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Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology

David H. Kelsey
Published by John Knox Press in 2009

What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

Christian Smith
Published by University of Chicago Press in 2011

Rethinking the Western Understanding of the Self

Ulrich Steinvorth
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2009


“Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist.”1 So claimed Michel Foucault in his intellectual archaeology of modernity, The Order of Things. Indeed “man,”2 he continued,

is a quite recent creature, which the demiurge of knowledge fabricated with its own hands less than two hundred years ago: but he has grown old so quickly that it has been only too easy to imagine that he had been waiting for thousands of years in the darkness for that moment of illumination in which he would finally be known.3

“Man,” in this picture, is not only a new idea, a new creation, but also a fleeting one: his time is past. He has quickly grown old and is already fading away, like the grass. “Strangely enough,” Foucault mused, “man—the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates—is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things.” He is “only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge” who “will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”4

Foucault’s flippant requiem for “man” reflects a midcentury antihumanism in European thought which, in the wake of two World Wars in the heart of Europe, had become suspicious of the “anthropotheism” of humanism wherein “Man” replaced the God who had died.5 For these antihumanists, humanistic atheism had never really gotten over its theological tendencies; so the result of the death of God was the divinization of Man. But having witnessed the atrocities committed in the name of such anthropocentrism, midcentury theorists sought to displace humanism. Antihumanism, in a strange sense, was out to protect humanity.6 But the effect was to downplay or even diminish the role and agency of “the subject,” emphasizing the impersonal systems, forces, and structures that conditioned human behavior. Thus, structuralism can be seen as “the single most influential inheritor of this early antihumanism,” later influencing a more naturalistic understanding of the human species and pressing a certain “biologization” of human action as understood in the social sciences.7

While I do not mean to overestimate the influence of European thought on the social sciences, we find ourselves nonetheless in an academic climate that reflects a similar antihumanism. Various trends in social scientific theory reflect, in quite different ways, a similar antianthropocentrism—whether in the growing influence of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology or more “theory-driven” accounts of social construction and systems theory. In both cases, the agency of human persons is diminished, downplayed, and often derided as downright fiction. The “wrinkle in our knowledge” that was “man” seems to have disappeared with our new knowledge.

But not quite. The works under consideration in this review essay can be taken as indications of a (re)turn to the person in contemporary theory, an anti-antihumanism of sorts. They reflect a revival of philosophical anthropology and a growing consideration of what we might have described, in our pre-Hegelian naïveté, as “human nature.” But for the most part, this is not a return to the invented “man” of Foucault’s archaeology, nor to the “subject” of modern philosophy. In fact, most of these works are concerned with protesting the reductionism that yielded such stunted, monolithic creatures.

The exception is the book by Ulrich Steinvorth which is remarkable for its trenchant commitment to just the sort of reductionistic subject the others seek to criticize. Indeed, Rethinking the Western Understanding of the Self is a re-thinking only in the sense that it is a restatement and repetition of what Steinvorth describes as “Cartesian modernity,” which he hails as that which “best preserves the values of the West” (5) and offers a renewed hope in “progress,” that by word of pre-World War optimism (188). Like the work of his favorite dialogue partners, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, and Bernard Lewis, Steinvorth extols the free, rational, individualist Cartesian self as that alone which can resist the bogeyman lurking in the shadows of this book: Islam. In a way that still seems largely foreign to North American academia, the “threat” of Islam is generating retrenched reactions from European scholars who are remythologizing the rationalism of the Enlightenment as a bulwark against “religious fundamentalism” (187), which is generally just code for Islam.8 What we get from Steinvorth is not a turn to the person but rather the last gasp of the modern subject. I find nothing to be gained from his project.

But the works by David Kelsey and Christian Smith are a marked contrast in this regard: they are projects that deserve wide, deep consideration from Christian scholars across a range of disciplines. While my consideration here will be concerned particularly with the implications of the “turn to the person” for the social sciences, there are also important themes here for the humanities and natural sciences. In what follows, I will begin with a consideration of Smith’s theoretical manifesto in What Is a Person?, addressing the central critique of reductionism in the social sciences. Noting the limits, or perhaps timidity, of Smith’s thesis, I will then turn to Kelsey’s stunning, two-volume masterpiece, Eccentric Existence.

