James KA Smith’s work is really wonderful in broad strokes and the basic thesis is a powerful one. There are many materially worthwhile lessons and a suitable respect for the goodness of creation in his ‘romantic Theology’.
Taking his cue predominantly from Fr Schmemann and Charles Taylor, he rejects the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ distinction, showing perceptively that we are indeed what we love.
Some of the examples- consumer habits, the university, etc are excellent. However, it all seems too one-sided in particulars or to be operating on a two-poled spectrum rather than taking a more nuanced Ecclesiastes, Wisdom approach; seeing fragments, as David Tracy talks about- both dark and light.
Smith rightly realises that everything is meant to be informed by the churches liturgy and his Theology of Creation- the Eucharist as the penultimate supper– is magnificent. There is an opportunity for Mission hinted at brilliantly but not suitably developed.
Pointing out the secular liturgies is well and good but he doesn’t show how they might be recapitulated sufficiently and to what part of the heart each speaks, with precision. Sure, he proclaims prophetically that we are culture-makers and that this is Eschatological! In the Kingdom, these synergistic co-created realities will be redeemed. Tis is so important and most welcome! Like his brilliant friend, Norman Wirzba, he sees that food, culture, agriculture, and a diverse array of supposedly ‘secular’ facets are indeed to be Transfigured in the Kingdom; yet sometimes their anthropologies don’t do this Proclamation justice. There is a real, vital, need for discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff and in the particulars he misses the mark. It is here, at times, that his work starts to falter.
It’s relatively easy at this time and in his country to critique consumerism, for example, and militarism but there are much more subtle corrupting liturgies which need alluded to. Many of the well-intentioned (anti) Christian kinds that depersonalise and disincarnate the Gospel by trying to ‘institutionalise’ them pass him by. I mean the kind Ivan Illich pointed to in The Corruption of Christianity. Smith and many of his, more ‘liberal’ and supposedly ‘radical’ compatriots are blind to the shadow-side of many of these sacred cows- ‘open borders’, ‘social justice’ and other high-sounding but potentially and commonly pernicious terms which treat people more as ‘individuals’ and focus on ‘rights’ without responsibilities, respect for communal elements or an appreciation of the common good.
As O’Donovan says ”the common good includes maintaining the ability for a community to pass on its values to future generations.” James KA Smith’s acknowledgement of the communal and liturgical elements of personhood lends itself to this more nuanced perspective but he has not realised it entirely.
Moreover, ”In 2001, Pope John Paul II wrote that the mercy of hospitality is to be guided by prudential judgment:
Certainly, the exercise of such a right [to migrate] is to be regulated, because practicing it indiscriminately may do harm and be detrimental to the common good of the community that receives the migrant.” * Nobody can say with a straight face that JP2 was an enemy of ‘the stranger’ and I’m not among his biggest fans but he did show that Love is Just and discerning. It is not nihilism, whereby any difference is to be flattened out.
God’s Kingdom includes many nations after all and needs to have a healthy Pentecostal diversity in Christ. Many of Smith’s suggestions even presuppose a relationship with Jesus first and at his lesser moments, he doesn’t put first things first.
I have recently been discussing this collapse of The Gospel in to one’s political views and voting ones personality. Through dialogue, I’ve come to think that rather than Saul, aka St Paul, being healed by ‘the community’ in a manner reflective of our political ‘communities’, which are often not proper communities*; Saul was healed first by a personal encounter with Christ.
Then, through Him found the proper love for the community grew. An organic community of Faith, Hope and Love, as well as a common good. A Body… Not a ‘rights-‘ based group of individuals comparable to the American context or various European contexts.
Furthermore, there are differences between refugees (especially of Mary and Jospeph’s times) and the exiles of Israel, as well as some timeless similarities. There is also a major difference between refugees and economic migrants; as well as genuine, peaceful migrants and intentional troublemakers. It’s not a simple one size fits all solution, by any means and requires loving discerment.
Perhaps Christ was pointing to this dark side of politicising the Gospel when he ‘rendered unto Caesar’, knowing in His Wisdom that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions… we should be careful about the language we use and maybe I’m wrong; perhaps words like ‘danger’ aren’t the best words for describing these well-intentioned agendas which I’m sceptical of and God forgive me if I’m wrong or if anti-Christ is too strong but Illich makes an excellent case for Passionate loving discernment!* Politicizing the Gospel to conveniently suits one’s economic/political views and proof texting to ‘prove’ it without discernment and historical/Theological context is bad confirmation bias and not humble enough.
‘Danger’ from the persecution of others, eg Martyrdom, is different from the danger of misleading others and is a call to be humbly responsible. Making a case for martyrdom in calling for ‘open borders’, etc may be a gross misinterpretation of Witness.
A Catholic Saint in the twentieth century, Saint Pope JP2, showed a more multifaceted Witness in Incarnate context- allotting love and justice their own place and time, with due discernment.
There is nuance to many of these positions; it’s not even a pole from one side to another. So, it’s not easy but it is important to caution against overly simplistic eisegesis and castigating others without solid Theological argument. Especially because there is a shadow side to The Gospel, which Illich ably demonstrates. I do not call people I disagree with anti-Christs and Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner, but I do aim to acknowledge the shadow-side of The Gospel.
Moreover, in Smith’s particular work, the importance of The Word and especially the more auditory elements of The Gospel Message are underdeveloped… Some of the symphonic qualities of Tradition, which require intense listening and attentiveness, spring to mind.
See Walter J Ong*, Fr John Behr*, Dr Guroian* # et al, on this.