January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
August 2, 2012
I love it that each of my interlocutors has homed in on quite different themes and issues in The Fall of Interpretation. And as you’ll have guessed, it’s a special treat to engage Neal, one of my star students about whom I regularly brag, taking way more credit than I deserve. (We also both share a common teacher, Jim Olthuis, whose fingerprints are all over The Fall of Interpretation.)
And I love it that Neal has homed in on just the question I think he should be asking (and I keep hoping he comes up with a different answer!): “What is the church?” This is encouraging to me precisely because it’s not a question that someone would have asked upon reading the first edition of The Fall of Interpretation. Indeed, after reading the first edition, one would have been more likely to ask: Where is the church?
But Neal rightly discerns that my “catholic” postmodernism—which I think is a more persistent postmodernism—requires a strong ecclesiology, and hence a pretty solid sense of just what the church is (I get at this a little bit in the last chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, the chapter emergent folks tend not to like). So yes: “what is the church, according to Jamie Smith?”
Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.
So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense. As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice).
So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage. In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.” This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”
So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point. Any community of practice is going to have both. It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho! On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.
(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern. Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason? The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place. [Sound familiar? See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.] Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern? Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm? Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)
Again, I’m improvising here in response to Neal’s good, important question. I hope this moves the conversation forward.
 And lest you think the whole “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” thing is just crazy, check out the lyrics. See what I mean? Plus, the Police were just so huge with hip undergraduates in the early 2000s, right?
 See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), ch. 14. Neal asks for an account of how our liturgical practices are rooted in the creeds and confessions. I actually think the “rooting” goes in the other direction (lex orandi, lex credendi), as I’ve argued in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), ch. 4.
 And as MacIntyre emphasizes, to participate in a tradition requires that one submit oneself to the tradition, even if you then want to push back on it. Neal suggests that a similar account might also be at work in Derrida, which I think is right.
 Granted, this poses special challenges for “non-denominational” Christianity, or anti-creedal denominations. I’m OK with that. I already posed the problem in the final chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
 See Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 1. Abraham has subsequently developed this into what he describes as “canonical theism.” See further articulation in Abraham, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) and Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology & the Church, eds. William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers, & Natalie B. Van Kirk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). I have engaged Abraham more extensively in James K.A. Smith, “Epistemology for the Rest of Us: Hints of a Paradigm Shift in Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 353-361. For another relevant discussion, see D. Stephen Long, “Sources as Canons: The Question of Canonical Coherence,” Modern Theology 28 (2012): 229-251.
James K. A. Smith
James K. A. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy and an adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College. He is also the executive director of the Society of Christain Philosophers and and a notable figure working at the intersection of Christian faith and postmodernism. He also is editor of the Church and Postmodern Culture book series published by Baker Academic. Smith is the author of Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, and several other books.