Blunting Occam’s Razor: The Critique of Reductionism

The Principle of Sufficient Complexity

If you are a Christian scholar working in the social sciences, Christian Smith’s 2003 book Moral, Believing Animals is probably the most important book you have not read.9 Many have been familiar with Smith’s work as a sociologist of religion, including his earlier work on evangelicalism10 as well as his most recent work on youth spirituality.11 But unlike many sociologists of religion, Smith is also deeply interested in theoretical issues in the philosophy of social science.12 In particular, as Moral, Believing Animals made clear, Smith is particularly critical of the lack of theoretical reflexivity in the social sciences—which, he argues, is detrimental to the social scientific task of understanding and explaining human behavior and social life. There are two intertwined issues here: on the one hand, the lack of philosophical reflection in mainstream of North American social science only serves to pad the myth that social scientific description is neutral, objective, and unbiased, just giving us “the facts” on the basis of observation. On the other hand, this myth of neutrality, sustained by a lack of theoretical reflection, serves to hide the actual (and questionable) theoretical assumptions that inform social scientific observation and analysis. As long as social scientists do not ask about the normative assumptions behind their work, they can continue to pretend they do not have any.

For a decade now, Smith has called into question both sides of this problem. On the one hand, he roundly criticizes the myths of neutrality and objectivity. As he put it in Moral, Believing Animals, all of us (including social scientists) are believers:

We moderns stake our lives, our convictions, our politics, our associations on governing beliefs that no available independent or objective reason can conclusively verify. In the end, we simply believe them—as assumptions and commitments embedded in larger systems of beliefs and practice that make each of the particular beliefs seem perfectly valid.13

And if that is true, then “evidence” and observation and data cannot adjudicate between governing beliefs: “The ability of data to prove or disprove a theory…is problematic when the data themselves are always and profoundly theory-laden. It is our assumptions and beliefs that tell us what is relevant data and not, under what conditions and why.”14 So the ruse of secular objectivity does not stand up. He puts this starkly: “Strong foundationalism is dead. Its quest has come up empty-handed. The sword remains fast in the stone without a champion to remove it. There is no secular, universal, indubitable foundation of knowledge available to us as humans.”15 What we need to do, then, is not pretend we do not have pre-theoretical assumptions and presuppositions, but rather own up to them, put them on the table, and then critique and evaluate them vis-à-vis the phenomena we encounter (in this case, human social life and behavior). The result will be an “antifoundationalist” social science.16

It is at this point that the second aspect of Smith’s project comes to the fore: when we disclose and evaluate the tacit, functional theoretical assumptions that inform much of contemporary social science, we will find that they do not do justice to the complexity of human persons, social life, and institutions. If our social scientific paradigms assume that humans are only “rational,” egoistic choice machines, then we will never understand human social life adequately because we will have reduced human persons to less than they are. For instance,

we will never really understand human social life if we do not pay close attention to the content and function of the beliefs that humans together hold and build their lives on. Certain accounts of the human animal that do not accord importance to their ultimate condition as believers, but instead posit some universal, primordial drive or motivation, claim that we can afford to disregard human beliefs and their cultural derivatives…What all of these theories badly miss, however, is the variable, world-open, creative, trusting, and believing condition at the core of human animals that generates a variety of socially constructed realities in diverse human communities.17

On this point, What Is a Person? is an expansion of and a sequel to Moral, Believing Animals. In its very opening, Smith rehearses this twofold critique: “There is no social science analysis that does not at least implicitly assume some model of the human to help underwrite its explanation. Therefore, the better we understand the human, the better we should explain the social.”18 What is at issue, then, is the shape of that model: “While many of our social science theories are interesting and do illuminate particular dimensions of human social life, I am not convinced that we as people actually find ourselves well represented by them.”19

At issue here is reductionism, the besetting sin of regnant paradigms in social science analysis and one of the primary targets of Smith’s critique. The rich complexity of human persons and social institutions blunt the incision of Occam’s razor effectively (and rightly), Smith argues.20

If it turns out that human and social reality is quite complicated, as in fact it does, then Occam’s razor does not authorize us to hack away toward oversimplification for the sake of parsimony. What critical realism suggests, instead, is that the principle of parsimony must be balanced by the principle of “sufficient complexity.”21

So Smith is out to make things more difficult, to complicate matters when it comes to our theoretical assumptions about human person and institutions, for without sufficient complexity, the argument goes, we will not really understand human social life, but only some reduced slice of it.

The remainder of the book aims to sketch a sufficiently complex understanding of human persons and social structures in contrast to the overly reductionistic models assumed by social constructivism (ch. 3), network structuralism (ch. 4), and variables sociology (ch. 5). To do so, in chapter 1, Smith first makes the case for“ emergence” as a model for articulating a basically naturalist account of why human persons are sufficiently complex such that their actions, behavior, and social life cannot be reduced to “lower” or less complex causes (for example, the physical or the biological). While humans are essentially material, embodied creatures, there are nonetheless “real, distinct, interrelated causal capacities” that are “emergent from the human body, particularly from the human brain,” which constitute “the ability to bring about changes in material or mental phenomena.”22 Such causal capacities cannot be explained sufficiently by their material substratum. Therefore any attempt to reduce them to a physicalist account will fail to appreciate their emergent complexity. Furthermore, any account that is inattentive to the range of these capacities will also be insufficiently complex. So Smith runs through a laundry list of 30 such capacities (43-54) that finally yields his sufficiently complex definition of a human person:

By person I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who—as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions—exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the non personal world.23

Put that in your rational choice theory and smoke it! Or try generating a simplistic survey instrument that will do justice to the multiple interests and capacities of such complex human persons. If this is what human persons are, then our social scientific instruments need to be calibrated sufficiently for such complexity.

