James K. A. Smith’s Theological Journey

James K.A. Smith is the author of dozens of articles and more than a few theory-laden books dealing with political theology and phenomenology. But it is a rarer talent, the capacity to make clear to many the importance of ideas usually reserved for the few, that is causing his star to rise (photo courtesy of James K. A. Smith).

The taut line stretching away from the glass doors of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., had an air of solemnity about it on a gray August morning earlier this year. The voices of those awaiting entrance were a notch quieter than normal: the excitement of a theater before the lights are dimmed; the volume of a church before the opening song. Many wore their Sunday best.

Two Vietnamese women in slim silk dresses stood next to one another midway down the line. Just in front of them stood a West African girl in a vibrant pink hijab who chatted animatedly with her father and an older white woman sporting a bob haircut and sensible shoes. Farther back in the line stood an Iraqi man in an immaculately pressed beige suit, his wife and three children nearby. They were among the 200 people waiting in line to process, one by one, into the building to begin the ceremony that would make them citizens, full members of these United States of America. Two-thirds of the way down the line, with his wife Deanna, their daughter and a few friends, stood James K. A. Smith.

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Smith is a small man with an athletic build. His thinning hair is cropped close on the sides. He has a broad, warm smile and wears a long goatee of the kind seen on indie-rock bassists or youth pastors. For the morning’s naturalization ceremony he was wearing a fitted, blue striped T-shirt and pink sneakers with orange stripes (“I didn’t have any red, white and blue shoes,” he said with a grin). His normally bright eyes were still sleepy.

Smith, 48 and the father of four grown children, is a professor of philosophy at nearby Calvin College. He is the author of dozens of articles and more than a few theory-laden books dealing with political theology and phenomenology. But it is a rarer talent, the capacity to make clear to many the importance of ideas usually reserved for the few, that is causing his star to rise. Most noteworthy is a concept he has coined himself and developed in a trilogy of books: cultural liturgies. The phrase gives name to an idea: that what we do teaches us how to love. It is meant to help us see how repetitive practices—like shopping or binge-watching or decorating our Christmas trees—point our hearts in a particular direction and by doing so tell us who we are and where we belong.

Like all those with whom he processed into the Ford Museum, Smith was there to swear an oath, to “renounce and abjure all allegiance...to any foreign prince” and declare “true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution and laws of the United States. He was there to participate in one of our country’s most powerful cultural liturgies, one that transforms foreigners into Americans.

This would have come as something of a shock to his younger self. Smith was born a Canadian, in the small town of Embro between three great lakes: east of Lake Huron, north of Lake Erie, west of Lake Ontario. During Operation Desert Storm, and under the influence of the famous theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, his repugnance to the Pax Americana ran high. The whole thing “just looked like creeping American imperialism,” he had told me the day before. “Alternative communities—the politics of Jesus—that sounded exactly like what I wanted to sign up for.” In the years since, Smith has spent much of his energy thinking about alternative communities and the politics of Jesus—about what role Christians should play in the American political project. Dissatisfied with both the Christian right’s efforts to retake the political center through alliance with the Republican Party and with the Christian left’s efforts to baptize the secular status quo, he argues that safe passage between that Scylla and Charybdis needs to be charted not just for individuals but for the church. It is this navigational chart that the concept of cultural liturgies is meant to help us plot. If we are honest, Smith argues, when we look at our lives, we will see two things: first, that all of us are already involved in liturgies that are shaping our hearts, and second, that we might not like what these liturgies are doing to us.

Recognizing how the collective practices we engage in are liturgical, how they slide under our thick rational skins and teach us how to desire, is James Smith’s specialty.

For Smith, as for Hauerwas or John Milbank, responding to this crisis of formation has led to a surprising conclusion, especially for a Protestant: that we need to re-emphasize the liturgical practices that make the church the church. If the church is going to have any chance to influence what we love, he argues, it has to construct “counter-liturgies” capable of reforming and reorienting hearts that have been taught to love riches or honors or anything else—even the nation—above the triune God.

