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I deeply appreciate—and am just a little surprised—that Christian Smith (CS) would take time to respond to my review essay, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory.”1 And let me clarify, right from the outset, that I would be as disappointed as CS2 if, on the basis of my few critical comments, readers somehow concluded that they could bypass What is a Person? I clearly share his “hope that many more people besides us will read WiaP?;” indeed, that is precisely why, in my essay, I open by saying that WiaP? “deserve[s] wide, deep consideration from Christian scholars across a range of disciplines” (79).3 So none of my criticisms were meant to be an encouragement to bypass or dismiss the book. On the contrary, I think this is one of those indispensible, landmark books that everyone needs to go through, not around.

I took this invitation to respond to CS’s reply because his essay raises important questions about the nature of Christian scholarship—questions that really signal a new maturity in this conversation and take it to a new level. We will not agree on these matters, but I hope our disagreement might nonetheless be instructive. With that in mind, let me respond to CS on three clusters of issues: first I will take up his defense of critical realism against my hints regarding pragmatism; second, I will attend to his suggestion that this is a Protestant vs. Catholic issue by taking up the question of natural law in the context of antifoundationalism; finally, I will briefly address the task of Christian scholarship.

1. First, as I try to point out, and as I think CS concedes, his anti- or nonfoundationalism, first broached in Moral, Believing Animals, puts him on the precipice of relativism: if there is no God’s-eye view from which we just see “the way things are,” then following Geertz it seems we need to own up to the concern that it might just be turtles all the way down. While Moral, Believing Animals left his account hanging there, WiaP? admittedly steps back from there into the safety of critical realism. And stepping back from a precipice, he suggests, would seem like a good thing.

But is it? What is the price of “safety” here? Could critical realism be crying “peace, peace” where there is no peace? Let us recall, after all, what put us on that precipice: it was precisely Smith’s antifoundationalism that stirred up the specter of relativism. Now, in WiaP?, having roused the specter that now haunts us, CS looks for defense measures, protection from relativism’s haunting. The ghostbuster in this respect (apologies: I write this on Halloween) is supposed to be critical realism that delivers us from the danger by hooking us up from our precarious place on the precipice of relativism, yielding a humble, fallibilist “realism” and yet an epistemological confidence that our concepts refer to some reality “out there.” We are standing on lots of turtles, the critical realist tells us, but at some point and in some way the turtles stop and we get realist correspondence.

The problem, I am arguing, is that CS cannot have his antifoundationalist4 cake and eat his realism, too. A thorough going antifoundationalism—which CS still invokes in WiaP?—is exactly what calls into question the epistemic paradigm that gets us any sort of “realism.” In short, “critical realism” is the answer to a question we should stop asking. It is the answer to a question that still assumes an epistemic framework that distinguishes between some “inside” (of our concepts, ideas, representations and so on) and some “outside” (extra-mental reality, objects, “data” and so on). This is why I invoked Taylor ’s work on Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty.5 Taylor rejects both realism and anti-realism, not by taking some middle-of-the-road position in “critical” realism, but by refusing to ask what he thinks is a bad question: How can we be sure we know the external world? Per Wittgenstein, Taylor suggests that we have become captive to a (false) picture—what he calls the Inside/Outside (I/O) picture which maps the terrain of knowledge as an “inside” and an “outside.” Then per Merleau-Ponty, Taylor shows how that picture, sedimented into our folk epistemologies, has us posing questions and inventing problems where there are not any. The only way out of this is a gestalt shift, a completely new picture. But too many responses to this problem continue to work within the same picture/paradigm. Critical realism is one example.

Because the I/O picture has become so sedimented into our “everyday” attitude, it is “natural” for us to have “realist” worries and doubts—whereas Rorty, Merleau-Ponty and others will press us to see that this is a fabricated problem: that even when we are fretting about our “access” to reality, we cannot not be taking all sorts of aspects of our reality for granted. But the I/O picture fools us into thinking that if we reject correspondence or represenationalism, we are rejecting reality—that we are retreating into some sort of idealism, giving up any responsibility to reality. In short, we are giving up on justification. But even when we check our claims “against reality,” this is not a matter of connecting an inside to an outside; it is a matter of know-how, a communally agreed-upon coping with our world.