Smith emphasizes especially the final layer of complexity in this picture: the normative, teleological dimension of human personhood. Echoing his argument in Moral, Believing Animals,24 Smith argues that we will not understand human social life adequately if we fail to appreciate that human persons are inescapably “moral,” governed by normative concerns about “the good.” Often the social scientific myth of neutrality has been attended by a myth of moral neutrality, thereby bracketing morality. Not only was social scientific analysis taken (mistakenly) to be morally neutral, the assumed model of the human person also could not recognize human persons as moral animals acting for moral reasons. That, argues Smith, is one of the most egregious aspects of reductionism. Thus, his definition of the person emphasizes the exercise of capacities “in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”25 If our social scientific analysis does not honor the fact that human persons act for normative reasons and with moral interests, then we will fail to understand human social life adequately.

And that, as it turns out, is exactly the failure of the dominant, reductionistic paradigms considered in chapters 3-5. For example, network structuralism, while rightly rejecting radical individualism, loses the agency of the person in a web of impersonal systems (270). While network structuralists are right to emphasize the significance of intersubjective systems and networks, what is needed is further attention to “the nature of the nodes assumed by network structuralist accounts”(272). On this score, network structuralism does not offer sufficient resistance to reductionism. In a similar fashion, Smith points out the inadequacies of variables of sociology, calling for social science “to make not variables but persons the causal agents of the social world” (314).26 If social scientific research assumed a sufficiently complex understanding of the person (for example, as defined by Smith), the result would be a better, more fine-grained understanding of human social life.27

I think Smith’s principle of sufficient complexity is just right and is a welcome antidote to the various reductionisms that have implicitly dominated social scientific research over the past generation. This brief summary has not begun to do justice to his analyses and arguments, and I commend a careful reading of the book both to those working in the social sciences, as well as scholars in the humanities, especially theology, philosophy, and religious studies. My only criticism is that, with respect to an understanding of human action, Smith’s account is still too far on the side of parsimony and lacks sufficient complexity. While he is right to emphasize the emergent agency of human persons, contra the varieties of determinism that attend physicalism and evolutionary psychology, his account tends to reduce the options to a dichotomous either/or. The result is actually a rather narrow understanding of agency as “the human capacity to employ intention, deliberation, and choice to make decisions and to impose them on the surrounding world.”28 Granted, this is certainly a contrast with his target: the reduction of human action to “unreflective, deterministic, causal processes involved in various natural forces.”29 But to battle determinism, Smith offers only a narrow, cognitivist account of human action which tends to reduce action to cognitive deliberation. As a result of this insufficiently complex account, Smith falls into what Charles Taylor describes as an “intellectualist” model of the human person that construes the agent reductively as a processor of “representations.”30 Instead Taylor, following Pierre Bourdieu, articulates a model of agency which honors a kind of “know-how” that is not reducible to deliberation. In this respect, Taylor also continues the work of Merleau-Ponty who, like Smith, also wanted to resist the reduction of human action to mere instinct. But unlike Smith, Maurice Merleau-Ponty did not simply assert the importance of intellect; rather, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of action attends carefully to a mode of pre-intellectual, embodiment intentionality that cannot be reduced to deliberation.31 In other words, Merleau-Ponty’s account is more sufficiently complex. This remains an area for further reflection.

Critical Realism, the Specter of Relativism, and Christian Scholarship

I have not adequately broached another significant thread in What Is a Person?, namely Smith’s concern to articulate “critical realism” as the best theoretical frame-work for social scientific analysis. I cannot engage this line of his argument in detail in this context, but I do want to note what is at stake in this aspect of his argument. He gives us a clue in an important footnote early in the book: “Another way to understand the purpose of [What Is a Person?],” he suggests, “is as a reply to a problem that I posed for myself in…Moral, Believing Animals.”32 What is that problem? The problem of relativism.33 As we have already noted above, Smith’s “antifoundationalist” account in Moral, Believing Animals entails that there is no evidentialist foundation for our assumptions about human nature: “All our knowledge,” as he sums it up, “is situated within particularistic knowledge systems that are ultimately based on beliefs and assumptions that are nonuniversal and incapable of being independently and objectively verified.”34 So,

normally the best anyone can do, at least in the short and medium run, is to own up to one’s starting-point suppositions, to recognize them as such, and to work out with integrity their implications. Whether or not this must lead us to a relativist, skeptical, or nihilist position that despairs of ever adjudicating between alternative beliefs and world views is a question I take up at the end of the next chapter.35