In the auditorium of the Ford Museum, songs were sung: the national anthem, “God Bless America.” The country’s colors were marched in and out in reverent silence by a girl scout in her green sash. The Hon. John T. Gregg presided in his black robes. The Oath of Allegiance was administered. And through some performative magic, this group of individuals—who moments before had little in common—became part of a people.

It was a moving liturgy. But recognizing how the collective practices we engage in—from our addiction to our iPhones to the adrenaline drip of the 24-hour news cycle—are liturgical, how they slide under our thick rational skins and teach us how to desire, is James Smith’s specialty. If there is someone who ought to be inoculated to the power of the liturgies of the state, it is he.

As we walked out of the auditorium into the hallway where the new citizens were registering to vote, he turned to me. “That was more moving than I expected it to be,” he said. Then he smiled a bit wryly. “Or I should say: I was more moved by it than I wanted to be.”

To be honest, I replied, so was I.

Conversion of Heart and Mind

Jamie Smith knows the day he became a Christian. It was Sept. 10, 1988, the day after his 18th birthday. He was alone, kneeling at his bedside. There he prayed a classic evangelical sinner’s prayer, the kind that begs for forgiveness and asks that Christ be the center of one’s life. After the prayer, “I had an overwhelming sense of Jesus kneeling beside me,” Smith told me, “one of the few really tangible mystical experiences I’ve ever had.”

This is not an easy story for a professor of philosophy to tell in our secular age. Because stories about Jesus run counter to another story that enlightened modernity tells about itself. It’s an “I once was lost, but now I’m found” story, but in modernity’s telling the old song’s roles are flipped. Now the story goes: Once upon a time we were lost in the naïveté of religious belief—we believed that spirits moved the winds that formed the hurricane, that a moral mistake brought on bronchitis. Now, thank Reason, we know the truths of science, have seen the electric light and left myths behind in the medieval dark.

This is the story to which we have grown accustomed. But it is not the story Smith told me as we sat at a table in a coffee shop not far from his house the day before he became an American citizen. In his story, reason and religion are not adversaries but companions. “When I became a Christian,” he said, “it was an intellectual light. It tripped this hunger to learn that I didn’t know I had.”

At first he fed this intellectual hunger by studying what was closest at hand: the Bible. He studied it weekly for more than a year with a member of his future wife’s family. They were “very, very conservative evangelicals from the Plymouth Brethren,” a low-church, Pentecostal brand of Christianity. But they not only taught him, Smith says, they “enfolded me into a community of care that felt like home.”

“Like any young, earnest evangelical convert, I thought I was called to the ministry. So I went to Bible college to prepare for that,” he told me. In his case, this meant the Brethren-affiliated Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. And although he went to prepare to be a pastor, it was at Emmaus that he began to fall in love with philosophy.

Emmaus College consists of one large building. In its basement is the library. This is where, for the entirety of his freshman year, Smith spent his free time. “I was alone that year,” he said, “and all the journals were down in this dark dungeon in the basement. So, I would just hide out in the library at night and gobble up anything I could.” Of the texts he consumed, the one that had the greatest impact was the inaugural issue of the journal Faith and Philosophy (whose editorial board Smith would join in 2006). The lead article in that first issue was written by the famous analytic philosopher and longtime Calvin College professor Alvin Plantinga. It is entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”

In that essay, Plantinga makes a simple, quite radical, argument: Christian philosophers ought not be bound by the perspectives of the secular academy but instead should be guided by their own worldview. “The Christian has his own questions to answer, and his own projects,” Plantinga wrote, and “these projects may not mesh with those of the skeptical or unbelieving philosopher.” Christian philosophers would be better philosophers, in other words, if they were more integrally Christian.

But Plantinga did not intend for Christian philosophers to “retreat into their own isolated enclave[s].” Instead, they should think about problems of general concern, about how the mind works, or how we know what we know, from the bedrock of a Christian standpoint rather than from any supposedly neutral place.