I have no illusions that I could settle this debate in the space allotted here. Nor do I mean to suggest that these issues are settled in philosophy; indeed, I am pushing what is clearly a minority position. I only want to register that things are very complicated and it is not a settled conclusion that, of course, Christians should be realists. Maybe Christians should stop asking the questions to which realism, critical or not, is the answer. To this point, I think that CS perhaps confuse santifoundationalism with a mere fallibilism. If all he wants is the latter, and if he wants to cling to even “critical” realism in order to ward off the specter of relativism, then I suggest he needs to stop describing his project as antifoundationalist. And if he still wants to do the latter, then he cannot avail himself of critical realism since that is answering a question the antifoundationalist thinks we should stop asking.

2. This leads to my second concern: in a couple of places, CS suggests that our differences might come down to a Catholic/Protestant divide. I do not buy it, mainly because I do not think the (Roman) “Catholic” position on these matters is as settled as CS might lead us to believe. It might be that what we have got here is not a Catholic/Protestant divide as much as a difference between a more Augustinian model in contrast to a certain kind of scholastic (perhaps Thomistic6) framework—which would make this an intra-Catholic debate.7 In the end, the way CS wards off relativism is by affirming natural law—which turns out to be just the sort of minimalist normativity that could be yielded by critical realism. So what we get inthe end is a “non-sectarian” disclosure of certain “moral facts.” But does this sound at all familiar? Is this not exactly what secularism promised?

There are two intertwined concerns here. First, the model of natural law to which CS appeals makes both an ontological and an epistemological claim: ontologically, it claims that there is a normative, moral order—a way things ought to be. Further, epistemologically, it also claims that all human beings can have access to these moral facts.8 But it is precisely antifoundationalism which undercuts such epistemic universality: antifoundationalism (which CS wants to affirm) is a hermeneutic emphasis on the contextual conditioning of our knowledge. So if antifoundationalism is true, then there cannot be the sort of universal access that CS invokes at the end of WiaP? Second, CS marshaled antifoundationalism precisely to call into question the foundationalist pretensions of a secularism which purported to disclose universal moral facts by means of neutral reason. Oddly, does not CS’s critical realism cum natural theology land us in the same place? This confirms my suspicions about a strange collusion—or at least convergence—between natural law theory and secularism.9

3. Finally, with CS, I want to be a pluralist about the shape and tenor of Christian scholarship. Sometimes Christian scholarship will be covert; sometimes it will be overt; sometimes it will be cagey, at other times it will be unapologetically strident; some of us will be carrying out our work in the halls of the “mainstream” academy (state universities, research universities), others will be carrying out this work in institutions that are intentionally and “thickly” Christian. We all place our bets; we all answer different callings; there are many ways to be faithful.10

However, I think we should be cautious about drawing causal inferences as CS seems to do. The way he paints the picture, you might think my work is more overtly and explicitly Christian because I teach at a Christian college and because I publish with presses like Baker Academic and Eerdmans. But, of course, the causal influence could go exactly the other direction: because I have decided that I want to do scholarship that is thickly and explicitly Christian, I have also chosen to settle in institutions that welcome, encourage and sustain such work—and have published my work with presses that permit and encourage me to be explicit and unapologetic in my Christian starting point.11 Indeed, I can remember when I had to contemplate the direction I would take: while in graduate school, I could havec arved out a research agenda which, though still informed by and invested in a Christian starting point, was nonetheless more covert, cagey and minimalist. Such could still be a good, legitimate calling for a Christian scholar—and as CS rightly notes, even arguing for rather minimal claims in an exceedingly naturalist academy can be somewhat scandalous and bold. My concern is that if that is all we ever settle for under the rubric of Christian scholarship, what we will tend to get is merely “theistic” or “moralistic” scholarship. It seems to me that if there is going to be something like Christian scholarship it must at some point and somewhere be scholarship that really works from the scandalous specificity of distinctly Christian starting points—and not just in theology, since Christian faith has something to say about the created world, human culture, and all of the spheres of academic investigation.

It might even be the case that we do not have to choose. As George Marsden argued in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, if the university was really consistent in its pluralism, it would make room at the table for explicitly Christian starting points, just as it has made room for feminist, Marxist, and queer theory. Obviously such a level playing field has not yet arrived. However, we might be beginning to see signs of a shift, even in the social sciences. Consider, for example,the most recent issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly which is devoted to an interdisciplinary encounter between anthropologists and theologians.12 There we find, in a mainstream (historically Marxist) journal, anthropologists considering whether, how and why specifically theological claims might be germane to carrying out the work of the social sciences. Granted, this is a still a minority report, but it gives some sign that things might be changing.