The new book then points us to that later passage; there Smith asks the looming question: “Does this mean we must all become relativists, perhaps even tolerant nihilists?”36 While he emphasizes that no one lives as a functional relativist, he concedes that this “does not necessarily mean that our actual situation is not a relativistic one in which any discussion between and evaluations of different narratives is finally impossible.”37 Does this mean we should despair of trying to offer “reasonable accounts for why one life-constituting story may be preferable to another?” “I think not,” was Smith’s reply in 2003, though he did not marshal sufficient resources to ward off the specter of relativism. Thus in Moral, Believing Animals, he only tipped his hat to “critical realism” as holding promise for warding off relativism. What Is a Person? is his attempt to finally make this case, and thus definitively banish the specter of relativism from his nonetheless nonfoundationalist account.38

This explains a crucial move in the last part of the new book (which, I think, represents a step backward from a more radical thesis harbored in the belly of Moral, Believing Animals). As we noted above, Smith argues that humans are inescapably normative, moral animals whose social lives and institutions are motivated by normative concerns, not just egoistic self-interest. If, then, humans are normative animals, and social institutions are moral institutions, then should not the human and social sciences admit to normativity? Here Smith calls into question a long-cherished assumption of the social sciences: the fact-value distinction. So, “[c]an social science really legitimately employ such normatively loaded terms as the moral good, flourishing, and dignity?”39 To make the case for this, Smith first levels the playing the field:

For those who may continue to stumble over any normative language in social science theory[…] I point out first that the previous chapters have already employed numerous terms laden with normative associations to theorize personal existence: creativity, responsibility, agency ,morality, reflexivity, and so on. Which of us does not regard “the empowered agent of responsible, creative actions engaging in a reflexive self-understanding and communicative interactions toward intersubjective understanding” as a normatively good thing?

Then, replaying a classic move from the Reformed epistemology playbook, having leveled the playing field, he turns the tables:

If we are willing to accept those normative terms, why should we not be willing to consider others, like goodness and dignity? No social science theory, no matter how hard it tries to be objective and neutral, can ultimately avoid using concepts and vocabularies that are normatively colored or loaded.40

So the question is not whether social science will be normative, but how; that is, the question is which norms should guide social science. This brings us back to the question posed in Moral, Believing Animals already: how do we adjudicate and choose between competing accounts of the good?

Smith’s commitment to realism—albeit a more humble, “critical” realism—is crucial for answering this question because of the kind of project in which he is engaged. What he thinks critical realism gives him is a fallibilist but non-sectarian account of what is “really” good—the “facts of the matter” with respect to the good. Critical realism gives him the license to specify the good and telos of human persons and human social life in a way that is purportedly available to any who will address themselves to “reality.” If we “describe reality as truthfully as possible,” then we will be able “to see whether that reality entails facts that give rise to an understanding of what is good. If it does so [and Smith thinks it does], then that understanding provides a basic normative orientation with which we can develop a more substantive moral vision for human life. All of this, I believe, can be done.”41 Indeed, that is the project of the remainder of the book.

But whose “we?” Who is “we?” Whither Smith’s nonfoundationalism? What “description” of reality is universally going to disclose the “fact” of the good? I found Smith’s brief for critical realism unconvincing; and not nearly as convincing as his case for nonfoundationalism in Moral, Believing Animals. Instead, his appeal to critical realism seems to serve simply as a calling card to indicate to his colleagues that, though he is a nonfoundationalist, he is not a relativist.42

But there is another aspect of interest in the ballpark here, especially for Christian scholars. Smith thinks that critical realism warrants his claims about “the way things are” with respect to the good for human persons. But this critical realism never seems to yield any theocentric insights about human persons. Yet I would think that Smith believes that “the good” for human flourishing is linked inextricably to the Creator of human creatures; even more specifically, I would think that Smith believes that the specification of the good for human social life is not only theistic, but christological: that the telos of human personhood is bound up with person of Christ. Is this not an aspect of “reality?” Is not that theological reality part of the state of affairs that constitutes “reality?” Then why does critical realism not yield any disclosure of this moral “fact?”43 Smith’s critical realism turns out to be a sort of nontheistic natural theology that will not admit any of the specifics of the “reality” of human flourishing vis-à-vis the reconciled mode of human social life disclosed in Christ—even if Smith might believe that this constitutes part of what is normatively good for human persons. As such, it seems to me that Smith’s critical realism is insufficiently complex insofar as, a priori, it cannot (or will not) recognize aspects of human social “reality.”

