReading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011). (Remember that “evangelical Catholic” is no necessary oxymoron, but ought, I think, to be the proper state of affairs—leavened of course with a healthy dose of Karl Barth, a move which, I am convinced, despite common assumptions to the contrary, is entirely possible and needed.)

Christian Smith

University of Notre Dame
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.