Over the years Plantinga’s essay has served as a mission statement for many young Christian philosophers, and for Smith, reading it at night in a dim basement library in a small town in eastern Iowa, it was like flipping on a light switch. “I realized that maybe my calling wasn’t pastoral,” he told me. “Maybe it was more academic.”

Restless Scholar

For Smith, this academic calling has meant stepping into the heat of contemporary debates not just within the academy but in the wider public realm as well. And while there have been some missteps—his Twitter presence has been a bit caustic at times—this kind of variety plays to talents both natural and cultivated. This is, in part, because Smith is something of an occasional thinker, getting captured by a new idea and following it until his itch is satisfied. “I have a certain intellectual A.D.D.,” he laughed, “I keep changing the conversations that I’m in.”

He has written, for example, a lengthy introduction to the Radical Orthodoxy movement that shows its resonances with his own Dutch Reformed tradition. Another of his books, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, attempts to bring postmodern luminaries like Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to church. And his forthcoming On the Road With Augustine is a “travelogue of the heart,” in which Smith shows how Augustine’s own restlessness might still resonate with spiritual seekers some 16 centuries later.

James K. A. Smith: “My work has always reflected questions that come from something other than puzzles the academy has given me.”

Smith admits that this intellectual restlessness worries him at times. But it also means, he told me, that “my work has always reflected questions that come from something other than puzzles the academy has given me.” His first book, for example, entitled The Fall of Interpretation, tackles a deeply philosophical question: Is it a problem that everything we read, even the Bible, must be interpreted? His answer is no. He tries to show that interpretation is not a curse caused by the fall of human beings from grace but instead a gift of creation. And while he engages here with philosophical giants like the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, he is equally focused on a problem closer to home: fundamentalist religious traditions for whom all interpretation is suspect.

“I wrote the book,” Smith explained to me, out of the “painful experience of getting kicked out of the Plymouth Brethren that I was converted into, [a tradition that] did not have room for a range of ways of understanding the Christian faith.” (He still remembers a letter from one of his Emmaus professors calling him “a student of Judas Iscariot.”) Similarly, the idea for his second book, Speech and Theology, “came to me in a worship service at a Pentecostal church.”

But these kinds of Christian interventions in the academy are only one prong of the approach laid out by Plantinga. The other involves thinking not for the ivory tower but for the church. And for Smith this meant becoming something that is both envied and looked at askance within the academy. It meant becoming a popularizer, a public intellectual.

Still, it is “something that fits him well,” said Mark Mulder, chair of the sociology department at Calvin College and a close friend of Smith. “Jamie’s always thinking, always making connections. When he’s going to a film, it’s billable time.” But he’s also someone who is “not afraid to ask a question that reveals his ignorance,” said Mulder. “He’s curious, and he has a humility about that curiosity that I think is very attractive.”

Matt Walhout, a longtime professor of physics at Calvin College, told me that Smith made an intentional choice to find a new audience for himself, to write specifically for the church. “Professional academics are all writing for one another,” Walhout remembered Smith telling him. “Somebody’s got to write for the church.” For Smith, though, writing for the church has ended up looking less like defending dogmas than paying attention to how God was already at work in the world, particularly in the lives of his children—or his students.

In 2011 Smith decided his senior undergraduate seminar would read only one book: Charles Taylor’s 900-page opus A Secular Age. It was an audacious choice, but one that paid off. “To my students’ astonishment (and mine), as they made their way through the book, lights went on for them,” Smith later wrote. “It’s like he’s reading our mail,” he recalled one student telling him.

Seeing how Taylor’s thought gave both the doubters and the believers in his classroom a navigational chart for understanding their own experiences helped Smith to realize how important A Secular Age might be—and not just for those who had four months to wade through it. So Smith decided to write what has become his most popular book to date. How (Not) to Be Secular, subtitled “Reading Charles Taylor,” is a 150-page jaunt through Taylor’s massive tome.