I regularly point to Christian Smith as an exemplary Christian scholar—he is often cited in my work, and I regularly assign his books in my courses, precisely so students can begin to imitate such a model. If I have pressed him critically, it has been intended in the best spirit of Christian friendship and scholarly fraternity, as a robust way to be contending about what is good for the tradition of Christian scholarship—which is part and parcel of a tradition. I am grateful to have such teachers and conversation partners and hope our exchange goes some way to advancing the conversation. For the future, I am willing to spring for the nachos if he pays for the Guinesses.

Cite this article
James K.A. Smith, “Natural Law’s Secularism?—A Response to Christian Smith”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 211-215


  1. James K. A. Smith, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory: A Review Essay,”Christian Scholar’s Review 40:1 (2010): 77-92. Due to some comments later in C. Smith’s response, let me here note for the record that (a) I was assigned Smith and Kelsey to be reviewed in tandem and (b) was granted 5,000 words of space to cover two books comprising 3 volumes and totaling 2,040 pages. This will explain why I compare and contrast the two, as well as why I was not able to cover all aspects of WiaP?
  2. Things are bound to get a bit confusing here, but I will follow C. Smith’s convention andrefer to him as CS (to be distinguished, but by just a hair, from JS). I will try not to confusethings by also introducing an acronym for my book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, sincethen we would be talking about CS’s WiaP? and JS’s WAoP? Whew!
  3. Indeed, I have been something of an evangelist for CS’s work in a number of differentcontexts, including discussions in congregational studies as well as discussions about secu-larism and the social sciences coordinated by the Social Science Research Council. See, forexample, James K. A. Smith, “Secular Liturgies and the Prospect for a ‘Post-Secular ’ Sociol-ogy of Religion,” in The Post-Secular in Question, eds. Gorski, Kim, Torpey and VanAntwerpen(New York: SSRC/NYU Press, 2011).
  4. CS seems simply to equate antifoundationalism with “fallibilism” in epistemology—with a kind of epistemic humility about our (correspondence) claims. I think the latter is not necessarily antifoundationalism. Indeed, one could imagine a kind of fallibilist foundationalism. As I will suggest below, that might be more like what CS’s critical realism amounts to.
  5. See J. Smith, “(Re)Turn,” 85n.38.
  6. It is also debatable whether Thomas Aquinas worked with the sort of two-level, “grace-builds-on-nature” approach that CS advocates, where “nature” is taken to be intelligible without reference to Christological faith. For an internal debate on this issue, see D. StephenLong’s critique of Jean Porter ’s natural law proposals in his article, “The Way of Aquinas: ItsImportance for Moral Theology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 19 (2006): 323-338.
  7. Indeed, Smith might not realize that he is unwittingly wading into one of the most hotlycontested theological discussions in Catholic theology today, regarding the relationship be-tween “nature” and “grace”—particularly in the wake of la nouvelle théologie’s radical cri-tique of the received scholastic model of nature as a kind of autonomous, independent “level”of reality. (I think a number of recent evangelical converts to Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism—especially those who are intellectuals—have been drawn to this scholastic model at just the time that it is being called into question with Roman Catholic theology.)
  8. CS is right that I reject the latter: the epistemological claim. But please note that this doesnot entail rejecting the former: the ontological claim. Here I would take my position to besort of extending Alvin Plantinga’s critique of natural theology. See Plantinga, “The ReformedObjection to Natural Theology,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association15 (1980): 49-63. Again, I think this signals some internal tension in CS’s project: while hedraws on Reformed epistemology to underwrite his antifoundationalism, he later avails him-self of natural law for his critical realism. I do not think he can have it both ways.
  9. For further discussion, see James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 49-54.
  10. So nowhere do I say, as CS seems to take it, that “all worthwhile Christian scholarship needs to be driven by explicitly Christocentric confession.”
  11. The only point that I resent in CS’s response is the suggestion that Christian scholarshipalong the lines I suggest would be akin to a sort of CCM-ization of Christian scholarship. I think such a comment shows a real lack of understanding of the shape of this conversation.Plus, I have explicitly criticized such “correlationist” or “assimilationist” projects in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, 68-70.
  12. Global Christianity, Global Critique, an issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, eds. MatthewEngelke and Joel Robbins, 109 (2010).

James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.