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Paul Sullins raises interesting questions about my critical realist personalism. But his critique reflects some confusions. Let me answer his easier criticisms first. I indeed make no distinction between human soul and spirit, seeing no need for such a difference either theologically or psychologically. I also, in fact, do not theorize religion in the two lengthier books reviewed above (though I do have an entire chapter on religion in MBA and repeatedly attend to the importance of religion in SPAS). However, my next book (Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, Princeton University Press, 2017) advances a theory of religion from the perspective of critical realist personalism, so that “neglect” will soon be remedied. On the question of evil, Sullins confuses a theological account of the human condition before God and of the universal human potential for both good and evil (with which I have no quarrel) with my focused analysis of human failure to realize our natural telic ends broadly and the actualization of radical evil among certain people but not others (it is one thing to say that all humans are infected with the evil of sin, but quite another to explore why some people become Hitlers and Stalins and others Bonhoeffers and Solzhenitsyns). And, finally, yes, personalism is absolutely and explicitly a humanist theory, but not “exclusively” so, as I show below.

Is my critical realist personalism not a Christian or religious theory, as Sullins says? It depends on what that means. There are many ways for non-theological theoretical accounts of some part of reality to be “Christian.” Consider, for example, the distinction between (1) baseline compatibility, (2) constructive formation, and (3) maximal elaboration. The first approach employs Nicholas Wolterstorff’s idea of Christian faith as an “acceptance-governing principle” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, William B. Eerdmans, 1983) to adjudicate which theories in (social) science Christians can and cannot accept; Christian sensibilities help scholars to sniff out theoretical assumptions and claims that they discern to be inadequate if not false, and so worth criticizing. The goals here are to sort out theories that are compatible with Christian commitments from those that are not, and so to help know where to advance research and where to aim criticism. The second of the three approaches above, constructive formation, moves beyond issues of mere compatibility to allow Christian sensibilities to form constructive research programs and theories—not in the sense of “biasing” them, but of providing insightful leads, clues, hunches, and so forth (which Michael Polanyi and others have shown are crucial in science’s development; for an excellent illustration of this in anthropology, see Timothy Larsen, The Slain God, Oxford University Press, 2016). The third approach, maximal elaboration, would seek to explicate fully all of the Christian theological implications of a theory, to connect all the dots, fill in the entire picture, weaving science and theology integrally together in one theoretical work into one “worldview” whole.

At the very least, my critical realist personalism reflects a baseline compatibility with Christian faith. Even more, for those with the eyes to see it, my personalism reflects Christian influences in its constructive formation. Both of those are obvious to me and, I would think, any informed reader. But, as to the third approach, I am simply not interested in maximal elaboration. I do not believe it is necessary or helpful. In fact, the attempts at it that I have seen in sociology have been duds, in my view. So, if by a “Christian account” Sullins means maximal elaboration, then, no, my theory is not Christian, and happily not so. But to expect only that to count as Christian is too narrow and exacting. Oddly, for a Catholic, Sullins’ position seems to reflect the more “every square inch” mentality of, say, Abraham Kuyper than the traditionally Catholic approach to faith and reason. The latter I think is better reflected in, for example, my approach to explaining human dignity in WIAP:

As to theistic accounts, I find some of them persuasive. But I also hope for a coherent account of dignity that does not depend exclusively on theistic beliefs. My own reasons for believing in dignity are at rock bottom theistic. But the defense of human dignity today and in the future will require more than only believers in God to support the cause. I am interested in a defensible account of dignity that bridges across as many people of good will as possible, one that includes as many discussion partners as it is able who believe in and want to protect human dignity. I think in part that if a good theistic account of human dignity is valid, then we should expect the truth it explains on the human side of the divine-human relationship to show up and be discernible in lived human life. Human dignity, even if its ultimate source is in God, should disclose itself in various this-worldly experiences, signs, and evidences that even people who cannot believe in God may observe and about which they might rationally theorize. My intention is to offer a few hopefully useful ideas and arguments to contribute to these larger, shared, bridge-building observations, discernments, and reflections toward the articulation of a more adequate account of the grounds of human dignity than we have today. (452, italics added)

What in that, I ask, is closed or blind to transcendence?

More broadly, critical realism is the philosophy of science most open to spiritual realities, about which much as been written. Critical realism’s depth ontology and anti-empiricism argue that the most important and powerful entities in reality are actually invisible, not directly observable by human senses. Critical realism is resolutely anti-reductionist. Questions of self-transcendence, truth, goodness, and natural telic ends stand at the center of personalism. I cannot understand Sullins’ critique on this point. Simply because I do not spell out every possible theological connection and implication does not mean I have collapsed into a reductionistic naturalism. In fact, I have repeatedly defended the reasonableness of belief in God. For example, in MBA I spend many pages arguing against a purely naturalistic account for the origins of human religion, concluding that, “I am inclined to…maintain the parsimonious theistic explanation as my proposed theory” (117, but then I also go on, as in the quote above, to offer a more inclusive approach to broaden the conversations).

In short, while reading some aspects of my theoretical program clearly, I think Sullins has gotten my account wrong on his major points of criticism. Far from being the dead end for Christian scholars that he portrays, critical realist personalism offers an abundantly promising approach for those who wish to break out of the narrow confines of metaphysical naturalism, empiricism, materialism, positivism, anti-mentalism, and postmodern relativism into more fruitful avenues of research and teaching.

Cite this article
Christian Smith, “Response to Paul Sullins”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 161-164

Christian Smith

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