In our conversation, Smith remarked that he admires Taylor because he “thinks for the world. To me,” he said, “if there’s a philosophical chapel, he gets the first stained glass window.” And Smith has previously noted of his time with Taylor that what is most striking about him “is that hope is his dominant posture.” It is a posture that Smith hopes is coming to dominate his own life as well.

Hope in an Age of Fractured Order

That argument over how—or whether—hope is woven into the counter-liturgies of the church lies at the heart of Smith’s most public controversy: his break with “the Benedict option” and with the progenitor of the idea, Rod Dreher.

Dreher, a longtime blogger for The American Conservative, has been piecing together the strategy of the Benedict option for years. The Benedict option advocates withdrawal from the culture wars that the Christian right has been waging for decades in order to focus on building communities in which, as Dreher puts it, “Christians can be formed in the orthodox faith.” As he envisions it, these are communities that erect a high boundary between the church and the world—one that can give Christian communities space to be themselves.

Both James K. A. Smith and Rod Dreher call for greater awareness of how power structures like the state and the market shape our desires without our knowledge.

The resonance with Smith’s concept of cultural liturgies is not illusory. Both call for greater awareness of how power structures like the state and the market shape our desires without our knowledge. And both look to ancient models of what it means to be a person or a community in order to push back against those power structures. For some time these overlapping aims led them to think together about how the church could respond to such problems. They were, as Dreher has written, friends.

But that friendship met an abrupt end in March of last year, when Smith published a short review in The Washington Post of three books on what he termed “the new alarmism”—one of which was Dreher’s The Benedict Option. “These books are intended for choirs,” Smith wrote, “they are written to confirm biases, not change minds.” To this critique of the “bitterness and resentment” he saw animating these books, Smith added a more serious theological concern: that this alarmism amounted to a refusal of hope. “What sticks with you when you walk away from these books,” Smith concluded, “is [their] bunker mentality.”

Dreher’s response was not long in coming. Later that same day he published a voluminous reply expressing his anger at Smith’s evaluation, particularly in light of what he said were two years of private correspondence from Smith praising the Benedict option. In the end, he attributed Smith’s criticisms to the fact that Dreher had decided not to distribute the book with Smith’s own publisher. “Smith’s nasty attack,” Dreher concluded, “makes me wonder if he’s trying to put some public distance between himself and us.”

Indeed he was, as Smith would clarify just a week later in a more lengthy review. There Smith argued that the church’s tactics in our time should be drawn less from St. Benedict than from St. Augustine. And Augustine, Smith wrote, held that the church ought not to withdraw from the world but stay “in the mix of things, among those in error.” This call to fidelity in the midst of a sinful world certainly includes a Benedict option-style emphasis on liturgical practices, but for Smith this is done with a different style or tone, one that attracts outsiders rather than rallying insiders. As Smith wrote, it means a church that does not withdraw but leans “out boldly and hopefully into the world for the sake of our neighbours.”

When Smith speaks of his conflict with Dreher, he chooses his words carefully. “I’m sure you can see all kinds of overlap between us,” he said, “as do I. If I reacted strongly to The Benedict Option it’s because I felt like there was so much at risk about that shared project being wholly identified with a reactionary posture.... I just think it’s so crucial to not jeopardize the opportunity of seeing something attractive that draws people. I might be overreacting,” he told me, “but I don’t want that to be the obstacle to somebody hearing the Gospel of grace. That’s what I’m worried about.”

Smith’s worry comes from two core convictions: one about where the church’s mission begins, and another about whether grace is active outside the walls of the church. The first problem with Dreher’s proposal is that it starts from an analysis of the decline of culture—from the problems going on outside the church—rather than “being catalyzed internally by the logic of mission.” If the church begins by looking at what is wrong elsewhere rather than to what it is called to be itself, Smith thinks, it has started off on the wrong foot.