Embracing the Scandal: A Theocentric Account of the Human Person

I understand Smith’s reticence in part: a normative account of human persons and social institutions that took seriously specifically Christian claims about human flourishing would seem to forfeit the wide purchase Smith seeks for his account. That is, it would seem to reduce to a sectarian account and thus not be ofinterest to the wider social scientific academy.44 But what if it is true? Smith admonishes: “The right goal is to know as well as possible what is true about reality.”45 Then for a Christian who believes it is true that God reconciles the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19), and that to be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), is this not part of what we know about reality? And therefore should it not be germane to understanding “as well as possible” the nature of human personhood and human flourishing?

Too much Christian scholarship, I think, shrinks from the scandal of this implication. For a generation we have thought that an adequate response to the so-called scandal of (the lack of) evangelical scholarship has been to generate merely “theistic” scholarship. Allergic to giving any impression of sectarianism—or worse, “fundamentalism”—we tend to think that settling for the minimalist claims of “natural law” or theism will avoid other scandals.46 And yet it is precisely Smith’s principle of sufficient complexity that encourages us to be more scandalous: for if we “ought to be willing to theorize with enough complexity to capture the important features of the real world we are trying to understand,”47 and if God’s creation of the world and the Son’s incarnation as human are “important features” of our world, then our theories need to be sufficiently complex to take into account these aspects of our reality.

This licenses, I think, a thicker, more robustly Christian account of the nature of human personhood and social life, not only for theology but for the social sciences as well. And to develop that, Christian social scientists—and Christian scholars across the disciplines—could do no better than to begin with David Kelsey’s magnum opus, Eccentric Existence. It is a stunning work of profound wisdom, theoretical boldness, and architectonic beauty, hearkening back to the best of magisterial German “systematics”48 of the twentieth century (complete with long, technical sections in a smaller font)—though Kelsey’s approach is marked as well by a deep engagement with Scripture rather than arid abstractions. The architectonic is governed by Trinitarian faith and the Scriptural narrative, not abstract philosophical systems. As such, it resonates with recent developments in “the theological interpretation of Scripture”49 (developments not unrelated to some of Kelsey’s own earlier work50). Indeed, once I began to appreciate the scope and craft of the book, I read with nothing short of critical awe. It is required reading for anyone working in theology.51 But it deserves a much wider readership than that. As I have lived with the book over the past month, I have imagined a generation of Christian scholars, looking to deepen and “thicken” their understanding of Christian faith and human personhood, devoting themselves to absorbing this book. I can imagine a scholar reading then re-reading Eccentric Existence in order to mine its wisdom; but I also dream of interdisciplinary groups of Christian scholars from across the disciplines (especially in the social sciences) spending a few years meeting for lunch-time discussions, working together to absorb the theological insights and wisdom it contains.52 Such an investment would unquestionably deepen and mature the level of discourse in Christian scholarship. Eccentric Existence is a deep, deep well from which we could drink for a very long time.

Why this effusive praise? Why load this sort of interdisciplinary hope onto a theology book? Because Kelsey is unapologetic precisely where Smith is timid. In Kelsey’s account, if human beings are created, called, and reconciled by the Triune God, then that “fact” of our reality is an essential and irreducible feature of human personhood, and any account of the human person that parsimoniously excises this relation (or these relations53) will be guilty of insufficient complexity. Any anthropology or theory of human personhood operates, either explicitly or tacitly, against background beliefs about our “proximate” contexts (“the physical and social worlds in which we live”) as well as background beliefs about “ultimate” context (accounts of what is most fundamental about who we are).54 So in Kelsey’s account, what Christian Smith’s methodology still brackets is our “ultimate” context; Smith settles for the “proximate” context and seems to think that we can understand human persons in their proximate context without reference to their ultimate context. It is this supposition that Kelsey rejects roundly, which is precisely why he points out the limits of social scientific understandings of the human person generally on offer (42-43, 160).

So in contrast to Smith, who wants to settle for a natural, nontheistic account of human personhood (even if one amenable to religion), Kelsey argues that if Christian faith is true, then “the claims about human beings that are nonnegotiable for Christian faith are claims about how God relates to human beings” (8). The “root question” for a Christian anthropology, then, is: “What does a specifically Christian conviction that God actively relates to us imply about what and who we are and how we are to be” (159)?

But what are the implications of this? Would not this just yield a kind of spiritual addendum to what we can know otherwise? “Other than making a pious gesture (“Just remember that this is all from God, and be grateful!”), what does a Christian theology of creation have to add concerning this context into which we are born and its implications for what it means to be human beings” (160)? Kelsey’s answer is critical for Christian scholars in the social sciences: this does not just affect our understanding of our ultimate context; it also yields a Christian understanding of our proximate context (161)—which he expounds by drawing on the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (160-175).55

But for Kelsey, not even a “theistic” account is enough. While he describes his model as a “theocentric”56 account, it is for that reason specifically and unapologetically Christian precisely because the God (the “theos”) “with whom we have to do” is the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ (chapter 2A). A consideration of human persons fits within a wider theological context of understanding how God relates to all-that-is-not-God, but the God who relates to his creation is the “perichoretically triune God”:

The One with whom human persons ultimately have to do is just this life constituted by the communion-in-community of the three perichoretic hypostases freely and in love giving and receiving Godself eternally. This is the One with whom we have to do (120).

There are two significant aspects of his argument here: first, Kelsey calls into question the functional deisms and monotheisms that tend to dominate Christian scholarship which settles for merely “theistic” claims; but second, Kelsey also calls into question the simplistic appeals in Christian scholarship to the “social Trinity” merely to conclude that “humans are relational.” An engagement with the rigors of Kelsey’s work will get us beyond such trite truisms.

In fact, Kelsey’s anthropology will bring us face to face with what is perhaps still most scandalous for Christian scholarship: Jesus. Having already emphasized that human persons can only be properly and well understood in relation to the triune God who creates, calls, and reconciles them, Kelsey emphasizes that “an understanding of Jesus Christ is decisively normative (‘christocentric’) for knowledge of God as triune” (65). “God’s relating to creatures to consummate them and God’s relating to creatures to reconcile them” are “concretely enacted in the self-same story about Jesus” (122). This speaks especially to questions about normativity raised rightly by Smith. “By the enlivening Spirit,” Kelsey argues, “God’s triune life engages human creatures in ways that are wise about what makes for human flourishing, given what we are through God’s creativity” (127). Indeed, Kelsey frames this in a way that resonates deeply with Smith’s emphasis on teleology. What are humans for? How do we know what such flourishing looks like? What are the norms and criteria? Kelsey’s answer is explicit and unapologetic:

[I]n any account of the anthropological implications of God’s drawing humankind to eschatological consummation, characterization of that consummation must be ruled by accounts of the life the Son has with the Father in the power of the Spirit whereby the Son reconciles human creatures to God. As narrated, the concrete way in which God relates to draw creatures to eschatological consummation simply is the person of Jesus—that is, Jesus in his unsubstitutable personal identity as is rendered by stories, not simply of his resurrection and glory, but of his ministry, suffering, and death. As narrated in the New Testament, that concrete way in which God goes about drawing creation to eschatological consummation is nothing less than the way of the cross (127).

If that is true—if this specifies and articulates “the true ends of personhood”57—then this is an irreducible feature of human persons, and any social theory that would ignore this would be insufficiently complex. Should we worry that such knowledge is a little too specific (and perhaps a little embarrassing vis-à-vis the academy whose accolades we are looking for)? Might that be our problem? Smith’s own antifoundationalist project has given us the license to unapologetically articulate the norms that stems from our background beliefs. Kelsey presses us to be unapologetically specific about the specificity of those norms. Ultimately, the “oughts” which specify the norms for human flourishing are those enacted in the life of Jesus. As Kelsey finally summarizes, “canonical narrative identity descriptions of Jesus as imager of God precisely in his humanity give him the status of ‘grammatical paradigm’ of human being” (1009). If, as Smith presses us, the social sciences need to own up to the implicit standards of normativity assumed in social scientific theory, then should not Christian social theorists own up to the scandalous specificity of those norms as embodied in Jesus? For as Kelsey concludes,

as the paradigmatic human being, Jesus’ enactments of appropriate responses to God’s way of relating in and through what Jesus does and undergoes to draw all that is not God to eschatological consummation are paradigmatic and exemplary of the existential how’s in which all human beings flourish as the images of the image of God as they enact their own appropriates responses to God relating to them in eschatological blessing. (1028)

Can we pretend otherwise? For example: “Given that Jesus, as the image of God, is the prototypical human creature, all other living human bodies may be said to flourish as images of the image of God insofar as the bodied acts that constitute their existential hows are bodily enactments of practices of hope” (1029), as well as practices of love (1032). Jesus is the embodiment of norms of human flourishing, not just for religious humans, nor just for Christians, but for human persons per se.

Taking this degree of specificity seriously, and articulating the norms of human flourishing in relation to the triune God revealed in Jesus unapologetically, does not mean we need to retreat to scholarly ghettoes or forfeit participating in wider circles of discourse. But neither does it mean that we need to translate and reduce these terms to something more “natural.” Rather, if Smith’s antifoundationalist account of research is correct, we should be able to make such proposals to a wider academic community and subject them to testing, as it were, in the arena of experience.58 So there is nothing that precludes what might look like “sectarian” claims from “going public.” In fact, this is also the spirit in which Kelsey describes his own project: “I consider this entire project in theological anthropology to be in the mode of making theological proposals so that it repeatedly has the form: Here is an important theological question; try looking at it this way”(9). That, it seems to me, could also be the mode of unapologetically Christian scholars participating in the wider public of the academy. It would be the wager of Christian scholarship about human persons to begin from what we know in Jesus to float proposals that we are betting (in Pascalian faith!) will be illuminating and life-giving: “Try looking at it this way.” Such would be Christian scholarship in the mode of “Come and see.”