But secondly, this does not mean that everything is all right. Smith’s effort to show how the cultural liturgies of the state or the market (de-)form our desires runs too deep for such pollyannaish affirmations. Instead, the church must look for the cracks in the secular worldview. And doing this requires both trust and hope, trust that grace is common to all persons, and hope that “the Spirit is operative in spaces and places and institutions outside the church.”

Like Dreher and other theorists of the end of our liberal order, Smith thinks these cracks are already showing. “People are exhausted,” he told me. “I already see manifestations and artifacts of people saying, ‘This isn’t working.’” But rather than cause for alarm, Smith sees opportunity in such exhaustion. What worries him is that this opportunity will be lost, that every expression of Christian formation will be, as his review said, “confused with Dreher’s unique brand of resentment.”

It is true that Smith has not always been so open to seeing grace in the world. This is the same man who once wrote that “what appear to be instances of mercy or compassion or justice outside the body of Christ are merely semblances of virtue.” It is understandable that Dreher feels that something has changed. It has.

“What I started to realize,” Smith explained to me, “was that these alternative communities start to look increasingly like enclaves for people who have the privilege and luxury of being able [to withdraw]. And the people who get left behind are, it turns out, black and brown.” For Smith, being responsible for the world ends up looking less like withdrawal or revolution and more like the plodding work of reforming institutions—even, with its flags and pledges and parades, the institution of the state.

James K. A. Smith: “I think that practices of friendship are my kind of Benedict option.”

“Institutions are still some of the best ways we care for the vulnerable. Government is a creational good. I do think you need an account of how [government] is disordered,” he said, “but I’ve realized that it would be a failure to love my neighbor to not remain invested in the state, even if that looks like prophetically challenging where it’s going. In the Trump era, this is particularly hard.”

“I don’t know how to say it,” he finally sighed. “Anger is not quite the word, but Dreher’s position, it’s just...not attractive. It’s a saber-rattling, a whipping-up of a crew that already agrees with you. And I just felt like there was a lot at risk—because he’s going overboard, and because he’s being so widely listened to,” he said. “Does that sound too strong?”

“In the meantime, I think friendship is going to do a lot of work,” he told me after a moment, “I think that practices of friendship are my kind of Benedict option.”

Families and Friends

There are dozens of practical reasons why Smith and his wife decided to subject themselves to a liturgy of the state on a gray morning this past August: because they plan to stay at Calvin College, because their children are at home in Grand Rapids, because it will simplify their complicated travel schedules. But there is a story that lets these practical reasons make sense, that supports them and gives them shape. For Smith, this is a story of roots, of having them ripped out and—slowly, painfully—learning to regrow them.

That story goes like this: Smith comes from a fractured family. He has been estranged from his father since he was 13 and has not seen him in 26 years. His mother displays his books on a mantel at her house, but has not read them. And still, for the past 28 years, he has been married to Deanna, whom he has known since they were in the fifth grade. He is much of who he is because of her, because her family became his—until that family also fractured. They had their first child when they were 22 and slowly learned how to love something else more than oneself. But building the community that is a family does not always come naturally; it has to be learned, practiced until it seeps into us.

This is especially true for those who come from broken homes. As his friend and colleague Matt Walhout told me, “Jamie doesn’t exactly have a lot of long-standing models within his family for what healthy communication looks like. He and Deanna had to figure that out.” And figuring that out meant expanding their nuclear family to include what was missing; in particular: parents. Of these they have, over the years, adopted a handful.

“What God has given us in the church,” Smith said to me, “has been replacement parents. Everywhere we’ve lived we’ve had folks who are there for us. It saved our lives.”

It was one of the first of these replacement parents, a woman named Karen, who years ago began to help Smith see how deeply he had been hurt by his own father. She “was one of the first people to confront me,” Smith related to me. “For some reason, I remember this phrase: ‘a petrified heart’.... I have been hurt so profoundly by a father who left that I had created this stone case to protect myself. But then I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t relate. If I remember my own journey to emotional wellness, Karen was a big part of it.”