Cite this article
James K.A. Smith, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:1 , 77-92


  1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994 [1966]), 308.
  2. I am framing this with the gender-specific term “man” in this Introduction only to echo the historical epoch under consideration. Below we will shift to a proper emphasis on “the human person.”
  3. Foucault, The Order of Things, 308.
  4. Ibid., xxiii.
  5. This story is told brilliantly by Stefanos Geroulanos in An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  6. See, for example, Geroulanos’s discussion of Emmanuel Levinas in Ibid., 194-205.
  7. Ibid., 307-311
  8. Steinvorth also criticizes Pope John Paul II’s account of the relation between faith and reason (in Fides et ratio) as an “abandonment” of reason akin to Islamism. In short, for Steinvorth, any religion is a fundamentalism (190-195). In this respect, Steinvorth reads like a footnoted version of the simplistic rants of the new atheists.
  9. Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  10. Christian Smith, et. al., American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  11. Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  12. It is significant that Smith has such a large body of social scientific analysis in his corpus; there can be no question that he is a practicing sociologist. In other words, he is not a philosopher of social science taking pot shots from the lofty abstraction of “theory.” He is a reflective practitioner who demonstrates that theory matters. In this respect, I think there is an article waiting to be written that would consider just how (whether?) Smith’s theoretical convi-tions inform and are illustrated by, say, his study of youth spirituality.
  13. Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, 51-52.
  14. Ibid., 52.
  15. Ibid., 46. It is of note on this point Smith cites Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty. I will return to this below.
  16. Smith, What Is a Person?, 21.
  17. Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, 58.
  18. Smith, What Is a Person?, 2.
  19. Ibid.
  20. For a humorous depiction of academics’ commitment to Occam’s razor, see Richard Russo’s satirical skewering of academic life in Straight Man (New York: Vintage, 1998), 28.
  21. Ibid., 12. Here Smith hooks the principle of sufficient complexity to “critical realism,” a central aspect of the book (more below). I would note, however, that critical realism is not anecessary condition for affirming the principle of sufficient complexity. Indeed, a pragmatist emphasis on “holism” would yield the same appreciation for complexity.
  22. Ibid., 42.
  23. Ibid., 61.
  24. See especially Moral, Believing Animals, 10-20.
  25. Smith, What Is a Person?, 74-75, emphases added.
  26. I found his critique of social constructivism (197-198) less persuasive, I think precisely because his own account (perhaps even more so in Moral, Believing Animals) is so close to this school of thought. More on this below.
  27. Though Smith does not harbor any hopes for a “complete” understanding of human persons or social life: as he points out up front, human persons are “not only complicated but also in many ways ultimately mysterious” (What Is a Person?, 20). This resonates with Kelsey’s conclusion that human persons are “finite living mysteries” (Eccentric Existence, 1027).
  28. Smith, What Is a Person?, 69-70.
  29. Ibid., 70.
  30. See Charles Taylor, “To Follow a Rule…,” in Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, eds. Craig Calhoun, Edward LiPuma and Moishe Postone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 45-60,esp. 45-49. In this essay, Taylor is criticizing reductionism in the social sciences; what interests us here is the extent to which Smith’s supposedly antireductionist account of the human person (particularly human agency) would still fall prey to this criticism.
  31. See especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (Routledge, 2002), 142-162. For commentary, see Shaun Gallagher & Dan Zahavi, The Phenomenological Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science (London:Routledge, 2008), 153-169. At one point, Smith concedes that “we should not conceive of centers in strictly rationalist, Cartesian terms; personal centers of the sort I mean can and do also involve dimensions that operate below consciousness awareness” (What Is a Person?, 79, n.79); however, nowhere does this impinge on his account of agency.
  32. What Is a Person?, 6, n. 11.
  33. While I cannot deal adequately with these issues in this space, I would note that, in addition to accepting problematic terms of debate (such as “antirealism”), I think Smith mistakenly conflates positions which are separable. Because Smith is contesting both reductionism and relativism (which he seems to lump together with “postmodernism,” antirealism, and social constructivism), he tends to treat the two as intertwined—as if, for example, antirealism entails reductionism. As a result, he seems to think defending “critical realism” provides an answer to all of these problems. Thus he claims that we must reject the “package” of “antirealism, positivism, empiricism, reductionism, constructionism, and pragmatism” (270). In addition to this being a very idiosyncratic “package” that I cannot imagine anyone actually holding together, I am generally skeptical about these constituting a package at all. I suspect that Smith would take my own position on these matters to be “antirealist,” perhaps even “relativist,” precisely because I learn towards pragmatism. But it is my pragmatism that would generate my own critique of reductionism. So I am not at all convinced that securing any form of “realism” is necessary in order to underwrite antireductionism. I hope to address these issues in much more detail in Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Taking Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom to Church, The Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Grand Rapids,MI: Baker Academic, forthcoming).