And so was Deanna. Learning to be a father himself has meant “me apprenticing myself to Deanna,” he said; “she’s so emotionally healthy that she kind of primes me.” Which makes all the more sense if Smith’s academic work is correct. Because then, as his cultural liturgies trilogy argues, we would be aware that our thoughts are conditioned by our loves. And that those who rule our hearts—our children, our partners, our Gods—shape our thoughts.

James K. A. Smith: “People are not going to be argued into the kingdom of God.”

“Look, people are not going to be argued into the kingdom of God,” Smith said. “The irony is that I’m a philosopher who thinks that you woo people and move them more with literature than syllogisms.” With literature, that is, and with institutions—especially institutions like the quaint, white-shingled, slightly run-down Sherman Street Church that he and Deanna attend on Sunday mornings.

Smith and I had walked through it the day before he became an American citizen. The nave is made of dark wood, and the pews form a half circle around the ambo where the sermons are delivered. The light that falls through the high windows is stained blue. It is an uncomplicated space, a surprising one from which to undertake the audacious task of shaping hearts fit for the kingdom. Smith seemed at home there.

It is not the kind of place stories are written about. It’s just a place where friends meet, where worship happens. “It’s just this ho-hum place,” Smith said, “where we're all learning how messy and hard it is to just be a community—and then to be a community for a community.”

“Do we have what it takes to pull off the most beautiful thing that will win over the culture?” he wondered aloud. He paused a moment before answering. “The short answer is no,” he finally said, “but can God in his grace use our efforts? Absolutely. Without question. We have a role to play.”

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John Mack
4 weeks ago

What a welcome break, and uplift, from the Catholic Uncivil War. I would like to add a remarkably Platonic statement made by my sister-in-law, a high school graduate. She said, "When you turn 35 you realize that you don't know your husband at all, and you don't know your children either. They are strangers to you. You think you know them but you only know your concept of them, a shadow of who they are. You have to begin all over again, really paying attention to them, observing them with love, listening to them, learning how to be friends with them." My brother, her husband, a good person who admits to being more superficial than his wife and children, is now the only practicing Catholic in his family. He is at peace with their atheism but sometimes has felt excluded from their deep spiritual bond. His only son, an accomplished creative professional, recently went through a long process of dying. His atheist daughter and wife went through the process with great spiritual strength. My brother did too, turning to Mary for comfort and to his faith. I was somewhat helpful over the phone, reminding him of some of the hope to be found in his Catholic religion (which I have left behind).
I am perfectly open to the possibility of an afterlife--I have had visits from my dead parents and from ancestors I never met. Some of these visits conveyed complex, highly specific information that turned out to be correct. In one visit, a spiritual truth, "He/She lives" is, I was told, is expressed in the language of numbers, as 525. I told a neighbor couple about this dream, bet 525 on the Numbers, and they called me late that night to tell me that 525 had come in. I bet modestly, and won modestly.
I was raised under a deep influence of how my parents talked about the dead, "They're in the other room. They're there when you need them. They're waiting." It is a very old West of Ireland belief, now rare. It is not a particularly Catholic concept, even though they were faithful Catholics (but believing that all religions are family tradition religions, and can confer grace, because God cannot be owned by anyone or any pope). I see no reason why nature, having evolved human consciousness, could not have evolved a way for that consciousness to perdure. I also do not see why an afterlife would require the existence of God.
This article was most welcome. It stimulated thought, especially about how the market and the state, and family of origin too, and friendships, and simple rituals, affect our beliefs, often in ways we are not fully aware of. Sadly I see the rather rabid devotion of so many public Catholics to a feral form of capitalism to be the true face of the Catholic religion in the USA.

Caterina Smith
3 weeks 4 days ago

Thank you for this rich and surprising article, my first introduction to Dr. Smith and the fascinating notion of cultural liturgies which make sense in relation to my studies, in fine art and architecture, of the way form (and medium, or embodiment if you will) does not necessarily always follow function (as the slogan once went) but can shape function, emphasis, and meaning. Interested now in looking into his "trilogy." Very much appreciate America's literary special issues.

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