  34. Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, 55.
  35. Ibid., 52, emphases added.
  36. Ibid., 88.
  37. Ibid., 89.
  38. What Is a Person?, 6-7, n. 11. I think Smith fails to appreciate an internal tension in his project: on the one hand, he wants to marshal critical realism to ward off relativism; on the other hand, he wants to enlist Charles Taylor’s “phenomenological epistemology.” However, Taylor ’s epistemology would call into question the very debate to which critical realism claims to be the answer or “third way” (92), namely the representationalist paradigm of knowledge that construes knowledge as a problem of connection inside and outside. For a lucid critique of this paradigm, and thus a displacement of the entire realist/antirealist/critical realist debate, see Charles Taylor, “Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture,”in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, eds. Taylor Carman and Mark B. N. Hansen(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 26-49 and idem., “Overcoming Epistemology” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 1-19.
  39. Ibid., 393, emphases original.
  40. Ibid., 394.
  41. 1Ibid., 399, emphasis added.
  42. Again, I do not think we need to be afraid of being relativists; nihilism, yes, but not relativism when properly understood.
  43. One can see Smith’s pointed allergy to such theistic claims in his discussion of human dignity. Noting theistic accounts of human dignity (such as that sketched by Nicholas Wolterstorff in Justice: Rights and Wrongs), Smith says: “As to theistic accounts, I find some of them persuasive. But I hope also for a coherent account of dignity that does not depend exclusively on theistic beliefs” (What Is a Person?, 452)—despite confessing, “My own reasons for believing in dignity are at rock bottom theistic.” This is an odd sort of theoretical gymnastics. Why “hope for” a nontheistic account? Smith’s rationale is, I think, unwarranted. He states simply: “I think that if a good theistic account of human dignity is valid, 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” (Ibid.) But whence that epistemological assumption?Is this not a sort of return to Occam’s razor?
  44. While ultimately I would want to reject the charged nature of the term “sectarian,” I think there is a false dichotomy at work in this assumption as it stands. If we wanted to grant the term “sectarian,” I would argue that all of our accounts are “sectarian” in a sense; it is just that some pretend not to be. But I would also argue that claims that are epistemically sectarian are not necessarily ontologically sectarian. That is, while I might make claims about the nature of human flourishing which are warranted by and from within the Christian story, I am making the claim about humans in general, and not just, say, “Christians.”
  45. Smith, What Is a Person?, 395.
  46. Or perhaps we could say we are only willing to be scandalous to a degree: granted, in an environment of naturalist orthodoxies, theistic claims will be scandalous to a degree.
  47. Smith, What Is a Person?, 12
  48. Though, precisely because of the irreducible complexity and mystery of human persons, Kelsey emphasizes that a theological anthropology has to be “systematically unsystematic”(45).
  49. For the most helpful introduction to date, see J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,2010).
  50. David Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
  51. The six chapters of the Introduction (!) constitute a careful treatise on theological methoda nd might be taken as the most mature statement of “the Yale school.”
  52. If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. Generally they are pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for non theologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God”(1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.
  53. While I cannot do justice to Kelsey’s argument on this point, his project emphasizes that God has multiple ways of relating to human persons which are intertwined but also irreducible: God relates to human persons as Creator and in creational blessing (Part One); God is “between” human persons in the person of the Spirit, calling them to eschatological consummation and blessing (Part Two); and God is “among” human persons in the person of the Son, reconciling them to the Triune God and to one another (Part Three). Much, much more needs to be said about this, but I think Kelsey’s threefold account would be helpful in countering a kind of “creation-monism” that has become the status quo in Christian scholarship.
  54. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 4. He goes on to note that “those who take our proximate physical and social contexts to be the only contexts we have do not lack a view of our ultimate context. Their understandings of our proximate context simply are their understanding ofour ultimate context” (5). Thus one might say that for the naturalist, our proximate context is the only source for generating an account of our ultimate context.
  55. Thus, again, Kelsey would call into question Smith’s assumption (What Is a Person?, 452) that we can understand “the human side” of this equation “naturally,” as it were.
  56. Kelsey notes that “anthropology” was not its own theological locus in premodern Christian theology; rather, “anthropological proposals were made as answers to questions that were raised by proposals made, in the first instance, about God” (28). Thus the “internal logic” of theological anthropologies was “theocentric,” and “such theocentricity is a major desideratumin theological anthropology” (29). Kelsey’s own project is organized by just such theocentric concerns, culminating in his central picture of human persons as “ex-centered” whereby “God’s relating is the very condition of their having any creaturely integrity at all” (282).
  57. Smith, What Is a Person?, 401.
  58. See What Is a Person?, 106ff.

James K.A. Smith

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